I Like to Watch

Ready to retch? ABC's cloying "Brothers & Sisters" serves up Sally Field, Calista Flockhart and a heaping helping of hugging and learning.

Topics: I Like to Watch, Top Chef,

I Like to Watch

You should know that I’ve stayed up nights worrying about you, chickens. I’ve had my own concerns over the past month, sure. Nothing too dramatic, of course, just the birth of my first child, a daughter, already demonstrating a sly wit, a flair for the dramatic and an interest in architecture. But such mundane developments hardly rate compared to my very crucial role here, steering you chickens toward pressing and important televised events and steering you away from the noxious fumes of broadcast entertainments that will only waste your time and make you stupid — or even stupider, depending on where you fall on the curve now.

Yes, countless are the times I’ve awoken in a cold sweat in the middle of the night — to quiet the cries of my firstborn, sure, but more importantly, to address my racing thoughts about you. I have imagined you during my absence from these pages, chickens, flipping aimlessly through the TV section of your local newspapers, or running out and purchasing a copy of TV Guide in a moment of silent desperation. I can’t bear to picture my poor flock like that, clucking anxiously, your bloodshot chickeny eyes wandering to and fro across the page, trying to make sense of the concrete information presented therein! You can only be wondering: Where are the extremely biased, high-strung, rambling assessments to which I’ve grown accustomed? Where are the endless personal digressions and indulgent asides that keep me distracted from the fact that I’m actually reading about television, that I’m skipping right past the cover article on Guantánamo or North Korea or the results of the election, and instead greedily devouring bemused conjecture regarding the new season of “The OC”?

Don’t think for a second the stakes aren’t high. What if one of your intellectual chicken friends were to stop by and spot that TV Guide on your coffee table, right next to a crumpled New York Times Style section, on top of that untouched front-page article on child labor abuses in Ghana?



And what if, over the course of the past month, you’ve actually become attached to such printed material, offering as it does actual programming information and balanced, straightforward critiques? Perhaps by now you’re even willing to overlook the various authors’ obvious shortcomings, as evidenced by her enthusiasm for some of Oxygen’s lighter offerings, or by his inability to miss a single episode from the “CSI” franchise including “CSI: Miami.” Perhaps it doesn’t even bother you, the idea of being led through the hinterlands of television by someone who doesn’t remotely attempt to hide his willingness to spend one hour each week in the company of David Caruso, someone who doesn’t even cringe ever-so-slightly at the umpteenth sepia-toned swamp scene that begins with a close-up of a prettily manicured severed hand and ends with Caruso, blinking into some middle distance while growling a miserably macho line of dialogue, inevitably speculating on the unmatched brutality and mercilessness of the sort of human being that must be responsible for such a brutal and merciless killing.

Don’t lose your sense of what’s important now, chickens, at this 11th hour, when a sea of useless notions and incoherent evaluations and highly prejudicial analyses are once again available to you! Don’t forget that I know you, my fowl friends. I know that you care more about TV shows that you don’t even watch than you care about the latest car bombing in Baghdad or the latest unreasonable bit of legislation introduced in Congress, and I love you just the same! I love you unconditionally, regardless of how hopelessly shallow you are, and I always will. Becoming a mother made it possible for me to love you that much. Do you think that guy with the “CSI” jones can love you like that? Unless he also recently bore a child, I’m guessing that he’s incapable of such a depth of compassion and love.

So take a deep breath and silence those noisy thoughts scurrying through your tiny pea-brains, chickens. I’m back and more unfocused and long-winded than ever!

Absence of malice

And thanks to the fact that I’m a mother now, a state which only those of you who’ve sat tirelessly on eggs for several days can possibly begin to comprehend, I also have a whole new understanding of the meaning of family, and, more importantly, the meaning of shows about families — namely, I hate them more than ever.

Now, HBO’s “Six Feet Under” was a show about family, sure, but the family in that show was portrayed realistically. They spent their time barely tolerating each other’s existences, silently judging each other, openly criticizing each other’s choices and only occasionally expressing love for each other, mostly by talking nonsensically about the spaghetti being perfectly cooked. Because the writers of that show knew that in real families, comments like “I like those shoes. Are those new?” or “Can I read that book when you’re done with it?” are taken by other family members to mean “I love you” — which, thankfully, makes the unsavory task of actually saying the words “I love you” completely unnecessary.

