I Like to Watch

"Wonderfalls" flirts with cancellation, just like "My So-Called Life" -- which returns in reruns -- and PBS airs a must-see documentary about immigrants. But first ... I think we need to have a talk.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published March 29, 2004 8:52PM (EST)

Deference to the missed reference
I want to say something, but I don't want you to take it the wrong way. You know I like you, right? I mean, we've been getting along great, I think. Don't you think so? Good, I think so, too. But every relationship hits the wall at some point. It happens, and it's totally natural. Maybe -- and this is just an example -- I'm a little sick of you telling me about how tragic it is that "Angel" was cancelled. And maybe you're a little tired of the way I overuse the words "leaden" and "tedious." It's not my fault that so many things on TV are either leaden or tedious, but whatever. You have a right to your opinions.

The thing is, we both have to accept each other, and recognize that neither one of us will ever be perfect, no matter how hard we try. Sometimes I think I'm trying a little bit harder than you are, to be honest. This makes me a little resentful, and when I'm feeling resentful I notice things, like your corny sig file, or the fact that your last name rhymes with "toe cheese," or your habit of signing "Cheers!" when you really mean "So there!" But look, I'm a writer. You shouldn't take my keen sense of what's wrong with you personally.

The thing is, you have to accept the fact that I'm not perfect in order for this relationship to work. And one of the things that makes me not-so-perfect is my lack of familiarity with certain films, like -- just for example -- "The Producers," Mel Brooks' seminal 1968 comedy that only the wildly ignorant have never seen. I thought it was enough that I saw the musical and watched every single episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but apparently not. Yes, I can see why you'd prefer that I quickly recognize and understand every reference in every single program on television, especially the ones on HBO, and when I don't recognize a reference, you'd like to think that at least my editor would. I get it. If you're going to take the time to make this relationship work, you'd really like to think that I'm the one for you. And even if I'm not right for you, like a good pimp, my editor should help to create the illusion that I am.

But sometimes you have to accept that the things you really like about a person are inextricably linked to the things that disappoint you about them. I mean, sure, I could rent every classic or critically acclaimed film from the past five decades, I could read every book and play, I could study up on all of the most referenced bits of popular culture. But then would I have the same curious blend of personality disorders that feeds my drive to parse the larger cultural significance of "Trading Spaces"? I think not. I've never actually parsed the larger cultural significance of "Trading Spaces," but still. And if my pimp -- er, editor -- knew everything about everything, do you think he would let me write this ridiculous column? Nay, my friend, he would not.

Take a minute and picture the alternative: a TV critic who's seen "The Producers" and every other significant film and television show, foreign or domestic, ever made. You might really gain a lot from that person's encyclopedic knowledge of television and film, but he might also have a bad habit of wiping his nose on his sleeve and making sweeping statements about how no American film measures up to the unbridled brilliance of Kurosawa's best work.

Is that what you really want? Or do you want a confused lapdog like me, one who tends to think that an encyclopedic knowledge of most things is vastly overrated, one whose standards are not so stringent that she's unwilling to watch "Forever Eden" every now and then, just so she can tell you exactly how worthless it is?

Look, if this is going to work, we have to be honest with each other. I agree that I've been kind of bitchy and distant lately -- I guess I've been feeling a little bit resentful toward you for making me watch eight leaden, tedious hours of "CSI: Miami" in a row. But I have to level with you: As dumb as I feel for missing the reference to "The Producers," all of the brilliant references in the world wouldn't change my opinion that the "Curb" finale was self-indulgent and flat.

There, I said it. We can't agree on everything, can we? Not unless you start taking your cues on what to think about things from me -- which I wouldn't mind, to tell you the truth. In fact, I think it might really improve our relationship.

I'm so glad we had this talk. I feel so much better now!

Out with the old, in with the new
Hey, one more thing: I know you were planning to watch "Average Joe: Adam Returns" tonight, but I really think you should skip it and tune in for "The New Americans," that PBS documentary miniseries I mentioned last week, that follows the lives of recent immigrants over the course of four years. I know you love to jeer at the overeager, awkward girls of "Average Joe" because they're nothing like the swimsuit models your spoiled eyes are accustomed to seeing on TV, but there are times when you have to put your hunger for juvenile kicks aside and watch something that might just broaden your horizons. This is particularly important when your horizons are about as broad as a cockroach's.

Remember that Frontline documentary series "The Farmer's Wife," that followed a struggling Nebraska farm family over the course of three years? Remember how it had this strange power over you, and you couldn't peel yourself from the screen for three days straight, and for weeks afterward you kept wondering how the family was doing?

"The New Americans" is the same way. The pull of its heart-wrenching stories is impossible to resist from the start, when we meet these individuals in their native countries, dreaming of a better life in America. From Naima, a Palestinian woman who leaves her family to start a new life with an American-born husband she's known for a very short time, to Israel, a member of the Ogoni tribe persecuted by the Nigerian government for engaging in nonviolent protests against Shell Oil's pollution there, each clings to the hope of prosperity in order to handle the despair of leaving behind their homes and families for the alienation of American life.

