I Like to Watch

From the fighting Irish brothers of Showtime's "Brotherhood" to the burger-seeking country boys of "Treasure Hunters," we are a nation of cocky bastards, and it's our birthday, damn it!

Topics: I Like to Watch, Television,

I Like to Watch

Let freedom ring!
Happy Fourth of July, fellow countrymen! Just think, it was a mere 230 years ago that the founders of this great nation broke free from our greedy, arrogant overlords by making a formal announcement of our intention to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted to do it. This “Declaration of Independence” not only served as a great big “Nanny nanny boo boo, stick your head in doo-doo” to the British Empire, it strengthened our resolve and commitment to remain free, beholden to neither kings nor stuffy lords nor their intolerable associates.

Nearing the 50th-anniversary celebration of the drafting of this formal “See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya” note to our oppressors, Thomas Jefferson wrote, in his last letter ever, of the importance of “the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.” He continued:

“All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man … For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

Fascinating, isn’t it? As great as this man Jefferson was, his odd obsession with these little things called “rights” feels more than a tiny bit outdated! In today’s rapidly changing world, we now know that “rights” make it incredibly inconvenient to secure the safety of our people from terrorists and other malevolent forces in the world. If we really fostered an “undiminished devotion” to said rights — and frankly, that sounds a wee bit obsessive, the stomping ground of radicals and hippies and such — Lord only knows what would become of us! Guantánamo Bay would be more like some kind of frivolous terrorist Disneyland, while Abu Ghraib would merely resemble a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of Iraqi amusements. Do you really think we’re going to stop radical Islam in its tracks by treating it to some cotton candy, holding its hand, and singing “It’s a Small World After All” in its ear?

Indeed, the “unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion” is all well and good, as long as we agree with that reasoning and those opinions. If we don’t, then the parties in question should have no more rights than a stray dog with a biting problem. And once such a dog is deemed dangerous, let’s face it, it requires the presence of a greedy, arrogant overlord to police its every move henceforth. Luckily, we’re just the nation for the job!

I’m proud of us, aren’t you, chickens? We’ve evolved from headstrong, scrappy rebels burdened by unnecessary ideals to greedy, arrogant overlords unfettered by the shackles of conscience in just a little more than two centuries! That’s some serious overachieving if you ask me. Where would all of those nasty, biting dogs of the Middle East be without the shining example of freedom and independence we set for them? Who could possibly lead them to the promised land of reason and freedom, besides us, with our sophisticated navigational systems and our many drive-thrus serving up freedom fries 24 hours a day?

This weekend, freedom is ringing across the land! Can you hear it ring? Yeah, that’s it! It comes in one of four different Shakira ring tones!

Jefferson, I think we’re lost
But even with freedom ringing in my ears like an exquisite, historically notable migraine, I find myself, one month into the summer schedule, questioning the reasoning and opinions of the networks these days. While there are plenty of new shows, which I know is an improvement over the summer reruns that dominated the small screen just a few years ago, I’ve become fat and spoiled in the same manner that those scrappy, headstrong rebels of yore grew fat and spoiled from the fertile lands of this great nation — you know, after they stole the best, most fertile lands from the Indians, but before they covered those lands over with cement and put up TCBYs and Long John Silvers.

Aside from “Deadwood,” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” I find myself flipping through my TiVo list with the same impatient anger one of our forefathers might have felt while thumbing through the latest bills from his British overlords. “Why bother?” he must’ve thought. “Why not just throw these in a pile and go shoot squirrels or polish off the rabbit stew from last night’s supper?”

I’ve tried to get into some of the summer dramas, but whether it’s “The 4400″ or “The Closer,” I just can’t seem to get up to speed fast enough. Procedural dramas leave me cold no matter how many moon pies their Southern heroines charmingly stash in the drawers of their desks, and while I’ve heard the alien-probing suspense of “The 4400″ is truly worth the time, catching up on the twists and turns feels effortful and thankless to me — sort of like taxation without representation, except without the violent mobs and with lots of little cups of chocolate pudding to ease my pain.

Then again, I once felt just as wishy-washy about “Battlestar Galactica,” and boy, was that stupid of me. I just assumed that a remake of a crappy show was bound to be even crappier, and I couldn’t imagine getting wrapped up in some third-rate sci-fi drama. While Jefferson might cringe today at how silly and passé “the rights of man” have become in the face of today’s global socioeconomic landscape, personally, I’m annoyed by my faulty assumptions about this show now, particularly since I’m currently soothing my disappointment with the summer schedule by catching up on the miniseries and the first season of “Battlestar.” If you haven’t seen much of this show and you’re still suffering under the delusion that it’s not worth your time, I urge you once again to run out and rent the miniseries and then the first season, both of which are fantastic and might save you from turning to “The Simple Life” or “How to Get the Guy” out of sheer desperation.

Brothers in arms
Of course, starting this week, the summer schedule is about to improve considerably. Why does everyone put off airing the best shows until July? Why must June be such a trial for shaky TV addicts like myself? Don’t the powers that be worry that, like the 13 colonies, after a long spell away from our TV homeland, we might feel emancipated from their oppressive regime?

