I Like to Watch: 2003

Faraway explosions, lots of hot bods, and assorted juvenilia: The year TV pandered to us like never before.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published December 30, 2003 8:24PM (EST)

If you didn't turn on your TV set at all in the last year, you might be surprised to learn that 2003 was not a big year for slow-moving, introspective dramas or subtly shaded character studies or richly imagined historical reenactments. Instead, some of the more memorable TV programming of the year catered to our basest urges and most primitive instincts as viewers. Most of all, wily programmers sought to please our inner teenager, whether stirring up trouble between warring camps of amateur models or providing night-vision shots of faraway cities exploding.

Thus, those who enjoy educational and informative shows offering insights into the human condition were left cold by this year's catalog, while those of us who like watching rich girls shop and gay boys kiss and comedians dress up as rappers and interview Boutros Boutros-Ghali had no complaints whatsoever, aside from having to lie about our viewing habits to our friends, lest they discover we spend most of our time screeching and pointing at the TV screen like little girls at a Hillary Duff book signing.

That's not to say that there weren't plenty of good shows this year: "Six Feet Under," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Will & Grace," and "The Office" were all veteran shows that did not disappoint. But the most memorable TV moments, the ones that set this year apart from others, generally seemed to involve either good-looking girls prancing around in lingerie or gay men making mean-spirited remarks about someone's shoes. Or was that James Spader?

To clarify the major themes of television programming in 2003, we've developed the Pander Index, a handy abbreviation system that allows readers to follow along as we survey the year in TV:

The Pander Index

MSR -- mean-spirited remarks

HG -- hot girls

SBU -- stuff blowing up

BL -- big lie

FR -- the filthy rich

T/SS -- trashy/smutty scenarios

JJ -- juvenile jokes (that's Ashton Kutcher)

"Joe Millionaire" (Fox)
This truly awful show struck most viewers as the dumb man's "Bachelor," so naturally they tuned in by the millions. The "big lie" at the center of the show -- that Evan Marriott was not, in fact, a millionaire, but just another penniless model with the personality of a root vegetable -- certainly helped. Network executives soon learned that curiosity not only killed the cat but also made the cat watch countless hours of simpering girls giggling sweetly at Marriott's latest charmless remark. As we slept with our eyes glued to the screen, Fox, the network of subtlety and sensitivity, broadcast every spiteful or lurid scene, including one in which a particularly aggressive contestant crept off to make out with Marriott. Afraid we wouldn't understand exactly what was going on, Fox threw in subtitles ("Tee hee! Are we gonna get caught?") that somehow managed to include the word "slurp." You know that feeling you get when your little brother flashes you a mouth of half-chewed food? That one unforgettable word had the same effect, and as if to retaliate for the hours of their life that Fox had wasted, viewers ignored "Joe Millionaire II" entirely. BL, FR, HG, MSR, JJ, T/SS

"Da Ali G Show" (HBO)
Whether he was masquerading as Borat, the TV reporter from Kazakhstan, or wielding his Ali G alter ego while grilling Newt Gingrich, Sacha Baron Cohen was one of the pleasant surprises of the year. Sure, his slow-moving rapper routine could wear a little thin, and at times you had to feel sympathy for the panels of experts unknowingly weighing in on the evils of drugs without knowing that their host was just another smart-ass comedian. Still, Cohen delivered consistent, hearty laughter, which is more than you can say for pretty much everything else on TV. Plus, the absurdly manipulative and confrontational situations this guy got into, all without breaking character for a second, made Ashton Kutcher's "Punk'd" look like "Revealed With Jules Asner." BL, MSR, JJ

Operation Iraqi Freedom
Nothing like invading another country to make those ratings soar sky high. Just drop some high-powered explosives on a bunch of buildings thousands of miles away, and watch anchors nationwide gasp and foam at the mouth over how deliciously powerful we are. Those who hoped that the media's love affair with hot war action would fade completely after 9/11 were sadly mistaken, as spinning "Target: Iraq" logos and triumphant top-dog music dominated the coverage on every channel. Viewers who tuned in and found themselves in a disappointing lull between fireworks displays were treated instead to fuzzy shots of desert landscapes narrated by journalists in military garb waxing philosophic in macho, Hemingway-inspired prose. Or, they toured Baghdad via satellite maps, guided by four-star generals spewing military pillow-talk about the mind-blowing precision of F-15s, FA-18s, Tomcats and stealth bombers, to the point where most Americans believed that with our technological advances, we could pop open a cold Coke for an Iraqi child half a world away. Of course, now that the really fun explosions and stuff are over, sweet-talking generals and wildly romantic journalists are tough to come by. The media -- or the president for that matter -- could always attend one of the many funerals held every week for members of our military, but let's face it, that would just be a bummer. So, like the flashy first scenes of a movie that turns out to be sort of a downer, we treasure those first magical moments of "Operation Heads Will Roll," the rough equivalent of setting off a firecracker in the sandbox, but before the part where Mom makes you clean 1,000 grains of sand off the lawn. SBU, FR (Saddam & Sons), BL (re: WMD)

