I Like to Watch

Tina schmoozes the power elite, "Survivor" assumes we're stupid, and an anti-Bush documentary makes us feel like conservatives. Plus: All hail Tyra Banks!


Heather Havrilesky
February 18, 2004 2:21AM (UTC)

Brown around the edges
You'll be comforted to learn that the endless pursuit of "edgy" continues on many horizons, including "Topic A With Tina Brown," which recently moved from a quarterly to weekly schedule (Sundays at 8 p.m. on CNBC). Like most of Brown's other projects, this one gives off a distinct whiff of chardonnay and Chanel No. 5, less wonkish analysis than eye-grabbing headlines and succinct, controversy-steeped bullet points to arm brainy socialites at their next cocktail party.

Straight out of the gate, we're tricked into thinking that current events can be very exciting and sexy, with extreme close-ups of Brown's emotive face and manic gestures set to a jazzy, up-tempo soundtrack. As she gets psyched up about her subjects for the day, the shots switch from black-and-white to color images apparently taken with a handheld camera being thrown from one member of the crew to another. Edgy!

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"We have Joe Trippi!" Brown breathes, her big blue eyes widening. "He was the mastermind of Dean's brilliant Internet campaign, but he was spat out like a nail in a vacuum cleaner when Dean crashed in New Hampshire!"

First question for Trippi: Why was Dean vacuuming nails?

"Then we have Mario Cuomo! Democratic oracle! Democratic orator! But he actually bolted, he didn't want to be president! He just stood back and said, 'No, thanks!'"

Next question is for Cuomo: Oracle, or orator? Which is it?

"Then there's Bob Kerrey, and he actually ran for president in '92. But he was chewed up by the system, he didn't make the cut, he was voted off the island."

This question is for Bob Kerrey: Was Heidi even more annoying in real life than she was on "Survivor"?

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After all the funky beats, pop cultural references and edgy pranks, it's easy to expect Brown's show to be one big ball of fluff. Never one to bow to expectations though, Brown rolls out an upbeat but informative program that consistently keeps your attention. Oracle/orator Cuomo is charming and pungent as always, Trippi is diplomatic with subtle hints of bitterness, and Kerrey is philosophical about seeing his torch extinguished. Next, Brown has a concise but provocative conversation with the ousted head of the BBC, Greg Dyke. After that, at something called the "Editor's Desk Roundtable" (the name alone gives me a flashback of falling asleep with my eyes open at editors meetings, a lukewarm mug of motor-oil-flavored coffee in my hand), Brown gathers a gaggle of smart women, including writer-director Nora Ephron, Vogue writer Julia Reed, comedian Lizz Winstead and former New York Lt. Gov. Betsey McCaughey. In keeping with Brown's career-long romance with socially smooth elites, these women speak in eloquent, dishy bursts on everything from John Kerry to Janet Jackson, and provide exactly the sort of rapid-fire, lively chat (as opposed to other shows) that makes sense in this format. If all edit meetings were this fun, editors might not quit their jobs and move to Iowa to crochet wool sweaters quite so often.

Hey now, you're an all-star!
Speaking of quitting, Jenna Morasco, the swimsuit model who won "Survivor: Amazon," exited "Survivor: All-Stars" last week, thanks to her mother's ailing health after 10 years of battling cancer. Jenna wasn't voted off the island. In other words, she just stood back and said, "No, thanks."

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But before she left, Jenna's depressed state brought everyone in her tribe down. Eventually, tribemate Kathy asked Jenna to try to suppress her emotions a little, saying that Jenna's sadness had become "a bit of a cancer, eating away at us." Nice choice of words, lady.

At the immunity challenge, Jeff Probst conveniently asked how everyone was feeling. Jenna cleared her throat and spoke up, presumably reading from big cue cards just outside the frame. "Due to someone who's very ill at home right now, who's getting worse, I need to pull myself out of the game and be there."

"Are you talking about your mom?" Probst asked, because he knew nothing of this before.

