An Overnight Express package arrived at my P.O. Box this morning, containing one VHS tape and the following letter.
Aww… one reader, huh? If it’s any consolation, you make a very nice Cassandra. No one’s going to believe you’re actually summarizing the last half of our brilliant series until it’s too late, and after it actually airs, no one will remember. Since we find that very fitting and we still hate you, we’ve decided to send you this special tape, containing the fifth episode of our groundbreaking epic. It’s made of unstable material and will melt after forty-eight hours -- so try to have it out of your VCR by then, or you might ruin your chances of getting a complete Arrested Development collection.
Yes, we know you’re watching it. We’re FOX executives. We know everything.
By the way, we have some objections to your last summary. You left out all of our brilliant confessional montages, where the men accused each other of being straight, liberal, and Air America hosts! How could you be so oversightful? You practically told the Average Joe people about every single glint of light off Adam’s teeth, and then you leave out the pure genius of our closet set? Honestly, we don’t understand what you were thinking at all. But since you’re the only DAW desperate enough to believe this tape is the real deal and write the summary regardless of how many people actually view it, we’re going to go for the amusement value of watching you completely waste your time twice.
And besides, we still really hate you.
(names of several FOX executives still deleted for security reasons.)’
Shows what they know. As if I’m still a big enough DAW to write the summary that no one’s going to read (or remember) anyway? Hah!
Oh, (censored). Loading up the tape…
And once again, we find ourselves back at Sizzling Saddles, the only ranch in Nevada where the cinch straps aren’t just for the horses. Once the migraine induced by the opening theme starts to mercifully fade, the camera gives us a shot of the infamous swing, freshly fumigated and returned to its original place on the ranch. Jackie is nowhere in sight. Instead, Banks and Bill are sharing a slow, steady rocking motion while in the middle of what seem to be a pure name-dropping conversation.
‘Kyan Douglas,’ Banks insists.
‘Thom Felicia,’ Bill counters.
Banks shakes his head. ‘Get real. I’d go with Ted before Thom.’
Bill laughs. ‘Ted’s the only one in a relationship. It’s got to be Thom. He’s always moaning about how he never dates.’
The camera moves slightly to show Jackie walking up the path to the swing, looking distinctly puzzled: she can hear every word we’ve heard so far, and they don’t seem to make any sense to her. Neither of the men picks up on her approach, and Banks may be too involved in the argument to care. ‘Kyan. It’s got to be Kyan. Have you taken a good look at the man? I mean, a good, long look?’
Bill is obviously ready to continue the debate – but Jackie’s reached the swing. ‘Morning, boys,’ she says, sounding as confused as she looks.
Both heads whip around. ‘Oh – hi, Jackie,’ Banks says. ‘Morning. We were just up early and figured we’d enjoy the scenery a little.’ Jackie takes a slow look at the Nevada scrub that surrounds the ranch. ‘And the sunrise,’ Banks adds. ‘You know, you get the most interesting pastel shades out here in the desert. There’s this sort of pinkish-purple that just hangs over the ranch around six-thirty…’
Jackie doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to the current line of conversation: her concerns lie with the prior one. ‘So what were you guys talking about a minute ago?’
Bill immediately replies ‘Which of the Fab Five we think is actually straight.’
Banks nods. ‘Yeah. We’ve been talking it over, and we decided that at least one of them has to be looking for the old double-x. Honestly, five gay guys with that much media exposure, and only one of them actually has a partner? And that’s Ted? Come on. One of them’s faking it.’
Bill laughs. ‘Hey, stop dissing on Ted already! The man is absolutely adorkable. And he can cook.’
Jackie still looks confused. ‘You two watch that show?’ They both nod. ‘Why?’
The response is choral. ‘Grooming tips’, Bill and Banks simultaneously reply.
‘Oh…’ Jackie slowly gets out. ‘Well, you’re both very well-groomed.’ They look pleased at her observation. ‘And you certainly keep yourselves clean.’
Banks grins. ‘You wouldn’t believe how much crucial stuff I’ve picked up from them. For example, did you know that Secret –‘
Jackie raises a hand, cutting him off. ‘Tell me later, okay? I’m going to have some breakfast.’ She turns and heads towards the ranch, her path not exactly straightline accurate. She seems to be somewhat dizzy.
‘Bye, Jackie!’, the men chorus, and go back to their conversation.
