Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review - Cathouse: Anything Goes (Episode 2)

Short review: Come to the Bunny Ranch and indulge your fetishes. Or just have sex with the new girl from Nebraska.

Show up in diapers
The Bunnies will baby you
If you have the cash

Full review: How does episode two of Cathouse start? Just in case anyone was unclear on exactly what happens at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, the opening sequence of "Anything Goes" joins Air Force Amy on the road, heading to work, where she will (she hopes) be paid for sex. We are then treated to a swift transition as Dennis Hof argues that the Bunny Ranch is a historic place, citing its statues as a stop on the Pony Express, and then drawing a connection between mining companies bringing prostitutes to Virginia City to service the miners and the Bunny Ranch of the present day. Given that the economy of Virginia City collapsed in 1898 when the Comstock Lode was exhausted, and the Bunny Ranch wasn't established until 1955, drawing a connection between the two seems like a stretch to me. Dennis then caps off his discussion about the supposed historical significance of the Bunny Ranch by explaining that he bought the business because Subway declined to sell him a franchise with a delivery so convincing that one is almost certain that the next option for most rejected Subway supplicants is to find a Nevada brothel in need to a new owner.

The show then shifts to the first of the two themes that run through this episode, with a brief scene involving a rather large man dressed rather unconvincingly as a woman to illustrate that, as the title of this installment of the series suggests, anything goes at the Bunny Ranch. As Dennis says, if a man shows up wearing a dress and pumps, the only thing anyone will say to him is "nice shoes". Reinforcing this are brief clips of various Bunnies, including Amy Andersinn, Danielle, Sunset Thomas, Isabella Soprano, and my favorite Bunny in the episode Karla, all asserting that literally anything goes, but they bring things back to reality by adding "so long as the money is right".

While the Bunny Ranch is a place where people go to fulfill their outlandish fantasies, everything comes at a price. To demonstrate the reality of this, the show presents the viewer with a cross-dresser (not the same one from the first segment) sitting with Danielle and Sunshine Lane intercut with some couch interview scenes where Danielle talks about this particular encounter in which she discusses the mental confusion this particular client caused her - first saying that she would think of the client as a woman, which she says excited her (and seems to contradict some things Danielle says about women later), but then she recognized he was a man, and she couldn't decide which she liked better. After following Danielle, Sunshine, and their cross-dressing client to their bedroom door (and no further), the show then turns to a very brief scene in which Air Force Amy tosses a pile of whips and leather straps onto her bed and then parades a naked and collared client about her room while she cracks a whip. The point of this scene seems to be to allow Amy to talk about just how tough the sex business really is, and how the girls have to be willing to cater to every need.

At this point the show shifts gears in a segment titled "From the Plains of Nebraska" to the other theme of the episode - the arrival of a new working girl in the person of Bianca, formerly a dancer (given the context in which this information is presented, one assumes she has worked as a stripper, but this is never explicitly stated). As Madam Suzette says at one point, the customers like girls who are new to the Bunny Ranch, and HBO seems to have decided that their viewers would too, because the story line revolving around Bianca's arrival at the Bunny Ranch is only the first of a couple times that the arrival of a new girl is a highlighted feature of the show. Dennis informs the camera that the Bunny Ranch gets calls from ten to twenty women a day asking about jobs and brings in five or so new girls every week to work. If anyone was wondering just if the Bunny Ranch was ever going to run short of women, the answer seems to be "no". But lest anyone think that working at the Bunny ranch is a cakewalk, we get revelations from Daisy and Vandalia about how scared and nervous they were when they started on the job - Daisy going so far as to say she cried herself to sleep every night for the first week. Sunset Thomas chips in about how nervous she was when she started working, but her complaint is slightly different (probably because when she came to the Bunny Ranch she was already a popular porn actress): she is nervous about handling the money related end of the business.

The story of Bianca's introduction to the world of working in a legal brothel is woven throughout the rest of the episode. During a segment in which she is tutored by a veteran Bunny (Deanna I think, who shows up in several episodes, but is rarely credited onscreen, so I'm not sure if that's the correct name) we learn a little bit about the internal operations of the Ranch, such as the fact that the women work twelve hour shifts and in the jargon of the Ranch, the selection of things a woman is willing to do is euphemistically called a "tour". Deanna also cautions Bianca to never tell a customer with an unusual request that it is impossible for their desires to be fulfilled, because even if she is unwilling to do it, another one of the women at the Ranch probably will.

