I Like to Watch

ABC's cure for commitmentphobes almost makes up for big, fat obnoxious Fox. Plus: Cult movies, cultists and the joys of David Chappelle.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published March 1, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

Crazy like a fox
Remember David Cronenberg's movie "Crash," based on the book by JG Ballard, in which James Spader's character finds beauty and erotic power in gruesome car accidents? Sometimes, when I want to understand the mentality of the executives at Fox, I think of Spader's character. How else do you even come close to comprehending a Fox executive's uncanny ability to survey a tragic mess and proclaim it a victory? Thanks to the fact that "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fianc&eacute" won the highest non-"American Idol" ratings of the season for the network and drew in an incredibly high young-adult rating, Fox alternative chief Mike Darnell told Variety that the series was "a word-of-mouth success."

Forget that 80 percent of those who tuned in experienced nausea, stomach upset, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite and hair loss for days after the finale. Forget that those last few moments, when the Big Fat Obnoxious One chuckled and guffawed as he explained the big "joke" and Randi's family looked on, pale and horror stricken, were perhaps the most cringe-inducing minutes in television history, up there with Howard Cosell's toupee blowing away and Joan Rivers telling some star on the red carpet that they go to the same podiatrist. Forget that talk of the incredible love and support of Randi's family, inserted no doubt to keep her brothers from ripping out automatic weapons and leveling the groom's family of bad character actors on the spot, did little to stop those brothers from glaring or to dry Randi's sisters' tears. Forget that, even when the big fat dork pulled a million dollars out of his pocket and gave half to the family and half to Randi, everyone looked angry and scarred by the whole awful situation. This show was a smashing success, exactly the sort of triumph in programming Fox has been looking for!

As Darnell told Variety, "The show started out as a comedy but then it took this turn so that it became a very dramatic reality series. I believe the last hour was as dramatically intense as any episode of fictional TV in the last few years." Right, right. But you know what would've been even more dramatically intense? If the brothers really had whipped out semiautomatics and mowed down half of the assembled wedding guests. Maybe for "My Bigger, Fatter, More Obnoxious Fianc&eacute," Fox can place some high-powered firearms within easy reach.

Also, if Randi would've thrown herself over the nearest cliff, or better yet, set herself on fire, that would've been the most dramatically intense hour of television ever filmed. Maybe Fox should screen its reality stars a little more carefully to make sure that they have the right blend of personality disorders to ensure a truly dramatic ending.

We like to watch
You know a show is bad when it makes me all self-righteous and uppity. I really can't claim any moral high ground, though. If Fox thinks one of its shows is a word-of-mouth success, nine times out of 10, I'm the one leading the grass-roots campaign behind it.

After all, I have people over at my house to watch TV. Is that ethical? I mean, I know it's not cool, but if I cared about cool, I wouldn't listen to old Yes albums or use liquid hand soap or call my mother "Mommy."

But maybe it's wrong for me to pull others into my nasty television habit. Last summer I actually convinced four close friends of mine, friends with numerous talents and interests and nice qualities, to watch "Drunk Asshole Hotel" twice a week. I did this simply by writing about the peculiar joys of that show, over and over and over again, for pay here, but also on my blog, on public bathroom stalls, on leaflets I subsequently dropped all over the Southland. As a result, my friends -- people who could've spent their time volunteering at soup kitchens or working on their first albums or crocheting little sweaters for teddy bears -- instead sat around like imbeciles, watching hot people get drunk and lay bare the warped subflooring of their emotional hidey-holes. I don't know what that even means, but now that I think about it, it sounds way better than learning to cook or training for a marathon.

But see, that's my sickness. That's my cross to bear! Why oh why did I have to infect others with my affliction? Why did I have to lure others into my den of iniquity, even if there are cold beers and bowls of salt and vinegar potato chips in there?

Ring around the rosies
Aw, who cares? We've got a lot of big fat obnoxious fish to fry this week, starting with what was, finally, once and for all, the Most Dramatic Rose Ceremony Ever. What a relief! After countless tedious rose ceremonies, this one finally lived up to its billing. I never thought I'd say this, but how much more gratifying could the finale of "The Bachelorette" have been? Nora Ephron couldn't have written a better plot for the last two weeks of this romantic dramedy.

As you'll recall from last week's column, when we last saw her, Meredith was engaged in a timeless struggle of archetypal proportions. How would she ever choose between red-hot lust and stability, between Narcissus and Goldmund, between breakfast in bed for the rest of her life and living in bed for the next few weeks? In the previous episode, Matthew, the marrying kind, and Ian, the disappearing-around-the-next-corner kind, appeared to be neck-and-neck in the final stretch. Meredith was clearly counting on her family to help her choose, maybe secretly hoping that they'd steer her away from Mr. You're Not Getting a Ring, and give Mr. Whatever You Want, Darling their seal of approval.

