I Like to Watch

"8 Simple Rules" why sitcoms shouldn't try to grapple with death. Plus: The thrill of watching a pampered rich boy cry.

Published November 6, 2003 11:42PM (EST)

8 simple steps for grieving your father

Death is a big, fat bummer, the kind of big, fat bummer that's way too big and fat to tackle in an ordinary sitcom. That's not to say that shows like "M.A.S.H." and even "Six Feet Under" don't manage to reenact that tightrope walk between utter devastation and a ravenous hunger for comic relief that follows a major traumatic event. The truth is, there's something about looking at gaudy $3,000 caskets and watching a house full of flowers wilt that really brings out a crushed but giddy appreciation of the absurd.

But, not surprisingly, the Very Special hour-long episode of "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter" didn't capture either the anguish or the absurdity of coping with death, choosing the blandly supportive mourning of made-for-TV movies over giggling or sobbing or lashing out or anything that might be deemed inappropriate by anyone, anywhere. Thus, the characters embraced each other prettily, melodramatically breathing lines like "God this is so messed up!" and "Ma, can we just not talk about artificial sweetener right now?"

Unlike dramas, which have been pushed toward edgier territory by "The Sopranos," sitcoms in general are shackled with the chains of appropriateness, like a preacher's wife sampling dry pound cake at a church bake sale. Unfortunately, no matter how much we miss John Ritter and hope that a John Ritter vehicle can somehow survive without John Ritter, the truth is that this show doesn't quite have what it takes to embody the subtleties of heartbreaking loss.

Then again, "heartbreaking loss," "subtleties" and "sitcom" don't exactly go together like Tinky, Winky and Stinky. Few of today's sitcoms would even consider taking on a full hour of laugh-trackless weeping, consoling and clutching snotty tissues. Katie Segal and the actors, writers and producers are sallying forth because "John would've wanted it that way," and given what a great guy Ritter reportedly was, you can't doubt it. But then, there are also people who, upon their deaths, want their poodles Spanky and Fluffwad to spend the balance of their days eating smoked salmon off fine crystal at the family estate in Bali. Just because Ritter would have wanted it doesn't mean it should be so.

That said, the scenes with James Garner felt grounded and genuine, and even though we didn't see Garner lay on his comic charm, the idea of him stepping in as an irascible father figure doesn't seem like much of a stretch. If an aging Jack Tripper can raise bland teenagers, so can an aging "Maverick."

But here's a little memo for network executives: It's time for the preacher's wife to throw back a few wine coolers, roll off those nude Leggs, and tell the church ladies where they can put their lemon bars. Leave the appropriateness and the big, obvious Sunday school lessons back in the '80s where they belong. Real human beings are a lot more inappropriate and confusing than that, and you'd be surprised at how many of us, even the nude Leggs wearers, prefer it that way.

Spanky and Fluffwad hit Mustique!
Now that I'm done formulating my urgent memo, which will no doubt be slipped into the hands of countless television movers and shakers by mid-morning, I'll get back to the equally important work of assessing the bleeding edge of TV programming for my beloved readers, most of whom are high-profile captains of industry, or at the very least own large-capacity stainless steel refrigerators.

Just in case my very busy and important readers were wondering -- and if you have any self-respect at all, you weren't -- MTV's "Rich Girls" (Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m.) is quickly shaping up to be the "Drunk Asshole Hotel" of the fall season. This week, Jaime Gleicher and Ally Hilfiger graduate with honors, which is clearly a proud moment for their parents. "You had the best shoes up there!" squeals Gleicher's mom, who's increasingly sneaking into the corners of the frame, the unsung demon heroine of this sociopathic train wreck (see also: absolutely delightful show).

Hilfiger and Gleicher offer a lot of spoiled brat grist for the mill this week, luring their effete nincompoop friend Michael to their party but pointedly not picking him up at the train station. When he finally arrives with his pretty girlfriend in tow, the air around Gleicher is thick with self-protective delusion. "He was being very touchy-feely with all the girls. I know he does that when he wants to get under my skin," she says. "And it gave me the biggest anxiety attack ever!" While Gleicher clearly has a precocious knack for blaming others for her own emotional instability, it's her gift for sharing with the camera that sets her apart from the huddled masses. Soon she comes clean and informs us that she and Michael have fooled around before -- while Michael was dating his current girlfriend, in fact! -- as if this admission will secure her status as our downtrodden hero. After a night of whining and making sourpuss faces, our war-torn hero eavesdrops on a conversation between Hilfiger, Michael and his girlfriend, then busts in the door when Michael makes the preposterous comment that Gleicher is behaving jealously.

Even so, Michael himself is a monumental jackass who (like Zack of "Paradise" and CT of "The Real World: Paris") appears custom-made for TV.

In one unforgettable scene, Michael is informed that he mustn't stay at the house after the party, but instead must ride the sordid luxury bus home. Michael, whose pampered brain can't wrap itself around the prospect of not being in the inner circle, begins weeping and tearing his hair. "To be told I have to go back on a bus! A bus! With a bunch of fucking idiots!" he yelps through tears. The spectacle truly is too rich for words.

Strangely, though, Ally Hilfiger is growing on me. While she's admittedly obnoxious, she's no more or less obnoxious than any 18-year-old girl. Something about those Eddie Bauer lambswool-lined clodhoppers she wore with her graduation dress endeared her to me. She reminds me of a friend of mine from high school who spent senior beach week in a hot pink bathing suit, brown sandals, and a Burger King crown, popping open cans of Goebel for each of us the second we crawled out of bed in the morning. While the rest of us touched up our eyeliner or fluffed our lame hair, my friend dashed down the beach in her crown, her sandals falling apart, her bathing suit wedged firmly up her ass, with a pile of stolen hotel towels in her arms. Unlike other high school wild cards, she was very confident, she never got sloppy drunk, and she rallied us to the brink of stupid behavior -- but never beyond.

