Stranger Things star Gaten Matarazzo’s new Netflix show brings back the prank-based comedy format of Punk’d, Candid Camera and Just for Laughs Gags. In Matarazzo’s version, two separate temporary workers are assigned to work for different employers in the same location. Circumstances take a turn for the strange, trapping these temps in the plot of a horror movie, forcing these two strangers to work together so they can get out alive.
In one episode, a home respite worker babysits a little girl who believes her teddy bear murdered her sister. Another temp works with an organization that takes used toys from rich families to give them to the “less fortunate.” The teddy bear comes to life, killing two people, to the terror of the two temps, before Matarazzo steps in, stopping the action and telling these temps that everyone involved in the situation, including the seemingly possessed teddy bear, are actors.
In other episodes, the temps are terrorized by a mentally ill man at a summer camp, trapped in a storage container with aliens waking up from a deep sleep and threatened by the possible awakening of Apophis, the Egyptian god of chaos.
All the temps seem to be either very gullible or desperate for work, as they not only accept positions amidst dangerous circumstances, but they also agree to strange tasks without proper training.
In one episode, a temp is asked to help catalogue ancient Egyptian artifacts. Normally, that job would be done by someone with extensive archeological experience, yet the temp accepts this task without question. Given the temps’ lack of protest, it seems a lot of them are used to unsafe or unusual situations and, in general, unstable employment.
Of the 14 temps pranked in the seven episodes, nine are People of Colour. It is unclear whether this is reflective of the diversity of Georgia, where the show is filmed, or if it is reflective of the demographics of those who find it more difficult to secure employment.
These jobs eventually seem to put the temps’ lives at risk when teddy bears become possessed or ancient gods of chaos seem to rise from the dead, and yet these people continue to work, often with the added vulnerability of being unable to access or use their phones.
Matarazzo usually steps in before things go “too far.” However, in most circumstances, the temps have already been subjected to possibly trauma-inducing situations. Their contracts with the temp agency must be ironclad, because these events could merit medical care and/or legal action.
Other prank shows employ light-hearted pranks involving a singular trick prop, like in Candid Camera, or the apparent theft of a prized item in Punk’d. The pranks from these shows are frustrating or confusing, but the pranks of Prank Encounters seem to threaten the temps’ lives.
Prank Encounters is, on the surface, a funny, light prank comedy, but it relies on the vulnerability of front-line workers with unstable work, without adequate concern for the psychological well-being of those people who are being pranked.
Published in Volume 74, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 21, 2019)