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"Yeah, she's just not any better, and things have gotten a little worse quickly."

"You're talking as though you're getting information, updates, on your mom," Probst snapped, as if to say, "How many times did we go over this?"

"No, she's my mother and I'm her only child, I got a vibe, a feeling, that she needs me there," Jenna responded.

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That didn't sound like Jenna, but still, it was plausible. Thus, one by one, the other tribe members hugged her goodbye. When she got to Ethan, something was a little different. "They've slept together!" I screeched, and everyone in the room cringed. I backed up the TiVo to watch the hug again. It's hard to watch TV with me, I'll admit. But yes, it was obvious. The shot was brief, but something about the way Ethan closed his eyes ... Passion!

After Jenna rode away on a boat, some words came on the screen: "Jenna rushed to her mother's bedside. Eight days later, her mother lost her long battle with cancer."

First of all, that's very sad.

Second: Wow, maybe she really did get a vibe!

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And then: Oh, brother.

Look, I can understand why Mark Burnett wants to uphold certain standards for "Survivor," but does it really make sense to lie this blatantly? It's annoying. I absolutely believe that Jenna could sense if her mother had taken a turn for the worse, but lying and pretending that someone didn't call a producer on the show to let Jenna know her mother was doing worse was just pointless. Wouldn't we want them to tell her? What kind of purist freaks does Burnett take us for? Last season, we were led to believe that Hippie Wrongstocking was Pure Evil for lying about having a dead grandmother, but isn't it just as creepy to pretend that Jenna had a vibe when she really had a T-Mobile connection? Jenna probably had a vibe and a telephone call, so tell us the whole story, otherwise we're apt to take it about as seriously as the recent news that Ken and Barbie are going through a difficult breakup.

Far from strengthening our trust in "Survivor," such fibs erode our trust because they indicate that appearances are far more important to the producers than reality. If they let us in on their process a little bit, within reason, we'd only end up being more engaged in the show. Why not empower your audience and keep them in the loop a little bit, instead of blatantly lying and assuming we're too stupid to notice? If I can figure out that Ethan and Jenna have had a little romance going on just by watching them hug, just think of how much viewers far brighter than me can figure out! They can probably learn Richard Hatch's home address and telephone number just by staring at his blurry crotch!

Beating around the Bush
Unfortunately, even the smartest among us seem to have double standards. Here's how it works: When the other side does it, we call it smear tactics. When we do it, we call it a groundbreaking struggle to reveal the truth. Their crimes are "cause for serious concern." Our crimes are "none of your damn business."

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At the start of the documentary "Horns and Halos" (Wednesday night on Cinemax), J.H. Hatfield, the author of the recalled George W. Bush biography "Fortunate Son," tells us, "There's not a day goes by that I don't regret this book. I wish I had never, ever, ever fucking sent in a proposal to do a biography about George W. Bush. It's been a nightmare. It's been nothing but a nightmare. I can't even begin to tell you how much trouble this book has cost me."

In the next scene, we see Hatfield explaining the story of his struggles to a reporter. "Fortunate Son" was originally published in October 1999 by St. Martin's Press, was recalled shortly thereafter, and was then picked up by Soft Skull Press in January 2000 and republished, after some major struggles, in 2001. "Why was it recalled the first time?" the reporter wants to know.

"For a variety of reasons," Hatfield says, "but the major reason, according to the Chicago Tribune last week, was that the Bush family attorneys put pressure on St. Martin's Press."

Anyone who paid any attention to the saga of Hatfield and "Fortunate Son," however, knows that the reason St. Martin's Press gave for recalling the book was that Hatfield had a criminal record, which they didn't know about before going to press. The recall followed publicity of an allegation in "Fortunate Son," made by anonymous sources (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, floated by Salon back then), that Bush was convicted of cocaine possession in 1972 -- an allegation with no real supporting evidence. The filmmakers may not reveal this information upfront because they want their story to unfold with some degree of suspense. However, Hatfield's refusal to offer all of the facts to the reporter -- we see their entire exchange -- doesn't exactly make him look like a man who's committed to exposing the truth, come hell or high phone bills.

