I Like to Watch

The simple pleasures of watching rad snowboarders and sleazy yuppies trying to impress Donald Trump. Plus: Sick of Campaign '04? Try "Tanner '88."


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Heather Havrilesky
February 3, 2004 3:07AM (UTC)

McTwisting in the wind
"Superconsistent, comin' out with his full bag of tricks! So, so nice." -- ESPN commentator, Winter X Games

Sometimes when I watch the Winter X Games, I feel like I'm 16 years old again and working at the Inner Island Surf Shop in landlocked Durham, N.C. It was the perfect job. My boss was super mellow, and all I had to do was stand around watching skating, snowboarding and surfing videos with a gaggle of chattering preteens. Occasionally a lil' skater boy would ask for some Tony Hawk trucks, and I'd ask him to come behind the counter and point them out to me. I didn't know what the hell I was doing, but it was somehow relaxing to work in such a rad little Munchkinland, surrounded by towheaded Munchkins in enormous shorts, babbling incomprehensibly.

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Watching the X Games (highlights will air on ABC Sunday, Feb. 7) brings it all back, from the lingo to the lilting speech to the sinking feeling that you'll never, ever have the faintest notion what these whippersnappers are talking about. Even if you can't understand them, though, you can't deny the raw thrill of watching snowboarders compete in the Superpipe Finals. These kids seem to float in the air higher and higher every year, and the stunts they do get more and more outrageous by the day. This tiny Japanese kid named Kazuhiro Kokubo flies so high (the dudes call it "amplitude"), you can't believe that's a 15-year-old up there.

While it seemed like everyone was bummed that legend Shaun White ganked his knee during practice, it opened up the field and Steve Fisher, who finished 12th last year, pulled off a gold medal win. Fisher did this by nailing a head-spinning backside 540, a cab 900, and the highly coveted 1080, which mostly means he did a lot of impossible-looking stuff. I would've liked to have seen a monster McTwist out of Fisher, but hey, that's just me.

But forget amplitude. What makes these kids truly mesmerizing is that they wear these crazy hats and massive baggy pants that seem to be falling off their little asses the entire time, plus they blast music on their headphones through every run. At the beginning of a downhill race, a competitive skier will look like his spleen is in his throat. Well, these little snowboarding dudes are up there at the top of the hill in zero-degree weather, chilling out to the music in their headphones, their postures evoking total mastery, confidence and relaxed indifference. The really good ones carry this posture into their runs, staying loose and flexible, channeling the music into their tricks, making it clear through every stunt that this is about fun, pure and simple. I'm in awe of these guys. And you won't believe how cool and confident these little teenaged girls are, fearlessly flying through the air and then whipping down the hill to hug their utterly neuroses-free parents. When I was their age, I was applying glittery purple eye shadow to the strains of "Electric Avenue." Really, these girls are so cool, it's almost depressing.

The Mo'fessionals
That's when you have to switch the channel to NBC's "The Apprentice" (Thursday nights on NBC), where a herd of cloying dorks are sure to have you feeling relatively smooth in no time. As someone at a party recently explained, "These are the people I've avoided all my life. It's great to see them humiliating themselves."

That summary may sound unduly harsh, until you tune in to witness these highly trained professionals puffing up their chests and bearing their claws in pursuit of the prize. In their calmer moments, when they're not slagging on each other or railing off their experiences and strengths in succinct bullet points like animated r&eaccute;sumés, they contemplate how totally awesome it would be to have tons of money and cool stuff like their hero, The Donald.

The women's team relies on flirtatious behavior to win every single challenge. In the first episode, the women (who tellingly refer to themselves as "the girls") peddled $5 glasses of lemonade on the streets of New York by kissing men on the cheek and handing out their phone numbers. In the second episode, they came up with a sexually provocative ad campaign for a chartered jet company, wore slutty stewardess outfits and flirted their way through their entire presentation. In the third episode, they interpreted "negotiation" as cooing and whining to complete strangers, then staging pouty hissy fits until they got what they wanted. In the fourth episode last week, they squeezed themselves into tiny Planet Hollywood T-shirts, knotted them up Daisy-Duke-style, and cajoled male patrons into buying them multiple overpriced shots of liquor. Thus, by shaking their asses, provoking crowds of men, and getting wasted drunk, the women avoided making their first trip to the dreaded "Boardroom," where a contestant is sent home every week.