"Are You Hot?" (ABC)
If someone told you back in 1985 that someday there would be a show where good-looking people walked across a stage in their bathing suits and Lorenzo Lamas aimed a laser pointer at their flaws, you probably would've believed them. That's exactly why this show was so creepy -- it felt like a logical extension of the self-obsessed '80s, leading viewers to question whether we ever left the "All Me, All The Time" era behind, or if we've just been pretending to have reached a higher level of consciousness when all we've really cared about for the past 20 years was having ripped abs and teeth as white as snow. In the end, though, Lamas' horny digressions and cruel comments saved the show. If all of the judges had politely tried to do their pathetic jobs, sweetly informing each overpumped, hairless jock or bony, silicone-inflated Amazon of the additional surgical work they needed to be perfect, the whole vanity festival would've fallen flat. Lamas abandoned all semblance of politesse and said what the rest of the universe was thinking -- and then said about four or five more things that made the rest of the universe cringe and want to throw their big jelly asses over the nearest cliff. In so doing, Lamas raised "Are You Hot?" to the level of cultural artifact, evidence of what will be remembered as one of the most disastrously shallow, pathetic eras of human existence. HG, T/SS, MSR, JJ (Lamas)

Sorkin departs "The West Wing" (NBC)
Intelligent writing, original, snappy dialogue, and remarkable performances have made "The West Wing" a bright spot on the television for five seasons. Creator Aaron Sorkin single-handedly brought spirit and edge to the political drama, somehow managing not only to reflect the rich, complicated internal dynamics of the administrative branch but also to arm its inhabitants with such honorable, high-minded aims as to reawaken optimism in the show's viewers. What if we could trust that the president was a wise father-figure and a morally trustworthy person who had the welfare of not just his people but the people of the world in mind at all times? Sorkin's microcosm was entertaining while inspiring us to hope for more. Thus, it was unthinkable to the show's diehard fans that Sorkin would depart -- but he did, amid rumors of missed deadlines and unrealistic demands of the network. Still, "The West Wing" sallies forth against all odds, maintaining much of its sharpness and depth, but occasionally veering dangerously close to the realm of melodrama. Nothing can last forever, after all -- even President Bartlet knows that. No Pander Index abbreviations apply. (True, sometimes Josh is a little mean-spirited, and Donna is sort of hot, but even without Sorkin this show inhabits a rare pander-free zone, which might explain why ratings have suffered.)

"America's Next Top Model" (UPN)
The title alone could make a 13-year-old's eyes roll, but the sad fact of the matter is that ANTM is so good, it deserves to be abbreviated. No matter how much you hate that bossy Tyra Banks every time she drags her big diva ass into the frame, braying about what real fashion models do and do not do, her melodramatic headmistress routine sets the tone for the entire show, encouraging the kinds of spitty outbursts and temperamental displays that make for quality family entertainment. Of course, since people often stare at them with mouths agape, it may just be that shockingly beautiful young women share certain personality traits: a strong sense of entitlement, a habit of speaking about themselves in the third person, a tendency to believe that their thoughts and ideas are absolutely enthralling. But the point of this show is not to encourage the American public to make oversweeping generalizations about amateur models. The point is to watch those amateur models strip down to their undies, get coated in Vaseline and glitter, and lounge with a 7-foot-long python as an industrial fan blows in their faces. Trust me, it's even more fun than it sounds. HG, T/SS, MSR, JJ

"Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" (Bravo)
While some of us have enjoyed inviting our gay friends to insult our style choices for years now, it's nice to see such a time-honored tradition hit the small screen. Strangers to the show should be clear on one thing, though: It's not all about insulting straight men. Admittedly, though, that is a big part of the fun. What, in any other hands, would be just another gimmicky makeover nightmare is an explosion of campy brilliance, sharp wit, and really good, practical advice for style-impaired humans of all stripes. The Fab Five, as they've come to be known, trample into the straight man's domain and tear him apart, figuratively and literally, denigrating everything from his unkempt ponytail to the multiple empty bottles of shampoo in his shower. But what's most surprising is that, once the sloppy Joe is transformed into a clean, stylish human and surrounded by admiring friends and family, it can actually bring a tear to the straight eye. No lie! Of course, the real star of the show is Carson, a sharp-tongued fashion maven with the quick wit of a gay male Dorothy Parker. Whether he's calling a particularly hairy man "my pretty pony" or cooing over the runway skids in another guy's discarded undies, Carson has a habit of pushing buttons and boundaries. While many have complained that the clever-sprite stereotype has mainstream American thinking every gay man is just like Jack on "Will & Grace," it's better than that homicidal creep in "Cruising," isn't it? I know that was insensitive, but Carson would approve, and he's the boss of me. MSR, JJ

