“I consider myself a being from another planet,” said Shaq proudly, as he stalked across Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s private compound, asked a statue of Forrest Gump for directions, and attempted in vain to ride a fake horsie. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Shaq Vs: gonzo vanity project, lusciously silly American bizarro-world, and probably the closest we’ll ever come to a real-life Celebrity Deathmatch. The second season kicked off last night, and besides speeding up the proceedings considerably – two competitions per episode seems to be the new norm – the season premiere taught us a load of important life lessons.
1. Shaq only likes to mess with the best.
2. The Diesel backs down from nobody, no matter how large their rep.
3. Despite what the haters say, Shaq is totally capable of narrowly defeating a professional athlete in a free throw contest, as long as that athlete happens to play one of the few sports not involving some sort of ball.
4. When you don’t know how to spell a word, ask for its etymology. If it’s French, it’ll be hard.
5. A zucchetto is a small round skullcap worn by Roman Catholic Ecclesiastics.
6. Shaq can spell “zucchetto.”
I think the most fun part of Shaq Vs is how willing the star is to play himself as a preening sitcom narcissist perpetually receiving his comeuppance. At the start of the episode, he stepped off a private plane, looked out across the land, and majestically mumbled, “Dale Earnhardt, I’m coming for you.” Then he asked a local man for directions to Earnhardt’s house. “You know who I am, right?” asked Shaq. Local Man: “I’ve never seen you before in my life.” It’s sort of like having a reality show starring King Arthur from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Except with world champions instead of British dudes in drag. (Also, one episode of Shaq Vs probably costs more than everything Monty Python ever did.)
The choice to expand Shaq Vs outside the realm of sports is reaping hilarious dividends. Last night, O’Neal challenged the National Spelling Bee Champion to a spell-off. Something about the academic environment brought out the quote generator in Shaq. “One thing I’ve always been amazed with: super-intelligent children,” he said. When he talked to the champion, Kavya Shivashankar, he was all blustery trash-talk: “I have my Bachelor’s and my Master’s.” Shivashankar: “When Jimmy Kimmel challenged me, I beat him.” Shaq: “And I beat Jimmy Kimmel… in Scrabble!” Viewers, my TV exploded.
Shaq Vs is one of those reality shows that doesn’t even bother hiding the fact that it’s utterly unreal, which is how it manages to stage scenes that seem (dare I say it?) well-written. Like this sitdown negotiation between Shaq, Shivashankar, and her little sister, conducted from either end of a massive CEO table:
Shaq: “I’m entering your world now.”
Shaq: “I’m entering your world now.”
Shaq: “I’m entering your world now!”
Shaq lost the spelling bee, and despite a ludicrous amount of restrictions (a one-lap lead, mandatory pit stops), he also lost the NASCAR race. This keeps the record alive, as he also lost every challenge last year. When I spoke to him, he claimed to have beaten one of his competitors this season. (He then said that he beat two people. This was right after he said, “I have never lost.” Riddles! Confusion! Inception!) The show has a genuine respect for the skills of the people Shaq challenges: speaking as someone whose knowledge of NASCAR mostly starts and ends with Days of Thunder, it was a total kick to get a five-minute introduction to what goes on inside of a driver’s head. And Junior’s brief talk about his late father was just plain moving.
The only really draggy thing about last night’s episode were the sportscaster-bots, Man With Hair and Woman With Teeth, who apparently hail from an alternate Fringe dimension where Shaq Vs is a real sport. (Can’t the show just hire Celebrity Deathmatch commentators Johnny Gomez and Nick Diamond?) Personally, I’m looking forward to the golf showdown with Charles Barkley. Because I can’t think of a better metaphor for our modern era than two basketball super-icons playing a terrible round of golf.
What did you think of Shaq Vs, PopWatchers? Could any of you spell “Natatorium”? (Microsoft Word doesn’t think that’s a word.) Is it me, or did it seem like Shaq purposefully misspelled “Distinguo”? And speaking of words you didn’t know, here are two new dictionary entries for you:
Shaqticle. Adj. Form a ridiculous strategy that’s almost guaranteed to fail. “Now it’s time to get Shaqticle.”
Shaqanyze. Verb. Filter information through the head-brain. “I gotta Shaqanyze it up.”