I Like to Watch

Truth and consequences dominate HBO's strangely addictive "In Treatment" and ABC's clunky "Eli Stone," while Fox's demeaning "Moment of Truth" elicits ugly secrets with big money.

Topics: I Like to Watch, In Treatment, Television,

I Like to Watch

I know how you worry about me, gentle reader. Tossing and turning at night, you wonder how I can possibly watch so much crappy TV week after week. Shouldn’t I be applying myself to something a little more lasting or relevant? Isn’t it tragic, how I waste my (admittedly middling) talents, sifting through the depraved, frivolous offerings of the small screen?

Well, I appreciate your concerns. But let me assure you, I’m doing vital and important work here. Not only is TV the defining medium of our modern culture, but it’s absolutely rich with the relevant themes and shared concerns and values of all of the world’s peoples. Each week, I don’t simply sit through tedious, vapid televised entertainments, as you might imagine. No! I explore complex perspectives on the role of individual liberty in society, I navigate the destructive impulses of human beings in the face of our inherently temporary existence on Earth, and I uncover profound and lasting insights into the human condition!

In so doing, I bring together a vast collection of readers hungry for wisdom, self-knowledge and a burgeoning understanding of the interrelated nature of all living creatures on the earth. Together, we can touch the very soul of the universe!

Now let’s explore some of the timeless questions and pressing inquiries of humankind, by delving into the I Like To Watch mail bags together…

Hi, Heather,

Do you know who the redhead in the Dirt Devil stick broom commercial is? I just think she’s hot, that’s all, and want to know if she is a budding starlet or what/who she is…

Thanks,

Kevin
Minnesota

Dear Kevin,

You know, I have to admit that every now and then, I do wonder what the point of this job is. Struggling with deadlines, slogging through hours of bad TV shows … And then I get a letter like yours, and I remember what it’s all about! What an honor it is, to aid your quest to draw closer to this mysterious siren and enrich your deep appreciation for the eternal, incandescent vivacity of womankind itself!

I’m sure you don’t get as many redheads up there in Minnesota as you once did, let alone redheads who can wield a stick broom with total confidence and authority. And redheads are becoming extinct, did you know that? Even so, I lack the tools to deliver the identity of this exotic creature into your hands, and I can’t begin to explain to you “what” she is, assuming that she’s animatronic.

But don’t let that stop you from honoring the glorious mysteries of femininity in whatever private and fulfilling ways you see fit! And if it’s any consolation, keep in mind that you and that redhead are united as one, as all living beings are a part of the same whole. Any distance between you is only imaginary. So stop imagining that you don’t know her. You are her, and you’re hot, that’s all!

Heather

More talk, less action
But let’s set aside such lofty and potent discourse for a moment so we can address HBO’s latest dramatic series, “In Treatment” (Weeknights at 9:30 p.m. starting Monday, Jan. 28), which aims to offer viewers a deep and penetrating exploration of humankind’s deepest fears and desires, all through a nightly half-hour visit to the therapist’s office.

Let me level with you, my sweet, concerned reader-amigos. When I first heard about “In Treatment,” I cringed. HBO may have a fine legacy of turning out some of the most brilliant and original shows on the air, but last season they offered us two hugely disappointing dramas. After a promising pilot, David Milch’s “John From Cincinnati” devolved into arbitrary acts of God and unhinged babbling. Far worse, though, was “Tell Me You Love Me,” an unbearably monotonous, painfully awkward series about a handful of couples in therapy. From its twitchy, unlikable characters to its repetitive story lines, the best thing you could say about “Tell Me You Love Me” was that it was seriously intense — albeit, in a seriously boring sort of way.

Yes, “The Wire” has returned for a fifth and final brilliant season, but what else does HBO have brewing? Yet another drama about psychotherapy! This one stars Gabriel Byrne as therapist Paul Weston, and this time, the camera never even leaves his office. There we sit with Weston and talk, talk, talk. Not only that, but “In Treatment” airs each weeknight, with a different character showing up for therapy each day of the week, and that character’s story progresses on the same day each weeknight. If “Tell Me You Love Me” didn’t make you feel like an overworked couples therapist attempting to improve a bunch of messy, unraveling relationships, then “In Treatment” is sure to offer you a real-time sense of just how tedious it can be to administer the talking cure.

