I Like to Watch

It's time for a malpractice complaint against "ER." Plus: Trista and Ryan's big pink fiasco.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published December 11, 2003 10:43PM (EST)

Death of a surgeon
A few weeks ago I mentioned the heavily promoted helicopter crash on "ER," but never followed up with details of that episode once it aired. As it turned out, the whole episode was incredibly strange, and seems even stranger in retrospect.

First of all, the crash. A medical helicopter is taking off from the roof of the hospital. A med student, Neela (Parminder Nagra, the lead from "Bend It Like Beckham"), and a nurse are just stepping back into the elevator after delivering a patient to the copter, so they don't notice the helicopter tipping from side to side behind them. Next thing you know, the nurse is leveled by shrapnel from the broken helicopter blades. But the whole scene remains eerily quiet except for the sounds of mechanical failure and metal scraping metal. There aren't even any shots of the pilot struggling to get control, an unusually minimal treatment that calls to mind (and perhaps purposefully mimics) the heavy breathing and the hiss of bullets hitting the water in that heart-stopping first scene of "Saving Private Ryan."

Cut to eeevil surgeon Romano (Paul McCrane), who steps outside for a breath of fresh air after making a delivery to the rooftop helicopter, but narrowly misses the mayhem. If you'll recall, Romano lost his hand and arm to a helicopter blade last season, so close contact with copters makes him nervous. And if you lost interest in "ER" post-Clooney, Romano is the resident asshole, the doctor who lets un-p.c. slurs fly; the character we're supposed to love to hate. The next time we see Romano, he's in front of the hospital yelling at a med student he catches smoking weed, oblivious to the terror unfolding several stories above his head. He then steps into the street at the exact moment the helicopter comes tumbling off the roof. Romano has just enough time to drop to the pavement and scream straight at the camera as we see the flaming copter plummeting down on top of him.

Thus, eeevil Romano dies a gruesome death, but no one knows it yet. In fact, we wait as the "ER" staff is forced to reckon with the rolling parade of hideously burned, moaning, bleeding humans from the wreck, but the news never comes, and the full impact of the horrible incident never seems to sink in. In fact, in one of the last scenes, Neela is alarmingly nonchalant about the whole experience, even though she narrowly escaped death and witnessed the deaths of several people, one of them inches away from her.

Fine. Maybe the real brunt of the tragedy and of Romano's death will hit during the next episode, right? Wrong. We never see the moment when the staff hears about his death. Instead, at the beginning of the next episode, there's a shot of a makeshift memorial with Romano's picture at the center. Dr. Corday (Alex Kingston) tries to convince the staff to attend a memorial for Romano, but no one shows up, and Dr. Weaver (Laura Innes) tries to snake out of speaking at the memorial by convincing Dr. Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) to take her place.

Casting aside the beyond-campy Helicopter Karma that crashed down on Romano, how far-fetched and crass is it for a drama that takes itself as seriously as "ER" does to throw such a major character to the dogs without any fanfare? Maybe the writers were aiming for an absurd, unheralded demise for the show's least likable character, but dallying so whimsically with doom is ill-suited for "ER" -- hell, it barely worked on "Seinfeld." It makes you wonder if the writers had a personal grudge against the character (or actor), and simply wanted to snuff him out dramatically without cleaning up the ugly emotional mess that always follows.

What they got, though, was an absurdly unrealistic episode. People feel bad when someone dies, whether they're evil or not, because people feel bad about death in general. People also feel guilty about not caring for or honoring even the most evil people when they die. The only character who demonstrated any guilt or confusion was Dr. Corday. Even the behavior of characters who are fixated on ethics, like Dr. Weaver, ranged from disrespectful to flatly unsympathetic. Oh, and conveniently, Romano was one of those imaginary TV people who have no family to speak of. Not even a great aunt in Wisconsin? Give me a break.

People also feel bad when longtime characters die, whether they're evil or not. If Romano had become a cartoon of the overbearing authority figure, that's really the writers' fault, isn't it? Why add insult to injury by churning out a flashy, tongue-in-cheek episode that severely limits your audience's ability to invest in a world that's usually infused with self-righteousness, melodrama and weight?

But then, maybe I'm nitpicking about a show that's always been custom-made for those who are fixated on tragedy. You know the types. Depressed people who frequently bring up some sadness that they "never got over." Moms who clip articles about terrible car wrecks or about the college kid who climbed up a tree to get his Frisbee only to fall to his death. Reformed Catholics. Neurotics. Doomsayers. Chronic worriers.

