I Like to Watch

MTV pimps rides -- so why not pimp lives? Plus: Bravo's new bickering couples and Larry David descends into self-indulgence.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published March 22, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

Others in arms
There are two types of people in the world: those who become incredibly uncomfortable and slightly disgusted when they see a couple bickering, and those who find bickering couples oddly delightful and soothing. For purposes of simplicity, let's arbitrarily name this first group "singles" and the second group "captives."

My informal observations suggest that singles find the rapid-fire bitchiness and demeaning interactions of those in long-term relationships "silly" and "a waste of energy," and tend to conclude that bickerers are "wrong for each other" and are "making each other miserable." In stark contrast, captives (slaves?) find quarreling couples "hilarious," and they tend to take sides.

"He was being such a jerk," a captive will say to her honey after spotting a couple trading spitty insults in the cereal aisle. "She's so controlling," another captive will observe, a strange little smile on his face. And then: "Can you pay for this, to make up for dinner last night?" and "What do you mean I never pay for groceries? Are you kidding me?" and "You have the long-term memory of a snail!" and "I'm gonna go wait in the car. Jerk."

While those from the singles category are busy tending to their high-maintenance plants and cultivating complicated relationships with domesticated animals, the captives will surely enjoy the reckless anger and verbal abuse of the deeply confused couples on Bravo's new show, "Significant Others" (Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.). The show features the couples-therapy sessions and heated day-to-day conflicts of three different pairs, each in a different stage of their relationship.

The newlyweds, James (Brian Palermo) and Chelsea (Andrea Savage), are learning new things about each other at an alarming rate: He's jealous and obsessed with his job; she's slept with hundreds of guys and reveals his secrets when she drinks. Eleanor (Faith Salie) is pregnant and her slacker husband, Ethan (Herschel Bleefield), can't handle it and responds to her serious concerns with bad jokes. Bill (Fred Goss) and Connie (Jane Edith Wilson) have been married for years and their relationship is on the rocks, so Connie is carrying on a tense but chaste romance with a co-worker and Bill is sleeping with Connie's sister. As is the Big New Trend in televised comedy, the scenes are improvised and the interactions between the couples are rapid-fire and slapsticky.

As you'd expect, sometimes this format works and other times it doesn't. Although the interactions between Chelsea and James and Eleanor and Ethan can feel a little bit predictable, it's mostly remarkable that they're able to come up with so much material and inhabit their characters so well. I don't always buy the situations these characters are in, but it's still pretty amazing that none of the scenes feature the repetitive staleness of bad improv, which can be more painful than sitting in on an improv class filled with really awful actors.

But it's Goss and Wilson (that's Bill and Connie) who take their scenes to another level. Thanks to a combination of their characters' being a little bit more specific and their performances being more subtle and strange, they're more unpredictable and entertaining to watch. Instead of covering the basics of When Couples Attack as the others do, Connie declares primly that she woke up that morning and was "more than 50 percent happy," as her sister and husband disingenuously try to cheer her on. Next, Bill sublimates his lust for Connie's sister by pretending to shoot her, then he stops and kisses Connie directly on her eyelid. "Wow. Right on the eye," her sister observes as Connie blinks and looks dissatisfied.

While it's rare to find actors and comedians who are even acceptably good at improv, the gap between the base level of acceptability and true brilliance is wider than the wide Sargasso Sea. It's like comparing Larry David with Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer or Catherine O'Hara ("Waiting for Guffman," "A Mighty Wind"). David obviously has great ideas as a writer, but his improv involves a fairly predictable evolution to shouting, while Guest, Shearer and O'Hara give their characters the kinds of odd lapses in logic and verbal tics that not only make them more entertaining, but make them more real to us as well.

The other couples on "Significant Others" should force themselves to follow Goss and Wilson's footsteps and make their characters as specific as possible -- "former slut" or "slacker" don't offer enough to work with in formats like this one, where character takes precedence over plot on a consistent basis. If they keep setting the bar high and don't win a comfortable following too early in the game, this show could evolve into a truly inspired comedy that should appeal to masters, slaves and plant nurturers alike.

