I Like to Watch

The drudgery of Oscar Night beckons, "Lost" wanders astray, and FX's "The Riches" resuscitates Minnie Driver with -- bonus! -- a fake Southern accent.

Topics: FX, ABC, Television,

I Like to Watch

There’s a guy down the street from me who put a 7-foot-tall inflatable Santa Claus in his front yard the week before Halloween and left it there until a few days ago. His gigantic St. Nick wasn’t even blown up all of the time, either. During the day, Santa would lay in a pathetic, deflated heap on the front lawn, as if he were so exhausted by four long months of smiling and waving that he had to spend his leisure hours crumpled up in a miserable red-and-white pile on the grass.

Every time I read about Oscar season — which, like Christmas, seems to start earlier and earlier each year — I think of that poor, depressed Santa down the street. There’s so much speculation and pointless blathering dedicated to the Oscars each year and it starts so early and it’s so relentless and so exceptionally tedious, that it’s hard not to feel exhausted by it all well before the big night rolls around.

I guess it goes without saying that the Academy makes some shockingly bad choices every year, the worst of which always seems to be the award for best picture. It’s part of the Oscar-watching tradition, really, that after a long night of inhaling cheese and beer and listening to endless self-involved speeches, you discover that the Academy has about as discriminating taste as the guy who lives down the street from me with the heap o’ Santa decorating his front lawn in mid-February. Last year’s enduring insult was best picture winner “Crash,” a disastrously on-the-nose melodrama that somehow got pegged as Important. This year, Clint Eastwood wins the Important label for daring to suggest that Japanese soldiers are people, too — albeit in roughly the same style and tone we’ve seen a million times before. (For a far more original, vibrant look at the Pacific theater during World War II, rent Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line.”) And then there’s “The Queen.” Let’s see, Diana died, and Queen Elizabeth didn’t care, because she hated Diana, plus she was far too busy tromping around her massive estate in big rubber boots. How is this a best picture nominee? And how in the world did a film as vivid and unforgettable and poetic as “Children of Men” get passed up?



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Ah, but these are the bad thoughts that will only ruin your Oscar-watching experience. We must stay focused, chickens, and remember that this night is merely an elaborate excuse to point and jeer at wealthy humans in shiny dresses while eating an entire bag of potato chips in one sitting. Ultimately, the Oscars are a wide-scale group experiment, where we all pretend that the opinions of people who’ve proven themselves incompetent in the past somehow matter once again — you know, sort of like our presidential elections. In this way, the Academy Awards represent a distinctly American tradition, in which we suspend our disbelief and ignore the past and buy into the hype in order to endure three long hours of egoistic bloviating. Just keep smiling and waving at the inflatable Santas, and you’ll feel fine.

Stranded
Speaking of a marathon exercise in disappointment, why is it that “Lost” (10 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC) either feels like a revelation or a massive waste of time depending on a) your mood and b) the episode in question? I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as wishy-washy toward a show as I have toward “Lost.” One week I can’t wait to see what happens next; the next week all of the empty suspense feels like a maze that leads to a bunch of dead ends.

The third season in general has been a disappointment, so far, compared to the second. For weeks on end, all we got was Kate and Sawyer, lollygagging about in their respective cages. What was the point? Somehow their interest in each other bores me, too — they’re too similar. There’s not enough tension there. Meanwhile, Jack (Matthew Fox) has been so annoying this season, and yet so utterly pitiable. Let’s see: He stalked his ex-wife, he was paranoid enough to think she was seeing his father, he was a baby about Kate (Evangeline Lily) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) hooking up, he’s done nothing but pout and whine lately, and then suddenly he manipulates the Others into letting Kate and Sawyer escape? It doesn’t quite add up. Plus, do we really buy the notion that he would make Kate promise that she wouldn’t come back for him? I know that’s the kind of valiant generosity that you see in movies and TV shows all the time, but one of the great things about “Lost” is that it doesn’t fall prey to such unrealistically selfless turns. Just look at Michael’s brutal maneuvers to get his son back. I understand that Michael (Harold Perrineau) and Jack are completely different, but so far, while Jack may be the titular leader of the survivors, prone to small bouts of heroism, flashbacks indicate that he’s a self-serving control freak.

Most of all, I don’t like the fact that, after last season’s explosive finale, we’ve been forced to bide our time for months now, breaking up rocks with Sawyer and Kate or watching Jack being grilled by Juliet, with her endless flow of wry, crooked smiles. I can’t think of a character on the show that I find less interesting than Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell), and the first episode back after winter break didn’t exactly help. Flashbacks on this show typically reveal not just important aspects of a person’s character, but also how their particular archetype fits into the fabric of life on the island. Juliet’s flashback was more plot-driven than character-driven, and not particularly soulful. Yes, we’re shown that she’s prone to being manipulated by authority figures, either her ex-husband or the company that sent her to the island or Ben, the leader of the Others. But her story didn’t really reveal her character that well. She was trying to help cure her sick sister, her sister got pregnant, her ex-husband was a sadistic control freak, she teamed up with a sadistic control freak of an organization to replace her bad husband… Did any of this stuff add up?

I feel like I understand the strengths and weaknesses of most of the other characters, thanks to their flashbacks. Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) is lazy and addiction-prone, Kate is commitment-phobic, Locke (Terry O’Quinn) is idealistic to a fault. But who the hell is Juliet, and how does her self-possessed behavior in the dungeon parse with the whimpering, fearful woman we saw in those flashbacks? And worst of all, despite all of the holes in her back story, it didn’t make me want to find out any more about her.

