“Nothing Up My Sleeve”

11 October 1997
[The Astonishing Ballinger] Written by Rupert Holmes.

Directed by Jason Alexander.
MAIN Season Three Episodes: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7
8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13 - 14 - 15 - 16 - 17

We've had episodes where events were mentioned that could be dated, but I think this may be the first time an episode has been nailed down by the statement of the date: 27 July, 1941. Last year's "Christmas in the Airwaves" episode occurs around 25 December, 1940. There were 7 episodes that followed during season 2. The season ender and several of the early episodes seemed to take place within days of each other. The fifth episode seems to take place around late May. So I would guess we could put the season opener sometime within April, say. Since we're arriving at the half-way mark of the season, we can put a rate of about 3.5 months of WENN time for 2 months of airing time (17 weeks is almost exactly 4 months). This rate seems to be dead on for an early December ending, WENN time. I do these calculations because I had been thinking that Rupert might try to get two seasons in before 7 Dec 41 since things will change so radically then. The time before that date has been described by Rupert as a "cosy time" and starting the series in 1939, past the worst part of the Depression and before our entry in WWII, was purposely chosen by him for the pre-war qualities. However, he at least got 17 episodes to play with instead of the 13 each for the first two seasons.

Rupert-pal Jason Alexander gives the show some publicity (there was at least a brief bit on CNN's Showbiz Today) as he is featured in and directs the episode. It's not long before we have an overhead shot with the camera slowly drifting down in front of the microphone until the "Astonishing" Ballinger's eyes are replaced by the mike's W-E-N-N and his lips are centered in the screen as Ballinger speaks trance-inducingly to set a mystical mood, his eyebrows barely reaching the top of the mike. Less than ten seconds later, we've cut back to Ballinger, still in front of the mike, head and shoulders above the microphone's top. Now, we can speculate that Ballinger noiselessly lowered the mike while the camera was on Hilary, Mackie and C.J., but it's very distracting and seems more like directorial experimentation.

This is followed by Ballinger dramatically shouting, "NOW! Stop! Look upon that face. That is the face you've selected." As he does so, he whirls and stares directly into the camera. He obviously wants to involve the television audience in the "card trick." But in doing so, the fourth wall is broken, something that doesn't seem appropriate to "WENN". I don't know if this was in Rupert's script or Jason's choice, but within the first five minutes I feel like I've been pummeled by camera experimentation.

After the card trick, we return to more normal camera shots. Then, as Eugenia speaks to Ballinger in the hallway, the WENN word-of-the-week is introduced. Ballinger describes his card trick as "a mere bagatelle." A bagatelle is something of little value...a trifle. Bagatelle is also a game played with nine balls on a board having at one end nine holes spaced in a diamond shape into which the balls are to be struck with a cue. Bagatelle can also be used to refer to pinball and can be a short, light piece of music, usually written for a piano.

And then..The Main Event! Not since the original Avengers squared off against the new Avengers in the classic The Mighty Avengers Annual #2 has there been such an awe-inspiring clash of titans: The Astounding Ballinger versus The Bewildering Mr. Eldridge. Ballinger gets in an early stroke as Eldridge completely misses the coin-from-the-ear trick but then proceeds into an unforced error by not recognizing the presence of the coffee. He recovers by drawing on the energies of his mystical spoon. However, Mr. Eldridge does not give into the mind-clouding and gains points for recognizing that it was at Ballinger's behest that he fished the quarter out of the cup. Mr. Eldridge flows from strength to strength and continues to dominate the match by responding to one of Ballinger's queries with a puzzler of his own: "How do I know who you are? Answer me that!" Ballinger staggers and reels, but presses on by unveiling the notice in the paper. It's uncertain whether Eldridge fails to recognize the sensational prophecy or whether his response is a clever diversionary tactic. At any rate, it looks like he practically has the duel sewn up. But at the last moment, Ballinger bewilders the Bewilderer with a mere two syllables, "Because...?" The votes are tallied...It's a tie!

Once "Alan" has whisked "Hilary" off to dinner, we're introduced to a parallel dimension Mackie Bloom. Mackie Bloom, who revealed his superstitious nature to Maple in "Magic" in response to Hilary's prediction, now proclaims "It's all fake!...this magic stuff is all done with mirrors and wires, trap doors and false bottoms." One would think there was some event in the last few months that might have changed his mind, but he quotes the source for his insight as tours he spent with mummers and minstrels, obviously some time ago. As confusing as this is, imagine how Maple feels when Mackie tells her she "does magic" with her "false bottoms".

