I Like to Watch

Why should you care about pirates or polygamists? Because TV's subcultural anthropologists want you to care!

Topics: FX, I Like to Watch, HBO, Big Love, CBS, Television,

I Like to Watch

Subcultures are boring. Remember the good old days, when we thought they were rebellious and exciting? In those days, you had to know someone who owned a comic book store or listened to ska or collected Smurfs. You had to do a little bit of research. You had to ask around.

But now they’re all a Google search away: the foot fetishists, the lactose intolerant, the Dungeon Masters, the chronically fatigued, the Sailor Moon fan fiction writers, the plushies. Today, instead of making friends with like-minded hobbyists and Hobbits, you just wander around alone on eBay, or write elaborate posts on Amazon about your Japanese anime-punk wiki and your Kenyan emo and the really great Czechoslovakian graphic novel you’re reading.

Nowadays, the underground is aboveground, and subverting the dominant paradigm is the dominant paradigm.

And a bottle of rum
What I really mean to say is that I hate pirates. I don’t like their pierced noses or their eyeliner or their tangled hair or the way they talk like Keith Richards or the big hooks they use in place of their amputated hands. Pirates are just thieves and murderers who are romanticized because they roam the high seas. Come on now, who really wants to roam the high seas, vomiting and getting scurvy, except for the half insane?

The only thing I hate more than pirates are people who identify strongly with pirates — you know, Deadheads and Oakland Raiders fans.

Leave it to Mark Burnett to tap into this lamentable subculture as an excuse to air a summertime, seafaring twist on “Survivor.” On “Pirate Master” (8 p.m. Thursdays on CBS), the contestants live on a huge ship with real sails, which looks nice, but they never seem to sail anywhere that has real waves or is deeper than about 3 feet. Mostly, they just cruise around the same set of scrubby islands in the Caribbean, places that look like the buggy, soggy, undeveloped wooded areas that most of us played in as kids — you know, back when there was undeveloped land on the planet.

So, aside from scrambling up the sails valiantly like they’re about to hit the open ocean, what do the pirates actually do? Here’s how it works: Each week, the pirates must open a drawer in a treasure chest called the “Chest of Zanzibar” for a brand-new treasure map. Then, they paddle their boats to a nearby island and run and run through the scrubby woods, and then yell at each other and look at the map again and splash around in some muddy, gross water, and … Come to think of it, the whole thing is just like playing with the neighbor kids in the woods, pushing each other into mud puddles, pretending the sand along the nasty creek bed is quicksand, and getting eaten alive by big mosquitoes.

But best (or worst?) of all, instead of snickering and rolling their eyes every time they hear about the stupid Chest of Zanzibar (which Australian host Cameron Daddo comically calls the “Cheest of Zanzeebah“) the so-called pirates seem to take the whole pirate thing extremely seriously. They say things like “In my real life, I’m a land pirate” or “That’s the way it should probably be on a pirate ship” or “Get ready to set sail, pirates!” They’re never being ironic or having a laugh, either — they’re very solemn about it. They fancy themselves born to roam the high seas, thieving and murdering and smelling like old cheese.

Yes, there are some major jackasses in the mix here. Take Joe Don. (Is that his made-up pirate name?) After his team voted for him to become captain, he immediately began referring to himself in the third person: “This is what the captain does” or “It’s the captain’s job to keep himself separate from the crew,” etc.

And then there’s Louie, who hated Joe Don with a vengeance the second Joe Don became captain. In two episodes running, Louie told us every few minutes how much he hated Joe Don, how he couldn’t wait to mutiny and throw Joe Don out of power (which the pirates can do, but only if they agree unanimously). Even though as captain, Joe Don automatically got half of any treasure they found, Louie acted as if this was Joe Don’s personal decision. “No captain is worth half the take!” he repeatedly growled. And later: “I sleep and I dream of setting Joe Don adrift!” Yar, matey!

We’re told very little about Louie’s real life, all we know is that he’s a pirate who has certain feelings about how things should go on a pirate ship. It’s as if Louie didn’t exist until “Pirate Master” began, and he’ll disappear into thin air when the show ends.

