I Like to Watch

Apocalyptic visions in Los Angeles -- but what's scarier, the "fog" out my window or the new "24"? Plus: The reality finale that will make you weep.

Published October 30, 2003 6:32PM (EST)

String cheese theory
Explaining everything is difficult. That's why Carl Sagan was always walking around in Spanish villages in period costumes or making solar systems out of fruit. He was trying to give us the lowdown on electrons and nuclear physics and black holes, and if you can't demonstrate such things using complicated, head-spinning formulas, then you have to hang some oranges and apples from the ceiling and smash stuff with baseball bats.

But you know, the way Sagan practically spat when he said "billions and trillions and quadrillions," I think his passion went beyond wanting us to understand the vastness of the universe and the relative insignificance of man. I think, deep down inside, Sagan sought to incite premature existential crises in us kids, just to pick up where Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who" left off (the one with the whole world that existed in one speck of dust). That one little cartoon let us kids in on the fact that our parents and their friends and the teachers at school talked a good show, but really none of them had a clue about whether or not there was a god or a Santa Claus or anything. After that haunting story, we realized that, no matter what we chanted together at church (suspicious, how important it was to repeat our beliefs so often!) the entire world could just be a tiny dust particle in a woolly mammoth's trunk.

"The Elegant Universe" (airing repeatedly on PBS), Nova's exploration into scientists' quest for a "theory of everything," brings back that old feeling of having the empirical rug pulled out from under you. They manage this in the same way Sagan did, with flying fruit and 3-D computer-generated solar systems and animated pictures of Isaac Newton blushing. After watching all three hourlong segments, you're likely to feel a little bit smarter, but I just feel more confused about whether the moon is really made of cheese, or particle waves of cheese.

Ah, science. Good old science! How I've missed you. I must confess that, after watching Nyanza and Maureen scrap and whine all month, I forgot that you even existed.

Burning down the house
Of course, just glancing out the window in L.A. these days provides a quick visual reminder that science is always there, whether it's a convenient time for a visit or not. That reckless bastard science took heat, oxygen and a whole lot of dry fuel and made a king-size bonfire out of Southern California, one that you can see from space! Rock on, science!

But then, if you have the pleasure of living close to this massive bonfire, you can witness science in action when you walk outside. On Tuesday, the sky was so blotted by clouds of smoke that it looked like the sun was setting at noon. And even though, most of the time, L.A. residents have a disturbing ability to ignore all of the trappings of life in a sprawling dystopia, from calling smog "fog" to describing apocalyptic occurrences in terms of how they impacted traffic on the 101, everyone was bugged out by the eerie, daylong magic hour on Tuesday. So much smoke got in our eyes, we were under the false impression that our hearts were on fire.

My heart must've been on fire today when I got sucked into a vortex of almost two hours of alarmist local news coverage. Apparently watching the apocalypse on TV can burn through huge swatches of your time, time you should probably spend doing other things instead. Like writing this column, for example.

During this time, you'll find yourself traveling through many different emotional states. First, of course, there's the sheer shock at how clownishly bad the local news coverage is here in "the Southland!" Not only are the newscasters chirpy and bizarre and inanimate, but they're also the only humans alive, other than maybe used car salesmen, who consistently refer to this area as "the Southland!"

After you stop gawking at the news mutants as they bark at devastated families sifting through ashes that used to be homes, you feel sick over how tough it must be for these families, not to mention the other 1,800 whose houses have been leveled by the fires so far.

Once you recover from this temporary state of debilitating and highly inconvenient empathy, you're likely to lose yourself in a haze of flaming hills and 30-mile-per-hour winds and shut-down freeways. As it turns out, watching fires on TV is a lot like gazing at a fire in your own fireplace -- minutes, hours and days can go up in smoke while you stare, slack-jawed, into the dancing orange flames.

My own extended hypnosis was interrupted only by the sound of a phone ringing -- my editor, calling to see how the column was coming along. "Column?" I thought. "Who thinks of silly things like columns during the apocalypse?" Luckily, I sensed that apocalyptic dread hadn't spread to Manhattan yet, so I didn't say this. Instead, I reported that my column was going quite well, but that it might be a wee bit late. I may be dazed, but I'm no moron.

Thank you, gray matter! Science saves the day once more!

Sweetums child o' mine!
Speaking of morons, the boneheaded Drakes came close to ousting Sweetums on "Survivor" this week. Why? Because, you know, he's such a nice guy and such a natural leader, plus he catches all these tasty fish every day. Hippie Wrongstockings (Jon) and Wishy McWasherson (Trish) were behind the evil plot, which is a little pathetic since they could've easily given loudmouth Shawn the boot without offending a soul.