Similarly, Hilfiger has fun and says silly stuff, but she's mostly focused on lugging her hopelessly awkward yet defensively vainglorious friend Gleicher through a rigorous social obstacle course without messing up her fabulous shoes.

This week's pleasing parade of pettiness ends -- where else? -- at the family estate in Mustique, where the girls lounge by the pool and unanimously conclude that they all must've done some really heroic stuff in their former lives, to have landed in the midst of such ease and opulence.

Which means I must've been an ant with modest aims and no rubber tree plant in sight in a former life, to be condemned to write about Spanky and Fluffwad in this lifetime.

Yeah, of course I'm lying. Are you kidding? Somebody pinch me!

DirecTV moves in mysterious ways
I moved this week, which means I was blessed -- I mean, cursed -- with a TV-less existence for a few days there. Having not gazed into a 35-inch screen for three full days, I became disoriented and quick-tempered, and found myself wandering the neighborhood, looking for small animals to beat up. I couldn't find any small animals besides one little bird, who told me that, in distant lands, humans focus this stored energy and aggression into productive activities, like volunteering their time to the community or working for causes they believe in. "Weird!" I said, and then became distracted by something shiny across the yard, which turned out to be a piece of crumpled aluminum foil.

I had originally planned to go only a day without access to hundreds and hundreds of nourishing channels of televised entertainment, but the evil gods of DirecTV left me in the lurch the afternoon of my moving day. I sat patiently on my pile of unpacked things for four long hours, anxiously awaiting the moment when my TV friend would be brought back to life, but no installer arrived. I called the installer's office, sobbing, but no one was there, so I spent the rest of the evening in a catatonic state, mumbling "Charla! Leah! Tijuana!" and other reality show names that end in "uh!"

The next day, the installer tried to snake out of showing up, thanks to all the traffic (Newsflash: You live in L.A., nimrod) and the rain (in L.A., drizzle is encountered as if it were a monsoon of acid rain), but I wasn't having it. So this strange woman appeared two hours late and described several complicated options, all of which would cost me an unspecified "extra" amount and entailed draping several cables down the side of my house. Now, I may be a humble TV critic, but I find the visible satellite dish with severe cable drapeage about as palatable as the sight of a double-wide with a dish the size of a minivan out in front. After five hours of silently watching this unfriendly person snake cables throughout my house and drop her power drill several times, scratching wide streaks in the floor, I wrote her a personal check for $65 for the extra hassle of installing exactly what she was supposed to install for free, leaving me to complete the setup, hook up my VCR and DVD, and hide the sea of cables behind my wall. I was just so anxious to get my TV friend back in business, I couldn't see straight.

The little bird, who inexplicably stuck around throughout the whole arduous process, told me that cable guys and satellite dish installers operate this way across the board, and that complaining to DirecTV or anyone else about it is like whining to the manager of your local McDonald's to bring back the McRibb Sandwich.

Then the little bird informed me that you pee in the shower. You're gross!

Emotional processing plant
Speaking of hurling blame and insults in random directions to see where they might stick, "Starting Over," that "Real World" meets "Oprah" love/hate fest that several readers have attested an addiction to, finally heated up this week when Maureen "graduated" and hit the road unexpectedly (and mercifully), Cassie continued to drag her feet, as any healthy young person would, in the face of calling strangers to ask for money for college, and Nyanza continued to behave inauthentically while braying about how incredibly authentic she's becoming. What does that word mean again?

Who cares? Christine, who hasn't been near a man in eight years, had a date, and not only was he attractive (albeit in a sort of bloated, wealthy, middle-aged way), but he seemed to adore her. The two established their compatibility at dinner when Charlie confessed that what he really loves is making money, and Christine chirped, "And I love spending it!" The deal was sealed, and the couple spent the balance of their time together making eyes and macking to a Kenny G soundtrack.

As cheesy a couple as these two make, it's great to see Christine, easily the most likable in a house filthy with therapy-sanctioned self-involvement, getting attention from a man who appears aware, unlike the other housemates, that despite her struggles with weight and recent inactivity with men, she's a beautiful and very kind person.

Junky boss, junky boss get off my back!
Before you tell me to break out the Leggs and bake someone happy, let's all gripe about the underwhelming plot of "24," where Kim's relationship with Chase holds about as much suspense as a elementary school play. I have to admit, I'm a little bored with Kim now that there's no threat of her wearing hot pants or getting held at knifepoint every now and then. Every time she's left alone, I secretly hope that a terrorist or petty thief will leap from the nearest supply closet or bathroom stall, but so far, no such luck. That business attire really hides her most notable assets, and her no-nonsense negotiations with fellow CTU babe Chase has as much heat as an ATM transaction.

Meanwhile, President Palmer's only remaining white friend, Ann, has something scary lurking in her past. Either that or trusted Palmer henchman Wade is actually eeevil.Not too shabby, but I still liked Penny and that pig-eyed Judas better than this lot.

Back at the hall of injustice, Jack is sweating and jonesing for a fix, Chloe is dearly missing her job booking talent for Larry Sanders, and Michelle is getting worn down by husband Tony's bossy demands, even though he is, technically, her boss. Nothing to see here, exactly, but next week's episode looks a little more ominous. Apparently Frazzled Working Mom is about to wipe out half of the free world in an effort to save her punk kid from a drug charge. In the previews for next week, we see addled Jack storming the joint, screaming "No!" as Mommy dumps biological weaponry down the toilet and into the Los Angeles sewer system. Luckily, most of those who drink the water here in L.A. are already dead or dying anyway.

Stay tuned for more uplifting TV tales next week!

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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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