Thursday, June 01, 2006

bee fever

I am totally mystified by the recent overwhelming popularity of spelling bees. There's been an influx in the last few years of books and movies about all things bee. Why? Have spelling bees ever been this popular? I knew that every year they televised the national spelling bee, held in Washington DC to make it seem more important and/or somehow affiliated with the government. This year interestingly enough, instead of banishing the televised national competition to some dark corner of ESPN2 weekend programming, it got a front seat in primetime on ABC tonight.

There was that oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound (2002), which I haven't seen but seems like it would be more about the stage parents instead of the stressed-out prepubescent spellers themselves; next, Bee Season (2005) about a girl and her dysfunctional family and how she gets through it by "seeing" the words or whatever; and then most recently the Starbucks-produced vehicle Akeelah and the Bee (2006) about another phenomenal girl speller with some family issues and the stock adult figures who either a) believe in her or b) don't and think spelling is a waste of time. An interesting and perhaps valid argument when it comes to the drama of a screenplay, but I digress. (Continuing with that digression, why can't Angela Bassett seem to get herself a nice juicy role on screen? We could use more of her.) Hell, there is even a deleted scene from Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) that brings up an uncomfortable family showdown at a spelling bee.

I seem to recall spelling bees being reserved for the smart-kid/nerd lot.... like I was/am. When I was in fifth grade I made it to third place in my school's spelling bee. The word that got me out: epitome. Be sure that I know how to spell that thing now, but I remember so well standing at that podium, having never heard that word in my entire life. Even the definition they provided to me was shrouded in mystery. Luckily they provided us a notepad to attempt to visualize the word (an advantage not provided to the national spelling bee-ers, it seems); I remember trying to spell the word with too many d's and m's, ending it with a y. I felt like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland.
(For the record: I may not have won my fifth grade spelling bee, but I did win the geography bee that year, which I remember wasn't so difficult for me. I don't remember the winning question, though.... which is interesting, because I think the question one fails to answer stands out more than the question one succeeds with.)

The recent surge in spelling bee popularity is of suspect.... because the subject matter tends not to be the most thrilling. But lo and behold, they're able to construct entire movies around spelling bees, so there's an argument out there that spelling bees do have the right kind of narrative drama. I just don't see it.

But.... when it comes to airing it on television, I see an interesting trend. I guess most would consider the televised national spelling bee to fall in the same category as, say, sports programs. Like sports for the mind. But I see through to what those television executives are seething over: spelling bees are an untapped resource of reality television, and at a low cost because the people on screen don't have to be paid. Spelling bees aren't all that fun to watch anyway, but people do, likely, for two reasons:
1) they want to see all these crazy words they've never heard and never will hear again, and
2) they want to watch these kids fail,
because ultimately reality television is breeding a culture of competition and failure made for others' enjoyment. Do people really watch "Survivor" to see the trials or whatever the contestants play? Do people really watch to see the bugs they eat? No: they watch to see who gets voted off, who falls on their face, who fails. Same goes for the unstoppable juggernaut of "American Idol", except with that show emotionally unstable judges are thrown into the mix for theatrics. Tonight's bee still carried with it some level of expected respect that the whole reality television angle hasn't been able to tarnish and make trashy yet. However there was a gaggle of off-screen commentators (including my "Good Morning America" crush Robin Roberts), not surprisingly I guess, all assuming the holier-than-thou disapprovement likely learned from those horrible ice skating commentators.

The winning word tonight: ursprache. Yeah, I don't know it either. I'm all for understanding cognates between languages and all, but this word seems blatantly lifted straight from the Merriam-Webster German dictionary.

So, why are these competitions called spelling "bees" anyway? They'd be much more fun to watch on television if they actually introduced live bees into the mix.

above: one of my favorite scenes from Adaptation


Writeprocrastinator said...

"There was that oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound (2002), which I haven't seen but seems like it would be more about the stage parents instead of the stressed-out prepubescent spellers themselves"

Amazingly, they kept the enough of the focus on the kids and their lives, as opposed to the stage parents and too much of the competition itself. It was Procrastinator Jr.'s favorite flick of '03.

"Akeelah" was written before the others came out, but wasn't greenlighted until "Spellbound" was making pure profit on DVD.

The drama of this compettion is enjoyed by my kid far more than anyone else in the house and I agree, you'll never see those words again or have use for them. I doubt you'll find more than a third of them in Roget's.

Congrats on the fifth grade geo. bee, you have my respect. There are still South American and African countries that give me problems to this very day, I doubt I could get the former Soviet satellites right either.

J.J. Gittes said...

I hate spelling bees for a very specific reason. In May of last year, I made my Broadway debut as an onstage audience guest for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Circle in the Square. I spelled my first word ("jihad") correctly, but the dude misheard me, and booted me in front of a full house. I am still outraged today.

mernitman said...

"Spellbound" is actually a good doc. But I'm really here to thank you for posting a pic of the Disney Caterpillar, whom I think of as one of the original stoners...