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But just as we’re about to take up farming or rabbit hunting, here comes the long-awaited half-return of “Chappelle’s Show” (9 p.m Sunday, July 9, on Comedy Central), not to mention “Rock Star” (8 p.m. Wednesday, July 7, on CBS), “Reno 911″ (10:30 p.m. Sunday, July 9, on Comedy Central), “Project Runway” (9 p.m. Wednesday, July 12, on Bravo) and “The Contender” (10 p.m. Tuesday, July 17, on ESPN).

And for those with a hankering for a new drama series , there’s Showtime’s “Brotherhood” (10 p.m. Sunday, July 9), a dark tale of two Irish American brothers in Providence, R.I. Tommy is a local politician (played by Jason Clarke) and his brother, Michael (Jason Isaacs), is a local thug with mob ties who threatens to mess up Tommy’s good life. Meanwhile, their mother (Fionnula Flanagan) exists in a state of willful denial, heating up shepherd’s pie and serving up unconditional love while trying to ignore either son’s flaws. Tommy’s wife, Eileen (Annabeth Gish), plays nice in public but has a sordid secret life on the side.

We’ve seen some of this stuff before, of course. Michael’s antics — strong-arming, bribing, pandering to the mob and behaving menacingly — are all pretty familiar to “Sopranos” fans, except that Michael sometimes tricks himself into believing that he’s acting out of some interest in cleaning up the neighborhood or helping out the little guy. Thus, when he forces a local store owner to sell him the space for half of what it’s worth, he justifies it by claiming that she overcharges local customers. Of course, Michael also gives his mom counterfeit cash and has a mean streak a mile wide, so such ideals only go so far.

Tommy’s tightrope walk is a little less familiar to us. He’s a rising star who’s starting to wield influence as a state representative, attracting the attention of power players in his party. But, like those scrappy rebels who swaggered through the streets of Providence 230 years earlier, he fancies himself a truly independent man, uncorrupted by outside influences. This makes for a nice little dish of internal conflict for a man as ambitious as Tommy. And in fact, it’s a pretty rare scenario in any drama: A character is offered opportunities to become a power player but seems recalcitrant, perhaps unnecessarily burdened by ideals that are all but outdated in his field. While Tommy might imagine that his hands are clean, like his brother he does his fair share of wheeling and dealing, not just with mob types, but with union leaders, key judges and other politicians. Based on what we see on “Brotherhood,” we can only assume that nothing is really accomplished in local politics without such uneasy pacts with the devil. What’s nice is that Tommy seems to honestly believe he can stay above the fray, but the audience is wise to his inevitable transformation into yet another greedy, arrogant overlord.

But isn’t such a transformation a key chapter in the American dream? Of course it is. How else will Tommy’s family move out of their little old house, with its faulty wiring, and into something suitably grand and excessive? Maybe then Eileen will stop sneaking off to smoke doobies in the bathroom when Tommy and the kids are sleeping.

In short, “Brotherhood” is definitely worth the effort: The acting is solid; the situations are, for the most part, new and unknown; and there are enough twists and plot devices to keep us interested in the short term. Over the long haul, though, I’d like to understand more about these characters. All of them remain slightly out of reach, stoically facing each day without letting us in on their secret dreams or fantasies. When we see Eileen sitting on the side of the bathtub with a joint, we don’t have much of a grasp of what she’s hoping for, or what kind of a life she might want that would be different from the one she has. Why does it seem like Tommy is a disappointment to her?

What’s important, though, after the first few episodes of “Brotherhood” is that the viewer actually cares enough to want to understand and know more. Whether the show’s creators can deliver more remains to be seen.

I am the hunter
If “Brotherhood” is the idealistic but temperamental third cousin to “The Sopranos,” then NBC’s “Treasure Hunters” (9 p.m. Mondays) is the ugly, dimwitted stepchild to CBS’s “The Amazing Race.” If you’ve only watched a few episodes of “TAR” but never really appreciated its ability to amaze, tune in for an episode of “Treasure Hunters” and you’ll begin to understand just how high “TAR” has set the bar.

On “Treasure Hunters,” 10 teams of three race around looking for clues that will lead them to the “treasure,” whatever that is. Instead of giving the players lots of odd and difficult tasks that strain team relations to the breaking point like they do on “TAR,” the teams on “Treasure Hunters” are asked to search for clues, in some cases without being given that many hints on where to find them. Occasionally this means that the really stupid teams flounder for hours trying to figure out a simple clue — and that’s highly entertaining, don’t get me wrong — but mostly it means that the teams try to stick close to each other and copy each other every step of the way. In contrast, the tasks of “TAR” keep players from gaining an unfair advantage by merely copying other teams.

The teams themselves are interesting enough on “Treasure Hunters,” but the editing isn’t so great. It’s tough to hear anyone that well, and the comments we do get from various players always feel incredibly mundane and lackluster. While teams on “The Amazing Race” quickly make up pet names for each other, bicker among themselves and crack under the pressure, the “Treasure Hunters” teams never seem to say anything clever beyond “We’ve got to find the clue” and “We’re falling behind.”