But that’s not how the fictional family on ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters” (10 p.m. Sundays) operates, no sir. The Walkers demonstrate their love for one another by lavishing one another in warm embraces, kisses on the cheek, sincere smiles, heartfelt inquiries into their well-being. This greeting-card cooing is followed immediately by gentle ribbing and sweet-natured teasing, which very quickly (after the first commercial break) devolves into tense exchanges in which the truth (the whole truth and nothing but the truth) springs into the picture: “We hate going to your annual charity event, Mom, we’ve always hated it!” “You never accepted me for who I was, older brother!” “Why don’t you get your act together, drug-addled younger ne’er-do-well? Your drunky antics wear all of us out!”

But those awkward confrontations, in which the entire emotional history of two members of the family is laid bare in a matter of minutes? Don’t let them get you down! Because, after the next commercial break, relief is on the way, in the form of a tearful “I always loved you and respected you and admired you so, soooooo much [Mom, brother, sister, husband, son, etc.]! All of our issues and problems are utterly overshadowed by my undying love for you! (Did I mention that I’ve always been secretly a little bit envious of you?)” In case you can’t quite understand just how touching and important the exchange is, there’s warm, fuzzy “Touched by an Angel” music playing in the background. If you doubt me — and thanks to your newfound familiarity with more evenhanded, less biased reviewers, you probably do — take a gander at these actual lines of dialogue, spoken by actual characters on recent episodes of “Brothers & Sisters”:

“Kitty, did I drive you away? Did I really? Because I swear, I’ll never forgive myself!”

(Through tears) “Mom, you rule! You just do.”

“Oh, all the emergency rooms I’ve been to with you kids!”

“I’d trade lives with you in a second!”

“I’m so worried about us — all of us, the family. I don’t know how we’re going to get through this! So much is changing since your father died! It feels like everything we swallowed down or papered over or just chose to ignore and put off fixing is coming out to haunt us!”

“Whatever it was that happened between us, we did it together. I went out to crazy New York and I found myself — or the beginning of a self. Maybe it was supposed to happen!”

“You were right about Page, I’m sorry.”

You were right about me!”

Now, I can understand a mother drawing on such tremendous wells of compassion and forgiveness and love. Mothers are simply superior to regular people, let’s face it. Plus, the mother here is played by Sally Field, who we all know feels emotions more passionately than pretty much any other human being on the planet. But obviously people who aren’t Sally Field and aren’t mothers don’t say things like “I’ll never forgive myself” or “I’m sorry.” People who aren’t mothers tend to have about as much ability to feel meaningful emotions and express them as, say, Fonzy.

How much Ecstasy do the writers of “Brothers & Sisters” have to take just to write a single episode? I mean, they actually expect us to believe that a non-mother, an ordinary, regular, limited mortal, could say something like “I’d trade lives with you in a second!” — and not just to another person, but to a blood relative?

Look, I’d be willing to believe that maybe the Walkers are just one of those really strange touchy-feely California families in which everyone hugs and learns and speaks openly about their issues. Maybe if everyone in a family is smart and beautiful and rich, maybe then they can get into big fights and resolve them completely, with no residual resentment or unspoken anger, by the fourth commercial break. But it’s not just the family — everyone on this show is utterly healthy and expressive and open. Sarah (Rachel Griffiths) takes her daughter to the doctor, and after giving her a diagnosis, the doctor stops and looks Sarah right in the eyes and says, “I want you to know something. I see a lot of families come through here, but I don’t see a lot of kids come through here with that many people in the waiting room.” Sarah smugly concedes, “We’re kind of a tribe.” The wonderfully compassionate doctor’s (totally unnecessary) reply? “Yes, you certainly are.” Blech!

But the best episode of all featured that fabulous charity event that no one in the family wanted to attend. It was a big night for the Walkers, see? But everything — and I do mean everything — went wrong! Gay brother got drunk! Sexy married brother got caught having sexy sex with his sexy wife in the coat closet! Mom confronted Dad’s mistress in the ladies’ room! It was a total fiasco! Ah, but even though the night was a total disaster, in the end, everyone apologized to everyone else, and then the whole family stepped outside and slow-danced together in the parking lot. Yes, slow-danced. In the parking lot. Then the camera pulled up and away — I think it was a crane shot, in fact — so we could savor just how poignant and special a moment the whole huggy, lovey family was having together, while really terrible sappy music played — not good sappy music, like you’d find on “The OC” or “Party of Five,” but incredibly awful sappy music, music awful enough that you suddenly felt like it was 1995 and your grandmother just switched the channel to CBS while you were in the bathroom.

Oh, and did I mention Calista Flockhart was there, slow-dancing in the parking lot with everybody else? Honestly, ABC should send out promotional barf bags with its press kits for this one.

