I Like to Watch

When nostalgia turns toxic: Mariah Carey prattling on about "Hungry, Hungry Hippo" in VH1's "I Love the 80's." Plus: The breakout star of the current reality shows.

Published October 23, 2003 8:43PM (EDT)

The toad work squatteth
Still driving across town each morning and navigating a maze of cubicles to your own little cardboard-enclosed corner of hell? Still drinking coffee that tastes like motor oil and hypnotizing yourself into appearing engaged during meetings run by condescending morons?

Then you'll appreciate the second season of "The Office," currently looping endlessly on BBC America. For those who don't know better, "The Office" is not one of those precious British comedies you won't understand until you see every episode and slowly begin to decode the humor. You can tune in for this show on Sunday night at 10 (or any number of other times during the week), and as long as you can loosely understand what people are saying, despite their thick accents, you'll get the picture after about 10 minutes.

Ricky Gervais, who plays the boss of the dreary office in question, is so absurdly good at improvising the most jaw-dropping, obnoxious, uncomfortable scenes, at first you'll have trouble watching. But see, you only feel weird because there's not a laugh track, and without the cue of a chorus of hearty Americans chuckling appreciatively, your hands will sweat and your pants will feel scratchy and you won't be able to tell if it's funny or just horribly tragic.

Of course, "The Office" is a little bit of both. Hip, hip, hurrah!

Personal space invaders
Ever wonder why Muslims pray to Mecca, and sometimes even visit it? No? Then you'll want to avoid National Geographic's "Inside Mecca" (7 tonight on the Encore Channel, and at 2 p.m. Friday on the World Channel), which explores the hajj, the pilgrimage Muslims make to Mecca to demonstrate their submission to one God. This submission is demonstrated not just by circling the Kaaba, which you've probably seen before, but also by packing onto crowded buses, shuffling slowly through shrines filled with hundreds of thousands of people, walking miles through the heat of the desert, and sleeping on the ground inches away from other humans. Luckily, being patient and respectful is part of the protocol during the hajj, or the whole thing would likely unravel into shoving and name-calling.

And I look in the mirror all the ti-yime...
Lord knows I love the '80s as much as the next tedious member of my generation, formerly known as Gen X and currently known as the Most Pointlessly Nostalgic Generation Ever, but there's something about VH1's "I Love the '80s Strikes Back" that makes my skin crawl. For a while there it seemed like no other generation would ever be nearly as self-obsessed as those boomers with their endlessly repeating specials about assassinations, Vietnam, Nixon, LSD and Manson.

But look at us now, we think we're sooo cute, humming "Hey Mickey" and telling people their hair makes them look like that one guy from "Flock of Seagulls." It was bad enough when our little obsession with late '70s and early '80s consumables hit the Internet, and we realized that pretty much everyone our age likes talking about the triple takes on "Three's Company" or that "Connect Four" commercial where the kid goes, "Pretty sneaky, sis!" It was bad enough when people started having '80s theme parties, where they played "Jesse's Girl" and "Pac Man Fever," and everyone looked much, much uglier than usual, which is really not the desired effect while socializing.

Now we've crossed the line. Thanks to the fact that a few of us have weaseled our way into positions of power (You know who you are!), we can't even pretend that it's only our dumb friends and a bunch of Internet geeks who loved "Sorry!" had the same Fisher Price cruise ship when they were little (you know, the one with the lobster dinner on the table?), and still listen to "The Winner Takes It All" by ABBA sometimes when they're feeling particularly low.

Now, instead of imagining that our childhoods are unique, filled with private treasures that we rediscover mostly through intimate conversations with friends, we get to watch Liz Phair and Rich Eisen making clever remarks about "Flash Gordon" and "Eight Is Enough" and Devo. As nice as it was to chat about this stuff, oh, about 10 years ago, there's something about hearing Mariah Carey prattle on about "Hungry, Hungry Hippo" that isn't just grating, but has the power to incite an identity crisis of epic proportions. Suddenly all the crap you always took so seriously belongs to absolutely everyone, even the smarmy jerks on TV. It's like waking up at the robot factory and realizing there are millions of other robots just like you. Countless numbers of us were soaking in the same inane shit growing up, and we were absolutely foolish to imagine that the consumable goods of our shared past were encoded with mythical powers, treating a hot pink plastic plate from a Barbie Dreamhouse or a gun from a Star Wars Action Figure Bespin Guard as artifacts. How pathetic and dull are we, anyway, obsessing about bad songs and crappy toys? I mean, as self-serious and righteous and vaguely uncool as they are, at least the boomers are obsessed with stuff like politics and the Beatles.

Yeah, I know, I should speak for myself, because you're all far too busy feeding the poor and listening to Coltrane to worry about bidding for used "Sit 'n' Spins" on eBay. From now on I'll keep my sweeping generalizations to myself.

Band of brothers
Are frat boys annoying or what? I can barely watch this season of MTV's "Fraternity Life" without getting a strong urge to grab a bat and bust in the kneecaps of some of these little whippersnappers.

