I Like to Watch

What's more American than cocker spaniels, doomed marriages and David E. Kelley? Plus: "Battlestar's" dark turn.

Topics: I Like to Watch, Battlestar Galactica, MTV, Television,

I Like to Watch

Let’s skip the usual niceties, and get straight to two very important points. First of all, you’re right. Cocker spaniels do have soul. I’m prejudiced against them, thanks to one particularly testy cocker spaniel I once knew. Back then, a vet told me that aging cocker spaniels turn on their owners — not a fantastic trait in a dog, if you ask me, but not necessarily indicative of a marked lack of soul. In fact, it takes some serious soul to bite the hand that feeds. Also, I’ll admit that I’ve always associated cocker spaniels with the ’80s (they were the most popular dog for several years running), and tend to place them in the split-level homes of aspiring preppies, families with working-class Eastern European roots (like my own) who nonetheless give their children idiotic WASPy names like Arden and Kimberly and Chip. (Next week I’ll have to apologize to Arden and Kimberly and Chip.)

I do love that a great, impassioned cry rose up across the land in defense of cocker spaniels but my assertion that Ben Affleck had no soul was all but ignored. Can’t poor Affleck get a little love, too?

You’re coming in hot, Striker!
And what’s the second important item on my agenda, right under “cocker spaniels”? Battlestar Galactica (10 p.m. Sundays on SciFi), of course. Ahem. Can you fracking believe it? If you didn’t watch last week, don’t read this part. For those who did: Have the gods gone mad? There’s got to be a twist, right? Does this mean that Starbuck is a Cylon, one of the so-called final five? Does this mean that she’s going to replace Gaius Baltar in the endless plinky-plink French new wave film that has been unfolding this season?

Let’s back up a little, for those of you who haven’t spent the past week throwing tantrums in Television Without Pity forums and calling Ronald D. Moore at home, threatening to take out his knees with a baseball bat, Tonya Harding style. Kara Thrace, aka Starbuck, played by Katee Sackhoff, was until last Sunday night one of the more compelling and charismatic lead characters on “Battlestar Galactica.” Starbuck was the best fighter pilot by far on Galactica — imagine that, a woman, the best pilot of all! — but not only that, she was tough, bossy, sexually fickle, emotionally remote and self-destructive. As a male character, not so interesting, but as Salon’s Laura Miller elucidated so eloquently back in 2005, watching Starbuck drink and play cards and get violent and boozy was always entertaining and slightly surreal. Despite a few obnoxiously soapy recent episodes, in which Starbuck and her true love/pal/rival Apollo revealed the stinky crevices of their love/hate relationship, Starbuck has generally provided “Battlestar” with some of its more provocative plots.

Yes, it goes without saying that we should be appalled that in 2007, Starbuck is one of the only overconfident, unapologetic heroines to ever grace the small screen. Let’s just consider a handful of contemporary female TV characters: Meredith Grey of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Ally McBeal Deux (Kitty) of “Brothers & Sisters,” Cheerleader Claire of “Heroes,” Cheerleader Lyla of “Friday Night Lights,” Harriet of “Studio 60,” Simpering Susan of “Desperate Housewives” — some of them smart, some charming, some confident. But look at how they all roll their eyes and pout and fret and giggle under pressure. Look at how they wring their hands and second-guess themselves and weep and then turn on their feminine wiles like one of “Charlie’s Angels” to solve any problem. Why? Why is it so important that female characters be jittery and emotionally fragile, as if their femininity depended on lots of coy eye batting and neurotic bottom-lip biting? Are male TV writers really so unimaginative and/or threatened that they dream only of nonthreatening, impish kitty cats? OK, not every one of those characters is a limp little goo-goo-eyed rag doll, but can you or can’t you picture every last one biting her bottom lip?