The first episode of “In Treatment” appeared to be the sort of pretentious, overwritten purgatory that I’d expected. Weston’s patient Laura (Melissa George) shows up for therapy after a reckless night on the town, feeling mixed up and guilty. Without giving anything away, all of the therapy clichés are laid out in this half-hour-long episode. The writing is sharp, and at least Laura talks about her thoughts and feelings instead of mumbling incomprehensibly like the soggy ghosts of “Tell Me You Love Me.” Even so, after watching the first episode, I was convinced that “In Treatment” was another grandiose experiment that wasn’t all that compelling or provocative, let alone entertaining.

But then, in the second, third and fourth episodes, a completely different picture emerges. The characters are less predictable and their stories unfold more slowly. Weston acts more like a detective than a therapist at times, trying to separate fact from fiction in each client’s anecdotes, confessions and observations. It’s obvious that Navy pilot Alex (Blair Underwood) is arrogant and controlling, but does he feel guilty about his actions during the Iraq war (the most obvious explanation), or is he simply incapable of empathy? Are Jake (Josh Charles of “Sports Night”) and Amy (Embeth Davidtz) a good couple who are caught up in a pattern of contempt and lies, or should they just give up on their marriage? Why is Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), a teenage gymnastics hopeful, so sad and angry? What kind of a relationship does she have with her parents and her coach?

In spite of its seemingly monotonous setting and the heaviness of its subject matter, “In Treatment” gets more addictive the more you watch it. At the end of each session, I don’t want the patient of the day to leave Weston’s office. After just two sessions, even though she can be ruthlessly mean and unaware of her own flaws, the young gymnast Sophie seems so unnervingly fragile, it’s hard not to want to save her from her crappy life. Alex, the pompous fighter pilot, leads with his ego, makes snap judgments and refuses to look at himself too closely, but he’s still sympathetic, somehow. I want to understand the bickering couple, Jake and Amy, in ways I never cared to understand the couples of “Tell Me You Love Me.” Even Laura, the patient whom I initially found irritating, lights up in her second and third sessions. She challenges Weston and seems to have his number, to the point where you start to believe that she might just be smarter and more intuitive than he is. Now that’s a rare choice: creating a therapist who’s less sharp than one of his female clients.

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Although “In Treatment” might be a little heavy for viewers who wouldn’t dream of stepping into a therapist’s office and aren’t all that curious about the layers of meaning in each person’s reports about themselves, the stories are imaginative and unfold patiently. The writers (executive producers include Rodrigo Garcia, Hagai Levi, Stephen Levinson and Mark Wahlberg) know just when to change the subject, move on, double back and keep us guessing, lending the series an unexpectedly lively, unpredictable energy, particularly considering we spend every half-hour episode in the same room (except on Fridays, when Weston visits his therapist). The cast is absurdly good, from Byrne to the always-captivating Michelle Forbes, who plays Weston’s wife, Kate, to Dianne Wiest, who plays Weston’s therapist. Despite the seemingly precious format, soon it’s hard not to experience the characters of “In Treatment” as real people.

That said, the first episode of this show will probably make you roll your eyes and beg the gods for mercy. Don’t give up, though, because “In Treatment” is sharp and unique and worth the effort. And in this impoverished TV era, well, let’s just say you have the time.

Formulaic feet have got no rhythm
Luckily for you, though, there are some brand-new shows on the horizon, shows that might even hold your interest for more than three seconds. Unfortunately, the networks only have a handful of episodes of each show because the writers’ strike kept them from producing a full season. So, even though you might look forward to NBC’s “Sex and the City”-alike “Lipstick Jungle” (premieres 10 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7) or anxiously anticipate the return of the fourth season of “Lost” (premieres 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31), alas, these shows are destined to come and go in the wink of a young redheaded stick-broom-wielding starlet’s eye. There are eight episodes of “Lost,” seven episodes of “Lipstick Jungle,” and “24″ can’t even air, because they only have eight episodes in the can. What’s Keifer Sutherland supposed to do for the next year, now that he’s out of jail?

What? You didn’t even know that Keifer Sutherland has been in jail for over a month and a half thanks to a DUI, that he spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in the slammer, and he was just released last Monday? (I probably wouldn’t know either, if I weren’t so fascinated by the limits of power that society has over the individual and the intricacies of what John Stuart Mill once referred to as our prevailing impatient dislike of the ascendant class!)

Plus, you know what I love about Keifer Sutherland? He does things that would disgust Jack Bauer. If Keifer Sutherland wandered into CTU, Jack Bauer would take one look at him and then throw him against the wall and choke the life out of him.

See, Jack has a higher purpose beyond the high life, and so does the title character of “Eli Stone” (premieres 10 p.m. Thursday Jan. 31 on ABC), played by Jonny Lee Miller, most famous for being Angelina Jolie’s first husband. Eli Stone is a lawyer who’s looking to reform himself — you know, the way the self-centered lead characters in romantic comedies always do. He’s been working for a big, bad law firm, serving the interests of corrupt corporations, but now he’s turning over a new leaf, and he’s going to start fighting the good fight for the little guy. Why? Because George Michael keeps appearing to him in visions, dancing on his coffee table and singing “You Gotta have Faith-a, Faith-a, Faith-a!” Yes, I’m serious. He doesn’t sing “I Want Your Sex” in the pilot, but it’s only a matter of time.

Eli Stone might be a prophet. He might have health issues. He might dump his fiancée because she’s selfish and her dad is his nasty boss. Regardless of such larger concerns, as far as I can tell, he’s going to start out each episode determined to be a selfish prick, he’s going to feel conflicted, he’s going to consult his friend, a purveyor of Chinese medicine (who fakes a Chinese accent to attract customers), there’ll be a dance break somewhere in the middle, and in the end, Eli will do something grand and generous and passionate, and big, salty tears will well up in his pretty eyes.

The predictability of this arc, and the limited appeal of the same old selfish-yuppie-does-good tale, is what damns “Eli Stone” to mediocrity. There are so many weird touches to the pilot (suited lawyers dancing as George Michael performs in a corporate lobby, just for example) but it still feels like the kind of show that started out odd and original and maybe even a little edgy, but had half of its edge sanded off by the networks along the way. Now that’s just a guess, mind you, but that’s the impression I get of “Eli Stone” — it’s like a sparkling gem that’s been placed in a bland, tacky setting.

All of which is very ABC, honestly. They make good choices initially, and then those shows evolve into predictable mainstream trash: “Desperate Housewives,” “Brothers & Sisters,” even “Cashmere Mafia” feels like a show that’s had its heart ripped out, “Temple of Doom”-style. (What did the little kid in that movie say? “Indy, cover your heart!” Good advice for any show runner.) And didn’t Jon Robin Baitz from “Brothers & Sisters” lament over ABC execs sticking their grubby fingers into his pies? That series is smart enough and dark enough at times (you know, right before the second commercial break) that you’d think its writers might want to wallow in the darkness occasionally, instead of making everyone hug and cry and learn important lessons by the end of every damn episode. When are the networks going to stop making sweeping assumptions about what America wants and doesn’t want, and just let writers create shows that are interesting and original? Haven’t Showtime and HBO and AMC demonstrated that giving writers a lot of creative license makes for much more original, more entertaining fare? Sure, it also leads to messy failures like “John From Cincinnati” — but personally, I’d rather watch something messy and unpredictable than sit through the same pat formulas over and over again.

OK, fine. Maybe Americans love the same pat formulas over and over again, but I think the tides are turning on that one. Look at how much the sitcom has evolved over the years, from the same lame bickering families to oddball shows like “The Office” and “30 Rock.” But sadly, no matter how spunky and weird “Eli Stone” might be at times, at its heart it’s Slick Yuppie Lawyer Makes Good, for the millionth time over.

Demeaning of life
And you know what that leaves us with? A middle-aged man, sitting on a stage in front of his girlfriend, his boss and a hooting audience, as a game show hosts asks him if he’s a member of the Hair Club for Men. (He is, he admits with a groan. His girlfriend looks mortified, but reassures him, “You look great, baby.”)