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Thankfully, though, while the men's ranks dwindle, the global economy doesn't hinge on flirtation, spike heels and Jaggermeister, or else Pamela Anderson would be the head of the New York Stock Exchange and business deals would be sealed over hot wings at Hooters. While I applaud their shamelessness, it bugs me that most of these women are sharp enough to win without sleazing it up relentlessly. Even win-at-any-cost Donald expressed dismay this week. Can't just one of them stop and consider what a crappy message they're sending out? Every time they turn to T&A to win, a male angel gets his wings, while a female angel is rumored to have slept her way into heaven.

Puppy dog tales
But then, there are two types of people in the world: those who feel at home in a roomful of cutthroat urban professionals, and those who feel at home in a roomful of smelly, barking dogs. I belong in the dog room so completely, it's almost pathetic. Even dogs don't have much respect for me.

Sadly, though, my love of dogs is blind, so much so that I always assumed that animal shelters that refuse to euthanize dogs are the most humane of them all. Not so, says Susan Sternberg, who appears in "Shelter Dogs," a touching "America Undercover" documentary airing on HBO (several air dates, check HBO's listings). Dogs with behavioral problems are often adopted unwittingly, or they end up spending the rest of their lives in small pens, pacing and barking out of frustration. Sternberg makes a strong case that euthanizing such animals is far more humane than either inflicting them on new owners or essentially torturing them by keeping them alive in conditions that make them half-crazy. By focusing on the fates of particular dogs at Sternberg's shelter, Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption in Accord, N.Y, filmmaker Cynthia Wade highlights the difficult decisions and policy dilemmas involved in handling the estimated 5 million unwanted dogs surrendered to shelters each year.

If you love dogs and avoid the sadness of animal shelters at all costs, you probably can't imagine tuning in for such a depressing spectacle. Still, there are more hopeful and humane stories here than you'd imagine, and the challenges that these shelters face are difficult to understand without meeting specific dogs, from Ginger, the sweet mutt who doesn't get along with other animals, to Agnes, the aging dog who's impossible to place because most people are looking for young dogs or puppies. But when one of the dogs does find a home, it's enough to make you cry your dog-loving eyes out.

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Timely yet timeless
Those of you who dislike dogs and urban professionals seem to spend most of your time following politics. Lucky for you, it's an election year. Unlucky for you, Kerry's resounding victories have made the Democratic race far less interesting than it was a mere week or two ago. Never fear, for one of the most entertaining campaigns ever waged is coming to a station near you.

"Tanner '88," created by Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau, returns on the Sundance Channel Tuesday night. Just a glance at this satirical series and you'll recognize that it was light years ahead of its time when it aired on HBO in 1988. Each episode follows another bump in the campaign road for fictional Democratic candidate Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy). But after meeting with ridicule early in the primaries, Tanner experiences an unexpected revival when an artsy campaign aide films an impromptu speech from beneath a glass coffee table and crafts an odd but inspiring ad from the footage.

Like a prescient mix of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "The West Wing" and "K Street," "Tanner '88" blends Trudeau's snide quips with Altman's wide shots of orchestrated chatter, and the results are awkward but littered with brilliant lines and unforgettable interactions. It takes a while to get used to Altman's meandering, chattering style, and Trudeau's sly, subtle dialogue. But when the focus group laughs out loud at Tanner's campaign ads then scrambles for slices of free pizza, or when campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed) threatens to throw the film geek out of the room if he uses the term "neorealism" one more time, you know you're in for a great ride. Murphy does a convincing job as Tanner, and even looks a little bit like Kerry as he reluctantly kisses babies in New Hampshire. Reed plays the bossy but inconsistent campaign manager flawlessly, while a young Cynthia Nixon ("Sex and the City") is brilliant as Tanner's college-age daughter who takes a semester off to join her dad on the campaign trail.