Britney and Madonna kiss (MTV)
Just when homosexuality was being celebrated by all, Britney and Mad Dog had to jump on the bandwagon, at which point it lost a wheel and ground to an ugly halt. Come on, yesterday's playthings! Bisexuality was cool what, like, eight years ago? And then, in typical "Who, me?" fashion, both women had to act like the kiss was just this spontaneous thing, as if teams of lawyers weren't brokering that lip lock ("The parties shall engage in some tongue contact, but said contact shall not occur for more than two seconds, maximum.") for months before it happened. Who do you take us for, the same empty-headed morons who wore hundreds of black rubber bracelets and requested "Papa Don't Preach" on prom night? OK, that was us. But still. We're cooler than that now, and we're sick of you two with all of your transparent little attention-getting antics. Now could you just, um, do it again? HG, T/SS, BL which then spawned: JJ, MSR, SBU

James Spader on "The Practice" (ABC)
David E. Kelley has pulled it off before. Remember when you hated "Ally McBeal" and swore you'd never watch another episode, but then Robert Downey Jr. joined the show, and he was just so good, you couldn't resist? Sure, you lived to regret it. But you have to admit, Kelley's got a real knack for reinvention through recasting. No one can really argue that Lindsey and Bobby weren't wearing a little thin, no matter how realistic their fights were. And that awful teenager in the office? Yuck. Quibble all you like with the evils of Hollywood, but cruelly casting these lame characters to the dogs and picking up James Spader in their place was the quickest, easiest way to give this show a much-needed facelift. Naturally, we'd love Spader no matter what he did, but his role as an eeeevil lawyer is just so deliciously toxic, we're even willing to sit through a bunch of tedious courtroom scenes to get to the part where he makes a move on his co-worker or tells off the prosecutor with the fussy vitriol of a young prince. MSR, JJ, T/SS

"Paradise Hotel" (Fox)
Like a massive wedge of peanut butter-chocolate cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory, this fat slice of American culture at the dawn of a new millennium is liable to make you giddy with delight up until the moment you vomit all over your new sweater. Really great television is, as it turns out, breathtakingly easy. Just invite a bunch of really hot-looking morons to a tropical locale, provide them with an endless supply of MegaRitas, and watch as their universe explodes into a kaleidoscope of tequila-fueled rage and weepy panic attacks. Forget the quizzes and obstacle courses and the voting and the promise of cash prizes. As it turns out, fame-hungry dimwits don't need those things to keep us entertained. All they need is more time and alcohol than they know what to do with, and voilà! High comedy is yours! Never before has the world been treated to such an intoxicating blend of Lycra, hormones and technologically advanced hair products. Never has the world seen such a fascinating variety of personality disorders dazzling amid tiny umbrellas and shimmery eye shadow and flushed skin shining in the glare of the Mexican sun. We used to think that getting drunk at a tropical location was the only thing that could make us happy. Now we know that all we need to be happy is to watch it on TV. Thank you, Drunk Asshole Hotel! MSR, HG, BL T/SS, JJ

"The OC" (Fox)
"Freaks & Geeks" + "90210" - Tori Spelling + "Thirtysomething" - abject misery = "The OC," easily the most satisfying, surprising, delicious morsel to arise out of a uniformly disappointing season of television. In fact, "The OC" aired during the summer, building a small audience but leaving most of us out of the loop, so caught up were we in our cheap fix of "Paradise." The cast is instantly lovable, the stories are oddly appealing, the settings are shiny and absurd, the dialogue is sharp and witty -- in short, this show is too good not to sound bad when you try to describe it. From Adam Brody's bizarre quips to Peter Gallagher's charms, this is the rare soap that, instead of leaving you hanging, puts you in a great mood. Here's hoping this little pocket of California sunshine stays around for a long, long time. FR, HG, JJ, MSR

The last season of "Friends" (NBC)
Zzzzzz. HG, JJ

"Rich Girls"/"The Simple Life" (MTV/Fox)
Isn't it bad enough that we're infatuated with style and perfect bodies and what gay men think of us? Do we really need to check in with the children of the filthy rich, to see what they're up to? Big surprise, they're shopping and getting their nails done -- and their little dogs are, too. Amusing as it is to see MTV's "Rich Girls" Jaime Gleicher and Ally Hilfiger muse over the perils of the starving in Africa, or to watch Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie flip burgers on "The Simple Life," the main thing that makes these girls interesting is the fact that they sometimes act like normal teenagers. While Jaime and Ally make up the neurotic, emotionally unstable end of the scale while Paris and Nicole round out the simpler, slower-moving animals, we like them best when they're gorging on brownies or changing the Sonic sign so it reads "1/2 PRICE ANAL SALTY WEINER BUGERS." Why bother with the rich part at all? I'm sure there are some sassy cashiers at the Dairy Queen in Lake Geneva, Wis., that would be more fun than a barrel full of blond heiresses. FR, HG, T/SS, JJ, MSR

- - - - - - - - - - - -

For more Heather Havrilesky, click here.

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.

MORE FROM Heather Havrilesky

Related Topics ------------------------------------------