Jackie goes back into the ranch and heads for the kitchen, talking to the camera all the way. ‘The ones I think are gay don’t act gay all the time,’ she sighs, ‘and the ones I think are straight keep doing weird things. There’s only one person I can be sure of in this entire house, and I’m saving him for the end.’ She manages a weak smile. ‘They may be trying to drive me insane, all of them.’ A faint chuckle. ‘Yes, they’re trying to make me mad. Quite mad. Mad as a hatter.’ Speaking faster now, ‘But I’m not going to break. They’re not going to get to me. No, not Jackie. I can see right through them, especially when I close my eyes really hard and press down. I can see the aura of their lies dancing around them. And they’ll pay. Oh yes, they’ll pay. All of them will pay, in this life and the next, for with my divine…’ She blinks twice, takes a look around the room as if she’d never seen it before, then focuses on the camera. ‘Was I saying something just now?’
The camera moves from side to side.
‘Oh. Good,’ Jackie decides, and goes in the kitchen, only to find – Luciano! It must be Luciano, because the camera is giving us a view of his bare back – and only his back – and no one else is roughly the size of a barge. Not a bit of him’s scraggly or scrawny, and every last inch of him’s covered with hair.
‘Hi, Luciano!’ Jackie chirps, her face flushing with happiness or something along those general lines – before twisting into confusion again. ‘Um… what are you doing?’
The camera swivels around to show what Luciano’s doing. To wit, he’s kissing one of the stagehands. A deep, slow, passionate kiss. Judging from the way their cheeks are moving, tongues are involved somewhere.
Luciano’s eyes slam open and go wide with alarm – then settle back to their normal state as he reluctantly breaks off the kiss, releases the stagehand’s buttocks, and turns to face Jackie. The stagehand takes two steps backwards and bangs his left heel against the table.
‘Hi, Jackie,’ Luciano starts, sounding like a very awkward teenager with the bad luck to have been picked up by a porch light at exactly the wrong moment. ‘I wish you hadn’t seen that.’ His gaze tilts down to sweep his shoes. ‘I didn’t want you to know that – that…’ He stops, and his face goes a deep, deep red, as do selected portions of his neck and torso.
‘That , Luciano?’ Jackie asks, her voice trembling with disbelief.
Luciano scrapes his feet across the floor. ‘That I’d never kissed anyone before.’
The stagehand’s jaw drops. Jackie’s eyes are focused on Luciano, so she misses it. ‘What – never?’ she softly asks, voice starting to steady out.
‘Never…’ Luciano mumbles. ‘I know this is kind of hard to believe, but I was really skinny when I was a kid, and I had this late growth spurt, so I was short most of the way through college.’ He wipes his feet on nothing again. ‘So I didn’t date much – okay, at all – and when I graduated, I’d never really learned how to talk to women, so…’ He knots his fingers behind his back. ‘You know, what with you here, and being so pretty, and my not wanting to look like a total geek if we got to kiss, I decided to ask for some help in practicing…’
Jackie looks like she’s ready to believe anything Luciano says, up to and including his being from another planet. There’s still one small hole in the story, though, and she wants to have it filled. ‘So why not ask Daphne?’
Luciano spreads his hands. ‘Have you seen Daphne?’
They both instinctively freeze, as if expecting her to appear right then. Nothing happens, and they both defrost. ‘Good point,’ Jackie admits.
‘So I found one of the gay guys on the crew and asked for a little practical advice,’ Luciano concludes. ‘I know it’s embarrassing, but it would have been worse if I’d been caught with no experience…’
Jackie doesn’t seem to have completely heard the last part: her eyes are starting to light up as she considers another factor. ‘So you have no experience with women?’
Luciano sincerely nods.
Jackie grins. ‘Well, all you had to do was ask…’ she murmurs, and waves a dismissive hand at the crew member, who shuffles out of camera range, raw disbelief coloring his face every inch of the way, and we go into the first commercial break. (As before, since this was a first draft edit copy, all the tape had was a quick frame reading ‘Insert ads here’ -- this time followed by a second frame reading ‘No GOP commercials.’ No idea why.)
We return to find the men gathered outside the house, apparently waiting for something. John is noticeably absent, while Luciano has the look of a man who’s just finished five minutes straight of throwing up and has just begun to settle into the blissful relief that comes from knowing another heave isn’t due for several hours. Sharif is standing off to the side, being systematically frisked by the stagehands, who are pulling musical instruments from every part of his clothing. Flutes, Jew’s harps, castanets, triangles, guitars, a keyboard, and two accordions lie scattered in a field of harmonicas and kazoos. ‘So help me,’ the taller stagehand growls, ‘if I hear one note out of you for this segment, I’m gonna send a letter to my uncle on the American Idol camera crew, and you’re never getting on. This is not the Sharif Musical Variety Hour, got me?’
Sharif sullenly nods. The crew gathers the musical debris up into a sixty-pound sack and staggers out of camera range.
The men look at each other. John still hasn’t appeared. Banks makes another check of the door. ‘So where is he?’ he asks the group.
