I Like to Watch

The joyous life of the high-priced whore, the half-buried hatchets of "High School Reunion" and Spader's charm school for sociopaths. Plus: The baby powder finally hits the fan on "24."


Heather Havrilesky
April 6, 2004 6:45AM (UTC)

Shiny, happy hookers holding hands
"If you realize most women are evil, rotten bitches, most men are predictable pigs, and someone else is always gonna be on a morality crusade, it should be easy to sit back, relax and smile. Be optimistic, because you know what's out there." -- Jamie-Lynn DiScala as Heidi Fleiss in "Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss." (USA, repeated airings; check listings.)

Heidi Fleiss is nothing if not a pragmatist -- proving once again that true pragmatists are downright creepy. For them, the world is a flat landscape of risks and gains, and every decision can be made with a simple cost-benefit analysis, unsullied by big ideas or values or emotions. So, in the first few minutes of the Fleiss biopic "Call Me" when a young Heidi is confronted with the possibility of traveling the world, wearing expensive clothes and hanging out with big stars, it's pretty much a no-brainer. Yeah, she'll be the one giving the stars blow jobs, but that's a small price to pay for so much glamour and excitement.

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While there are millions of people in Los Angeles who exist happily without even considering the existence of celebrity life, there's also a sad group that lingers on the edges of the Hollywood scene, scratching for any chance to be drawn into the center of things. For the truly desperate in this group, there's no difference between residents of the center and those who are paid to service them. According to USA's uneven biopic, Fleiss had a way of blurring her vision -- drugs and ego come in handy there -- just enough to place herself at the center of every picture, despite the fact that she was just a bit of disposable humanity at the corner of the frame for the stars she served.

By the time Fleiss starts talking about betrayal and abandonment, you can only assume she's just offering a little comic relief on her way to the slammer. After all, if Fleiss were concerned with loyalty, she never would have stolen her mentor's clientele and distanced herself from those who were no longer useful to her. But Fleiss is one of those peculiar characters who doesn't recognize toes being stepped on unless they're her own.

Aside from its depiction of Fleiss' life, which pales in comparison to the picture painted by Nick Broomfield's entertaining documentary "Hollywood Madam," "Call Me" is notable mostly for the spectacle of seeing Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn DiScala) acting outrageously slutty. DiScala can smile queerly at trouble approaching and do that weird thing with her mouth that Fleiss does, but it's still just a slow-motion Meadow in dire need of a smack across the face from Carmela.

But the best actress in the world couldn't convince us that giving it up for a steady stream of rich men amounts to a shiny montage of orgasms and hot clothes. Why not throw in a few nights of bad sex, or a few trips to the pharmacy for antibiotics, just to keep it ever-so-slightly real? Instead, we're expected to believe that Fleiss was never demeaned in any way, just treated to fine red wine and fur coats and fun fantasy weekends with other prostitutes, who were, like, her bestest friends. And when they weren't working, Heidi and the girls could be found sunning themselves by the pool or shopping at the finest boutiques!

Man, the life of the high-priced whore looks good. Where's the downside? Even Fleiss is living happily ever after.

Well, sort of.

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In search of buried hatchets

But we're all living happily ever after, aren't we? At least that's the impression we try to give at our high school reunions.

Ah yes, who doesn't savor the angst and antipathy of a nice high school reunion every 10 years or so? On its 2002 reality show "High School Reunion," the WB tapped into the peculiar blend of disgust and nostalgia provoked by reuniting adults who spent their formative years together, tossing back filched bottles of whiskey and stealing each other's girlfriends. With so many bridges to burn, torches to carry, crosses to bear, axes to grind and hatchets to bury, executive producer Mike Fleiss ("The Bachelor") wisely recognized that high school reunions provide fertile soil for reality TV's unholy fruit.

So Fleiss invited the most outspoken and camera-friendly graduates of an Illinois high school to spend two weeks in Hawaii together. The vicarious thrills offered by the first episode alone ("She's lost weight! She looks fantastic!" "I can't remember this guy's name to save my life.") were worth the price of admission. But even though things started with a bang, the show was quickly dominated by go-nowhere romances and the eerie remarks of scary popular girl Natasha, whose fun seemed to depend on excluding others. "I think they're lame," she famously droned, referring to her less popular classmates, and threw a party, inviting all of the men and only the popular women.

People who cling to popularity are funny under any circumstances, whether they're whining about the lameness of the less popular or leading an army of expensive hookers around Los Angeles. Still, the show's producers seemed to sense that, for the franchise to succeed, they'd have to steer the second installment of "High School Reunion" into much more dangerous waters.

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Now they just have to be careful not to drown. The second season had barely begun before we learned that LouAnn ("The Homecoming Queen"), who's living with her current boyfriend, still has feelings for her old flame Johnny ("The Quarterback"), and Denise ("The Ex") wants very much to patch things up with her ex-husband Gabe ("The Jock"), with whom she has two kids. As soon as we're sold on their chances of Denise and Gabe getting back together, three former girlfriends of Gabe's show up, saying that he was going out with all three of them and Denise at the same time in high school. Adding insult to stupidity, one of them, Heather F. ("The Sophomore Vixen"), seems to want Gabe back, and claims that they were madly in love until the day Denise called her to announce that she was pregnant. According to Heather F.'s story, Denise faked the whole thing, then faked a miscarriage, but it worked: Gabe married her.

This makes Heather F. very angry. She was really in love with Gabe! Forget that this was 10 years ago, when she was 16, and Gabe was dating several other girls at the time. Forget that Gabe was married to Denise for years and has two kids with her. Heather F. wants to clear things up with Gabe, once and for all. Also, she might like to fool around with him.

