My obsession with Craft Corner Deathmatch began the same way that most of today's most heated love affairs vault into being: through a TiVo accident. Some friends had recorded another program, banked in 30 minutes of extra time, and picked up a stowaway they told me I had to see to believe.
I've not sure why they were so intent on watching anything on the Style Network in the first place, but it hardly matters now, because what I found in CCDM was the best Saturday Night Live sketch that will never be birthed under Lorne Michaels' tutelage. (The series is actually from the producers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which explains a lot.) An intentionally ridiculous amalgam of Iron Chef and today's makeover madness, the show hot-glues the ADD urgency of exxxtreme culture to the (one would think) sedate subject of amateur crafting. Two contestants go head-to-head in high-speed contests of aesthetic resourcefulness, struggling to assemble attractive and functional tchotchkes from the most basic of materials while an unforgiving clock ticks away and host Jason Jones impedes their progress with cruel taunts. "Somebody's gonna get the craft kicked out of 'em," the network's promos promise, and that's more or less what happens every week.
Start with the set, a gulag-redolent environment that boasts more chain-link fencing than you'll find on Halloween Horror Nights. Crammed into the militarily stark bleachers is a live audience that's been lit from below, to give them the ghoulish aspect of a bunch of flesh-hungry zombies an illusion only broken in tight close-up, when you can see one or two cracking up as the "ooh and aah" light goes on and they have to feign breathless interest in the proceedings. But there's no feigning necessary on the part of the competing crafters, who work up a sincere sweat in trying to assemble floral bouquets from household sponges and handbags from a medley of duct tape and FedEx packing goods. Too difficult for ya? Take it outside, crybaby. On CCDM, you have, as loquacious Jones puts it, "10 minutes to kick that craft in the ass."
Ah, yes, Jones. It's his pulverizing combination of belligerence and insane enthusiasm that gives the show its torque. "Maniacal" doesn't do justice to the tone he brings to this nuttiest of competitions. Hurling karate kicks at the camera with a ferocity that tests the seams of his business suit, he's like the sports-bar equivalent of the unhinged villain in a '90s cyberthriller. And though the prizes the contestants are vying for are nobody's idea of opulent a $1,000 gift certificate from Blick Art Materials is typical that doesn't stop Jones from acting as if somebody's very citizenship is at stake. ("This one's for all the marbles. The sweet, sweet marbles!") When he's not issuing doomy pronunciamentos in his razor-blade-gargling voice, he's grimacing in mock agony at the excitement of it all. If I were ever to see him with his mouth completely closed, I am not certain I would recognize him.
He has a perfect foil in assistant Amber, a frizzy-haired floozy with bad posture whose sole function is to silently wheel out a cart filled with crafting supplies and take a smidgen of Jones' verbal abuse. (He has described her, variously, as "my gap-toothed assistant, Amber" and "my racially insensitive assistant, Amber.") She's apathetic to a point that makes the audience look committed: Occasionally, a reaction shot catches her staring dumbly into space, no doubt wondering at the bitter reality that this was the best job she could get in show business.
The game of dueling crafters doesn't play out in real time; it's a mark of the show's commitment to pacing over substance that the actual hobby projects are time-compressed into bite-sized nuggets, with Jones' sarcastic kibbitzing getting more play than the showcased techniques. (In the series' first-season finale airing Thursday, June 2 he informs a contestant who is carving ordinary bar soap into an unwieldy-looking necklace that Betty Rubble would just love what she's doing.) The speedy "challenges" are interspersed with helpful video vignettes that show idealized versions of the items the opponents are striving to create, along with a brief explanation of how they were put together. There are also snarky mini-documentaries like "The History of the Sponge."
Twice the crafters go head-to-head, and twice the judges rate their work on a scale of one to 10. The competitor who amasses the most points out of a possible 60 gets to go to the bonus round, where he or she will undertake a similar battle against (wait for it) The Craft Lady of Steel. Stepping out from behind huge "metal" doors to be revealed in silhouette in a manner's that's pure WWF, the anonymous Craft Lady is announced as a "professional textile designer, costume designer and craft stylist" who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and holds a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. What matters more to the show is her fiercely Teutonic look, all wide shoulders and drastically pulled-back hair. Like Amber, she never says a word.
A curtain is drawn in front of the judges, lest their "dread" of the Craft Lady of Steel prejudice their decision. Most of the time, her superior skill and experience make her the victor, though not always. (Yes, I've already seen the season finale, and if you think I'm going to tell you who wins that one, you're being a big silly-head. I will, however, state a personal preference for contestant Sherry, a swoony Taiwanese model and industrial designer who literalizes the episode's promise to deliver an "orgy of hot hobby action." Rowf!)
Watching CCDM is a highly educational experience, one that's taught me two things: 1) The world is a wonderland of lovely and practical objects that are just waiting to be fashioned from whatever's lying around; and 2) I will not be the one making them. The emphasis on spectacle over specifics underscores that this is a program for the rubbernecking layman, not the members of your Aunt Marjorie's sewing circle. They might know exactly how to turn a pair of worn-out blue jeans into a cute iPod cozy; Jones and company deign to show us only the beginning and end of that process, paying the barest lip service to what comes in between. Even the "instructive" video segments stop at telling us what should be done, in the broadest terms possible. In other words, there's nothing you can glean from an entire season of viewing that will help you graduate to pointy scissors if you haven't gotten there already.
And that's as it should be. As Jones preaches in the show's traditional sign-off, "Remember, it's cheaper and easier just to buy stuff." No wonder I love Craft Corner Deathmatch so much. We both live along the path of least resistance.