When will a new generation of scrappy Survivalists learn that taking down your strongest member is never a good idea? Not only does it suck to starve, but the producers of the show are consistently unforgiving to those who grow too big for their tattered britches. Remember the ultra-crappy "Survivor: Marquesas," where they voted out good guy and able-bodied leader Hunter, only to sit on the beach whining about being hungry the rest of the time? Or what about the first season, when they got rid of Greg the excitingly weird genius, leaving Colleen to scratch her bug bites and roll her eyes all alone? The "Survivor" puppet masters need to find a way to ensure that the best players aren't always eliminated just because they're perceived as threats, because no one likes it when someone boring and mediocre like Jenna or Vicepia or Tina wins instead of Colby or Rob C.

Still, I am sort of hoping the Drakes don't turn on Hippie Wrongstockings just yet, simply because my hatred for him has blossomed into a thing of real beauty.

Let's wrap this up with a little science lesson for those who don't live in "the Southland!" shall we? Because the sun hits the earth in different places at different times, we have what are known as "time zones." "The Southland!" is in the Pacific time zone! This means that we're three whole hours behind those of you who live on the East Coast, so that when it's, oh, let's say 10 p.m. for you, it's only 7 p.m. for those of us in "the Southland!" So, if you were to, just for example, send someone in "the Southland!" an e-mail at around 10 p.m., maybe just to say hi, or maybe to express your relief at the fact that Sweetums wasn't voted off by his teammates on "Survivor" that night, then that someone in "the Southland!" would get your e-mail at 7 p.m., and if that someone happened to be working late, squeezing in a few more hours of work before "Survivor" came on at 8 p.m., and happened to check their e-mail at 7 p.m., that someone might just want to kick your teeth in.

You don't know Jack!
Apparently Jack Bauer has had his teeth kicked in by life since the last time we saw him. The premiere of "24" (Fox) began with a biological bang on Tuesday night when an infected corpse showed up unannounced, sending Jack and company back into the throes of another Very Bad Day. It seems that, since we last saw them, Jack got involved with Kate and then dumped her, Michelle and Tony got married but continued boring the living shit out of everyone within a 10-mile radius, and Kim went from clueless hottie and helpless victim to every lunatic in "the Southland!" to genius-level CTU hottie. On top of that, President Palmer is alive but still needs therapy to battle his addiction to shifty-eyed, sneaky she-devils, and Jack needs about a month at the Betty Ford Clinic to shake the drug habit he picked up while Method acting with some thugs down in Mexico (see also: a land just South of "the Southland!" where drug dealers ride fine stallions and bed beautiful babes who look like Penelope Cruz).

It's always a little tough to get wound back into "24." Can invisible biological agents, however sexy they might seem in a bag of high-grade cocaine, ever feel as pressing and important as a nuclear bomb? Will Kim get into just as much kitschy, soft-porn trouble at CTU as she did in convenience stores and nuclear bomb shelters all over "the Southland!" last season? Will Michelle and Tony get killed off soon, thereby relieving us of their snooze-worthy career dilemma? Will President Palmer ever trust another white person again, and if he does and that white person is his snaky she-doctor, will it prove to be a big, huge mistake?

Stay tuned for much more "24" news than you ever wanted, right here next week. Same bat time, same bat channel.

Your above-average Joe Schmo
Even if you've never seen another episode, you should consider checking out the finale of "The Joe Schmo Show" on Spike TV (should replay a few more times -- check your local listings). You'll recall that Matt Kennedy Gould has been participating for weeks in a reality TV show called "Lap of Luxury" that he doesn't realize is fake. Well, suffice it to say that, unlike most reality TV finales, this one does not disappoint. Shortly after evil asshole Hutch wins the $100,000 prize while Matt smiles and claps and tries to be gracious about it, smarmy host Ralph informs Matt that the entire show is a sham and that all of his fellow contestants are, in fact, paid actors.

Unlike those moments on "Candid Camera" or "Punk'd" where, instead of screaming or acting stunned, people just smile and say nothing and then the cameras cut away, leaving you feeling ripped off for watching, Matt's reaction is about as satisfyingly dramatic as it could possibly be. He's so incredibly shocked and confused and overwhelmed that he can barely speak, so he just cries and shrieks and then, of course, he wins the money plus all of the prizes and let me just admit right now that the whole thing made me weep openly, more than I usually do at really important, truly moving things, like cotton commercials.

But as touching as it was to see Matt win the money and the affection of the show's cast and crew, it was still tremendously sad to see him turn to his friend and fellow contestant Brian and scream in disbelief, "Are you an actor? Just answer me!" And even though he reported that the whole thing was a great experience in an interview at the end, he still said he felt angry and disappointed with Brian. See what happens when you take a normal, morally sound human and throw him into the seething pit of sneakiness and deceit that is "the Southland!"? It's like watching Adam and Eve cover their toned abs with fig leaves, or seeing Pandora open that box filled with Envy and Greed and Despair and Capped Teeth and Really Fake-Looking Tans. And even as we spoil kind, innocent men and watch our big houses burn to the ground, we'll still keep on running red lights at 50 miles an hour and treating our severe sociopathic tendencies with yoga.

On other hand, we invented "The OC." That pretty much makes up for all that other crap, don't you think?

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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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