Unhappily ever after
Isn't it fascinating how people in relationships fancy themselves far healthier and more well-balanced than single people -- up until the moment when their relationships go down in flames, at which point they walk around alternately proclaiming their status as emotional cripples and blaming the person they once referred to as their "best friend in the world" for everything from their overdue mortgage to their psoriasis? There should be some kind of reality show, much like Michael Apted's "7 Up" documentary series, in which we check in with various single people and couples, learn about their goals and life philosophies, and see how it works out for them over the years.

OK, fine, so Apted himself is already doing that with "Married in America." But what if -- I never thought I'd recommend this -- it were a little bit more dramatic and commercial? More like "Married in America" meets "The Real World"? Instead of being treated to a blurry snapshot of disturbingly young people's lives, we could feast on a wealth of knowledge of each "character," find out about their deepest desires, then watch as they either sail on to perfect happiness or shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly.

Forget it. That just sounds depressing. Maybe if you threw in lots of moody camera work and music by Bright Eyes and Coldplay, it could work ...

No, scratch that. How about this ... How about if you took recordings of couples in couples therapy and made puppets act it all out? Sort of like "Crank Yankers," but with couples in crisis instead of crank calls.

Puppets and couples therapy! What a great combination! Why am I not pitching this over cocktails at Spago right now instead of prattling on to you people?

Pimp my life
Here's another of the universe's great mysteries for you to solve: Why is it so deeply satisfying to watch some producers at MTV put $20,000 worth of equipment into a beat-up '88 Daihatsu Hi-Jet worth $400?

Taking the thrills of makeover madness to their illogical extreme, MTV has recruited young people with truly awful cars to turn them over to host Xzibit for a dramatic makeover on "Pimp My Ride." This is how Wyatt, a starving musician with a rattling microvan held together with duct tape, ends up riding around town in an ultra-blue vehicle with 17-inch rims, a lightning bolt painted down the side, three video screens, a miniature fridge, and a wraparound couch in the back seat. Of course, all of the work is custom-made to fit Wyatt's lifestyle, so the van includes a brand-new guitar and a tiny amp that's plugged into a second battery under the back seat.

Watching Wyatt flip his lid over his refurbished set of wheels is like watching those husbands on "Extreme Makeover" drool over their new plastic wives: There's a clear sense of elation followed by an eerie calm. We can read it on their faces: "Is this too good for me?"

The answer, of course, is yes. But isn't that a central theme in today's reality game shows? Since eventually it got boring to give people huge sums of money just for picking the correct price for that can of beans, now we offer them surgically modified spouses, refurbished living rooms, high-paying jobs working for The Donald, or a mob of pageant-circuit-trained wives to choose from.

While I've got my brainstorming cap on and an imaginary martini from Spago in my hand, I'm going to tell you about my vision for the next big reality show: The absurdly overpriced "Life Makeover," in which a team of professionals descends on the shabby middle-class universe of some style-less sad sack, replaces her '91 Honda Civic with a cherry-red Lexus sports coupe, swaps out her Old Navy fashions for a closet full of couture, redecorates her kitchen and landscapes her backyard, and then sends her through a rigorous schedule of therapy, charm school, continuing education courses, spa treatments and tough workouts.

Expensive and time-consuming? Absolutely. But when she pulls up to the "Life Makeover" banquet finale in her shiny new car, and all of her ex-boyfriends and long-lost enemies and really mean former teachers are gathered to witness her big moment at a party whose theme is, in this case anyway, "Nanny Nanny Boo Boo, Now I'm Better Than You-hoo" -- well, that's good TV.

And isn't good TV worth any price? Imagine if you spent the entire budget of one episode of "According to Jim" on one person. One pathetic human. One just exactly like me. Wouldn't that be a lot more fun than watching Courtney Thorne-Smith and Jim Belushi learn another of life's wacky but poignant lessons?

Ain't we lucky we got him?
David Chappelle is fast approaching personal lord and savior status. In a streak of genius, a recent skit pitted a social worker, a professor of African-American studies and some other white "experts" on black people against each other in an unscripted game show called "I Know Black People," along with a guy who "has lots of black friends" and -- gasp -- a real, live black person.