‘John – is gone,’ says Daphne.
Banks cracks his skull against the door at the end of his record-setting backwards leap. Bill displays an amazing assortment of facial ticks. Luciano chokes back a dry heave. Sharif twitches with no rhythm whatsoever.
Daphne comes up the steps, apparently having been standing in the approach path all along. ‘He left us late last night. It’s down to the four of you now.’ She smirks for no apparent reason. ‘In theory, that gives you all a one-in-four shot at winning a million dollars.’ Another smirk.
‘Shouldn’t that be half a million dollars?’ Sharif asks.
Daphne shrugs. ‘Whatever’. She leans against the porch rail. The wood on either side begins to visibly age.
‘Why did he leave?’ Bill asks.
Daphne shrugs again. ‘He – left. That’s all you need to know.’
Luciano looks confused. ‘But he was doing so well – final five. And if he’d just done something with his hair and polished up his skin a little…’
Daphne stamps her foot. The wood around the impact point discolors. ‘John is gone! He will not be returning! We are down to four! A nice, dramatic, count-on-fingers-without-using-the-thumb four! And if any of you continue to ask questions about it, we will be down to three, which is a number I’m reasonably certain our audience will be able to count up to! Does anyone want to take that chance?’
All the men shake their heads, very hard.
Daphne takes a few deep breaths. Several gnats drop out of the air when she exhales. ‘So, as you may have guessed by now, our theme for the season continues to be cowboys. We’ve roped you, had you involved in a barn social, done the bean-eating contest – can any of you guess what’s next?’
Banks, rubbing the back of his head, asks ‘Is this the part where we finally get to start shooting people?’
Daphne smiles. ‘Do you really think we’re stupid enough to let any of you get near a weapon?’ No one says anything. This continues for several seconds before Daphne realizes that it’s the men’s way of providing their answer and chokes back a brief moment of fury. The men smile as Bill marks up an imaginary point in the air.
‘Look,’ Sharif says, ‘it’s obviously not a campfire song contest, because no one here could possibly match my highly advance, people-reaching, album-selling, Simon-convincing musical skills.’ He turns to the camera and smiles widely. A small rock hits him in the temple. ‘Hey!’
Daphne nods. ‘That’s right. It’s not musical in any way.’ Still another smirk. ‘Anyone? Come, now – some of you must have seen a few Westerns in your misspent youths.’
They all shudder, and Banks mutters ‘Chaps…’ The others just nod.
Daphne smiles. ‘Well, if you had watched a little more television, you would have seen that the primary threat to any good cowboy was –‘ She makes what she seems to think is a dramatic pause, then drops into a near whisper. ‘—cattle rustlers.’ The men exchange glances. ‘The cowboys would take watch shifts at night, keeping an eye on the plains for those evil – cattle rustlers. Evil, evil people whose only desire was to steal those poor cowboy’s – cattle. Rustle them, you might say. Claim them for their own. That’s what – cattle rustlers did. They stole cattle.’ A rotating cube with the letters ‘E’ and ‘I’ on alternate faces briefly appears in the upper right corner of the picture, then fades out. ‘And now you cowboys must face your own rustlers – and you will very likely lose.’ The smile turns into a smirk again.
The camera momentarily moves to a long shot, and we can see an oddly familiar bus driving up to the ranch. Banks seems to have recognized it. ‘Gee, Daphne,’ he says, voice dripping with sarcasm, ‘I didn’t know cowboys used buses to herd cattle.’
‘Shut up, Banks,’ Daphne suggests. ‘The rustlers are on their way!’
Luciano seems to have reached a conclusion. ‘We’re getting more men, aren’t we?’ he asks in a hopeful voice as the bus pulls up to the approach path.
Daphne’s smirk widens. ‘Oh, no, Luciano,’ she assures him. ‘Not at all.’
The doors open, and a very attractive brunette steps off the bus, dressed in a female variant of the basic faux Western outfit the men have been wearing. All four of the remaining original contestants stare.
‘Meet the rustlers,’ Daphne says, as three more women get off the bus. ‘As I’m sure you remember, some of you are gay –‘ the camera vibrates for a few seconds, as if the person holding it was trying to choke back laughter ‘—and you’ve been trying to convince Jackie that you’re straight. Well, gentlemen, all of these young ladies are gay. Solidly, firmly, beyond any shadow of a doubt, gay. And their job is to convince Jackie that she’s gay, too.’
The women, who have been visibly sizing up the men and finding them all to be somewhere under the six-inch mark, nod.
‘B-b-but –‘ Luciano stammers, ‘what do you mean, ‘convince Jackie she’s gay’? They’re going to try and take her away from us?’