After this exchange, we find out that Maple used to do magic with ostrich-feathered fans when she toured with the Velvet Vanities. Slowly, but surely, the back stories of the characters are being filled in.

Ballinger reveals the secret of the card trick. A recognition of the properties of using 9 as one of the multipliers. I remember when I was first learning the multiplication table how easy 9 was. All I had to do was add one to the tens column and subtract one from the ones column. I don't know if I ever realized the properties of adding the digits in the product together, though.

One of the things I like about "Remember WENN" is it's ability to subtly educate. I particularly like this episode and "Magic" for it's splash of cold water in the face of the gullibles (even though "Magic" does have Hilary feeling that someone will pass through the door of life and death.) Ninth-grade English was where we covered the writing of a term paper. Few things have been more educational or formative in my life. In early 1974, I had read of Stanford Research Institute's (SRI) breakthrough verification of Uri Geller's psychic abilities. I chose this as my topic. I was very lucky that a paperback had just come out about Geller by James "The Amazing" Randi. I purchased it and after reading, I went to my teacher and asked if I could change the slant of my paper. The point my paper was going to convey made a one-eighty from pro-Geller to pro-reality. When I delivered my paper to the class, I read minds, bent spoons with the power of my mind, saw things that were secluded from me...it was all elementary magician tricks (or more accurately, illusionist tricks.) Randi broke the cardinal rule also by revealing one or two simple tricks and was castigated for it. It seems that despite the ruin of Professors Targ and Puthoff's reputations (the SRI researchers), the hoodwinking of millions, the powers that be in the illusionist career field felt that Geller was good for business. In it's way, WENN puts questions about such beliefs into the minds of its viewers. While WENN operates in it's own little never-never land, it's grounding seems much more realistic than most of the low-brow programming filling the air and cablewaves. That's one of the many things that keeps drawing me back each Saturday.

The next day, as more and more of the cast find out about Ballinger's probable plans for Hilary, they gather around the water cooler to discuss their options. For some reason Mackie seem to be famished. His water guzzling and the odd way he says, "Ya gotta admit, he's got a good point" leads me to think that maybe he imbibed too much the night before. Scott's detailed description of the preparation of Peking Duck could mean he was out drinking with Mackie and is suffering also, or maybe that he recognizes Mackie's condition and is good-humoredly torturing him. This is another thing I like about WENN...all these little things to catch. (Of course, this could have been more a reflection of me - hic! -than what was really meant to be implied.)

Next we pan down from the Pulova clock (or was that Pavlava clock?) to see that the walls in Studio B seem to be painted pale blue. We glimpse this from outside the studio. Maybe someday, we'll actually go inside.

Once again, Betty is the recipient of a WENN secret: Jeff and Hilary's almost immediate divorce after their first marriage. I keep expecting to see a dancing midget claiming that Betty is "filled with see-crets."

Hilary's anger soon wreaks devastation upon Ballinger as he blindly follows her lead into a hole, nay, a pit he steam shovels for himself. "Lady Chatterly's Lover", indeed. Where has that name come up before? :) To everyone's surprise (especially since we knew what he had typed), Ballinger had a last minute change of heart.

Afterwards, he's not angry or bitter. He realizes they must know what he had typed before and have probably found out about his earlier "revelations." He knows he deserved what he got. Perhaps he will even drop that bit since he seems nice enough to humor Mackie at the end. (Alternatively, he may think Mackie's come up with something that he can use. I'm not persuaded either way.)

I found this episode charming. The courtship between two intelligent, eloquent people was a beauty to behold (as opposed to a typical network show where, if the characters seemed to possess a vocabulary above 7th-grade level, they would be portrayed as stereotypical dweebs. Hmm, maybe I should subtitle this post as the 'Rodney Rails Against TV Network Dumb-downing'.)

Almost makes me want to consider the idea of Jeff not returning. But Jason has wilder cons to pull as George on "Seinfeld" and I don't know if I could take much more of the camera shots used in the opening scenes. :) But Jeff had better return before Hilary starts getting too accustomed to the idea of them divorced for a second time.

NOTE: And in an effort to bring WENN back from it's alternate timeline, I speculate that no one's changed the daily calendar on the wall for about a year. July 27 fell on a Saturday the previous year, 1940.

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