Bianca then gets dressed for business and is handed a pile of supplied by Madam Suzette: videos, condoms ("snug fit", regular, and large), lubricant, and antibacterial soap. All of these are charged to Bianca because the Bunny Ranch (and apparently all of the other legal brothels in Nevada) assert that the women who work in them are "independent contractors" and thus personally responsible for picking up many of the costs of doing business. This is an arrangement that clearly suits brothel management, as they don't have to absorb those costs, but whether the working conditions actually allow them enough freedom to be credibly called independent contractors seems to be a contentious issue. Given that there is so much competition to come and work at the Bunny Ranch, this doesn't seem to be an issue that anyone wants to jeopardize their job by challenging.

Bianca is quite attractive in her working outfit, but one thing that stood out for me is that she is wearing so much make-up in this scene that her face is a decidedly different shade than the rest of her body. Bianca then learns one of the hitherto unremarked upon realities of working at the Bunny Ranch: there is lots of waiting. She waits, gets in lineups, sees other girls get picked, waits some more, chats up men at the bar, watches Deanna dirty hustle a potential client away from her, waits some more, and finally gets a client. Her client is a guy killing time either after or before picking up a friend from the airport (it isn't clear which). Bianca lowballs him for $400 for an hour long party involving lots of nudity and kissing, but no actual sex (the second "party" featured within two episodes in which there is no actual sex). Bianca then goes to get paid, and learns a hard truth about working in a brothel: even if the client doesn't screw you, the finances might, especially if you lowball yourself. After the Bunny Ranch takes its cut and the cost of her supplies are deducted, Bianca gets $132 of the $400 party, a figure that she seems decidedly nonplussed about (I'll also note that she is responsible for paying income taxes on the $132 as well, as the Bunny Ranch does not do deductions). Before the end of the episode we are told that Bianca left the Ranch - according to Madam Suzette she just didn't have the "spirit of fun" you need to work there. The episode makes it seem much more likely that she left because she wasn't making money.

As a brief interjection, during Bianca's sojourn at the bar, if one looks in the background one will see the dark haired mustached client who was seen in the first episode in the class with Isabella and Shelly, and who had the "clothes on" party with Shelly. I note this because HBO seems to have reused several of the clients who show up in these episodes. If you watch the background, you will often see people who appeared in a scene with a working girl popping up in the background of multiple episodes. The mustached guy is in several episodes, leading me to believe that he either spends a lot of time at the Bunny Ranch, or HBO shot the bulk of the season in a day or two of filming.

But back to the part of the episode that is about freaky people coming to the Bunny Ranch to act out their weird desires. Actually, it turns out, for some people, acting out their weird desires doesn't even require a trip to the Bunny Ranch, as we are introduced to "diaper boy", a shoe salesman who appears to have a baby fetish, when he calls the Ranch and speaks to one of the bartenders (one of the few times a member of the bartending staff gets some serious camera time) and then has a phone call with Madam Suzette and Air Force Amy in which he is told to change his diaper and go to bed. In an aside, we are told that diaper boy is a "nice" caller, as he is not generally vulgar. This makes one wonder just how many crank calls from sex-obsessed jerks the Bunny Ranch must get on a daily basis. Then some home videos diaper boy sent to the Ranch are shown, which to me is the most surreal element of this sequence. Generally one cannot show someone on television without their consent, which means that someone from HBO had to contact this man and ask if they could show the videos of him in a diaper and bra pouring baby powder over himself and dancing in a pink spandex bunny outfit, and he agreed. This requires either enormous amounts of self-confidence, bravery, or merely insanity.

Diaper boy is merely the tip of the iceberg of strangeness, and the show then turns to a series of Bunnies discussing strange parties they have had. Danielle recounts a customer who merely wanted to watch her flex her muscles in various poses. Deanna recollects a customer who wore panties and shaved his chest hair in the shape of a bra. Vandalia remembers giving a customer a hand job while he shook her butt (which is quite ample and on full display in the final shots of the episode). But Karla, my favorite Bunny in the episode, has the best story involving a client who was obsessed with clippers, cutting hair, and watching videos of people getting their heads shaved. Her (unrealized) fear was that he would take his clippers and try to shave her head - a situation so outlandish that she doesn't even have a way to figure out how much to charge for it. Once again, Karla's deadpan delivery sells the story and makes some that was surreal to begin with hilarious. But as interesting as these stories are, the thing that struck me about them was their mundane nature. If a client wanting to watch a woman strike muscular poses is as strange as things get for some Bunnies, then things seem like they would have to be pretty bland most of the time.