So why kill off one of the only brazen, swaggering female characters on TV? Why? Why Starbuck? Why now? Someone please explain to me why Starbuck needs to kick the bucket at this point. Sure, there’s all this talk of her destiny from Leoben, the abusive daddy of the Cylon species. But is Starbuck really the appropriate character to transform into a mystical figure in colonial mythology? How stupid is Kara going to look, that perpetual smirk pasted on her face, clothed in glowing white robes, pointing the way to Earth? Didn’t it seem like they were going to cast Chief Tyrol as the savior, back when he was walking around that temple, mesmerized by the place his parents talked about when he was a boy? And then, when he seemed to have marital problems and almost floated off into space with Callie? If not Chief, then why not someone exceptionally dull, like Apollo’s wife, Dee?

Critics and bloggers and viewers talk about killing off lead characters for no reason as if that’s brave — the kind of logic macho Starbuck might’ve embraced, actually — but what, exactly, is so courageous about arbitrarily knocking off one of your best characters just because she’s one of your best characters? This is the way I felt when the writers of “The L Word” decided to give Dana cancer. The writers said it was important to take away a character that everyone loved because that way it hit home more. I understand that logic when you’re writing a movie script, but how do you take one of the mainstays of your running narrative, a narrative that unfolds over the course of several years, and sell that character up the river?

Let’s be realistic, here. So many other characters on “Battlestar” could bite the dust without my giving it a second thought. Apollo has always been kind of one-note and chumpy. Baltar’s bulgy-eyed sock puppet routine is as dull as mud by now. I’d be thrilled if I never saw Number Six again — when will the Cylons discontinue that faulty model, or at least upgrade her bony ass? Dee, as I said, is a total bore. So many easy sacrificial lambs to choose from, and they choose one of the best characters of all. Can you imagine how limp and worthless those fighter pilot scenes are going to feel without Starbuck?

The episode itself was better than most this season, but I still didn’t buy that it should add up to Starbuck basically killing herself. If you’re going to ax a major character, at least stretch it out over a few episodes and convince us that it’s a crucial part of the season’s narrative arc. Squeezing in all of that last-minute camaraderie with Apollo felt forced and rushed, and I didn’t think a few Bad Mommy flashbacks and some mysterious iconic images really did enough to convince us that Starbuck suddenly had a Very Important Destiny in the afterlife.

And while we’re on the subject of unlikely heroes, how annoying is it that Baltar would be rallying the common man with an anti-imperialist screed a couple of episodes back? I liked that episode, but why would a privileged, educated guy like Baltar find himself in a position to lead the proletariat from oppression after essentially betraying mankind by becoming a pawn of the Cylons? Are we supposed to believe that the working man has so little sense of history that he’d buy revolutionary rhetoric from an imprisoned traitor? Yes, yes, he’s a spoiled, musing intellectual like Karl Marx. But it still seems like they needed someone to fill in terrorist Tom Zarek’s shoes since he went legit, and they didn’t have anything better for Baltar to do since he left his French new wave sex fantasy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a long way off from giving up on “Battlestar,” no matter how much I question the writers’ recent choices. (We’ll talk about the idiotic “Check out this crappy scene we cut!” feature at a later date.) Although I’ve talked to people who are actually mourning Starbuck’s death like she’s a real person, I can’t say that I’m inconsolable over it. For me, the most upsetting scene of the whole episode was the last one, where Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) is crying and adding Starbuck’s angel to his model ship, and then suddenly he smashes the ship to smithereens. It was such a devastating scene, since Adama loved Starbuck like a daughter and since he’d been working on that ship since the first season.

And as it turns out, according to Ronald D. Moore’s recent podcast, Olmos was improvising, funneling his anger at Sackhoff’s impending departure into the annihilation of the model ship, which was actually an antique worth $100K. The prop department had a heart attack, but the ship was insured. Too bad, really — what better way to inflict revenge on the producers than by landing them with such a hefty bill? You have to love Olmos all the more for that one. Like the soulful but aging cocker spaniel, he’s not afraid to bite the hand that feeds!