It's impossible to describe the joys of watching a white professor explain in his own nerdy dialect what a badonkadonk is. And while the questions "Is pimpin' easy?" and "Why do black people smoke menthols?" (Correct answer: I don't know) were worth the price of admission alone, the highlight was Chappelle's request that contestants recall the lyrics from the "Good Times" theme.

"Scratchin' and survivin', good times. Blank, good times. Fill in the blank." I was sure that I had this one nailed, but for that line I always sang "Hanging in a hunnuh!"

A few contestants sang something along those lines, but "Hangin' in a chow line" turned out to be the correct answer. I never really like standing in line for food, but I'd rate it a few notches above temporary layoffs and easy credit rip-offs any old day.

The wisdom of "The Real World"
"Avoid it until it becomes a problem. That's sort of a life philosophy of mine." -- Randy from "The Real World"

Do not dis "Curb"
I was pretty anxious to catch up on the last few episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," since so many of you little couch monkeys out there reported that they were great, particularly the episode featuring Colby Donaldson. As much as I hate to contradict the assessments of my scrappy volunteer research team, I thought this episode suffered from the same hysteria and absurdity that's plagued the whole season. While seeing Colby was a treat after his premature dismissal from "Survivor: All-Stars," the kid can't act, and the scene where he and a Holocaust survivor are shouting about which of them withstood harsher conditions reflected, like so many of this season's episodes, a great idea badly realized.

And how shticky and leaden was the season finale? Did you catch those shots of the audience at "The Producers" opening night, with their "Home Alone"-style gaping jaws and overplayed "This stinks! Wait -- this is fantastic!" gestures? How about Mel Brooks' hopelessly on-the-nose ad-libbing about his evil plan? Is this the flaw of sloppy directing, leaden acting, silly plot points or all of the above?

I don't know. I feel too guilty over badmouthing Mel Brooks to discuss it any further.

They come into America
And now a little something for those of you who never watch TV but read this column to get a summary of all the stupid crap you're glad you're missing: "The New Americans" (premiering Monday, March 29 -- check local listings) is an eye-opening and at times heartbreaking PBS documentary series on the struggles of recent immigrants to America. The filmmakers followed their subjects over the course of four years, from their native countries to their new lives in America. Doesn't that sound like exactly the sort of thing that a compassionate intellectual like yourself wouldn't want to miss?

Goodbye, stranger
I thought so. See how I'm always thinking about you? And for the rest of us, there are the eye-opening and at times heartbreaking struggles of the Mogo Mogo tribe, who for some reason can't seem to get rid of the increasingly worthless, whining Jerry. Although Lex seemed pretty harmless for the first few weeks, I had some vague memory of him rubbing me the wrong way back in Africa. Still, leading the charge against his buddies Colby and Ethan was particularly low, no matter how you slice it, and I'd be surprised if either of those guys takes that move in stride like he expects them to. The old "it's just a game" excuse really doesn't trip off the tongue the same way when you're talking about screwing over actual friends.

Ethan looked appropriately scandalized by Lex's shift, but said very little about it. Come to think of it, Ethan really never said much about anything, either here or in Africa.

Boring, sure, but I'd still rather watch him stare at the sand than listen to Jerry and Shi Ann bickering. That's right. Couples bickering? Good. Women bickering? Bad. Very bad. Obviously Lex wants to drag those two creeps to the very end, because he knows everyone else hates them. A tried and true tactic, one that sometimes works, but given the fact that Chapera aka The Moron Tribe have been winning every challenge, I don't think Lex stands much of a chance. The Morons need to start thinking in terms of threats themselves instead of letting Boston Rob win challenges and dictate the tribe's path week after week. Never fear, though -- I'm sure there's a Brutus among them.

Next week: Will Shandi reign supreme in the top model finale? Will Amy take her spot at the right hand of The Donald? Will I get the shiny red car and the decades of intensive psychoanalysis that I deserve? Tune in and find out!

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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