Malice in wonderland

Ah, but it feels good to hate a TV show as much as I hate “Brothers & Sisters”! I can’t remember the last time I hated a show this much, and it’s downright nourishing to my soul to feel such extreme loathing and disgust for a truly cringe-inducing, cloying nightmare of a show.

Of course, I’m a mother now, and mothers love to hate. Just as motherhood enhances one’s capacity to love with all of one’s heart — a feeling that non-mothers can’t even touch, really (trust me, I’d describe the feeling to you, but it would only frustrate you to recognize how far from feeling it yourself you actually are and will always be) — motherhood also enhances one’s capacity to hate with reckless abandon. Think of the grizzly who rips innocent passersby limb from limb only when her cubs are present. A mother’s ability to hate can be truly awe-inspiring!

Luckily, I’ve also found a show that taps into my overflowing reservoir of love and adoration: Bravo’s “Top Chef”! During the show’s first season, I assumed Bravo was pathetically attempting to retain “Project Runway” fans with some low-rent “Next Food Network Star” also-ran. Little did I know that “Top Chef” (10 p.m. Wednesdays) is everything that Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” always wanted to be, but never was.

In contrast to the belligerent thugs recruited to appear on “Hell’s Kitchen,” the aspiring gourmands of “Top Chef” are dynamic, strange, interesting people. Instead of demeaning, abusive challenges that have nothing to do with culinary talent, “Top Chef” features creative, interesting cooking challenges that actually give the viewer an idea of which of the contestants has both solid skills in the kitchen and also an inventive spirit and an imaginative approach to food. And, rather than boring us with endless shouting matches as they do on “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Top Chef” puts the food front and center, only veering into the interpersonal relationships when they’re entertaining enough to warrant airtime.

And they often are, thanks to the assortment of outspoken oddballs selected for the show, from whiny tattletale Marissa to jolly, likable Josie to skilled down-home cook Mia. Each chef’s skills are a little bit different from the others, and their personalities are varied enough to guarantee a steady flow of clashes and conflicts as well as burgeoning friendships.

Also, if you’ve ever known anyone in the restaurant business, you know that these people drink like fish. The culture is conducive to heavy drinking — these are people who stay up late every night, surrounded by good food and high-priced bottles of alcohol. Throwing back strong drinks and socializing and gossiping — this is why half of them were attracted to the business in the first place.

If you doubt me, check out the episode where the chefs are split into two teams and charged with feeding thousands of people at an upcoming food event. While one team breaks down exactly what they’re going to make, what they’ll need to make it, etc., the other team mixes up a batch of drinks and gets wasted, then spends the next day wandering around the market in a hung-over haze, trying to grab what they need.

But the highlight of the show so far has to be Marcel, a 26-year-old with Heat Miser hair who says he’s “best at avant-garde molecular gastronomy” — I think that means in addition to being a chef, he’s also an artist and a chemist. Naturally, Marcel disdains the other chefs, with their pathetic lack of degrees in art and chemistry. Sadly, though, his odd creations tend to befuddle rather than beguile the judges. And when the “Create an ice cream flavor” challenge comes along, you just know Marcel is going to crash and burn. Cut to Mr. Green Christmas, serving up his avocado and bacon ice cream to a crowd of horrified children, who promptly spit it out onto the ground. If only Marcel would complete this fine picture by turning on his heels and howling, “Everything that I touch, starts to melt in my clutch! I-I-I-I-I-I’m too much!” (Da dum dum dum, daaaa-dum.)

Mother’s ilk

Speaking of too much, this column is way too long, but I have so much more to share with you! I guess that’s just the way life is for mothers: We have so much to give, and we tend to give way too much of ourselves without taking anything in return. We simply can’t help it; it’s in our nature. We’re just incredibly benevolent, luminous beings who float above the petty concerns of mere mortals. I’d say more, but I don’t want you to feel insecure about how self-serving and limited and shriveled up and dead inside you are, by comparison.

On the other hand, if you enjoy being painfully aware of how relatively impoverished your soul is, just tune in for the next episode of “Brothers & Sisters” and take a gander at that simpering, faraway look on Ally McBeal’s face when she surveys the landscape and reflects on her deep faith in the family and in family values. Or soak in a few seconds of Sally Field’s harried, sentimental Mom shtick. Don’t you wish you were that genuine and idealistic and soulful? I wish you were, too, chickens, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you just the way you are.

Next week: Are you lost in “Lost” or has “Lost” finally lost you? Does darkness become “The OC”?

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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