No, I don't really want to do that. I was a big fan of the frat boy, back when he had the habit of handing me big, cold cups filled with beer. It's weird, though, isn't it, how they all dress the same way and speak with the same vocal inflections? You'd think they'd feel a little embarrassed, if they knew how goofy it looks from a great distance.

Then again, I'm sure if you rounded up all of my friends and herded them into a small space, we would probably look like disturbingly similar animals to the cultural Marlin Perkinses of the world. If the camera were rolling for the kinds of conversations I have every day -- boy, that would be horrifying. Because when you're old enough that you don't worry about being cool anymore ... well, you're just not cool anymore. And as bad as being young and cool looks on TV, being old and uncool looks even worse.

Chicago is for tough-lovers
For further proof of this, just check out "Starting Over," which I mentioned last week, and which has become the bane of my TiVo's existence. Besides gumming up the works with a whopping five hours of footage a week, this Oprah-in-motion reality show wastes my time and just barely amuses me with its earthy female-centric glow -- you know, the touchy-feely soft exterior that just barely obscures the judgmental, passive-aggressive techniques employed by its image-conscious, professionally warm soldiers?

First I'm going to go ahead and admit to fast-forwarding through any story line involving Maureen or Nyanza. Maureen the not-so-funny comedian is a little bit too depressing to take. Nyanza does seem to be more "authentic" than she was before, if being authentic includes having some control over the things that come out of her mouth. In fact, it looks like Nyanza has seamlessly picked up the language of the two "Life Coaches" who visit the house -- you know, the ones who shamelessly inflict their own values onto the house's inhabitants? (Authentic, indeed!) But has she genuinely changed or is she brilliantly mimicking the Sensitive New Age Womanspeak taught to her by the scolding 'n' hand-holding tough lovers?

It's tough to say. Christine, the sane but undisciplined one who's in the house to lose weight and meet men, has been steadily declining those tasks that make her uncomfortable, like tackling a ropes course in spite of her fear of heights, or talking to strangers half her age in bars. While this, to me, makes Christine a sane, self-respecting adult, one who refuses to blindly accept salvation in whatever form the Life Coaches dream up, her Life Coach keeps tsk-tsking each demonstration of free will, and takes pains to outline her weaknesses and limitations for the camera.

Naturally, despite the fluffy femme tone of the program and the coaches, some of the women are beginning to openly demonstrate their utter lack of trust in the powers that be. While they seem to be getting along with each other better than ever before, their interest in complying with the humiliating tasks dreamed up by their keepers is beginning to wear thin. Any therapist worth his or her salt would, of course, embrace this demonstration of confidence and individuality instead of trying to snuff it out or attempting to remind the guests (as that chafing blond Life Coach reminded Andy the other day) of how incredibly trustworthy they are.

If there were really sharp people behind this show, the women would be asked to do increasingly stupid shit, so that their impatience and anger would grow until they were moved to demonstrate their growing self-respect and increasingly empowered state by ordering a few kegs, throwing a huge party, trashing the house, and then burning it down to the ground and dancing around the flames to celebrate their deliverance from spinelessness and insecurity. Instead, these women will be cajoled and manipulated into submission until they're just as bland, passive-aggressive and professionally warm as their overlords.

Come to think of it, "Fraternity Life," "Starting Over" and "Camp Jim" are basically the same show: All three take rough, unschooled demi-freaks and turn them into card-carrying Conformist Mutants, which I don't need to tell you are even more strange and horrifying than the regular, flawed individuals who got pushed into the Conforming Mutant machine in the first place. But then, who doesn't enjoy watching these sociological Play-Doh Fun Factories in motion?

Oops. Maybe only Gen X robots like me enjoy it.

Sweetums reigns supreme!
For all of the conforming mutants and Gen X robots in our lives and on TV, there are one or two truly original, unpredictable characters who emerge from the small screen larger than life, and remind us that nothing is better than being exactly who you are, even if you've got stuff stuck in your beard and you're wearing a miniskirt. "Survivor's" Sweetums (Rupert, OK? That's the last time I'll use his real name, I swear) has become a clear leader and genuinely warm father figure to both tribes, simply by being himself, catching lots of fish, and knowing everything about everything. On top of all that, Sweetums is a sweet, funny guy with a huge personality who seems able to get along with anyone.

From now on, I implicitly trust Sweetums. When Sweetums said Ryan was a nice guy, I started to look at Ryan and say, "Gosh, what a nice guy!" When Sweetums spoke out against Shawn, I started to hate Shawn, too. The only remaining questions are: 1) How will Sweetums fly under the radar when people practically start bowing and speaking in tongues when he comes near? 2) Will the natives catch wind of Sweetums' Jedi mind tricks and vote him out? and 3) Does Sweetums secretly control the universe?

Answer key: 1) I don't know; 2) I hope not; 3) I hope so.

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By Heather Havrilesky

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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