The parents did, indeed, adore Matthew in all of his submissive, pandering glory. In fact, it looked like Matthew had this thing all sewn up until Ian the Tasty came swaggering in the door, and Meredith and her mom and brother giggled by the stove like little girls and had what will henceforth be known as the Kitchen Conversation.

Meredith: He's so, like, charming. And he could teach me Portuguese and ...

Brother: Windsurfing!

Meredith: Windsurfing! It's awesome.

Mom: It sounds exciting to me. And you know me.

Meredith: I know.

Mom: I've been married 40 years. I'm ready for excitement myself!

Loud, cackling laughter.

You men probably don't know this, but when a woman shares loud, cackling laughter with her mom, this indicates that the two of them are in hearty agreement. Plus, when your mom gives you permission to ditch the boring nice guy and go for the one who makes your hands sweat profusely? Well, that's a big day. A mom who recommends the dreamy unstable guy, when clearly this will delay the procurement of grandchildren significantly, is a great mom, indeed. So what are you going to do, hunker down with a swell guy in Texas, or jet off to Portugal?

Did I mention that there are strong hints floating about that Ian has a trust fund? Did I also mention that, if Meredith could fit Ian's entire head, great hair and all, into her mouth, she would do so in a heartbeat? These two are hot for each other, and not in that sticky-sweet Ryan 'n' Trista way, either.

All right, so the rose ceremony. Matthew shows up and gets his heart ripped out of his chest, which is a little rough, considering the fact that Meredith told him specifically to get her a ring. But we've got no time for losers here. Bring on the champions!

Ian arrives looking tremendously nervous and excited, which makes me want to ingest his entire head, too. Meredith says something like, "It's you and only you. I'm madly in love. If I were caught in a steel trap I would chew my own paw off to be with you," etc. Ian says something like, "I feel pretty, oh so pretty. I feel pretty and witty and the opposite of gay." It's all very exciting and disconcertingly genuine and we, at home, are collectively hoping that we'll somehow get glimpses of these two, bedheaded and exhausted, grabbing coffees down the street from the hotel room they'll be holed up in for the next six months.

We're so excited that we hardly care that Ian is about to say that he wants the two of them to take some time to get to know each other -- that's rational, after all, and we're already mentally packing our bags for Portugal, so no big deal.

And then, the room starts spinning. Ian has decided to give Meredith a ring! He says he trusts his instincts! Mr. Disappearing Around the Next Corner trusts his instincts? We know this guy! He's supposed to be indecisive and flinchy and full of doubts! This is like Big telling Carrie she's The One -- pure, unadulterated fantasy! It'll never work, but we love it!

And yet, Ian does seem much sweeter and softer and giddier -- giddier than a puppet on a string, in fact -- than he did at the start of this ... this ... damn it, I was about to refer to it as a "journey"! What is wrong with me?

I'll tell you what's wrong. No matter how much we think quick romances and big diamond rings and professions of love after a few short weeks are a big load of hooey, most of us just can't help ourselves from falling prey to their charms. Why should we blame ourselves? We've been soaking in instant romance, replete with red roses and long walks on the beach at sunset, since the day we were born. It's the American way. So why not just enjoy it? Why not lean into the experience, feel the thrill of recklessness, abandon yourself to the moment? Isn't that what falling in love is all about?

Oh, wait. Meredith and Ian are waving goodbye to the cameras. I guess we're not going to Portugal after all.

After midnight
If you're let down from realizing you're not about to jet away with a golden Adonis, plus you're still losing sleep from the "Big, Fat, Obnoxious Fiancé" finale, you might want to tune in to the Sundance channel's "Midnight Snack," featuring a different cult movie at midnight every Friday through June, starting this week. Upcoming movies include "The Crow," "Romeo Is Bleeding," "El Mariachi" and other stuff you've probably heard about but never seen, plus a lot of stuff that you've neither heard about nor seen, but that Quentin Tarantino has.

You know, when I think about Tarantino watching these sorts of films over and over, or when I see a picture of Tarantino somewhere, or hear him speak at an awards show, it annoys me a little. Do all obsessive, detail-oriented, geeky enthusiasts annoy me, or is it only the ones that look and sound exactly like Tarantino? Do these people who have an encyclopedic knowledge of cult films, or '70s comics, or indie music make me feel unworthy because I'm scattered and lazy? Or do they just bug me because they hunch and blurt out obscure references and they don't wash their hair enough and they're mouth breathers?

Boy, I'm really taking this Portugal thing pretty hard.

