I Like to Watch

Bachelor Bobs grow on trees, "The West Wing" rolls into flashy "ER" territory and the average Joes go head-to-head with a bevy of Adonises. Plus: Why Ethiopians need therapy, not used mattresses.

Published November 20, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Humpday pickle
Just when I thought I had the Wednesday dilemma under control, "Angel" fans start chiming in about how "The OC," "The West Wing" and "The Bachelor" combined have nothing on their beloved post-Buffy spinoff. As with other incredibly important decisions in life, at some point you recognize that your choice isn't a choice, exactly, but an expression of some immutable part of your identity. Thus, even though you might take the time to ask yourself, "Would I rather watch a political drama featuring great actors struggling with legislative challenges and complicated ethical brain teasers, or would I prefer a nighttime soap populated by absurdly hot teenagers? Should I tune in for a Buffyesque show, also populated by teenagers, but not ones who are hot to the point of absurdity, or would I rather watch a tired dating show starring a chubby Trista reject?" the choice you make often defies any logical analysis.

If you're me, pathetically enough, you choo-choo-choose "nighttime soap populated by absurdly hot teenagers," but given the current sophistication of my taste, it could just as easily be "repetitive game show featuring absurdly hot teenagers" or "local news exposé on the dangers of ecstasy featuring absurdly hot teenagers." Sure, I happen to think "The OC" is a great show, but that doesn't change the fact that my choice has no real logic to it, just as it didn't when I chose "Dynasty" over "Dallas" way back in the day simply because the Denver Carringtons wore sparkly gowns more often than the Ewings did, and didn't clutter up their mansion with busy wallpaper. I was a "Dynasty" kind of a preteen, and "Dynasty" preteens mature into "OC" adults, 9 times out of 10. The other 1 out of 10 "Dynasty" preteens grow up to pursue advanced degrees in comparative literature and reread "Gravity's Rainbow" at 8 p.m. on Wednesday nights, but let's try not to think too much about them.

Despite my deeply embedded "OC" identity, I tuned in for both "The West Wing" and "The Bachelor" this week, and I promise to check out "Angel" as well, just to stay on top of this crazy time-slot battle, which reminds me more and more of that part of the animated TV version of "The Hobbit" where five armies are rushing headlong toward each other, the Orcs are coming in from the North, the Elves and the Dwarves emerging from the West, etc. It's also slightly disturbing that "OC" is one small letter away from "Orc."

What about Bob?
After missing an entire season of former big boy Bob kissing every girl in sight, I was shocked to find such an odd assortment of contestants interviewed on "The Bachelor: The Women Tell All," last Wednesday. The "OC" orc in me was fascinated by the fact that they seemed to spend most of their time macking with Bob, fighting amongst themselves, and doing back handsprings into the hot tub. It almost makes me wish I hadn't missed this season. Almost.

Mostly I can't believe how much these women dig Bob. Bob is perfectly fine -- he's funny, he's OK-looking, he's somewhat sincere -- compared to creepy Aaron, anyway. But what's with the nationwide swooning? There are men like Bob all over the place, ladies, you just don't notice them unless there are 50 hot girls chasing them down the street.

You "Bachelor" goblins have probably seen the finale by now, but not only is that, traditionally, the most tedious two hours of the entire season, but it's still yesterday where I am, and this column is due at the Salon fun factory well before Bob takes his bride.

Water wings
Many intelligent and insightful readers have written to inform me that "The West Wing" has tumbled downhill like a sack full of spuds since Aaron Sorkin exited stage -- you guessed it! -- left. Watching the last few episodes, I can see how purist devotees to the show would have a problem with its current course. The situations are much more obvious: the chief justice falls ill, Zoey is interviewed about her drug use by a Barbara Walters clone, budget meetings fall apart when the speaker, who looks like Ralph Reed's evil twin, gets all sneaky. Plus, the staff is downright nasty this season: Toby denigrates Josh and breaks some shit, Josh screams at a building, and Donna wonders why Josh never lets her sit in on important meetings. To top it all off, here's our favorite guest star once again, straight off the set of "Friends"!

An understandable perspective, to be sure, except that Matthew Perry is really good, and it's sort of nice to see a new style behind the wheel of a vehicle that runs pretty well regardless. True, the show is veering dangerously close to that risky "ER" territory of "This disaster is the worst disaster you can possibly imagine, much worse than that other helicopter crash or the train wreck in the snow, or the Great Chicago Earthquake of 1994!"