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But the real stars are the presidential candidates themselves, from Gary Hart to a young(er) Bob Dole, who wander into scenes grinning and quipping with none of the self-consciousness of politicians on "K Street." And Trudeau and Altman use footage of the candidates far more inventively than "K Street" does. At one point, an aide is trying to convince Tanner that he looks undignified and pathetic as he struggles to carry his own luggage. To illustrate his point, the aide cues up footage of Dole asking for a "Tanner for President" button. As they watch Dole turn away from Tanner, someone stops the tape. Sure enough, Dole hands the button off to an aide immediately after taking it. "He's got a button catcher!" the aide cries, and explains, "This is a man who's comfortable with power, who knows without looking where his staff is and what they can do for him. That was Reagan's secret. No president has ever appeared more at peace with himself."

Cavanaugh responds, "Yeah, especially on his way to war."

With such a creative use of footage paired with scathing dialogue, it's no wonder that "Tanner '88" sometimes feel more real than the coverage of campaign '04.

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Too many stars don't spoil the broth Those who don't like dogs, urban professionals or politics settled down with big bowls of chips and cheese dip on Sunday to watch the Patriots squeeze past the Panthers in one of the most exciting Super Bowl Sundays on record. Many were too traumatized from seeing Justin Timberlake expose Janet Jackson's right breast not to shut the TV off at the first possible opportunity, but "Survivor" fanatics braved the storm for the first episode of "Survivor All Stars," in which three teams made up of some of the most memorable players in "Survivor" history returned to try their hand at the game once again.

The cast was chosen perfectly. Evil Susan, Jerry, Colby, Ethan, Rob Cesternino, Rupert, Rudy? What more could you ask for? Richard Hatch, of course, who seems determined to behave like a bona fide sociopath straight out of the gate. From strutting around the beach naked to refusing to help the others build a fire (like Satan, he has a real way with fire), Dicky has already managed to stir up loads of ill will from his team members. It's nice to see a group pull together in their hatred of him, but you still have to hand it to Shii Ann, who pointed out that it would be much more fun to keep "the king" around a little longer. Either way, it's clear that, as Susan once put it, "Richard's goin' doan!"

The team choices were also brilliant. Putting three lovable characters -- Rudy, Rupert and Ethan -- on the Saboga team together gives those three a fighting chance, plus it's nice to see them hanging out together. Rudy and Rupert have already made an alliance, since they clearly admired each other's unwavering loyalty on the show. Throwing self-aggrandizing Dicky in with self-involved Lex, selfish Jenna M. and self-serious Colby is too brilliant for words; naming their absurdly self-aware yet neurotic team "Mogo Mogo" is a pure stroke of genius. And finally, team Chapera (which always sounds like "Team Shapiro," somehow) is populated by some of the most dysfunctional humans ever to play the game: Country Tom, Susan (she of "If you were dying on the street, I wouldn't help you" closing monologue fame), dummy Rob M., slippery smartass Rob C., Alicia (she of "I will always shake my finger in your face" fame) and drippy Amber. It's easy to see Rob C. manipulating these dolts into doing his bidding. In fact, I think I'll go ahead and predict that Rob C., Colby and Rupert will make it far in this game.

Of course, one of the great things about "Survivor" is that it's very difficult to predict who will win. So much of the game depends on complicated group dynamics that are tough to call at the outset. Plus, the perceptions of the players arising from their original "Survivor" stints seem to play a huge factor in this game. For one thing, former winners are at a clear disadvantage, since many have stated that they intend to get rid of the winners first. Still, it felt like justice was served when Tina got voted off at the end of the first episode, since her "Survivor" victory was pretty much handed to her by Colby. Even after Rosie O'Donnell bought him a new motorcycle, you just know that Colby regretted his nice guy decision. It will be heartening to see him come over to the dark side this time around.

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In fact, something tells me this might just be the most brutal, backstabbing "Survivor" yet. Praise be to Mark Burnett!

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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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