I Like to Watch

The Fix "24" Contest: Submit your plotlines to put the punch back into what used to be one of TV's best shows. Plus: Wasn't it a coup that "60 Minutes" got that interview with the sweet Martian boy?

By Heather Havrilesky
January 13, 2004 4:00AM (UTC)
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Hello Earth!

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but after three weeks away from my two closest friends, Philips Magnavox and Sony, it concerned me how little I missed them. It made me feel guilty, really, to see how quickly I adjusted to life without them.


I'm not saying it was easy from the start. Instead of spending most of my day gazing, slack-jawed, into pop culture's effervescent void, I had to speak to other live human animals. I had to drive places in a car, park in parking spaces, sit in straight-backed, unyielding chairs, order things off menus. I had to smile and act as if I did these sorts of things all the time, as if it wasn't strange to not just observe but participate in unscripted human interaction, as if it wasn't frustrating not to be able to turn down the volume on the neighboring table's conversation. For a while there I felt like Chauncey Gardner from "Being There." I was amazed at how little rising action there was, how low the stakes were, how vague and unfocused these characters around me appeared. Who could even guess at their motivation, or mine? We were swimming in a muddled no man's land of home cooked meals and Playstation 2 and the witticisms of visiting in-laws, punctuated by the barking of my mother's psychotic little dog. The whole thing played out like an endless denouement, or a rambling art film that only a snotty film student could love.

After an initial period of alienation and shock, though, I grew to enjoy this unpredictable un-TiVoed world. As unsettling as it was to look at people in drab clothing whose hair wasn't professionally styled, I began to appreciate the mumbled inanities, the rambling small talk, the long silences. I went on walks outside, and the air smelled like pine needles, and when I passed people on the road, they never said anything clever or snappy. I even read books, which are filled with words that tell complicated stories. They're pretty weird -- instead of watching the plot unfold onscreen, you have to imagine the whole thing, and sometimes you don't even know whether or not a character has highlights or dresses funky or has a goofy high voice. And -- you're not going to believe this part -- some books don't have a single hot teenager in them!

Anyway, needless to say, planet Earth is a really cool place to visit, but I could never live there.


It came from outer space!
Speaking of other planets, wasn't it cool that, in anticipation of the Mars landing, Ed Bradley interviewed a real live Martian boy? Apparently on Mars, all the little boys and girls sleep together in a big bed, and sometimes they get drunk on wine beforehand. But the little Martians love each other and they'd sooner slit their wrists than hurt each other! The Martian boy said so. He said he couldn't believe the way us dirty Earthlings think. Our filthy Earthling minds make him sick, which is why he's hired high profile defense attorney Mark Geragos to represent him.

It seems that certain Earthlings are out to get the little Martian boy. Bradley took pains to explain that, while the Mars lander might look a little weird bouncing up and down for a full kilometer, its purpose is only to take some pictures and scrape up some little rocks and dust so that scientist Earthlings at home can tell what's been going down on Mars all these years. But the Martian boy said, no, that's not true! The Earthlings want to hurt his feelings and embarrass him and rifle through his stuff and cut up his mattress with their long knives and it's totally no-fair!

And when the gentle Martian boy told Bradley of the indignities he suffered under the Earthlings' power, when he whispered in his sweet voice, "They manhandled me very roughly!" it was enough to make you cry. After all, what if the Martian boy was right, and the Earthlings were out to get him? What if, on that red, dusty planet tonight, there are hundreds of Martian boys just like him, crying themselves to sleep, cradling their dislocated shoulders and trying in vain to purge their minds of the bad men who put doodoo on the walls just to freak them out?


But then Bradley, whose network went to elaborate (some have said spurious!) lengths to secure the interview, moved on to some tough questions, and a commotion of lawyers could be heard just off-screen. The little Martian was distracted for a minute, and then he whispered, "I'm not allowed to talk on that."

Mostly the interview with the little Martian boy made me feel sad. Maybe he did some bad things, but he's a Martian, for Christ sakes, what does he know of good and bad? And what kinds of moron parents let their kids hang out with Martians anyway?