The similarity to "ER" is no coincidence, of course, considering longtime "ER" showrunner John Wells is currently behind "The West Wing." But shouldn't the guy get a little more time, before we start proclaiming the show dead in the water? Wells is no Sorkin, and if he imitated the exact style and pace of Sorkin's final scripts, the show would be hundreds of times worse than it is now.

Then again, if I were a "West Wing" troll, I would be outraged. I would imagine that NBC refused to play nice with Sorkin. I would assume that the network demanded all kinds of ratings-boosting stunts out of him, and when he wouldn't deliver, they turned up the heat, which they should've known would only alienate him, prickly genius that he is.

But if you'll recall, Sorkin was delivering ratings-boosting stunts at the end of last season, and sources on the set indicated that his refusal to meet deadlines made production a living nightmare. How this makes him different from any other showrunner in the universe, I can't imagine. But what do I know? I am but a humble Orc from some dark corner of the Southland.

Rich dwarves donate broken mattresses to charity
On "Rich Girls" last week, which I missed but which MTV thankfully replays hundreds of times a day, the girls go in for their daily Frédéric Fekkai Salon treatments. Ally has her hair pulled up into an artfully messy tangle while Jaime gets her eyebrows ripped off, forming roguish arcs that signal her newfound independence from crybaby Michael. Later, the girls arrive at the Hilfiger residence to the delight of Daddy, whose giddy charms, fussy opinions about style and enforced preppy-macho clothing are enough to raise a roguish eyebrow at. A man who appears to be the family's personal stylist promptly restyles Ally's hair at Daddy's request, but not before he mutters to the camera, "Just for the record, this hairstyle is beautiful."

Which has me wondering why we can't spend more time with the help and less time with these ridiculous teenagers. I mean, as fun as it is to see Ally, after announcing that she feels sick and needs to take it easy, spend the day on a speedboat scarfing down crab salad and brownies, then leaning over the side, I'd really rather hang out in the kitchen with the two chefs rushing around to fix a cozy little dinner for 40 at the Hilfiger estate on Nantucket. It's not that I'm down to earth or anything, I just wonder what they think about the little dwarves whose soy lattés they fetch.

It's not hard to figure out, really. When the girls take a break from the beach to slip in a tape about the conditions in Ethiopia, then brainstorm about how they can help, the results are worth more than a few dull moments at Frédéric Fekkai.

Jaime: If we weren't here, that could be us, you know?

Ally: We're, like, so lucky!

Jaime: So we have to get on the phone with, like, bed and mattress companies.

Ally: Seriously, aren't there, like, 1-800-MATTRESS, I'm sure they have, like, broken mattresses, that, like, has a scratch in it, that they don't want.

Those poor Ethiopians! How they survive without Sealy Posturpedic adjustables is anybody's guess. Shipping scratched or broken mattresses to Ethiopia sounds like the kind of low-cost solution charity groups across the globe have been searching for.

Apparently, the trouble with this plan occurs to the girls, based on a fast close-up of their brainstorming list which reads "Mattress companies -- can't ship to Ethiopia." Want to read the rest of the list? I thought so:

Fabric for dresses
Medical supplies -- gloves, needles, etc.
Get younger girls involved
$400 = a pair of shoes
Write article "Teen Vogue"
Mission letter

Hey, maybe those younger girls can get involved by rounding up used needles that people don't want anymore! "Think about the therapy that they need, also," Ally chimes in. Can't you just see a thin Ethiopian child on a black leather chaise, staring up at the ceiling and saying, "I don't know what it is, I just feel so hollow, like there's this deep pit inside of me."

"A pit. I see. So the feeling is ... like a hunger?"

"Yes! Yes! It's exactly like a hunger, in fact."

Finally, the girls set aside mattresses and sewing parties and start thinking about cold, hard cash. This leads them exactly where we want them: Pausing in horror over the fact that each pair of $400 shoes in their closets represents a life that could be saved in Ethiopia.

"Screw buying a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes! I want to save a life!" Jaime screeches. Ding-dong! No time to save a life quite yet; the yoga instructor is here for the dwarves' private lesson! Maybe the lifesaving can begin next week.

Starting over and over and over
Speaking of saving lives, I need an intervention to break the grip this damnable show has on my life. "Starting Over" has dragged on far too long, it wastes an unbelievable five full hours a week of my time (three if I speed through Cassie's college fundraising crap and Kimberlyn's driving lessons, but still), and offers me very few reasons to tune in.

