I Like to Watch

"Bachelor" fumbles first big play, and Nick and Jessica revive variety kitsch -- but who asked them to? Plus: "The Sopranos" just keeps getting darker.

Heather Havrilesky
April 13, 2004 1:14AM (UTC)

"Ladies, I'm sorry for taking that time, I'm very embarrassed to tell you this. Katie, I accidentally called out the wrong name, giving you that last rose."

As quarterback for the New York Giants, Jesse Palmer is accustomed to making tough plays under pressure. