I Like to Watch

"Sex and the City," happy ever after. Plus: Larry "Branch" Davidians aside, it's "Nothing but Fluff" week -- with more on your favorite bland bombshells.


Heather Havrilesky
February 24, 2004 4:08AM (UTC)

Sadists of the world, unite!
Those of you who enjoy vivid portrayals of intense suffering but couldn't get your hands on a bootleg of "The Passion of the Christ" might take solace in the fact that I spent the better part of my week fielding letters from angry mobs. OK, they were really just angry individuals, but if they all gathered in the same place, they might form a mob, and that would be frightening, if there were also rocks the size of baseballs strewn about.

I don't want to give you any ideas, of course. In fact, fans of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," aka the Larry "Branch" Davidians, weren't really all that angry, and they agreed, on the whole, that Larry has been prone to unrealistic demonic streaks and hysteria this season. Fans of "The L Word" were pissed off, but they had plenty of reason to criticize my notion that lesbian characters shouldn't be ultra-hot like everyone else on TV. Supporters of Mel Gibson were easily the angriest, but their anger was sometimes tough to take to heart, paired as it was with assertions that Hollywood is controlled by the Jews, and if "people don't like Jews it is because of their own behavior."

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Come again? People who write these things clearly don't know any Jews. In my experience, Jews are funny, they're honest, they admit their faults, they're not afraid to be vulnerable, they're frank, they're genuinely proud of their culture, they're humble, they laugh a lot, and best of all, they're extremely tolerant of bossy, outspoken women like myself. What's not to like? Sure, sometimes they talk a little louder in public places than self-conscious gentiles like me can handle, and for some weird reason they expect good service at crappy places like Applebee's, but on the whole, I think that American Jews are some of the healthiest, happiest, most lovable people around.

Yeah, I'm overgeneralizing. You know why I can do so without fear? Because Jews don't hate themselves like the rest of us do.

I know, I know. You're angry now. This is all a part of my plan. By getting you all itchy and agitated, I've satisfied the first step of my experiment, titled "Televised Fluff: Nature's Tranquilizer." My hypothesis is that simply reading about the current slew of cotton-candy programming can soothe even the most annoyed reader. In fact, it can add years to your life -- quality years, too, not just years spent being spoon-fed applesauce while watching Maury Povich.

Enter the fluffer!
Let's start with some of the most intelligent, well-rounded fluff currently available, "The O.C." This is a show that's so good, it puts untold millions in touch with their inner preteen girls each week, not to mention delighting actual preteen girls to no end. Since I'm a hard-charging reporter with my ear to the streets, I needed concrete proof to back up this assertion, and I got it: a certain ninth-grader named Nick tells me that the kids at school are wild about this show, I mean, they really dig it. (Nick didn't say "wild about" or "dig" -- I'm translating, here.) Strangely, Nick himself prefers "CSI" to "The O.C.," which I can't fathom. But then, I suppose that for every five kids who can't get enough of pretty teenagers falling in lust, there's one kid who'd rather watch Marg Helgenberger staring at blood drops on a kitchen floor. Go figure.

This week, the normal, healthy, O.C.-loving kids were thrilled to see that violently self-loathing anti-hero Oliver was finally shoved out of the picture. Although I enjoyed Oliver's fast descent into madness, ending -- how else? -- with a gun to his head as a concerned concierge, concerned boyfriend and concerned authority figure pounded on the door, his antics expired right around the time Marissa screeched, "Oliver! No!" While Ryan's life-saving speech ("I feel your pain! My parents bailed on me too, dude!") landed firmly in the realm of time-honored cliché, how else do you end that scene? With Oliver blowing his brains all over the plush cream-colored interior of his parents' penthouse? Remember, there are actual preteens watching this stuff, and they're the ones who don't like to think too hard about blood drops or the kind of mess a "what the hell?" spur-of-the-moment suicide can make.

It was sort of strange that Oliver didn't actually point the gun at his head, but rather held the gun next to his head, as if to read its mind. I wonder, what was the gun thinking at that moment? Was it nervous about being thrust into the spotlight? Was it thinking, "Please oh please pull my trigger, and I'll gain infamy as the pistol that blew your confused, filthy rich head off!"?

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Sadly, Oliver and his gun were swept unceremoniously out the door without further explanation, so that we would focus our energies on how, like, totally scared Marissa was, and how totally sorry she was for ditching Ryan for a cocky, coke-sniffing sociopath.

Perhaps in honor of "Nothing but Fluff" Week, in the most recent "O.C." heaviness was sidestepped for a Valentine's Day fiesta that featured so many extremely relatable yet freakishly adorable scenes, I can't begin to list them all here. The most notable, of course, was the one where Seth tells Summer she's his favorite girl in the whole wide world and, in a streak of realism heretofore unseen in teen programming, the two immediately get busy. Best of all, the moment Summer rips off her top, the fantastically dreamy strains of "Hello Sunshine" by Super Furry Animals comes on to illustrate Seth's utter powerlessness in the presence of bare breasts. An encouraging sign that the boob flash continues to reign supreme!