One by one, the women "graduate" from the house, having accomplished their goals and changed their lives, and as they leave they're replaced by lame newcomers who no one wants to pass in the hallway, let alone share their feelings with. Kimberlyn is proving to be a complete zero -- the casting director who selected such a flat, blah human should be punished for this. Theresa, who's in debt, is also completely boring, although her massive debt, her spending habits and the fact that she doesn't know how much she pays for long distance is pretty fun to witness, but only because it makes you feel smug for having glanced at your bank account balance sometime in the past month. Nyanza is gone, Christine is gone, Lori can barely suppress her hatred for the losers who run the show (we feel you, Lori), and Andy is giving seminars on how to apply eye shadow correctly.

Yet, I know these people so well after all these hours of watching them pick stuff from between their toes that I can't ignore them when they're still there, on my TV, waiting for me to check in with them.

It's time for me to graduate from "Starting Over." Nyanza, you've never meant that much to me. Christine, you're sort of annoying, but I'll miss the way Andy does your makeup. Andy, you're great, even though you'd bore me if I met you in real life. Lori, you're a little melodramatic, but your hysteria and dark moods always make me feel chipper and sane in comparison. I'll miss all of you nutbags, but it's finally time for me to move on to more salient, serious programming, like "The Simple Life" and "Crank Yankers."

Regular guys finish last
Speaking of which, "Average Joe" has been yanking its contestants' cranks with reckless abandon. First, they make poor Tareq play golf against Adam in order to win a date with Melana. Anyone who's tried to play golf at least once knows how ridiculous and unfair it is to pit two guys with completely different levels of experience in the sport against each other. Tareq screwed the pooch, of course, and then threw his clubs across the fairway, which any reasonable man with blood in his veins would have done. There's a reason Tiger Woods is an emotionless automaton on the course, OK? Even the best golfers in the universe can spiral downward uncontrollably when their emotions get the best of them, and that's with years and years of practice in focus and self-control. Sadly, Melana, who seems pretty smart and nice for a dating-show babe, dismissed Tareq for losing his temper.

This is just an aside, but I was glad she ditched that weasely dork Brad for tattling on smug asshole Zach. True, Zach is a smug asshole, but even smug assholes are better than slippery, self-promoting nerds who have such threatened egos that they can just barely interact with others without whining and lashing out and making mountains out of molehills, then soiling themselves. Something about the way creepy Brad insinuated himself on Melana and tooted his own horn until he was blue in the face, he really deserved to be rejected.

And now for the ultimate yank. The last three men standing, Adam, Zach and John, are feeling pretty good indeed about making it to the end, when, all of a sudden, the mansion doors swing open, and three male models with plastic good looks saunter in. Poor Melana feels bad for her guys, but can hardly stifle a shit-eating grin when she gets a load of the man-titties and gelled hairstyles on these manicured beasts. Who wouldn't get a shot of adrenaline with three fresh packages from the Pretty Boy Factory just sitting there for the unwrapping? Besides, it'll be nice to see Zach feeling threatened, now that he's not just competing with a gaggle of butt-white nerds.

If the "Average Joe" crank-yankers have any sense of humor at all, these SpeciMens will have all the wit and charm of a twice-baked potato.

You're probably feeling twice-baked after such a massive intake of predigested TV, but I've got to squeeze in a word about this week's "24," which was not only the best episode by far this season, but rivals some of the all-time greats. Michelle is flipping out over Tony getting shot, yet she's still trying to run CTU while the mole hovers nearby. Drug-dealing teenager Kyle is fleeing in horror with the help of his girlfriend when they're apprehended by evil forces and thrown into an enclosed holding tank. (Finally, a hot blonde in peril to replace Kim, who's playing CTU genius this season instead!) And Ann is proving to be either a formidable ally or a formidable foe to President Palmer, it's difficult to say which. Either way, she's tougher and scarier than Sherri but makes Palmer stick to his ideals, and the whole thing has me wondering if this show isn't just a campy romp but a richly imagined moral parable like my Salon colleague Charles Taylor says it is.

In the final analysis, I'd say it's a little of both, and that's what makes it so fun. Instead of straight suspense, we've got blooming romances, harrowing danger, complicated ethical dilemmas and, last but not least, absurdly hot teenagers in peril. We "OC" Orcs wouldn't have it any other way.

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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24 I Like To Watch Television The Bachelor