The women nod again as Daphne says ‘Well, perhaps ‘bisexual’ would have been a better term. Don’t you know that deep down inside, every woman secretly wishes to feel the touch of another woman? To be with someone who truly understands what it’s like to be them?’ Her voice drops slightly as her gaze loses focus. She no longer seems to be aware of the camera at all. ‘To find a way for females to breed alone so we can herd all of you testosterone-ridden idiots into the killing fields and clean up this planet once and for all? Surely you know that, don’t you?’ Identical expressions of deep horror have taken over the faces of all the males. The new arrivals look slightly queasy.
‘Not the first two parts, no,’ Bill just barely manages.
Daphne’s eyes have misted over with nostalgia. ‘Well, that’s what she said…’ she murmurs, and sighs softly from remembered happiness before partially snapping back to the present day. ‘So your rustlers have arrived, and they’re going to try and take your lone charge away from you. And since you’ve hardly been good about keeping an eye out for raiders, plus you’ve been out here all alone with Jackie for whatever number of days we’ve been filming, I think they’re entitled to some time alone with Jackie, don’t you?’ Sharif violently shakes his head. Daphne ignores it. ‘Say, the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon. You’re banished from the ranch until five p.m. Go on in, girls! She’s all yours!’ The women tip their hats to the males and head inside.
Daphne smirks at the men. ‘You’re in trouble now,’ she tells them. ‘You’ve seen how she is. She’ll believe anything, won’t she?’ Luciano nods, looking more stunned than any of the others. ‘If they tell her she’s curious long enough, she’ll start to think they’re right. And then it’s a massage, and of course there’s the hot tub…’ Sharif, turning a lighter shade of pale, raises his hand. Daphne glances over. ‘Yes?’
Sharif forces the words out, visibly trying to keep from singing them. ‘Look,’ he starts. ‘If we – if one of the straight guys gets picked, he gets half a million and so does Jackie. If it’s one of the gays, then he gets the full million and Jackie gets nothing. What happens if Jackie picks one of them?’
Daphne’s smirk spreads again. Several types of desert beetle are added to the endangered species list. ‘Ah – I thought this might come up,’ she tells Sharif. ‘The answer is simple: if Jackie follows her heart and common sense to choose a lesbian – why, she gets the entire million to herself.’
A four-man chorus of ‘What?!?’ echoes across the state.
Banks is the first to pull away from the verbal pack. ‘But that gives us no chance!’
‘She’ll pick one of them just for the money!’ Luciano yells.
‘This isn’t even remotely fair!’ Bill protests.
‘I’m going to lose all my camera time!’ Sharif shouts just before the camera jerks away from him.
Daphne slowly shakes her head. ‘And already our cowboys aren’t up to the challenge,’ she laughs. ‘If one of you can convince her to actually love you, then you’ll win. Same as before. Aren’t you capable of that?’
The men look at each other. Luciano now seems to be the angriest in the pack. ‘Maybe we could do it,’ he agrees through clenched teeth, ‘but you had no right to do this to us.’
‘Luciano, Luciano,’ Daphne chides him, ‘didn’t you read your contract? It was standard FOX boilerplate, I know, but it holds for this situation. We own you. We can do anything we like to you. I’d think John’s absence today would have proven that.’ A faint grin briefly appears on her face. ‘As is, all I’ve done is provide you with a little more competition, a chance to prove your manly egos have a reason to exist – and set Jackie up for the best time of her life. Is that so wrong?’ The men pointedly say nothing. Daphne’s just amused. ‘Now get out of here. All of you. You can’t return to the ranch for seven hours, and be glad it isn’t three days. The bus will take you off the property. Go!’
The men get on the bus, muttering to themselves and throwing dark glances back at Daphne. She waits until the bus has pulled out of camera range before she starts laughing. ‘Poor, doomed little sheep!’ she exclaims in mirth. ‘Not seeing it was a setup all along! Hormone-driven fools! The world will see what’s best for it now!’
A young man dressed in casual business attire walks into camera range. ‘For you, miss,’ he says, holding out a folded piece of paper towards Daphne.
‘Oh, thank you,’ Daphne replies. Visibly distracted, she takes the paper, which begins to yellow under her fingertips. The young man is well out of camera range before she unfolds it, and even the echo of his footsteps has vanished by the time she begins to read ‘’One in four chance – million dollars – copyright infringement – Burnett threatening suit…’’ She angrily throws the parchment down to the porch. ‘The nerve of that man!’ And then the screen no longer shows Daphne: just the serving papers sitting on the porch, and a grayed segment of rail shimmering into dust.
