I Like To Watch

The badass models of "Las Vegas" burn brightly, "Lost" is found, but those "Housewives" seem increasingly desperate. Plus: The bold political comments of TV's newest reality billionaire.

Topics: Television,

I Like To Watch

Splinters in the attic
When it’s your job to write about television, you try to trick yourself into believing that your mind, your soul and your psyche will remain unscathed by the hours of shallow, deeply pointless entertainment you watch every day. You imagine yourself as split into two halves: One half ponders existential questions, digs ravenously into inquiries regarding the human condition, and employs complex heuristics to better understand the sociopolitical landscape of an ever-changing and increasingly tumultuous modern world, while the other half is worried that the curly fries will get cold before the start of “America’s Next Top Model.”

Sadly, it doesn’t take long before the bickering models and warthog-hunting hotties seep past the steel retaining wall around your precious psyche, and the illusion of satisfactorily sequestering soul-sucking and skin-deep influences is shattered.

Here’s proof: A few nights ago, I had a dream that I was a contestant on “The Apprentice.” A sad day indeed, fair chickens. Apparently, I had been doing a good job of “flying under the radar” (Dreaming in reality clichés! How pathetic) but Carolyn and George announced a truly baffling challenge: Purchase the best possible gift for Donald Trump from a cheesy souvenir shop. Instead of encouraging us to select the perfect charm bracelet or delightful real-estate-themed snow globe, though, they advised us that what Trump really wanted was a fake Rolex watch.

I couldn’t see how that was possible, since Trump likely had a whole drawer full of real Rolexes. So I set about looking for something much better, but found nothing but a huge stack of suede gloves just as Carolyn was announcing that our time was almost up. I started rifling frantically through the gloves, but every time I tried on a pair, it had these really long fingers that would only fit the Grinch.

I guess it’s not hard to understand how my subconscious mind might associate Trump with the Grinch, or with fake luxury, for that matter, but the mere fact that I dreamed about Trump at all is downright depressing. Mercifully, I woke up before I found out whether he fired me, since, if you know anything about Freudian dream analysis, you know that the boardroom would clearly represent the womb, and being fired would have to signify some kind of a rebirthing process. Yes, reborn as the sort of person who dreams about reality TV! Sweet Jesus, help me!



If there be porn
Offering more proof that there are no remaining portions of my brain, psyche or soul unpolluted by the toxic influence of television is my recent amusement — nay, even delight — at the foibles of those zany kids on “Las Vegas” (Mondays at 9 p.m. on NBC). It’s true. Last fall, I watched this show and cringed at the fluffy, flashy, silly tangle of pointless stories, most of which were excuses for parading close-ups of showgirls’ asses across the screen. Last week, I watched “Las Vegas” again, and I actually enjoyed it.

What was it? Was it the stunt biker who paused in the middle of signing autographs to hop on his bike and apprehend the guy with the blond dreads dashing across the casino to avoid incarceration for selling pirated DVDs? Was it the way the hip security guard threatened the blond dreadlocked boy by cutting off his dreads? Was it the silly rivalry between the two hot young security guards? Was it the pretty girl with the long-lost, mean daddy who seemed to be manipulating her in order to rip off the casino? Was it the big-breasted casino exec with the heart of gold who gave the mourning widow surveillance footage of the widow and her husband spending their last few anniversaries together at the casino, along with a ring her husband put in a safety deposit box, which he’d planned to give her at their next anniversary?

No, I think it was the scene where the super-hot model who’s also some sort of boss-lady inspected a lineup of Chippendale’s-style boys to serve drinks at a Ladies’ Night-themed event. “These guys aren’t going to cut it!” she bellowed. “I should be able to bounce a quarter off these abs!”

There’s just so much shiny stuff to keep you salivating around here, and there’s something about that light, soapy, cheerful tone that feels almost nostalgic for the fluffball late-’70s and early ’80s, like a cross between “The Love Boat,” “The A-Team” and “Dynasty.” Deelicious!

Tropical garden of shadows
Of course, the slightly updated version of this dopey, soapy drama thing mixes a little “24″-style suspense and mystery into the picture, and what do you get? “Lost,” one of two big swinging hits (along with “Desperate Housewives”) to propel ABC out of the boneyard, straight to the top of the ratings this season. (Well, we knew sitcoms weren’t going to get them there. “8 Simple Rules,” “Less Than Perfect” or “Hope & Faith,” anyone?)