Of course, it's clear immediately that their paths won't be as smooth as they imagine they might be. The bad jobs, the unforeseen health problems, the bureaucratic hoops, and the challenges of adapting to a foreign culture all conspire to make many of the film's subjects feel disillusioned and lost. And that's not to mention the immense pressure from those back home. "If you don't succeed, the Ogoni fail as well," a tribe member tells a fraught Israel before he leaves. But his determination to overcome the difficulties and start a good life for himself and his family is not only inspiring, it's unsettling. This is an engineer who was forced from his homeland and now has to make do with a white-collar job and a shabby apartment in Chicago. Still, his wife says, he's "always happy."

"The dreams of poor people run very deep," says the mother of José Garcia, an aspiring ballplayer from the Dominican Republic. Although the chances that her son will get signed seem fairly slim, the family's hopes are riding on his shoulders.

Yeah, suddenly the fact that your car needs a new muffler doesn't seem quite so tragic, does it? So go ahead and scribble "The New Americans" into your day planner for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights -- check the Web site for times.

What do you mean you don't have a day planner? Didn't I specifically request that you get one? Go get one right now. And change that shirt -- it's not doing you any favors.

My so-called strife
But before you go, I think we should talk about our relationship for a minute. Huh? No, we do not always talk about our relationship just as you're walking out the door! What kind of a comment is that? You should be glad I'm watching out for us, making sure communication is flowing smoothly. If we left it up to you, we'd never talk, and then one day you'd come home and I'd be making out with the Sparkletts water delivery boy.

No, I don't have a thing for the Sparkletts delivery boy. You're so paranoid!

He does have nice calves, though. Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yeah. You know what kind of freaks me out about us? You know everything about me now, but I don't really feel like we've explored the details of my history, particularly the teen years, quite as thoroughly as a couple should when they're preparing to spend their lives together.

What? Why are you making that face? You don't want us to spend our lives together? You're not interested in my teen years?

Just indigestion? OK, fine. Because I think this is really important. Like, for example, you should know that when I was 15, I had a major crush on this guy named Jordan at school. I know that sounds stupid, but this guy totally consumed me. He was so cute, he made my hands sweat. One night he stopped by my friend Brian's house and we sort of kissed, but he was a big jerk about the whole thing, and then later at school Brian told everyone that Jordan and I completely had sex in Jordan's car, just because he was jealous or something. Is that harsh or what?

Huh? Of course I'm talking about myself! Angela? Who's she? Are you nuts? The first season of "My So-Called Life" is being re-aired on Noggin starting April 2 at 8 p.m.? Why are you changing the subject?

Yes, I know the show originally aired in 1994, starred Claire Danes and only lasted for one season. Yes, it was a great show with a loyal following that got canceled. Right. Just like "Angel." Of course. How could I miss the similarities?

You know, I'm kind of getting bored with you. I guess I should just admit it, since we're being honest and stuff. Hey, would you consider wearing a Sparkletts uniform to bed one of these nights? Just for kicks, you know. Kind of as a joke. But don't laugh or anything. And if you could call me "ma'am" ... well, that would be really great.

You're my Wonderfalls
I don't know if you've noticed this or not -- probably not, you're not very perceptive -- but Jaye, the lead character of "Wonderfalls," is kind of like a grown-up version of Angela. After all, if Angela was 15 in 1994, that means she'd be 25 now, which is the approximate age of Jaye, our scrappy souvenir-pushing heroine. True, small objects didn't come to life and talk to Angela, but wouldn't it have been cool if they had? Sure, Angela was a little more wide-eyed and wistful than Jaye, but weren't you more wide-eyed and wistful when you were 15? I certainly hope so. You're such a crusty old robot now, it's hard to imagine a time when there was real blood pumping through your veins.

But I digress. The point is, "Wonderfalls" is definitely worth checking out, particularly because, based on its sophistication and snide tone, it might not be around for long. Somehow, one-hour dramas with any hint of an edge don't make it that far. Why is that? As if the American public can't handle a 20-something who drinks to excess, is unapologetic about her lack of ambition and refers to her boss as "The Mouthbreather." We need more reckless, outspoken female characters on TV. Caroline Dhavernas needs to dial it down a notch, but otherwise "Wonderfalls" is strange and entertaining and has a strong chance of evolving into a great show.

If only Fox would give it more than a few weeks to do so. In fact, it's a little challenging to get invested in Jaye and Co., really, because it seems certain that we'll get a few more episodes and then "Wonderfalls" will slip into the mist, never to be seen or heard from again. And that's really too bad, because I'm starting to want to see Jaye and the bartender fall madly in love. You don't have a lot of time for that old "Moonlighting"-style extended sexual tension when your show's life expectancy is so short. And what about the lesbian sister? I really like her.

Are you falling asleep? Damn it, you know that when you fall asleep on me, it really triggers my emotional issues! You are so heartless, you know that?

I can't even look you in the eye. You make me sick. Get away from me!

Um. Hey. Are you going to the kitchen? Could you bring back the Girl Scout cookies? They're above the refrigerator. The Samoas, not the Thin Mints. I finished those last night.

And a ginger ale! In a glass, with ice!

Next week: We'll break up before then, I promise.

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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