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In another streak of realism, both Seth and Summer are mortified afterward, and Seth later tells Ryan that he was absolutely awful in the sack, like "a fish flopping around on dry land." Next, Seth hesitantly approaches his dad to talk about sex, and what follows is pure comedy, with dad (Peter Gallagher) gleefully waxing philosophic on the joys of foreplay while Seth cringes and mumbles, "Uh, I just swallowed a little throw-up." Later, Seth and Summer try again, and again, "Hello Sunshine" comes on when Summer takes her top off, only now it completely interrupts another song that's playing at the time. Just one more reason "The O.C." is simultaneously one of the best dramas and one of the best comedies on television.

Now, I hate to dampen your fluffy spirits or discourage your inner preteen from gleefully dancing around her bedroom, then making out with a pillow replica of Justin Timberlake, but some naysayers wrote to me claiming that "The O.C." jumped the shark with the Oliver episodes. They even have a chart -- charts make digesting complicated information easy! -- of the ways most of the characters have changed dramatically from the start of the show. For example, Luke, Marissa's bully of an ex-boyfriend, is now a great guy, albeit one who's recently started getting down with Marissa's middle-aged mother (Aww! Who knows his demographic like the back of his hand? You do, Josh Schwartz!). Also, Summer was once supposed to be a stuck-up chick, and now she's actually cool.

The crazy thing is, most of these changes make perfect sense and have guaranteed that the show remains dynamic and satisfying. Who wants to see Ryan get his ass kicked by a bully over and over again? And Adam Brody is so funny and lovable as Seth, we need for Summer to be a little cooler than she was at first, to live up to him. But there's no question we want those two together. Summer is his life-long crush, after all -- the fact that she looked better than Lynda Carter in that Wonder Woman outfit just sealed it. True, his former girlfriend Anna is far smarter and hipper, with her weird earrings and her love of comic books and emo. But part of the joy of "The O.C." is that it invites us into the mind of the teenage boy, and while we're here, we'd really prefer to get the girl with the hot bod.

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That's right, Nick. We're doing the hard work of acting like little pervs, so you don't have to!

Goodbye, sweet "Angel"
"Angel," I hardly knew ye. I didn't know ye at all, in fact. But it doesn't take a die-hard "Angel" fan, or even someone who's remotely familiar with the show, to recognize the utter stupidity of the WB's canceling a series with solid ratings and such a dedicated fan base. According to "Variety," WB co-chairman Jordan Levin stated that, thanks to the changing economics of television, the Frog needs "more at-bats" and more "new audience upside." Such statements make no sense to anyone, of course, but they do make us all feel grateful that we don't work in the television industry.

Series creator Joss Whedon, for one, seemed pretty confused about the whole thing in his posts to the Bronze Beta board: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the road less traveled by and they CANCELLED MY FRIKKIN' SHOW. I totally shoulda took the road that had all those people on it. Damn."

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I guess by "the road that had all those people on it" Joss is referring to the road that leads to wildly popular, lighthearted dramedies about hot teenagers who roam the Southland. I feel a little guilty about that. But not guilty enough to change the channel, particularly since that freaky Frog doesn't care whether I watch or not.

Fantasy suite in D minor
Those who studied "Structural Elements of Reality TV" in college already know that there's a crucial juncture in the life of every reality show. It's that moment when the conflict between a show's characters either shifts into high gear, reflecting larger human themes and universal archetypes, or it gets predictable and repetitive and you switch to a "Seinfeld" rerun.

Lucky for fans of "The Bachelorette," Meredith's search for Mr. Right has recently crossed over into archetypal territory. Now that Chad, who's unemployed and lives with his mom, and (kiss of death) seems a little insecure about those things, has finally been dismissed, we're left with two very different but very suitable suitors, Matthew and Ian. Although both are blond and beefy and successful and neatly coiffed and square-jawed and look like they played lacrosse in high school and have little of interest to say, that's where the similarities end.

Ian makes Meredith weak in the knees. All Ian and Meredith want to do is make out. Ian is fantastically good-looking, seems to come from money, lives in New York City, and reports that he's not very good at communicating his feelings. Ian does make it clear that he didn't want his parents to appear on the show, and opts to introduce Meredith to his stiff, snobby brother instead, who immediately expresses pessimism about the chances of finding true love on TV. (What is wrong with this guy?) Ian's brother pulls Ian aside and urges him not to get ahead of himself, presumably because it would embarrass the whole family on national television. Despite these many red flags, Meredith is clearly in lust with Ian and so, fittingly, the only thing that Ian is clear about is the fact that he will not be giving Meredith a ring anytime soon, most certainly not on live television.

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So now we know who the network is rooting for: Matthew, who not only looks ready to propose, but seems likely to get down on one knee, Ryan Sutter-style. Matthew is dependable and sweet and just an all-around great guy, and he looves the idea of marriage and just cannot wait to settle down with the right girl. He has a great family, he makes Meredith laugh, he seems comfortable with himself and his emotions, and he's looks like a solid bet all the way around. Consequently, Meredith can't shut up about how sincere Matthew is, but doesn't seem anxious to bite his nose off and eat it, as she does with Ian.