Just to be clear, I fall into more than one of these categories, but when that hysterical, bloody procession comes rolling down the "ER" hallway for the umpteenth time, or the likable dad shouts something to his cute kid about ordering a pizza once he's done with this little clogged artery test, and you know immediately that he's about to die, you really have to step back and ask yourself, "Why the hell am I watching this?"

California, here we come!
I never ask myself that question when I'm watching "The OC." Granted, it's all blue skies and shiny hair, as opposed to dark corridors and shouting and hemorrhaging. But that's not the only reason it's my favorite new show of the fall season. You've heard me say it before, but don't judge this light summer viewing by its sunshiny cover: The characters are well-written and sharp and lovable, and the situations are fluffy and sweet and full of high-school intrigue, yet oddly satisfying. It's like watching a new hour of "Sixteen Candles" every week.

Plus, I love the dorky theme parties, and Seth's bizarre quips, and Peter Gallagher's tousled hair, and the rich colors of the paint on the walls of the Cohens' house, and the KROQ-chirpy theme song. Even the opening shot of the California shoreline, panning up to a bunch of McMansions clumped together on a green hill, reflects a lot of the show's understated edge. Clearly, the photogenic life comes with a lot of compromises, and living among the empty-headed and greedy in massive cartoonish houses by the sea isn't always all it's cracked up to be. All of the characters, even the adults, struggle with the compromises they've made and must make in order to get by.

Look, I know you don't buy it, so I dare you to take "The OC" Challenge. Watch three full episodes of this show, and see if you don't find yourself wanting more. Either way, let me know what you think, because I'm beginning to feel like a dim teenager for swooning over this show as much as I do.

Gainfully unemployed
In case you doubt that the pretty faces on "The OC" could mask deeply conflicted emotions, Paris Hilton offers living proof of the perils of photogenic living on the recent "The Simple Life."

Paris: I've never had a job, ever.

Real person: What do you think about friends who you know, who have had jobs? What do you think that life is like?

Paris: I feel bad!

Sure, it sucks to work for the man, but isn't it at least nice to know that Paris feels your pain?

Average Joe Millionaire
When I was about 12, I used to daydream about choosing from a conveyer belt of cute boys. After I chose the cutest one, we held hands and smiled. Then the daydream was over.

Pretty tame stuff, but it's about the level of excitement offered by today's dating shows, which have plummeted quickly from mildly amusing to excruciatingly boring since they became popular two years ago. Sadly, even with its original premise (take normal guys and make them compete against pretty boys from central casting for the same hot girl) and its absurd twists (putting the hot girl in a fat suit to see how the guys react), "Average Joe" ended in familiar dull-as-mud "dream date" territory on Monday night. Sunsets on the beach, glasses of wine by the fire ... Zzzz.

For the first time, though, pitting a bland model boy against a charming, funny, rich guy seemed downright unfair to the pretty boy. Jason, one of the face men thrown into the game after the major nerds and fat guys were dismissed, hasn't made one interesting, funny or insightful comment since he arrived on the scene. Honestly, I've met plug-in room deodorizers with more personality than this guy. So I almost felt sorry for him when he showed Melana the house where he lives with his parents, and then weakly tried to get her drunk on big fruity drinks at what appeared to be a TGIF's with a good view. Next came the requisite frolicking on a beach at sunset, followed by a lot of generic comments about how wonderful their time together was, how good they always look, and how good it is to look at someone who looks so good.

Later, Jason went on a date with Melana in Yosemite National Park. The two rode horses through the park, and then Jason spent a good half-hour positioning both horses so they could kiss each other while they were still on the horses. It was a telling moment for Jason, who's clearly the kind of person who spends more time framing a shot than he does enjoying the moment. "Forget the memories, let's get a really adorable photo for the mantel!" Melana seemed to dig his ultrabland good looks, though, so they sucked face a lot.