Commercials, and then it’s time to meet the women, each of whom has a introductory confessional in an open closet. They are:
Linda, 25, brunette, the first woman off the bus. She’s that rarity of rarities: born in Las Vegas, raised in Las Vegas, and continues to live in Las Vegas while having absolutely no interest in gambling, criminal investigation services, or sliding down the sides of the Luxor. She works as an amusement park designer and has seen a lot of contracts over the last few years as the casinos made their effort to become more family-friendly. She’s been openly gay since she was fourteen and, given that it was Vegas, no one much noticed or cared. She hopes to make Jackie feel there’s more options in life than she might have realized and admits ‘We weren’t told much about her – just that the men were here, some of them were gay, and we were supposed to win her away from all of them. The first job is going to be finding out if she’s worth winning, or if we’re better off throwing her back.’ Which sounds like an actual sincere statement on a reality dating show. Weird.
Jennifer, 22, blonde and very short: her cowboy boots have extremely high heels and soles too thick to be doing anything but concealing lifts. She’s from San Francisco and just graduated college with a degree in Communications, with plans to move on to radio talk show hosting in a few months. She seems to be thinking along the same lines as Sharif, namely ‘This is great media exposure! I can show the world a lesbian can do anything a straight or gay guy can do, and that includes winning the girl! And appearing on TV, and getting stations all over the country to notice me – and I think someone said we’ll be syndicated in Canada, maybe even Australia, and there’s lots of jobs for first-timers outside the States…’
Jamie, 27, raven, apparently chosen as a match for Luciano in terms of raw physical presence. She recently moved to Reno from Portland, and has been working as a blackjack dealer for the last three months. Her last relationship ended badly, and she admits she signed up for the show on the rebound. ‘I don’t get much of a chance to meet anyone off shift, and everyone I run into on shift has more interest in their next card than they do in me, no matter where I deal them from. The last person to make a serious pass at me was actually trying to bribe me into throwing her an ace. I figure any chance to meet someone is worth trying at this point, even with the lousy odds. Plus the next Fear Factor signup isn’t for three months.’
And finally, there’s Carrie, 25, a redhead who just moved out of Salt Lake City and is looking for a place to settle down because, as she puts it, ‘The first step was finally admitting to myself that I was gay and the second step was getting the hell out of Utah.’ She’s done some work as a website designer, but she’s currently between jobs, and actually got on the show because she applied to revamp the Forever Eden page and was somehow shunted sideways into Nevada. She figures that if Jackie has the least bit of interest in her, she’ll find a way to spot it and draw it out. After all, ‘if I could find it in myself, I can find it in anyone.’ Pauses. ‘Except where I don’t want to look. That Daphne…’ And shivers.
The women find Jackie in the living room, where she’s looking at a rather crowded notebook. From the very brief glimpse the camera gives us of it, it’s apparently her collection of the little clues she’s spotted in the men, with the five people she believes to still be in the game listed with a number of entries next to each name. (There’s one exception, though: Luciano’s section is blank, and has actually been squeezed in by Bill’s.) She looks extremely stressed.
Jamie promptly sits down next to her on the couch and closes the notebook. ‘Enough of that,’ she says.
Jackie looks up, then looks around, and from her expression, it’s clear that she was not told the women were coming any more than the men were. ‘Who are you?’ she demands, glaring about the room, her voice dropped into the defensive tones of a harem guard who just saw the stable boy sneak under the fence. ‘Are you here for Luciano? Because I saw him first, do you hear me? He’s mine!’
Linda just laughs, and Jamie shakes her head. ‘We’re the twist,’ she says.
Jackie frowns. ‘How can you be the twist if you’re not here to steal my men?’
Carrie’s eyes twinkle, and she sits down on Jackie’s other side.
Jennifer leans in from the back of the couch, which apparently involves her going onto tiptoe. ‘We’re here to steal you’, she says.
Jackie looks slightly intrigued.
We head into a montage of activity as the camera switches between the groups. The women are shown being frank with Jackie about their purpose in the show, although they’re being considerably less delusional about it than Daphne was. As Linda says, ‘We’re here to make you think. What you wind up thinking is going to be your choice.’ Jackie, apparently under no pressure from this whatsoever, gives the new arrivals a tour of the ranch, goes riding with them, enjoys a sit-down late lunch out by the stables, and part of Daphne’s prediction actually comes true as they all lounge in the hot tub.
In confessional, Jackie admits to being stunned by the turn of events, but also says ‘It’s kind of fun, really. For starters, it’s nice just to have women around to talk to.’ A quick pause, and then a hurried whisper of ‘Daphne doesn’t count.’ She smiles. ‘But it’s not like I’m gay or anything. Or even bisexual.’
The camera moves to a quick shot of the women in the hot tub, laughing at something. Jackie’s eyes are riveted on Jamie’s bikini.
