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MTV’s hidden-camera show Punk’d returned Thursday night with some of the same old tricks, a slightly-different format and an all-new cast, demonstrating that the only thing on TV more powerful than a celebrity’s suspicion he or she’s being pranked is the enjoyment audiences get from watching it successfully happen. Guest host Justin Bieber took over for the series’ longtime standard-bearer Ashton Kutcher as he targeted three high-profile pals, setting the stage for a season that promises to be as epic and hilarious as its predecessors.
For Season Nine, Kutcher has elected to remain behind the scenes rather than participating in each of the gags, allowing guest hosts like Bieber to control an entire episode, from choosing the targets to completing the prank itself. The decision to turn the reins over to guests was probably as organizationally necessary as it was a good creative decision, since Kutcher’s presence seems likely to set off even the least suspecting marks, and the presence of an unaffiliated celebrity like Bieber might lull them into thinking the craziness that erupts isn’t in fact an elaborately-designed ruse to get them to cry, lose their temper or otherwise freak them out.
Citing his determination to “make her cry” since she’s so nice, Bieber chose Taylor Swift as his first victim, and he invites her to a seaside villa under the pretense of collaborating on a song together. Once she arrives, Bieber reveals a collection of fireworks that he picked up while he “was on tour in Japan,” and he convinces Swift to help him shoot a few of them off. After she reluctantly participates, however, Bieber and his assistant point out a boat on the horizon that appears to have been struck by their fireworks and is now aflame.
Swift’s immediate concern is exacerbated when she sees a bride (Anne Gregory) and groom (Andrew Santino) stumbling out of a lifeboat into the surf below the house. They make their way to the balcony where Swift and Bieber are watching the action unfold, and begin asking what happened – because their wedding is now ruined. A neighbor (Adam Lustick) approaches from next door and starts asking questions, saying he’s already called the police (presumably preventing Swift from calling the real authorities). But as the priest overseeing the wedding (Daryl Johnson) hilariously makes his way out of the water on the next lifeboat trip, Swift seems poised to call the Coast Guard, prompting the show’s producers to intervene and reveal that the whole thing was an elaborate joke. (Somewhat appropriately, Swift is so sweet and startled by the revelation that she barely seems to get mad.)
The gag gets the episode – and the season – off to a great start, indicating that upcoming installments may involve some of the most elaborate pranks in the show’s history (although they’re basically used as window dressing, the fireworks prank involves a beachside villa, a sizeable yacht, and at one point, even a helicopter). Although the understandable focus is on the host and his victim, the cast members do a great job of giving their characters believable, really funny little idiosyncrasies that make them seem like real people. (I was convinced there wouldn’t be anything funnier on the premiere than seeing Santino’s groom scramble in the tide after Gregory’s bride after she falls off the lifeboat, but Johnson’s struggle to first protect his Bible and then just get out of the water without nosediving in the surf had me in stitches.)
The second target Bieber chose was Rob Dyrdek, and his segment worked slightly less well than Swift’s, not the least of which because proved his assertion he couldn’t be punk’d when he figured out the gag pretty quickly (“the lighting in this restaurant is too good,” he observed early on). But after discovering the ruse, Bieber enlisted Dyrdek to participate in pulling the same prank on someone else – in this case, a remarkably available Sean Kingston. The gag involved a fight between an executive and a female assistant that ends in her crashing his car into the front of the restaurant, and Kingston is successfully duped before the producers rush in to inform him that he’s been punk’d. (Perhaps an all-star episode should involve Kutcher and company successfully pulling pranks on all of the folks who figured it out.)
The third prank was pretty great as well, primarily because it involved Bieber turning the tables on Miley Cyrus, who thought she was going to be the one pranking him. The idea is that a group of skateboarders are doing tricks on a ramp in the parking lot where Bieber drives up, and when he parks in a space adjacent to their ramp they unleash a torrent of insults on the pop singer. Although it’s not entirely clear what the end result of Cyrus’ prank would have been other than for him to get made fun of by some fake skateboard punks, the payoff proves to be gold when one of the skaters gets a little bit overzealous and Bieber ends up knocking him down and kicking him in the stomach.
Needless to say Cyrus is mortified, but when she runs out to break up the bit, Bieber has already disappeared. But just as the gravity of what happened starts to sink in to her, he turns up again and informs Cyrus that she has been punk’d; while the switch is certainly not the first in the series’ history, it creates a compelling degree of ambiguity to each prank in that even their intended hosts or purveyors could become victims. Regardless, it should be interesting to see what happens in future episodes – including one previewed at the end of Thursday’s show in which a prank by Cyrus on her boyfriend Liam Hemsworth results in Hemsworth losing his temper at a group of naked people who hop into their car and refuse to leave. And although it remains to be seen who turns out to be the season’s standout cast member – after folks like Dax Shepard, Ryan Pinkston and B.J. Novak turned their appearances into lucrative TV and film careers – folks like Lustick, Johnson, Gregory and Santino are certainly on the right path to become Punk’d superstars.
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