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So, for the first part of the documentary, instead of hearing what Hatfield has to say about his conviction, for which he served five years in prison, we see Soft Skull Press founder Sander Hicks sweeping the floors outside the basement office of his scrappy company. "Maybe I am the super, but we have a right!" he says triumphantly.

Since I'm largely unfamiliar with the facts behind "Fortunate Son" and its author, I waited the next hour-plus to understand just how Hatfield had been persecuted, presumably by Bush's henchmen. The press release hints at a tragic ending. Was Hatfield harassed by men in black suits? Was he mysteriously murdered?

Mostly what we see are shots of Hicks, strategizing over republishing the book in Soft Skull's basement office. When Hatfield finally discusses his own criminal record, he says that he's done his time, and that his record should have nothing at all to do with his work as a journalist. So let's see now: George W. Bush's alleged drug use 30 years ago has everything to do with his ability to serve as president, but Hatfield's involvement in a plot to have a co-worker murdered with a car bomb has no bearing on his job as a truth teller?

Instead of digging deeper into this mess, the filmmakers show us clips of Hicks performing with his punk rock band. Then we learn that a Texas businessman is suing Soft Skull for alleged libelous statements Hatfield made in the new foreword to his book, which reportedly implicates the man in Hatfield's crime. But still, we're meant to empathize with the publishers and the author. The truth is, it's tough to get behind a battle against Goliath when you know that David recently traded in a car bomb for that slingshot. Car bombs are so over. Slingshots are edgy and now!

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Later, we see Hicks and Hatfield at a press conference in 2001, announcing that Karl Rove is one of the anonymous sources. That's a real zinger! Too bad the filmmakers don't attempt to confirm or deny that bit of information, choosing instead to focus on romanticizing Hatfield as a victim. While I don't have much trouble believing that the power-wielding Bush family has left its fair share of victims in its wake, somehow this guy, who was soon after accused of credit card fraud, doesn't exactly make for the best defender of truth. I mean, honestly, guy. You were convicted of attempted murder. What do you think the world owes you? Stop whining and find another line of work. Yes, his fate, which I won't reveal here for fear of spoiling the ending for those of you who don't already know, makes for a very sad, very tragic story. But the premise feels forced, and no matter how great or full of facts his book might be, there are plenty of reasons to question this messenger.

By the end of "Horns and Halos," which won the best documentary award at the New York Underground Film Festival, I felt like some kind of cranky conservative, fed up with liberal propaganda. Now, that's a fresh new feeling!

Hey, hey, Tyra
I want to marry you. Your show, "America's Next Top Model," is easily the best thing on TV right now, aside from maybe "The O.C.," which has been wearing Melrose-colored glasses ever since eeeevil Oliver arrived on the scene. I like Melrose-colored glasses, of course. But while we're on the subject of convicted felons, let's not leave out model contestant Shandi, whose mug shot from a candy store heist was featured on The Smoking Gun last week. Apparently the Shandster ripped off a fax machine and a safe from a store called Mr. Bulky's. Forget the crime -- have you ever heard of a better name for a store in your life? Mr. Bulky's? I want to marry Mr. Bulky and have a million of his babies.

Xiomara, cruelly nicknamed "See you later!" by the heroically bitchy Janice Dickinson and told "Girl, you look like you on crack!" by runway diva J. Alexander, finally got the boot last week when the judges were appalled that she couldn't hold her eyes open or pose provocatively in the massive fish tank they had rented for the girls' most recent shoot. Xiomara cried but refrained from proclaiming that she would most likely go back to "slinging chicken wings at Hooter's" as the recently ousted Jenascia did.

Now go back, reread that last paragraph, and tell me again that you really, truly have no interest in watching this show.

Next week is "Nothing but Fluff" Week: "The O.C.," the "Idol," Carrie's last stand, and anything else I can find that's really trashy, so tell your inner preteen girl to stay tuned!

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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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