Back in confessional, Jackie looks thoughtful. ‘Although…’
Another bikini survey shot.
Jackie looks even more thoughtful. ‘Well, I guess if I had to fantasize about it for a second – just because, you know – Jamie’s cute, and has that nice, long hair…’ She lies back on her bed and continues to think it over as the camera moves up to her face. ‘Good body, plenty of room to roam a little, soft in all the right places…’ A small, dreamy smile is starting to twist her lips. ‘And I know she’s soft, because I dumped into her enough times getting out of the hot tub…’ A helpful camera shot provides some reference. ‘Yeah. Jamie. But only if I had to fantasize.’ In what must have been a misplaced F/X, we get the sounds of rustling cloth. ‘And I guess Carrie could join us…’
The camera quickly moves to the men, who are hanging out in a public park in Reno, FOX apparently having given them no money to go anywhere else, do anything, or even grab a hot dog from the nearby cart, as Bill looks slightly peaked. Luciano is trying to climb a tree and get at a Frisbee lodged in a high branch, but the wood seems reluctant to take his weight and is swaying alarmingly. Sharif is pacing off circles around the public water fountain, muttering to himself. (His volume is low and there’s no subtitles, but repeated reviews of that section on high decibels picked up ‘…not fair…steal all my shots…probably have more vocal range…didn’t even give me the instruments back…’
Banks just looks tired. ‘So that’s it,’ he wearily tells the camera. ‘It’s all a farce from here on,’ apparently completely unaware of how things have looked up to this point. ‘I know how this is going to go. At the next barn meeting, Jackie will have to eliminate equal numbers of us – probably get down to two of each. Then it’ll go to one woman and one man. And the woman will win. Even if Jackie hates all of them –‘ shot of Jackie laughing and getting into a dedicated winner-take-all splash fight in the hot tub ‘—she’ll pick one just to get the million. She’s not that dumb.’ He sighs, seeming to age ten years in the middle of it. ‘I guess I’m just on vacation now. Might as well have some fun with it.’ He turns, looking off-camera. ‘Any luck, Luciano?’
The sharp crack of wood breaking indicates that Luciano has in fact reached his goal, and we get a few shots of most of the men playing a quick game of Ultimate Frisbee with a couple of the natives, while Sharif continues to pace and sulk.
A slightly bruised Luciano gets his own confessional after the game wraps up. ‘I think I’ve still got a chance,’ he admits. ‘Jackie is attracted to me: I know it, she knows it, everyone watching the show knows it. All I have to do is get her hormones to override her pocketbook.’ Thoughtfully, ‘There’s promises I can make. Give her my ‘share’ –‘ his fingers drop quote marks around the word ‘-- of the money, that might do it. Get me and the cash? She could go for that. It would put me and the women on even footing.’ A slow, confident smile spreads across his face. ‘No way I’m going out at the next elimination – plenty of time to work out the details. But that should pull the trick.’ His hands come up, ball into fists, and pound his chest, all seemingly without his conscious notice. ‘Luciano is back!’
A quick montage shows a few more games in the park, with Sharif finally cheered up with a recruitment into an impromptu barbershop quartet. After the men go around the park singing for their supper, they collect enough coins to make a meal of hot dogs and soda, and board the bus feeling very slightly better about themselves, although Luciano seems to be the only one who feels he still has a chance in the game, as indicated by the following quick sequence of answers to the question ‘What’s your next move?’
Bill: ‘Find something to steal from our rooms that I can put up on eBay later.’
Sharif: ‘Check the classifieds and see if anyone around here needs a lounge singer.’
Luciano: ‘Put some makeup on these bruises, do a quick workout for that freshly-pumped look, and prepare to spend a lot of time without my shirt on.’ Pauses. ‘For the first time, I’m glad it gets cold in the desert at night.’
Commercials, and then we return to find Jackie on a series of swing dates – with Jamie, Linda, and Carrie. The men troop in past the swing as they get off the bus, with all but Luciano looking utterly miserable as they watch Jackie chat and laugh with her companion of the moment (Linda), looking happier than she’s been since the big announcement was made. As Bill puts it during a closet confessional, ‘She knows who they are, and that means she gets to be herself around them instead of having to try and play detective.’
Just to add insult to injury, dinner is served in two parts: the women get to eat with Jackie in the dining room, which quickly turns into a merry romp of ribald jokes and the usual off-color statements that some women enjoy when there’s no males in immediate evidence. The men get to enjoy a special feast of beef jerky, trail bread, and canteen water out by the swing. They’re determinedly trying to hack off a piece of the rust-colored loaf when Daphne speaks up. ‘Did you have a fun day, boys?’
