I Like to Watch

Dennis Miller's monkey business. Plus: Disposable drug lords, 'shroomless wonks, and "The Bachelorette" hits a sour note.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published February 10, 2004 3:41AM (UTC)
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It's Miller time (again)
Dennis Miller has a chimp on his desk and a button that replays Howard Dean's now-infamous "Hooah!" from the night of the Iowa caucuses, but he wants us to know that on his new show, he won't be relying on irony or snide gimmicks to make his deathly serious points. "It will not be Dennis Miller's Ironypalooza business as usual," he enunciates emphatically. "Excoriation has been my milieu up to this point, but on this show, I'm going to be a smartass with the smartasses, and heartfelt with the sincere people. I hope you'll eventually come to think of this show as an ombudsman: fair and insistent."

Yes, Miller admits, he's less liberal and far more outraged than he was before. "9/11 changed me," he says. "Quite frankly I'm shocked that it apparently didn't change everyone out there." According to Miller's logic, we may have been open-minded, even-handed folks on the 10th of September, but on the morning of the 11th, we all earned the right to surrender to our least enlightened selves, to fall prey to our worst impulses, to vent enough spleen with such righteous outrage that it almost matches the fury of our fundamentalist oppressors.


Miller's worst impulses include a resident chimp, a live-show format without an audience, a watered-down "Weekend Update" that resorts to jokes about Dean's sanity and Kucinich's creepy looks for its weak laughs, and a "Varsity" panel so awkward and unprofessional that the words "Junior Varsity" spring to mind more often than the chimp presses the "Hooah!" button.

Since Miller is relentlessly self-serious and wildly overconfident, he confuses his worst impulses with really bold, daring choices. Thus, the opening current-events segment wins only scattered laughs, not only because it's not that funny but also because those are members of his staff laughing. You see, Miller refuses to ship in "tourists" to fill his audience, so instead, two or three producers and network executives guffaw loudly, and we're meant to think the key grip and the gaffer just can't get enough of Miller's love. And that's bold? Aside from the obvious fact that executives constitute more of a fraudience than honeymooning couples from Michigan ever could, when paired with mediocre jokes that I'm betting are all written by Miller himself (and if they're not, he should replace his entire writing staff), you've got one of the most painful, awkward segments of television ever produced.

"Kraft Foods says it will eliminate good jobs, 6,000 of them, due to more than a year's worth of disappointing losses," Miller quips. One nervous chuckle can be heard, faintly. "All right, who's not eating Velveeta. Is it you?! You slackers! Eat your damn Velveeta!" The studio is deathly silent. I don't think I'm the only one longing for some good old-fashioned tourist laughter about now.


Another bold choice? Invite rambling pundits and TV amateurs to be guests on your show, perch them on bar stools a couple of inches from each other, and do little to herd them toward a discernible point. "For the most part, I'll let people talk until they're talked out," Miller explains, and you just know there's a Big Idea behind it. "I think talk show guests sometimes bank on the host's intercession to save them. I say let them finish, see what's next, what's on the other side of all that bluster. Also, I believe constantly trying to break into their answer with my next question is a particularly precious form of preening that I hope to avoid."

No preening? No live audience? Guests talking until they're talked out? Someone needs to remind Miller that this is television. Getting all thoughtful and self-conscious about what makes most talk shows ring false is all well and good, but it doesn't necessarily produce a more entertaining show. Thanks to Miller's ill-considered purist impulses, we find him cringing his way through weak jokes in an empty studio, or wringing his hands as Naomi Wolf and David Horowitz attack each other in 5,000 words or less, sidestepping any recognizable issue or topic for minutes at a time.

In short, Miller has changed. Despite his talk of pragmatism, he's evolved into exactly the kind of semi-intellectual who's so boxed in by ideas, he can no longer entertain. Miller says he would like his show to be the headquarters of a "common-sense revolution." Unfortunately, that revolution's not likely to begin until Miller himself demonstrates a little common sense.


My beautiful bachelorette
I tuned in to "The Bachelorette" for the first time last week, just to check in and see if I was missing anything. Instead of just taking a peek, I had a really bad flashback of my early reality-TV viewing. Somehow, seeing the boys whinging about another group date filled me with such shame, it was like hearing "Gloria" by Laura Brannigan and stumbling on my old zipper-legged jeans, which my mom always said made me look like Tweedle Dee.

The problem is not the new bachelorette, Meredith. She seems pretty fun, not exactly mesmerizing or richly layered, but anyone is a step up from that stale sugar cookie Trista Rehn. The guys seem nice enough. They're all the manicured 'n' meaty variety, a little too prematurely heartsick for my taste, but then I don't generally meet big, beefy guys who claim to be "good providers," and if I did, I might think they wanted to sell me healthcare. I didn't even roll my eyes when I learned that half of them were pharmaceutical sales reps, even though I associate that career with richly tanned men from Hermosa Beach who smell like Polo cologne and have massive projection TVs in their condos and "party with their boys" every weekend, even though they're 46. I could even stand to hear them repeat that tired refrain of "Seven guys. Four roses. Who will Meredith send home?" before each commercial break, but only because I TiVo'd through it after the first time.


But you know what kills me about "The Bachelorette"? That horrible music they play. How in the world could they feel that such hideously cheery Muzak, which sounds as though it belongs on some low-budget home-makeover show, should be the signature sound for "The Bachelor/Bachelorette" franchise? It was a bad choice years ago when the series first hit the air, and now it feels so dated, it could fill anyone within a three-mile radius with shame.