After the first two episodes, “Lost” seemed destined to sink into a tar pit of prehistoric creatures and creepy French voices crying for help, with lots of pretty people in torn clothes standing around on the beach doing their best “Home Alone” uh-oh faces.

Instead, the drama’s writers have done an exceptional job of bringing an unexpectedly rich layer to the story by delving into the wildly dysfunctional, surprisingly dark backgrounds of the pretty faces on the beach. My favorite so far has to be Locke, the mysterious older guy whose pensive, solitary shots on the beach told us from the start he would play some pivotal role in the story. Still, it was easy to assume he’d turn out to be a flatly evil character, destined to start a twisted, cannibalistic subculture among the survivors like some second-rate Kurtz.

We still can’t rule that out, in fact, but Locke (Terry O’Quinn) turns out to be a far more interesting character than we could have imagined. In the episode that focused on him, he went from a stranger with a compelling face and a suitcase filled with knives to a complex, sympathetic character, enduring the belittling of his boss at his crappy job and stoking an imaginary relationship with a phone sex operator. His one dream was to go on a “Walkabout” in the Australian outback. At the end of his flashback, he’s quit his job to fly to Australia, only to have the tour operator turn him away because (big reveal) he’s in a wheelchair! Since the plane crash, though, he’s been walking around. Hokey, sure, but this is prime-time, baby. Name one thing on prime-time network television that isn’t hokey. Hokey is the spoonful of sugar that makes the dysfunctional darkness go down.

Meanwhile, Jack (Matthew Fox) has a mean daddy in his past, that strange variety of unrealistically mean daddy you only encounter in TV biopics, melodramas and books by Pat Conroy. They’re the sorts of mean daddies who bludgeon their children with staplers, who sneer over their scotch on the rocks and express total indifference toward Junior’s feelings, who say things like “Don’t you see, Jack? You don’t have what it takes!” I’m not saying there aren’t mean, mean daddies out there, but the more common form of abuse is mixed with some confused mélange of love and self-hatred. More along the lines of “Don’t you see, Jack? I only whack you with my golf club because I love you. Plus, I know you won’t amount to shit otherwise.”

But poor Jack’s daddy just smirked and threw back the last of the scotch in his glass and prattled on about how he could never be a good surgeon if he weren’t utterly heartless. We had a notorious drunk who was a big-deal surgeon in my hometown. Are lots of surgeons also complete drunks? Tell me, omniscient chickens.

Anyway, Jack’s mean mommy left him with the unsavory task of flying to Australia to find Mean Daddy. Sadly, Mean Daddy got wasted and had a heart attack, so Jack had to pack him onto the plane, only to crash onto the island. Now Jack’s having hallucinations of his father, but Locke is convinced that the island is magic — you know, the way “Paradise Hotel” was? — and that Jack should face his demons somehow. So Jack goes trudging off into the jungle with a torch, a march reminiscent not only of the March of Freedom (which continues as we speak), but also of the march of Luke Skywalker, into that dank cave on Dagobah, to confront the evils of the dark side and the truth about his mean daddy.

Man, the world is just chock full o’ mean daddies, isn’t it? But the real surprise is that “Lost” has developed into such a good show. I’m not going to call it great or anything — not until I start dreaming about “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” anyway — but it’s getting closer every day.

Rebel, rebel
In other mean daddy news, if Donald Trump is the mean, egotistical, chaotic-evil-style daddy of “The Apprentice” and Mark Cuban is the slightly juvenile, frivolous, self-indulgent, me-me-me daddy of the recently compacted “The Benefactor,” then Sir Richard Branson intends to be the adventurous but sensitive, bold but intelligent and ultimately benevolent daddy of “The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best.” After a power lunch with my agent and a quick 10-mile jog through Griffith Park, I phoned Branson to discuss his upcoming show. Naturally the conversation went well, since I have so very much in common with wildly charismatic billionaires and renegade, maverick types like Branson, who founded Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airlines, Virgin soda and probably has a whole gaggle of other Virgins on deck, waiting to be ravaged by the insatiable public.