Seven sexy strangers swallowing the ocean

Speaking of moron kids, "The Real World: San Diego" premiered on Tuesday and it's clear the show's producers want to leave the Paris doldrums far behind them. Forget kerfuffles over stolen peanut butter; in a throwback to "The Real World: Las Vegas" they're rolling out the smoking-hot party girls, one well-endowed Floridian who dances on the bar at Coyote Ugly for a living, and a Southern belle who, within the first few hours, mentions that her vibrator has seen her through some tough times. Thus, instead of opening their minds and broadening their horizons, the new kids arrive at their bayside house, exchange high fives, and send someone out to buy some cases of beer. And after so many years of watching the same dumb arguments over cultural differences, can we really complain? No way, José. They're all, "Yo, look at this house, it's dope! Let's get up in here!" And we're all, "Yeah, let's get up in that bitch, yo!" Then we pad off to the kitchen to see if the chicken pot pie is ready yet.

But when we get back, we learn that one of the cute girls, Frankie, has cystic fibrosis, and yes, that's a cigarette in her hand. Those bastards at Bunim/Murray have such a sick sense of humor. Frankie's no Pedro, either -- she's brimming over with self-hatred and insecurity and alienation. Concerned that her roomies might think she's carefree and well-adjusted like they are, she pounds several drinks, throws herself on one of the hunky guys, then stumbles off to vomit all over her bed. Yes, indeed, it's time to stop being polite, and start being real, folks!


As long as despair is where the big laughs can be found, why not pluck the hottest and quirkiest from the cancer wards and watch as the self-destructive fun begins? "The Real World: Mayo Clinic" has a sexy ring to it, don't you think?

I sound like I'm being mean, but really, I just think it's crazy to drag sick, unstable, insecure human beings in front of a camera. Unless they're little and Martian.

The day drags on ...
It seems like the writers on "24" are feeling unstable and insecure this season. I feel for them, I really do. It's tough for a show like "24" to jack the stakes higher and higher each season, and let's face it, Mexican drug lords who swill tequila and shoot their guns in the air can't really compete with a nuclear bomb that's about to go off over downtown Los Angeles. Now that we know that Kyle Singer's mother did not, in fact, release a deadly virus into the sewage system, and that Kyle is not, in fact, infected with the virus, the "imminent threat" thread of "24" has caught a snag, and the whole damn sweater seems to be unraveling.


Last year, we had a bomb; this year we have glowering criminals playing Russian roulette. Last year, we had Bridezilla; this year, we have a pesky drug habit. Last year, we had Jack parachuting away as a nuclear bomb blew his colleague to smithereens; this year, we have Tony Almeida with a flesh wound, barking orders at his concerned wife.

And as nostalgic as it made me to see Kim bound and gagged by the supposed mole for a few seconds ("Nnnnn! Nnnn!" she cried through duct tape), it was sort of disappointing that he didn't even muss her hair or rip off her blazer or force her to squeeze her body into humiliatingly tight fashions from Wet Seal or Merry-Go-Round. Turns out, he isn't a mole at all, he's working closely with Jack and therefore had to resist the urge to make Kim strip down to her G-string and dance the Macarena. She should've known when she took that CTU job that it would compromise her ability to be demeaned and degraded provocatively! But the real question is, will Maxim still come calling now that she's all serious and focused and tromps around in sensible shoes?

I hate to say it -- I never thought I would -- but there's something so deeply boring about this season. Chase is being tortured and Tony is losing his mind and the Mexican hottie is Jack's former lover, but none of it feels very exciting. And when Nina showed up in the middle of the desert to bid on the virus, what was meant to be a big bang just ended up feeling a little pathetic. The spark is missing somehow.

What, I seem distant? I need to drink a glass of wine and relax a little? I'm open to the idea that I've fallen into that "I Liked Their Early Episodes/Films/Songs Better" trap that so many critics and general-purpose jerks fall prey to. Then again, directors, rock stars and lovers do lose their touch more often than any of us would care to admit.


I hate to denigrate this season of "24", though, because the writers are faced with such an impossible task. As clumsy as some of these episodes have been, do I personally know exactly what it takes to fix them, aside from a few wardrobe changes for Kim and maybe the sudden death of Tony Almeida? Send me your suggestions for how to fix "24" -- concrete stuff, please -- and we'll determine whether we have a real right to gripe or not. If a bunch of us nimrod viewers can come up with some good solutions to the 24-hour plot conundrum, then we can whinge with impunity. And what's better than whinging with impunity?

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.

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