Banks pulls a muscle from straightening up too fast. Sharif triggers his funny bone on an impact with the swing’s right armrest and leaps to his feet. Bill just sighs and lets his facial ticks have a moment of freedom. Luciano actually manages to bite through the beef jerky.
Daphne steps out from behind a blade of grass. ‘We’re going to have another elimination tonight’, she tells them. They all nod, clearly having expected this. ‘And Jackie will be sending four people home.’ More nods, with Banks looking particularly unsurprised. Daphne’s eyes glint. ‘Any four.’
Banks pulls another muscle while getting to his feet in two frames, and has to spend some time gasping in pain before he can get the words out. ‘Any four?’ Daphne nods, smirking again. ‘But that means…’ He inhales between his teeth as the stitch in his side gives him more trouble, unable to finish the sentence.
Daphne does it for him. ‘…that all of you could be going home tonight, leaving only the fair sex to compete for Jackie’s hand. See you at the barn in an hour.’
Banks turns to face his fellow original contestants. All of them look shocked, with even Luciano facing a touch of doubt, especially as he’s had no chance to promise Jackie anything. ‘Guys, we’ve got to do something!’ Banks argues. ‘Even if we hate each other, even if we’re secretly attracted to each other and we’re just waiting to get taken out of here so we can start pairing up, we can’t just let every last one of us go home tonight! It’ll be a bad sign for men everywhere of any preference! It’ll let Daphne win!’ He turns back to see how Daphne’s taken that statement, but finds only a patch of dead grass. Banks shrugs, then spins back to face Sharif. ‘It’ll end our camera time!’ Sharif nods, looking angrier than he ever has. ‘No matter what happens to any one of us tonight, we’ve got to make sure at least one man survives this cut. Even if it’s Luciano.’
Luciano nods fervently, and the men huddle in front of the swing. The conversation immediately drops into whispers too low to hear even on top volume, and the producers refuse to provide subtitles. All we get is several seconds of the camera circling the gathered males before the scene shifts to the barn.
The eight contestants are already seated and waiting by the time we get there, sharing a haystack – barely. The men have moved to the left edge, sitting as far away from the women as possible. (This still isn’t particularly comfortable for Luciano, who’s gone without a shirt tonight and has to deal with the scratchy straw in intimate proximity.) The females have spread out a bit, using the extra room to get comfortable. Jamie is outright lounging near a bean-stained patch of straw.
Jackie enters, looking prettier than she has for the entire series. She’s clearly made an extra-special effort with her makeup and wardrobe tonight: her face is painted in a perfect patina of cosmetics, while her fake nails have been brightly polished. The dress clings where it should and shows off what it’s supposed to. Her hair is practically sparkling, as are her eyes. ‘Hi!’ she brightly greets the contestants, her gaze apparently more to the right than the left. Someone groans softly – from the low tones, one of the males. Jackie smiles. ‘So, is everyone ready?’ The women nod. The men are doing their best collective Puddleglum imitation. ‘Okay…’
There’s a long pause. Jackie looks around. ‘Daphne?’
Another, shorter pause, and then Jackie shrugs. ‘Well, I guess we can start without her,’ she happily declares. ‘The cameras are running, that’s all that counts. Sometimes I don’t even know why we have a host, do you?’ All the men manage a nod apiece. ‘Okay, then – Bill?’ Bill gets up and slumps over to Jackie, who wastes no time in giving her verdict. ‘I’m cutting you.’ In merry singsong, ‘But before you go, I have to know, are you straight or are you gay?’
‘Gay,’ Bill admits. ‘And I’d just like to say –‘
‘—whatever,’ Jackie cuts him off. ‘You’re gay, I fulfilled my contract obligation, you can go. Have fun out there, okay?’
Bill sighs and heads out of the barn.
Jackie smiles and rubs her hands together, looking pleased. ‘You know,’ she tells the group, ‘this is so much easier now… Sharif?’ Sharif gets up and approaches Jackie. Banks and Luciano look stunned. It’s the first time where the initial person called has been cut: Jackie’s been grouping her eliminations towards the end before now. If Sharif is also cut, it’ll be a bad sign for the men.
And to no one’s surprise, it’s a bad sign for the men, as Jackie doesn’t even let Sharif get all the way up to her. ‘Just keep going,’ she tells him, and darkness drops into his eyes. ‘You know, I think I can tap dance to this…’ Her feet start to shuffle. ‘‘But before you go, I have to know, are you straight or are you gay?’ As it turns out, she can tap dance to it.
‘Straight,’ Sharif snarls. ‘And –‘
‘Thank you!’ Jackie sings. ‘Bye!’