Laughter and forgetting
Whenever I want to laugh away a reality-TV-induced existential crisis (or a bad-hair-induced existential crisis, for that matter), I watch a few episodes of "Chappelle's Show" (Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central), which is not only funny ha-ha but funny weird on a consistent basis.

Funny ha-ha and funny weird go together like bad hair and too many hours of watching reality TV, and David Chappelle has that rare knack for pulling comedy out of anything and everything without concern for sacred cows or outraged mail from the easily offended. One of my favorite skits in recent memory depicts what would happen if white-collar criminals were treated like crack dealers and vice versa. Something about seeing the cops bust into the home of a white CEO, shooting his yellow Labrador and roughing up his wife, is both unsettling and absurdly funny. Meanwhile, the crack dealer makes an appointment to stop by and chat with the feds, and later smugly pleads "the Fizith" at a congressional hearing.

The really great thing about Chappelle, though, is that he's imaginative and strange and does whatever the hell he feels like doing. One of his best sketches is "Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories," in which Eddie Murphy's brother recounts his celebrity-related experiences in Hollywood, and the story is dramatized by Chappelle and his crew. In keeping with Chappelle's originality and confidence in his choices, when Murphy told the story of a long-running feud with Rick James, Chappelle lengthened it to fill up most of his half-hour show.

A whole show about Charlie Murphy's encounters with Rick James? As hard as it is to believe, the episode was absurdly entertaining. Narrated by both Murphy and James and edited to immense comic effect, the sketch featured Chappelle, dressed as Rick James, tossing back drinks, screaming orders at women, sucker-punching Murphy (playing himself, replete with a Jerry Curl and a Member's Only jacket), and grinding his muddy shoes into Eddie Murphy's white couch. In his narration alone, James is the genuine article, proclaiming Murphy's story a complete fabrication one minute, then admitting that he did everything Murphy described the next.

"Chappelle's Show" represents everything that's exciting about really great comedy: It's funny, grounded in reality, utterly bizarre and wholeheartedly unique.

Oh no! Light weeends! Poor Hawaii!
Although you might not associate Triumph the Insult Comic Dog with great comedy, anyone who's managed to see the clip from "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" where Triumph interviews hopefuls trying out for "American Idol" in Hawaii will beg to differ. Not only is Robert Smigel incredibly good at ad-libbing with these hopefuls on the street, but the local news in Hawaii actually did a report on Triumph being kicked out of the "American Idol" auditions, including an interview with the outraged puppet. Then, unbelievably, they let him deliver the weather report.

Oh, man. I can't do justice to this with words. Watch the clip and see for yourself.

Mad about voodoo
You know reality TV is reaching its prime when even the Sci Fi Channel is producing its own special reality programming. This week, 10 strangers are picked to live in a house and find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start casting Wiccan spells and sleeping in caskets. "Mad, Mad House" (premiering Thursday; check local listings) invites a gaggle of very normal albeit slightly whiny humans to live in a house with "five practitioners of alternative lifestyles" including a Wiccan, a naturist, a vampire, a modern primitive and a voodoo priestess. Together, these very alarming albeit slightly normal "alts" (which I guess is short for "alternative," which is, of course, unspeakably dorky) seek to eliminate those who aren't cheerful and open-minded about, say, nudity, or bloodsucking. You learn a lot from the alts, though, like the fact that naturists sometimes name themselves after vegetables, and that "vampire" is just another way of saying "goth" without feeling like a sellout. Sleeping in a casket seems like a pretty extreme way of admitting that you like Trent Reznor, but hey, to each his own.

Clearly I'd be booted out of the house in about two seconds, and I'm not even a nun or someone who's loath to worship false gods -- I say bring on the false gods, Tyra Banks included. I just wonder how exciting this show will be once all of the guests who are honest about being freaked out are dismissed and all we have left is a bunch of simpering fakes affecting supreme open-mindedness and p.c. tolerance through every clothing-optional séance.

Just tell me this: Is it really so ignorant and narrow-minded to reject ritualized blood sucking out of hand? I'm not proposing a constitutional amendment against the practice, mind you. But what's so wrong about admitting that I find it creepy, or that a mere glimpse of those huge wooden things the modern primitive puts in his ears makes me grit my teeth in agony?

So, let's see: I just used the words "false gods," "freaked out," "creepy" and "agony" in the last paragraph. Yeah, I'm guessing this one's going to be a hit. Nice job, Sci Fi Channel!

Next week, stay tuned, as Anna has an affair with Jimmy so that she doesn't have to "move back to Pittsburgh," and Gael develops a nasty cough!

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.

MORE FROM Heather Havrilesky

Related Topics ------------------------------------------