Playing house
To be clear, though, biting the hand that feeds isn’t always a soulful act. Say, just for example, you’re about 19 years old, and you want to marry your incredibly self-centered, naive, seriously immature Mormon girlfriend. Say she and her family insist that you convert to Mormonism, and then you get married in a Mormon temple, which means that none of your family and friends can attend the wedding, since nonbelievers aren’t allowed in the temple.

Now, calling your mom on the phone and telling her that she’s not invited to the wedding? That’s not a very soulful move — but that’s exactly what makes it such good fodder for a show on MTV, the destination of choice for those who love rubbernecking the soulless. Following the fine tradition of “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” “Engaged & Underage” is one of the most chilling horror shows on the air, a show that will have you groaning and grimacing one minute, and laughing until you cry the next. And when you laugh, you’ll laugh an evil, menacing laugh, a deep, rancid Muhahahaha! that will scare the cat and send a chill down your spouse’s spine. If that sounds good to you, read on.

Not content to merely trot out a steady parade of scary, spoiled, teenage, whoring sea donkeys, MTV has uncovered an even more terrifying demographic: teenagers who want to have sex but can’t because they’ve decided to save themselves for marriage. Naturally, instead of keeping the little horndogs chaste indefinitely, all this really does is send them to the altar prematurely. “You won’t sleep with me until we’re married?” the poor little aspiring humpers say to their girls. “OK, then, here’s a ring! Let’s get hitched and do the nasty!” MTV completes the sick picture by showcasing another ill-advised young couple each episode.

It’s hard to know whom to pity more, the doe-eyed teenage girls who think that being a bride is super-dreamy, even when they don’t know how to do laundry or pay a bill, or the teenage boys who followed their hard-ons straight into the middle of a Wedding Barbie tragicomedy. All I know is that when one mom is forced to meet her newly married son after the wedding because she’s not allowed inside the Mormon temple, and when she gets there she wants to cry, but she can’t, because she loves her son and doesn’t want to spoil everything, so she poses bravely with the bride, who’s wearing a parka over her wedding dress in every picture? That’s quality television.

In another episode, a bride-to-be named Bre actually tells us, unabashedly, that she got the idea to save herself for marriage from Jessica Simpson. You see, she was, like, a big, big fan of Jessica, and she read this interview with Jessica and Jessica said that she was going to be a virgin until she was legally wed and Bre thought, Oh my God! That’s like such a great idea! Meanwhile, Bre’s fiancé, Josh, still lives at home with his parents and spends most of his time rough-housing with his two younger brothers in the massive family room of their spacious, well-appointed home. In a discussion about finances with Bre and the preacher who’s going to marry them, Josh says that Bre’s draft of a possible household budget is silly, because who spends $320 on food every month? His mom buys big piles of sliced turkey, and he can just, like, chow on that for weeks. Ohhh, Josh. Where do we begin? Poor, sad little … Muhahaha!

There’s even a “diary cam” for the bride and groom to record their thoughts the night before the wedding, and while Bre waxes dreamily about being married forever and ever and ever, poor Josh talks mostly about how much he’s going to miss his siblings, who appear to be in elementary school. The horror!

Luckily, I’ve noticed that there’s a pattern here, for all of you parents breaking out into a cold sweat right now. Typically, either the bride or the groom has parents who have a strong marriage and proselytize on the subject of strong marriages regularly. Since marriage works so well for them, and since they got married when they were very, very young, they can’t really see the big deal in encouraging their kid to do the same thing, even though the kid in question hasn’t done a thing in his entire life but eat nachos and play video games on the couch with his little brothers.

Luckily, the show makes it clear how to prevent your teenagers from getting married too young: 1) Encourage your teenagers to engage in lots of premarital sex, and 2) demonstrate to them just how torturous and awful marriage is. That’s right: When you’re not buying them condoms and urging them to throw coed sleepovers, you should be bickering with your spouse and lamenting the unbearable torture of remaining chained to the same human being for the balance of your days on Earth. Thank you, MTV, for this rather elaborate but very helpful public service announcement!