Gabe, of course, has come a long way in the past 10 years, and is very romantic and quite serious about the whole situation. "Give me somebody who just wants to have a good time, that's all I'm looking for," he says as we're treated to shots of him eyeing Heather F.'s huge tracts of land.

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And so, the rift between intelligent reality shows and overdramatic messes continues to grow, as the crappy shows slide inexorably toward their "Jerry Springer"-style conclusions. Silly frog! Throwing divorcées with kids into the mix not only eliminates the carefree, all-in-good-fun spirit of the first season, but it makes viewers instinctively hate anyone who'd be involved in such a seedy, dishonorable mess -- and hate themselves for watching.

But this is the paradox of reality TV in its late adolescence: If the stakes aren't high enough, no one will watch. If the stakes are too high, everybody feels all dirty inside.

When the baby powder hits the fan

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Which brings us right to "24," the strangest show on earth. After waiting half of a season for the stakes to rise above the level of marital squabbling, skirmishes between drug dealers and Kim's bad hair days, suddenly darkness has descended on CTU. And by "darkness," I mean death, destruction, fear, widespread panic, chaos, and people bleeding freely from their orifices.

Sweet relief, the virus is free!

Oh, how we've been longing for the virus to be free, free at last! How we've stayed up nights, dreaming of sniffles and sneezes that developed quickly into oozing sores and hemorrhaging! How we dreamed that, one day, innocent lives would be lost! All of our wildest dreams have finally come true!

Still, we never even dared to hope that Michelle would be one of those in the virus's immediate path! And yet, there she is, barking emotionless reports at Tony and valiantly shooting innocent civilians in the back! Oh, Michelle! We hardly knew ye. Your hours are numbered, and that makes us love you so very much more than we did a few weeks ago when you were merely ensconced in uncomfortable office politics with your dumb husband. Now that we know you're going to die in the next two episodes or so, we really wish you weren't going to die in the next two episodes or so. Curses! Why oh why couldn't it be Tony instead?

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Oh yeah, maybe because we didn't care at all when he got shot in the neck. Anyway, let's just enjoy this moment. The virus is out and about, wreaking havoc on the world! Jack is in harm's way at last, as is Chase, even though we never cared much for Chase in the first place. Just think, now President Palmer will have to turn his attention away from healthcare bills and heart pills momentarily so he can negotiate with terrorists, thereby putting the entire free world at risk! Oh joy.

I'm really excited and happy, and I know you are, too. But I feel like I could be a little bit more excited and happy, somehow. Maybe when the guy who Michelle murdered broke that window, he put all of the officers outside at risk as well, in addition to some people dining in a restaurant across the street. Perhaps a little bit of the virus might float into a few neighboring high-rises. That would be lovely, wouldn't it? I don't know, we probably shouldn't get our hopes too high. We really just need to relax and enjoy all of the bleeding out and panic-stricken innocents while we can.

Practice makes perfect

Western civilization may be brought to its knees, but at least we can still cling to role models like James Spader's character on "The Practice," Alan Shore. Not only has he added a badly needed sociopathic dimension to the strident self-righteousness of the show this season, but, in an ingenious turn of events, Shore recently sued his former associates for wrongful termination. Aside from the divorce and emotional destruction of Lindsay and Bobby, what have we ever wanted more than to see Eugene, Jimmy and Ellenor under attack? How badly do we want to see all of that stern disapproval and condescension cave in on itself? Alan Shore is a true hero. Sure, he has no scruples, but he does have a pulse, which is more than you can say for any of the other characters on "The Practice" this season -- except, of course, for William Shatner, who shines in a buffoonish McBeal-esque cameo as egomaniacal lawyer Denny Crane.

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Creator David E. Kelley plays a little game with his shows that calls to mind small children playing with dolls. First, he creates characters that are incredibly morally upright to the point of being priggish and unlikable (Ally McBeal, Eugene Young). Then, he creates some wildly charismatic narcissists and charming sociopaths to rip the good guys to shreds (Richard Fish, Alan Shore, Robert Downey Jr.'s character). This part is fun -- almost as fun as mass hysteria and bleeding out.

The only trouble is, the audience eventually becomes intolerant of the annoying good guys, thanks to the skill with which the fun, bad guys dismantle the good guys' hypocritical belief systems and neurotic tics. And once the bad guys have annihilated the good guys, they have nothing else to do.

In this case, though, the bad guys in question are James Spader and William Shatner. It's a safe bet Kelley has some ideas about how to keep them occupied.

Chapter summary

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Now let's review what we've learned so far. First, prostitution really isn't that bad, and the perks are to die for. Second, if you see an old boyfriend at your high school reunion and you still have feelings for him, that means you should rethink your current long-term relationship, preferably by fooling around with your ex. Third, sometimes it's important to stop and smell the death, destruction, fear, widespread panic, chaos and people bleeding freely from their orifices. Fourth, it's OK to have no moral standards as long as you're really charming and kind of nuts.

People say television encourages passivity, that it's an opiate, that it erodes our values and keeps us from standing up for what we believe in. Yet, this week alone, we've cheered on a happy hooker, a slandering temptress determined to keep two divorced parents apart, an apocalyptic virus, and a brutish, unscrupulous lawyer. It seems we viewers are far more passionate and proactive about our values than the naysayers are willing to admit.

Next week: The foul language, excess drinking, gambling, whores and casual murder of HBO's "Deadwood." Plus: Fox's "The Swan" shows us how happiness is just a boob lift, tummy tuck and massive facial reconstruction away.


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

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