Then there’s Azmyth, a white guy with dreads who began speaking in a really bad British accent the second he became captain. He squinted his eyes and scratched his chin and said things like, “I’m going to go look for a place to talk with God.” Hot damn, is this guy captain, or is he the pope?

Honestly, where did Burnett find these freaks — at a Phish show? Did he post an ad on Ye Olde Pirate’s Forum online? Whatever he did, it worked a little too well: Witnessing all of these piratey fantasies coming true makes watching “Pirate Master” a little bit like stumbling on a room full of grown-ups involved in an elaborate sexual role-playing game. Amusing, yes, but also creepy.

And considering the fact that there are real pirates in Southeast Asia, thieving and murdering without stylish flourishes like jaunty head scarves and pierced noses, perhaps Burnett should consider other criminal themes. In terms of raw entertainment value, I’d prefer “Carjacker!” “So You Think You Can Shoplift” or “Kings of Counterfeit” (particularly if you could get the B52s to sign over the rights to “Legal Tender” as a theme song).

Polygamists unite!
While we’re on the subject of amusing but creepy criminal activities, does “Big Love” make polygamy look totally irresistible or what?

Man, would I love to be a first wife in charge of a whole brood of younger wives! They could do the laundry, take out the trash, walk the dogs, baby-sit, bake really good cherry pies and take part in those elaborate sexual role-playing games that I find so tedious (“Oh! I’m a haughty little nurse with a bad attitude and … wait, what time is it? Isn’t “Carjacker!” on already?”). I mean, sure, I manage my husband, dogs and baby just fine right now, marching around yelling, “No more barking!” and “You can’t eat that there!” But with a phalanx of innocent young Mormon girls at my disposal? Only then might I realize my full potential as a mean, uncooperative, oppressively bossy wife.

“Big Love” makes oppressing people look really wonderful. Remember how unsavory polygamy used to sound, before HBO showed us that it was just an appropriate and healthy S/M fantasy for overburdened first wives? Maybe, to be clearer, they should call it “Wife Master” or “Number One Wife” or “Master and Commander of You and You and You.”

Sadly, though, Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) embodies the kind of husband who’s just barely worth sharing with two other wives. He’s so beleaguered and bland. All he wants is to keep his business from running into the ground, to keep his wives moderately happy and to keep his family together.

Plus, sometimes when he’s making out with Wife No. 2, Nicki (Chloë Sevigny), and Wife No. 3, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), it’s hard not to feel a little queasy. Bill seems a little old for them, plus Nicki is so deeply weird and Margene is so young and innocent, and Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is such a better match for Bill, and … why are they sharing, again?

But then you see Margene driving the kids to school and Nicki fixing the lawn mower, and it all makes sense again! Hurray for polygamy!

“Big Love’s” little make-believe excursion into this highly creepy subculture would be patently lame and false, really, if the show’s creators didn’t do such a good job of leaning into the contradictions and nastiness, but also daring to suggest that there are ways that an alternative family structure, however bizarre, might function better than the traditional one. Idealistic and fantastical, yes, but the beauty of the show is that, if you watch for a while, you vehemently want the outside world to leave Bill and Barb alone and let them raise their freakishly wrong extended family in peace, damn it!

It’s fascinating — and a smart choice by the writers — that the most important relationships on “Big Love” are those between the wives. They expect a huge amount of respect and honesty from each other, and really, their husband is sort of eclipsed by both their love and their animosity for each other. When Nicki is upset that her wedding anniversary comes and goes with no card or flowers, she’s more angry at Barb than she is at Bill. She doesn’t really expect Bill to remember, but Barb? Barb shouldn’t have let her down like that! Margene also has more of a relationship with Barb than she does with Bill. And all of the women are more easily hurt by each other’s indiscretions and lies than they are by Bill’s.