Moron marriage
And speaking of the unbearable torture of remaining chained to the same human being for the balance of your days on Earth, I wonder if network television’s romance with David E. Kelley will ever come to an end? First there was the very special yet zany small-town drama “Picket Fences,” then “Ally McBeal,” in which America’s skeletal sweetheart soured over the course of five long seasons, then the self-righteous preening of “The Practice,” which devolved into the foolish diversions and endless Denny Craniotomy of “Boston Legal,” and that’s not to mention the self-righteous preening and foolish diversions of “Boston Public.”

Not that I haven’t enjoyed my fair share of these shows (although I found “Boston Public” totally unwatchable). And compared with a few other truly awful dramas added to the midseason lineup, Kelley’s latest, “The Wedding Bells” (9 p.m. Fridays on Fox), is relatively amusing. We start with three sisters, the Bells (get it?), who’ve inherited their parents’ wedding hall but don’t agree on how it should be run. Throw in a staff of kooky dysfunctional misfits, and you’ve got yet another madcap romp through love and marriage, well-worn clichés and flogged horses be damned!

But before we go any further, let’s start with a tantalizing appetizer of on-the-nose dialogue for you to savor, plucked from a tense exchange between sisters Jane (Teri Polo) and Annie (KaDee Strickland):

Jane: You know, Annie, may I be honest? When Mom and Dad divorced and we came rushing back here to take over this place, it was because we couldn’t stand to see it go under, I guess. But in the mad rush, some of us never got around to dealing with the devastation of that divorce.

Annie: I have no idea what you mean.

Jane: On some level, I think that you throw weddings, Annie, to preserve a certain facade that goes to our childhood, when we were happiest, when mom and dad were together. But you were hurt when they split. When you and David split, you also … That’s all I’m trying to say.

Annie: Fine.

Interestingly enough, in the original version of the pilot that I got in the mail, instead of trailing off, Jane says, “Since you and David split you have kind of retreated into a cocoon of sorts, Annie, and I miss you. I … Don’t be afraid to feel, Annie.” Luckily, I double-checked the quote with the edited version that aired. Nice cut, guys! I almost thought I was watching “Brothers & Sisters” for a second there. To be fair, though, if this were “Brothers & Sisters,” Annie would never have just said “Fine,” she would have said, “I miss you too, Jane, and you’re right … I guess since Mom and Dad got divorced I … I … I’ve just been hiding from myself.” By saying something as self-protective as “Fine,” Annie ensures that she and her sister act like actual siblings instead of like psychoanalyzing, hankie-toting Teletubbies.

But then, unlike the writers of “Brothers & Sisters,” Kelley has a little self-restraint (some of the time, anyway) and knows a thing or two about the importance of conflict in moving dramatic action forward. Think of how often the characters on “Ally McBeal” or “The Practice” or any of his other shows bicker and prod and crowd and irritate and enrage each other. Kelley has always been particularly great at fights between married couples, which is probably why scenes that involve Jane and her husband are some of the best the show has to offer.

It also makes sense that Kelley should take on such light, fluffy fare: His dramas always seem to shine when he steers clear of great big issues and fantastical, absurd digressions. With weddings and marriage front and center, the zaniness is built into the picture, as is the relationship talk and the spitty outbursts that Kelley has such a talent for. The pilot (which aired last Wednesday as a precursor to the show’s usual Friday time slot) showcased some funny situations and clever exchanges, but the second episode was a little less dynamic. Still, as annoying as Kelley can be, I can’t really think of a better writer to take on an even soapier, wedding-themed version of “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is about where this one lands, tonally.

Another plus: The female heroines of “The Wedding Bells” don’t giggle and bite their lower lips nearly as much as you might imagine they would. Now all they have to do is whip out some army-green wife beaters and a few flasks of whiskey and I’m sold.

Next week: On ABC’s “October Road,” nostalgia drives really slowly and brakes for every cliché and stereotype in sight.

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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