In truth, there were other sniveling journalists like myself on the phone, all of them anxious to kiss up to a real, live knight. But unlike bossy narcissist Trump and goofy narcissist Cuban, Branson sounded like a regular, sensitive guy, so much so that I’m almost a tiny bit intrigued by his show, which airs on Fox in a few weeks (Tuesday Nov. 9 at 8 p.m.). Branson said that, for the show, he was looking for people who had “great imagination,” people who were “great team players” but who didn’t “talk behind people’s backs.” Um, he does know that his show is on Fox, right?

The show seems to center on crazy, daredevil feats, and Branson reported that he grew very attached to his contestants. “It felt like we’d had a real adventure together for eight weeks. We went on the trip of a lifetime together.”

Branson also said that he hates the word “billionaire” because it focuses too much on money, but that he had to yield to the wisdom of his producers (who include “The Real World’s” Jonathan Murray). Oops. He sounded pretty down-to-earth, so I asked what trick he used to stay humble, and he said he married a working-class girl from Glasgow who doesn’t care a lick about his latest business victories and is prone to interrupt his egocentric rapture by telling him to fold the clothes already. It made me wish I had a billionaire of my own to boss around.

Next, I just had to ask him about the upcoming election. He didn’t hesitate for a second, quickly offering his opinion that we should never have invaded Iraq and hinting gently that Bush is a bad man. Could you get such off-the-cuff remarks from either Trump or Cuban? I don’t think so. From his taste for bossy women to his raw panache, Branson’s got my vote for Best All-Around Billionaire. Getting fired by him in my dreams would be a true honor.

Seeds of yesterday
Sadly, my dreams of a smart women-centered drama have not materialized in “Desperate Housewives” (Sundays at 9 p.m. on ABC). Despite high ratings, this dark exploration of the lives of women has not only slid quickly into clichés, but the acting feels forced and overplayed, the stories are wildly unrealistic, the direction is stuck in some awkward nowhereland between campy and leaden, and the voice-over is so grating and so peskily imitative of “Sex and the City” that the whole package is almost unwatchable.

What the hell? I’d rather watch inanimate objects sit on their shelves than see Teri Hatcher do another absurdly overacted scene, from the “Oh dear, I’ve lost my towel and now I’m on the street naked!” to the “Oh dear! My new imaginary boyfriend’s dog just ate my earring!” Plus, who buys that Bree switches from mannequin to soul-searching human being and back, or that the nosey neighbor found a measuring cup in the ruins of one woman’s house, and knew that it was a clue to how the house burned down? And what could possibly be interesting about that trunk the dead narrator’s husband tried to dump in the lake? That shot of the trunk floating to the surface was like a scene out of “Little House on the Prairie,” you know, after Laura had been married off and they were resigned to rehash supernatural plots until Michael Landon turned irretrievably gray.

Personally, I would rather watch “Desperate Housewares.” Can’t you see it? China plates sit idly in the credenza, aching to be graced by roasted meats and fine sauces. Silver teacups giggle manically, an attempt to laugh away the pain of obsolescence. Porcelain gravy boats long to be fondled in preparation for a candlelit dinner, but that dinner never comes. In today’s age of convenience, few housewares feel truly loved. And without that sense of purpose, without feeling appreciated, there’s no telling what those nutty housewares might do!

Next week: Learn more of the painful back story of the plaid scarf in “Lost & Found”! Dig deeper into the loneliness of hardware in “8 Simple Tools”! And delve into the chaos of a dresser drawer filled with expensive timepieces, longing for The Donald’s touch, in “Seventeenth Watch”!

You like to watch, too?

  • Read more of Heather Havrilesky’s columns in her directory.
  • Or talk TV in the I Like to Watch Table Talk forum.

  • Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

    More Related Stories

    Featured Slide Shows

    • Share on Twitter
    • Share on Facebook
    • 1 of 11
    • Close
    • Fullscreen
    • Thumbnails

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
      Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
      Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Here by Richard McGuire
      A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
      The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
      This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
      For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Over Easy by Mimi Pond
      When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
      You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Shoplifter by Michael Cho
      Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
      This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

    • Recent Slide Shows

    Comments

    0 Comments

    Comment Preview

    Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>