Honestly, try it. Turn on "The Bachelorette" this Wednesday night and close your eyes. You won't believe it; no other show I can think of has such a gag-inducing soundtrack.

Now switch over to UPN's "America's Next Top Model," and treat your ears to a soundtrack that's so funkified and sexy, it'll make you want to put on some black pleather stiletto boots and cry your eyes out in the arms of an uninterested photographer while a bunch of back-stabbing Bettys look on. Tyra, you're a genius and I love you more each and every day.


Broken wing
Apparently die-hard fans of "The West Wing" are hating that show more each and every day. As one friend put it, "They fired the guy who does mushrooms, and now it's like 'E.R.' set in the Oval Office." I can't imagine being a cast member on a show that changes so dramatically overnight. And, was it my imagination, or did Allison Janney look really depressed at the Golden Globes? You can hardly blame her. The cast of "The West Wing" usually takes up a few boisterous tables and gets drunk until it's time to herd onto the stage for all of their awards. Cut to Janney sitting with the cast of some Hallmark movie nominated for "best lonely housewife tearjerker of the year."

The brothers grim
Speaking of the Golden Globes, how crazy was it that "24" won for best TV drama? Whatever, I'm just glad that Hector and Ramon are dead. Will somebody please kill Nina now? She knocked herself out to make this virus deal happen, and then she blows it all by falling for the old sleight-of-hand trick? She must've been trained at the same CTU facility that glued Kim into a blazer and bangs and robbed her of a pulse.

In other news, how obvious is it that Chloe is up to no good? And why is she the only one who can operate the cellphone in order to field calls from Chase? Yes, it's great to have Sherry Palmer back, but why should we care whether or not President Palmer's healthcare bill passes? If Milliken ends up having purchased the virus, is that supposed to justify this meandering subplot?


Release the stupid virus already. We need mysterious symptoms, innocents falling ill, mass hysteria, riots. If raw terror doesn't enter the picture soon, how can we possibly invest in this story? I want to get that old feeling back, that sweaty palm, jittery, heart attack feeling I got last season, when the nuclear bomb was still at large, and at the end of each broadcast, the local station would break in with news of the latest menacing tapes from al-Qaida.

Ah, sweet anxiety! Nectar of life!

Hello, titty
You've read so much about Tittygate in the past week, it's hardly my place to chime in. Or, at least, I thought it wasn't my place, until I received a handful of letters demanding to know what I thought about Justin and Janet and jiggling jugs in general. Never one to ignore the call of the dogmatic blowhard, I shall dutifully lay out my own arbitrary and utterly baseless opinions on the matter.

Friends, Romans, members of the FCC: Breasts are beautiful and exciting, particularly when bared unexpectedly. By pairing the bare breast with the element of surprise, womankind has, for centuries, bent weak-minded men to her will. By combining our natural talents with the occasional, almost subliminal flash of flesh, we gain that extra edge that keeps us knee-deep in backrubs and tasty dinners out on the town.


That said, like any other powerful weapon, the boob flash is known to elicit a wide range of responses, from confusion to fear to anger, and therefore should not be abused or wielded in mixed company or unleashed among unruly mobs. Since time began, the spontaneous bare breast has left a swath of chaos and unwitting victims in its wake: the flustered, red-faced married man, the cackling, pointing teenager, the six-car pileup, the hungry infant, the unexpected FCC investigation...

Thus, the current uproar should come as no surprise. Even though Boobs Out is a clearly established trend, Boobs Out & About is still beyond the pale for the American family, which, as a group, likes to pretend that it's as pure as the driven snow, while separately, its members behave like the perverted little monkeys that they are.

And powerful as the boob flash is today, just think about how thrilling breasts used to be, back when they weren't propped up and pushed in our faces around the clock. Back during the Boob Flash Decade, preteens would rewind the same dumb shower scene from "Porky's" over and over again, thereby transforming the bare breast into a thing of rare beauty, shrouded in mystery and best glimpsed through a little hole in the wall. Remember that scene in "Piranha" where the hot girl flashes her boobs in order to distract a cop, and also in order to give her movie an "R" rating so that kids nationwide would bust their asses to see it? Seemingly purposeless boob-flashing was part of the rich fabric of our culture back then.

Just look at how far we've fallen. Thanks to technologically cutting-edge fabrics, breasts are clearly visible everywhere we go, from the boardroom to the bar. Thus, our finest entertainers must stoop to mouth-kissing their rivals and installing rip-away panels on their clothing just to get our attention. But even when it all works, even when millions of viewers are replaying the same moment on their TiVos over and over (I did this myself at least four times), even when the FCC is talking lawsuits and CBS is blaming MTV, and Justin is spouting blatant lies about wardrobes malfunctioning, and pundits are describing Janet's perilous childhood, the whole thing is a little sad. Because we know, and they know, and you know, that despite the fire and brimstone and intensive investigations, what's really shocking is that Janet's boob isn't shocking at all. Breasts are, in the new millennium, what sun-dried tomatoes were in the mid-'90s: utterly commonplace.


So women: Put those boobs away! Tuck your tits into an industrial-strength bra and a heavy wool sweater, recognizing that the strength of your weaponry will increase exponentially with its invisibility. Just look what it did for Saddam!

One small impenetrable cup for man is one giant leap for boobkind.

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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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