You see, America doesn’t just crave the spandex-clad mutants of “American Gladiators” and the extended celebrity infomercial of “Celebrity Apprentice.” No. America also wants to see ordinary people, demeaning themselves for big money.

That’s why Mark L. Wahlberg, the former host of such moving shows as “Temptation Island,” is sitting on a brightly lit stage in a gray suit, firing off increasingly personal and embarrassing questions while Hair Club Member George winces and grins nervously and prays that his dignity is somehow spared on this very fast road to half a million dollars.

Well, for the viewers at home, it’s sort of a slow road, actually. Every time Wahlberg asks a question, each contestant is forced to wait about 5-8 seconds until he answers, in order to build suspense, and then the announcer waits 15 seconds before she’ll say whether an answer is true or false according to the contestant’s previous polygraph test. That might not sound very long, but trust me, that’s a lot of dead air. Add up all those pauses and throw in one horror-movie chord after another, and Fox’s “Moment of Truth” (Wednesdays at 9 p.m.) starts to feel more like “Hour of Truth” or even “Long, Dark Night of the Truth.”

And what are you waiting for? You’re waiting to see each contestant’s dignity get shattered to bits before your eyes, which is far less entertaining than it sounds. When Ty, a personal trainer, is asked about his wife, “Do you think you’ve delayed having children because you’re not sure if Catia will be your lifelong partner?” how can you feel anything but uncomfortable when Ty answers yes? Plus, plenty of the questions seem custom-made to create blips on the polygraph. Wahlberg asks Ty, who’s a personal trainer, if he’s touched a female client more than was “required of him. Ty says he hasn’t, but his polygraph test apparently read that as a lie, because a huge red “FALSE” flashes on the screen behind him, and the audience groans.

Ty tries to explain, “Well, you know, when you’re training people, you’ve got to physically touch them, but you know, what’s required…” What he’s trying to say is, it’s not easy to tell if you’re interpreting that question correctly when you answer it, and that kind of uncertainty could very easily lead to a false positive.

But Wahlberg cuts him off before he can go into it, ushering him off the stage to the less-than-welcoming arms of his angry wife. Forget the fact that we’ve doomed their marriage, though, we’ve got more lives to ruin before we sleep! Time for our next guinea pig!

Immediately the next guy, George, is revealing huge secrets: Have you ever considered you might be addicted to gambling? (Yes, he has.) Do you have a bank account that your girlfriend doesn’t know about? (No, he doesn’t.)

But here’s a serious cringe-inducer: “Have you ever padded your underwear to look more well endowed?” (Yes, he has.) Ugh. Why would we want to know that?

Just as we’re all starting to feel dirty and disgusting deep down inside, we’re out of time, so they cut to highlights from next week’s show, where George is being asked more awful questions:

“Have you ever helped someone smuggle something into the country?”

“Are you in love with your girlfriend, Lily?”

Finally, we see his teenage kid come out onto the stage to ask him the biggest corker of all: “Have you ever gambled away one of your children’s college funds?”

Although some might argue that this show is performing a public service by shaming the shameless, to me it looks more like the blatant exploitation of those who a) need the money and b) can’t help viewing an appearance on a game show as fun and silly and harmless, when in fact it could seriously screw with their lives and their reputations indefinitely.

But more important, is America really this sadistic, or has Fox crafted a solid business plan from pandering to our worst impulses? While each person’s “individual spontaneity is entitled to free exercise,” as John Stuart Mill argues, don’t human beings also “owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter”?

Perhaps some input from our readers will help to clarify some of these vital controversies that have plagued humankind for so long.

To ILTW:

I was wondering if you might know who made Oprah Winfrey’s butter-yellow couch. It is the couch that you mentioned in an online article that Tom Cruise was jumping on.

I believe it is by Ralph Lauren, but am unsure.

Thank you,

Linda McMacken
Au Gres, Mich.

Alas, Linda, you’ve posited a question as vast and unknowable as the universe itself, and I am a mere mortal whose limited mind can only strain to approach such an enormous and pressing inquiry, the likes of which humankind has wrangled with since the ancient times! Even so, I’ll redouble my efforts to meditate on these and other very momentous and critical mysteries moving forward.

Next week: Who’s the hottest himbo on Bravo’s “Make Me a Supermodel”?

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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