Jack’s latest flashback was even less compelling. This is how it went: Jack’s in Thailand on vacation, he meets a sexy Thai woman, they sleep together for a month, he asks what she does for a living and she won’t tell. So he follows her to work one night; it’s a tattoo parlor. He says to her, “That was your big secret?” (We’re thinking the same thing.) She responds, “I am not a tattoo artist. I’m able to see who people are! And I mark them!” Jack says, “So tell me who I am!” Sexy Lady looks scared, then Jack throws her against a wall for no reason and makes her give him a tattoo that we later find out means, “He walks amongst us, but he is not one of us.” Jack is the son of God? Or is Sexy Lady having a laugh? At the end of the flashback, Sexy Lady has a bunch of men beat the crap out of Jack, just to keep things nice and dark.

This week’s episode is at least a little lighter, plus Sawyer and Kate finally get back to the beach with everyone else. Still, Hurley’s (Jorge Garcia) flashback is just as clunky and obvious as Jack’s and Juliet’s were. Weren’t flashbacks more nuanced and subtle and intriguing last season? And why is everyone on the beach getting straight to the point suddenly? “I’m cursed!” “Desmond said I was going to die!” “I want you to apologize!” The dialogue lacks any mystery, but it still looks like we’re going to have to wait until the end of the third season to get even the slightest clue about what happened at the end of the second season.

As if admitting defeat, the creators of “Lost” are already discussing a way to end the series. All I can say is, this inflatable Santa better learn to do more than smile and wave soon, or we’re pulling out a BB gun and putting the damn thing out of its misery.

Isn’t it rich?
Speaking of deflated concepts, FX has yet another flashy but mediocre show on its schedule for the spring. Yes, this is the home of the entertaining manly manfest “Rescue Me,” the reasonably funny slacker escapade “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the eye-opening doc series “30 Days” and, of course, the always-brilliant evil-cop-tastic thriller “The Shield.”

Unfortunately, FX has developed a taste for shows that look good on paper but ultimately range from empty to downright insipid. The quintessential example of this is “Nip/Tuck,” a seedy, fantastical melodrama that’s so frustratingly stupid and bad, it hurts to watch even a minute of its shallow, unlikable characters, its gratuitous nastiness and its pointless plot twists. A less egregiously awful example is “Thief,” the dark tale of a career criminal (played by Andre Braugher) that looked smart and promising enough at first, but then went nowhere, with flat, selfish characters and stories that left little to the imagination. Next came “Dirt,” starring Courteney Cox as the editor of a tabloid, another show that looks pretty on your TV screen, but suffers from shallow stories and painfully bad dialogue.

FX’s latest travesty is “The Riches” (premieres 10 p.m. March 12). My guess is that lots of people are going to rave about how deliciously dark and weird this drama is, but before you believe them, take a minute and imagine Minnie Driver with a fake Southern accent. Now imagine Eddie Izzard with an American accent that’s so bad, it makes his voice sound almost computerized. Next, throw in some demonic rednecks straight out of “Deliverance.” Are you getting hot yet?

Our story begins when Wayne Malloy (Izzard) and his three kids decide to rip off a bunch of hapless fools at a high school reunion. Forget that everyone at a reunion just sits around looking at everyone else, making it impossible to rip off wallets — we’re suspending our disbelief, remember? After the family absconds with a bag full of wallets (Yeeeehaw!), they pile into their Winnebago (uh-oh) and rush off to pick up Wayne’s wife, Dahlia (Minnie Driver), from jail, where she’s presumably being held for engaging in a fun family crime like the one we just witnessed. Although Dahlia has reached the end of her two years in the slammer, she’s in a crappy mood, plus, she’s seems to be addicted to cough syrup. How kooky!

Next thing you know, Wayne and Dahlia are meeting up with a big clan of gypsy hayseeds, each with his or her own trailer or camper van. As if spending your life wandering around eating Hostess fruit pies at truck stops isn’t bad enough, we find out that Wayne and Dahlia’s daughter Di Di (Shannon Woodward) is supposed to marry a cartoonishly dimwitted country boy — some kind of a sick agreement between the families — but Wayne is against the marriage. The leader of the families, Dale (Todd Stashwick), gets threatening and ugly, insisting that the marriage must happen.

Now, I don’t want to give the whole plot away, in case bad Southern accents and unrealistic stories about evil redneck gypsies turn you on. Suffice it to say that things take an even darker turn, then Wayne and Dahlia stumble on an opportunity to live the American dream — big house, great job, golf at the club, etc. — simply by lying through their teeth, something they’re obviously pretty good at.

It’s not a terrible premise, but once again, none of the characters here are interesting or fully imagined, so it’s impossible to get into the story. This series feels a lot like “Dirt,” actually — provocative and weird on the outside, deeply stupid on the inside. Apparently producers and writers are getting really good at copying the look and feel of HBO shows, but they don’t have the brains or originality to back it up.

I’d love to be wrong about this one, but so far, I can’t get past the long, meandering scenes that aren’t amusing or all that clever. Oh yeah, and the accents, accents that are bad enough to make you want to pound your head into the wall. Honestly, who thought it was a good idea to make a show about country criminals starring two Brits? Someone was high on cough syrup when they came up with that one.

But remember when there was just one lunatic in your town who covered his front yard in a sea of lights at Christmastime, and you would drive several miles out of your way each year just to gawk at the big, gawdy spectacle? These days, every other house is covered in thousands of lights and automated deer and inflatable snowmen and Nativity scenes. As Americans, we’re genetically susceptible to hype. Thanks to a dangerous weakness in our cultural immune system, we fall prey to every half-assed trend and pop-cultural virus we come into contact with. Whether it’s an interminable awards show or yet another dark comedy about zany losers, we’re ready to smile and wave at anything that reminds us ever-so-slightly of something else that was good once, but isn’t anymore. God bless America!

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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