Sharif walks past her, then turns and glares. Jackie doesn’t notice: her gaze is already visibly focusing on Banks – who’s looking past her towards Sharif, his eyes pleading.
Sharif pauses, making up his mind – then says, with his best stage projection, ‘I hope you and your million dollars will be very happy together.’
All the women on the haystack look up at this. Jackie turns, her lips already pursed into a ‘B’. She has to take a second to work back into a starting position. ‘Sorry?’ she asks, still sounding merry.
‘Your million dollars, you camera-kissing twit!’ Sharif shouts, calling the kettle black at the top of his lungs. ‘The million dollars you’ll get for picking one of the lesbians. That’s what all this is about now: who gets to watch you sign your check before you take the first-class flight back to Wisconsin. Alone. When it was an even split, there was at least a chance for real affection on your end, but now? Seven digits into your bank account and you never have to think about any of us again – us –‘ he points to Banks and Luciano ‘—or them.’ He points to the women. ‘Enjoy your winnings, you desperate attention-seeking wh --’ He stops, perhaps unsure of whether he can use the last word on television, probably unaware of how close he just came to getting our complete attention. Finally, he throws his hat on the ground, steps on it, and storms out of the barn.
‘Wait a minute,’ Jackie slowly says as she watches him depart, too softly for anyone on the haystack to hear her. ‘If I pick one of the girls, I get the whole million dollars?’
‘Wait a minute,’ Linda says, too loudly for anyone to fail to hear her. ‘If she picks one of us, she gets a million dollars?’
‘Wait a minute!’ Daphne screams, suddenly visible two feet to Jackie’s right. ‘No one told them about the million dollars?!?!’
After everyone finishes picking themselves up – especially the females, who’ve had no time to become acclimated to Daphne’s comings and goings – the camera crew and production staff come into view as Daphne storms around the barn, leaving a trail of blackened straw while querying each of them in very noisy turn and getting the same answer from all of them: somehow, the new contestants were never told about the financial aspect of the contest. The women have huddled together on the haystack in a position eerily similar to that of the men prior to the elimination ceremony, and are talking something over in hushed undertones. Banks and Luciano are perched on the edge of the straw, waiting.
Finally, Linda stands up and goes to Daphne, careful to stay four feet back, which seems to be where the lethal zone ends. ‘We’ve decided we don’t want any part of this.’ Both Daphne and Jackie freeze in shock. ‘We don’t mind being contestants trying to win a prize, and we wouldn’t have too much moral objection to being prizes ourselves, but to be lied to just so someone could cash a check – forget it.’ The other three women nod their agreement and begin to stand as Linda glances back at Banks and Luciano. ‘She’s all yours, for whatever that’s worth.’ She turns and heads for the exit. As it happens, this takes her right past Jackie, who’s just starting to recover – for a very low value of ‘recover’.
‘Wait’, Jackie pleads. ‘Please, wait a minute…’ Linda goes right past her without so much as a blink in her direction, shortly followed by Jennifer. ‘I just need a minute here,’ Jackie implores them, but Carrie also goes by without a word. Finally, as Jamie gets within reach, Jackie makes a grab for her wrist and latches on. ‘I swear, I didn’t know! I thought it was going to be half a million each, like with the straight guys! They never told me anything about this part! Please, you’ve got to stay…’
Jamie yanks her arm free and silently walks out of the barn.
Daphne executes a slow turn and comes to a stop facing the men, her feet sliding somewhat in the decayed mush around them. ‘Well – well –‘ she sputters, ‘I guess this makes you the final two.’ A long glare is followed by a spit of ‘Congratulations,’ and she ceases to appear on the tape.
Banks and Luciano shake hands, then leave the haystack and approach Jackie, who’s staring out at the darkness beyond the barn, tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘They’re gone,’ she sobs as Banks takes her right hand. ‘They’re all gone…’
‘I know, Jackie,’ Banks replies with surprising tenderness. ‘But you’ve still got us, right?’
Jackie cries even harder.
Luciano takes her left hand. ‘More to the point, you’ve still got me,’ he says as he leans Jackie in so she can dry her face on his chest hair.
Jackie sniffs twice, blows her nose on Luciano’s pectorals, and does seem very slightly cheered as the final two escort her from the barn. And the last words heard before the closing credits start to roll come from Luciano, somewhere out of camera range, and clearly distressed. ‘I think I got a bad hot dog…’
The final sound heard before the closing credits start to roll probably shouldn’t be reproduced.
(The preceding was a work of complete and utter lies, also known as ‘fiction’. Any resemblance to the actual people and events of Episode #5 is pretty unlikely, not to mention purely coincidental. ‘twas a spoof, and nothing more. Still not a flying toy.)