Keeping on with the fetish theme, the show moves to "How to Do Feet", an instructional segment in which Alexis Fire, in her first appearance as the resident Bunny Ranch guru on sex topics, gives a class to Sunset, Daisy, Isabella, and Felicia about how to deal with a client with a foot fetish. Now, while I think that many women have pretty feet, in the same way they have pretty hands, or cute noses, when it comes to the raw sexual energy that a foot fetishist focuses into a woman's feet, I'm with Isabella Soprano: I don't get it. But the class is fascinating nonetheless for the glimpse it gives into the sexual fixations of others: we learn the "flex" position for feet, Sunset Thomas (who likens a fetish party to a bit of spice that keeps the job at the Bunny Ranch from becoming boring like flipping burgers at McDonalds) likes to have her toes sucked, foot fetish guys are (as one might expect) also fixated on women's shoes, and if a woman puts her feet together she can make a "foot pussy". Alexis concludes the class by demonstrating how to give a foot job. This may be more about feet sex than I really wanted to know, but like a car wreck, you can't help looking.

Danielle then gets to talk about her favorite topic: herself - expounding upon how she believes that every man desires a black woman. After an odd lineup in which the customer engages in a strange handshake with every girl, he picks Danielle who exclaims "you want the chocolate experience"! This is the first time that Danielle refers to herself as "chocolate" on camera, but don't worry, you'll get tired of it soon enough, since over the course of the series she seems to use this expression about ten thousand times. She then raises another possible exotic experience, trying to interest a man in a party with her and Isabella Soprano, asserting that they would be like "salt and pepper" or "vanilla and chocolate". Danielle then makes the first reference to "game" in the series. "Game" is, apparently, the term used by the Bunnies to describe how they present themselves to customers and convince them to, in Danielle's words "spend what I want them to spend".

But in a segment called "Pussycats" Danielle starts what seems to be a sustained effort (continued in later episodes) to erode her client base. After a scene showing Danielle negotiating with a woman who wants to experiment with being a woman, Danielle reveals that she is "gay for pay", only engaging in same sex activity for money. This seems to call into question Danielle's assertion early in the show that being with a cross-dresser who made her think he was a woman at times excited her. One begins to wonder exactly how much of Danielle's on camera personality is real, and how much is, in fact, just an extension of her "game". Clips of Isabella, Daisy, and Karla are then shown in which all, perhaps understanding that they are in fact on television and everyone will see them, claim they enjoy being with women (Karla noting that a woman knows what another woman likes). Sunset and Karla both go on to describe their first lesbian experiences, Sunset's being a fairly straightforward seduction story involving a shower and candlelight, and Karla's seeming more like an step by step progression of increasing experimentation that has led her to, in her words "like it a lot". The viewer is treated to the show's first girl-on-girl sex scene between Danielle and her client (once again, with the actual sexual activity either cunningly hidden by camera angles or blurred out), and it seems like Danielle does a professional job at satisfying the woman. Even so, one is left with the lingering feeling that this client was mildly cheated out of the experience she wanted that she could have gotten with one of the numerous Bunnies that asserted their love for women.

While this is the second episode in the series, it seems more like the beginning of the show. From Air Force Amy's intro, which lays out in clear terms exactly what the Bunny Ranch is about, to Bianca's introduction to the life of a Bunny, the episode does a good job at introducing the viewer to the fantasy factory that is the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. Showing Bianca as she learns the ropes allows the show to introduce the viewer to the inner workings of the business without resorting to extended (and tedious) exposition. The long running meme of Alexis Fire as a sex tutor is introduced in this episode, and the viewer also gets introduced to Danielle as a (mostly annoying) personality. The interviews with the various Bunnies are better done than in the first episode, allowing more of their individual personalities to show through, and since the personalities of the Bunnies are what separate Cathouse from most of the other sex related (and generally far inferior) shows on HBO, this is critical. Focusing on just how strange things can get at the Bunny Ranch, highlighting their more unusual clients, also serves to elevate this series above merely being soft core porn that HBO shows like Pornucopia seem to aspire to be. Though the series had not yet reached its full potential, this episode goes a long way towards establishing Cathouse as something special.

Previous episode reviewed: What Men Don't Know.
Subsequent episode reviewed: Girlfriends.

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