It goes without saying that “Big Love” has an incredible cast, but Jeanne Tripplehorn and Chloë Sevigny in particular are so believable and so nuanced in their performances that neither should be overlooked for Emmys this year. When Alby (Matt Ross) approached Nicki by the clothesline and menacingly informed her that he’d called the cops on Roman (Harry Dean Stanton) and Bill for trying to cover up the fact that he’d been poisoned by Wanda (Melora Walters), Sevigny’s face reflected just the right mix of horror, fear and pity. Nicki is an extremely complicated character — manipulative and selfish but fiercely loyal — and those complications would be lost in the hands of a less talented actress.

“Big Love” can’t yet compare to HBO’s finest shows like “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood” because its stories aren’t as compelling yet — whether or not Bill’s stores fail or Roman’s ploys work, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. I’m not sure if the stakes should be raised or lowered, since they feel somewhat arbitrary. Maybe instead of playing the impending-doom card, the focus should stay on the challenges of living a normal life when the rest of the world considers you freaks. The kids’ stories are often the most interesting, but they’re not given a lot of airtime compared to Bill’s power struggles with Roman.

Once the plotlines of “Big Love” match the intensity and weight of its characters and their interpersonal dynamics, this show will reach its full potential. In the meantime, it merely serves as a happy little (patriarchal, regressive) fantasy for domineering women.

Yes, we could try to refocus our fantasies on a matriarchal family structure, but honestly, what good is a bunch of extra husbands going to do, really? Compare Cleveland’s and San Antonio’s stats while loading the bong for each other? You triple your fart stench and your snoring volume, and for what? Let’s be practical, people.

No sense of crime
Practically speaking, Showtime’s “Meadowlands” (10 p.m. Sundays) is a little bit like FX’s “The Riches.” Both shows involve a family of criminals, played by British actors, who are starting a new life in an unfamiliar setting. I hated “The Riches,” from Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard’s bad American accents to the interminable “How long can we fool them?” conceit, which wasn’t believable, dramatically weighty or all that entertaining.

At least “Meadowlands” is actually set across the pond. It’s about another family of weirdos — reckless dad, sharp mom, two nutty teenagers — trying to start over. Apparently the dad, Danny Brogan (David Morrissey), committed some kind of a crime involving a fire, or ratted on some criminals or something (we can’t tell what he did after the two episodes), so he and his family are forced to join an odd, isolated community for people in the witness protection program.

The Brogan’s teenage son, Mark (Harry Treadaway), is sort of an “Edward Scissorhands” type with lots of issues: First he isn’t speaking, then he starts peeping on the neighbor lady, then he starts dressing like a woman. The Brogan’s teenage daughter, Zoe (Felicity Jones), develops a crush on a handyman, Jack, who’s scary and creepy and tells her he murdered a woman. But he’s also sad and lonely and maybe the daughter can save him?

I’ll spare you the details in case you want to catch up, but suffice it to say that Jack shows his true colors and then goes down in a big, bloody mess, and the whole thing is really shocking and nasty, so shocking and nasty that it feels like that’s the whole point. Also? You were right. Ass rape isn’t all that funny.

But most of all, as with “The Riches,” I find it hard to care that much. “Meadowlands” is probably less irritating, overall, but the characters aren’t fully formed, and the main idea here seems to be: “Look at this weird life these people have to live! But why? What did Danny do? What crimes did the other oddballs of ‘Meadowlands’ commit? Isn’t the suspense killing you?” No, the suspense is boring me — and grossing me out.

I suppose the thinking here is that, since odd little subcultures are fascinating and criminals are fascinating, then the story of an odd little criminal subculture can’t lose. I’d like to make the case that, thanks to overexposure, criminals and odd little subcultures are no longer all that interesting. Or, they’re not interesting without fully imagined characters engaging in complicated relationships. Without any heart or soul, you can throw in a chronically fatigued dominatrix and a herd of dwarf-loving carnies, and there still won’t be enough drama to fill the hour.

Next week: ILTW takes a much-needed beach vacation, which we hear is sort of like “Baywatch” meets “John From Cincinnati,” but without the miracles and the David Hasselhoff (unless you’re really lucky).

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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