That said, two family teams on the show, the Hanlons and the Fogals, basically make “Treasure Hunters” worth watching. The Fogals, like the Weavers of “Amazing Race” fame, are a wonderful Christian family who borrow on the good graces of other teams, then screw them over whenever possible. After allowing another team to help them carry their canoe for 9 miles, the Fogals leave their “friends” in the dust without warning, then assuage their guilt by praying for the other teams as they speed to the finish line. Their self-serving sanctimony calls to mind those scrappy rebels of yesteryear, many of whom were religious zealots, but didn’t hesitate to share their smallpox-infested blankets with the local savages, knowing that doing so might help to kill off untold innocent men, women and children. Oh, but I’m sure they prayed for the red man all the while!

The Hanlons, on the other hand, are the sort of family you can really get behind. They combine the perfect blend of machismo, withering insults and unapologetic foolishness. Take this heated exchange, between brothers Pat and Ben:

Ben:I’m a real simple kind of guy, you know. I’m a college graduate, and I’ve been all over the f***in world.

Pat:Ben, you’ve been to Europe one time, and went to Amsterdam and got wasted. Fifteen hundred beers at the same time so you probably don’t remember s***!

Unlike any other team on any other reality show I’ve ever seen, after screwing up and arriving at a campsite pit stop in the middle of the night, the Hanlons decide not to wake up at 6 a.m. with the rest of the teams, opting to sleep until 9:30 a.m., which ends up putting them a full four hours behind the first team. Not only that, but after making up time canoeing on the river, the Hanlons insist on driving 80 miles round trip just to get a burger from the Burger King drive-through — in the middle of an elimination round. Now these are my kind of people! The maneuver almost gets them eliminated, but they edge out the Brown family by a hair — or, at least, they appear to. It’s not all that clear how far apart the two teams are, actually.

In fact, my biggest gripe with “Treasure Hunters” is that we often seem to skip huge chunks of the action. We see the Miss USA team struggling aimlessly at the first task, and then they move on to the next task without our knowing how they found the clue or solved the problem. On “TAR,” a 2-second clip of Barry and Fran finding the clue, then saying “Finally!” goes a long way toward giving us a sense of how they made it through a particular step of the race. Are the editors of “Treasure Hunters” really so lazy, or do they imagine such footage is unnecessary? Not only that, but we often aren’t clued in to where teams are in relation to each other, particularly when it’s inconvenient or might make the race seem less suspenseful. “The Amazing Race” toys with us, but ultimately, we do find out how far behind the last team is.

Plus, the footage on “Treasure Hunters” just isn’t as good. While “TAR” is choreographed painstakingly, with cameramen running down the beach chasing alongside their teams but somehow avoiding shots of the other cameramen, most of “Treasure Hunters” seems to be shot from a distance or at a leisurely pace, which makes the whole experience feel stagnant and not all that engrossing. In fact, watching “Treasure Hunters” is sort of like slogging through some of those 230-year-old documents, with their pretty prose about the rights of man and other fancy but antiquated notions, documents that might simply be summed up as one big “I know you are, but what am I?” retort to the British Empire’s insistence on taxing the hell out of us and using the proceeds to keep the king’s groundsmen fat on porridge.

Like forefather, like prodigal son
Ah, but it’s hard out here for a pimp, and for a greedy, arrogant overlord! As much as we try to soothe the unwashed masses and the angry dogs, like bored summer TV audiences, they just keep asking for more, more, more! Indeed, those unruly, snapping hounds are never satisfied, with their petty demands: “Ooo, I miss ‘Arrested Development’!” “Ooo, I miss my homeland!” “Ooo, I’ve been here for five years, I’ve attempted suicide 13 times, and I’ve never been offered a fair trial!” Let our intrepid leaders do as our courageous forefathers did so many years ago when this fine nation was founded, and thumb their noses at such tomfoolery, rolling their haughty eyes at the silly requests of the slaves and the savages in their midst! After all, just as they learned from their shortsighted and cocky British oppressors to act hastily to secure whatever they might want in the short term without compromising or remotely attempting to appear reasonable in any way, so, too, will we teach the foul foreign vagrants under our thumbs that the only way to gain power over others is by hardening one’s heart to their desires, however human and understandable those desires might appear.

Yes, we’ll teach those sad strays about freedom. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, after all, whether it be the respect of nations worldwide or the admiration of those who believed in the ideals to which we once (so unnecessarily) cleaved. Like Jefferson urged us to, let’s join together this weekend to celebrate our undiminished devotion to the rights of man, even as that devotion diminishes by the second! Let’s pray for the sorry savages of the world while we grow rich from conquering their lands, and let’s hope against hope that they don’t form angry mobs against us the way we formed angry mobs against our own pompous overlords some 230 years ago today!

Next week: On the Playboy Channel, reality TV gets down and dirty … and a little bit drunk and belligerent, too.

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.

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