On the other hand, Adam, who lives in New York, showed Melana his great apartment, the office where he works as a day trader, the bar he partially owns, and his likable friends. She was impressed to discover that he's a "modest millionaire" and seemed to enjoy his company, but she didn't look him in the eye that much. Sensing this, he got a little nervous and insecure, but shook it off for their last date, which took place somewhere in Arizona. Adam, who has a wallet with money in it that enables him to buy things, like bread and milk, instead of, say, waiting for his parents to stock the fridge, uses some of that money to buy Melana a bunch of flowers and gifts. Melana totally loved the gifts and stuff, but you could tell that it was still kind of weird for her that Adam wasn't incredibly hot. That part made her kind of, like, uncomfortable. Still, Adam was getting about double the screen time Jason did, and Adam and Melana were talking like they really dug each other, and, well, the show is called "Average Joe," isn't it?

After about a half-hour of bad music and dull close-ups of Melana musing over her difficult decision, she got her hair curled in little ringlets and cheerfully gave funny, driven, delightful Adam the boot in favor of a 26-year-old college student who's probably adding "six-pack of Michelob" to his parents' grocery list as we speak. Her words were telling.

To Adam: "More than anything, you've made me feel so beautiful."

To Jason: "When I look at you, I see a future with you."

OK, so Adam was worthwhile because he made her feel like she looked good, but Jason was her choice because he looked so damn good. To be fair, Melana was more likable than most of the Raiderettes and beauty queens who populate these shows. Still, there's something a little sad -- not sad, really, but boring -- about the fact that, after all the fuss about guys with average looks and great personalities, we still end up watching two matching hotties fly off into the sunset together.

What was the purpose of hauling in the model boys in the first place? Are we supposed to be learning hard lessons about the fact that the normal, genuine good guy will lose every time without fail? It sort of sours you on the next round, in which a gaggle of even less attractive men are set to compete for the girl, but what they don't know, because it's already been shot -- tee-hee! -- is that a bevy of greased-up man-titties are waiting in the wings to rip that girl right out of their sweaty hands. If I wanted to see that kind of drama play out, I'd just wander out to any one of countless conveniently located Los Angeles night spots and dig the nice-guy rejection and matching hottie action playing out around me.

The Bachelorette weds!
Which brings us right to the Matching Hottie Wedding of the Year. Not surprisingly, after two full hours of such compelling segments as "Matching Hotties Pick Out Invitations," and "Matching Hotties Become Teary-Eyed As Film Crews Attempt To Stir Up Controversy, Thereby Entirely Ruining Matching Hottie Bachelor Parties," Trista and Ryan were ready for a long, drawn-out, mind-blowingly dull made-for-TV wedding.

Why do people want to watch weddings on TV? Aren't real weddings bad enough? With a real wedding, you know the people involved, plus they feed you good food and strong drinks. Who wants to see strangers get married on TV, even if they look pretty doing it? Sure, I feel like I know Trista and Ryan by now, having watched Trista get rejected by Metrosexual Alex on the first season of "The Bachelor," then having witnessed her discovery of the perfect blend of good looks and bad poetry in Ryan on "The Bachelorette." I know them ooohh so well, and they both bore the living crap out of me.

Let's face it, I'm an absolute bottom-dweller when it comes to this stuff, but this event, which was custom-made for that unholy cross section of American life -- the wedding-fixated, the reality-TV fixated, the stupidity-fixated -- was not only absurdly flaccid and pointless, even to me, but arguably some of the the least entertaining hours of programming ever broadcast on network TV.

There's no way to capture how deeply bad this whole event was. Every wedding cliché was in full effect. The chairs and the tablecloths and the bridesmaids' dresses and the flowers were all different shades of vomit-inducing pink. Pachelbel's "Canon" went on endlessly; the musicians, supposedly costing several hundred thousand dollars, utterly uninspired. The drone of helicopters could be heard throughout the entire ceremony. Every few minutes of the endless broadcast, the host whispered that it was "the biggest wedding of the decade." The ceremony seemed to go on for decades. Scary Trista was clearly thrilled to be at the center of this disaster, flashing her cute-girl, wrinkle-nosed smile every few seconds, and poor Ryan actually seemed to think it was romantic. Every aspect of the event felt false. Even the minister announced "We have a wonderful moment!" introducing part of the ceremony like a circus barker.

The only notable moment came when Trista was walking down the aisle with her dad, and he said to her, "This was my dream, to watch Ryan watch you!" Naughty daddy!

I get a kick out of the worst garbage on TV, but just thinking about this program honestly makes me feel sick. I hope to God you're reading this because you were wise enough to avoid it. If you taped it -- please, don't do it. If I save just one person from the pain of witnessing the horror of "Trista and Ryan's Wedding," I'll know that I didn't suffer in vain.

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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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