What we have here is the ultimate stand-off between the equal and opposite forces of irrational lust and pragmatic fondness. This conflict thrusts the viewer into an incredible state of longing and despair, the kind of inner turmoil we haven't felt since the last episode of "The Littlest Groom," because we know that the chances are that we -- and Meredith -- will make the wrong choice, going for the lusty hot stud with no interest in settling down, instead of signing on to the guy who's obviously capable of being a good friend, husband, lover, you name it, and his family isn't cold and scary either. It's like Seth picking Summer over Anna. Unlike Meredith, though, Seth isn't about to pop the question to either Summer or Anna, and common sense tells us that, down the road, Seth will find some variation on the Anna theme and spend the rest of his adorable life reading comic books and watching crappy TV with her, as is the American dream. Meredith, on the other hand, does seem anxious to settle down quickly, and Ian is very clearly good for a wonderful, brief affair and nothing more while Matthew might be good for both the short and long haul.

Casting aside the obvious fact that good marriages probably don't begin on nationally televised reality shows, isn't it sad that, even though we know Matthew is the better choice, when we see Meredith looking at Ian like she wants to ingest him in one bite, we can't stop ourselves from rooting for Ian?

It's "Nothing but Fluff" Week, though, so we don't have to feel the least bit guilty about it.

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Diamond in the fluff
And now, once again, the fluffiest fluff imaginable: "America's Next Top Model." What words can do justice to a contest in which every last one of the contestants cries her eyes out, makes out with a hot guy, pours into skin-tight pleather and feigns hand-to-hand combat while dangling from the ceiling, "Matrix"-style, and then withstands the creative verbal abuse of our surgically re-imagineered heroine, Janice Dickinson? Tyra Banks, evil genius and supreme ruler of the known world, outdoes herself each and every week with tasks that make the young girls cry, swoon, backstab, and pout for the camera in nine-inch stilettos, and I'm not going to shut up about it until Tyra stops blowing my little mind.

Best of all, though, are those moments when the girls try desperately to conjure up provocative or mysterious facial expressions but come up with nothing but zombie eyes and squinting like recent graduates of the Neve Campbell school of acting. Then Tyra shows them all how it's done, magically shifting from blank to cocky to smoldering to intrigued like an emotional hologram.

Her powers are actually starting to worry me. I mean, I'm pretty sure that her plastic face controls our innermost thoughts and desires. You doubt me, but just you watch. Soon all of your dearest hopes and dreams will be replaced by an undying compulsion to fetch Tyra bottled water, no bubbles, and niçoise salad, hold the capers, dressing on the side.

Oh, Carrie, our love holds on, holds on!
Now it's time to ask you probing questions about whether you feel more or less calm than you did at the start of our Televised Fluff experiment. Unfortunately, all I can think about is Sunday's finale of "Sex and the City." Was it as good for you as it was for me?

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How is it possible that, in a 45-minute period, every crappy, sappy, pun-y, un-funny episode was erased from my long-term memory, leaving in its place a longing for dresses with tutu skirts and apple martinis and Samantha saying something snide about blow jobs? Not only didn't Carrie get on my nerves for the first time in forever, as she would put it, but I actually enjoyed our time in Paris together. There she was, dressed like Cinderella, stepping in dog shit. Poor Carrie! There she was, smoking and eating sweets and wondering when the Russian would get done installing strobe lights at the local discotheque ... Those damn French and their discos! And wasn't that sad, the day it rained and Carrie was left wandering forlornly through the park in her powder-blue beret?

OK, the beret was kind of stupid. But somehow it was still satisfying, watching Carrie decide that the Russian was a big, self-involved bore (the irony!) just in time for Big to show up and be his handsome, fun self, plus now he's magically aware that Carrie is The One. OK, so this is a fantasy ending. Would we have it any other way?

Of course not. Plus, we always have Miranda and her sick mother-in-law to bring us back to reality. Her ending was a little weird at first, but ultimately pitch perfect, as were Charlotte's and Samantha's endings. Harry is great, Charlotte's imported baby looks adorable, and how much more could we love Smith?

Did everything work out too perfectly? Not really, when you consider that Charlotte struggled through fertility treatments, Samantha has just battled cancer, Miranda's mother-in-law is taking center stage in her life, and Big's name is ... John. You have to admire the writers' ability to adhere to the messiness and flaws of real life, without sacrificing the joys of a good Happily Ever After. Love is, of course, what saves all four of our heroines -- the love they finally manage to create with their partners in the face of life's mishaps, and the love they give to each other. It's enough to make you feel like an emotional hologram.

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I can't believe it. I miss those silly girls already! See how Nature's Tranquilizer makes you weep over your imaginary friends, while your real-life friends call and you let your voice mail pick it up?

Thank you, television, for distracting us from the good things in life!


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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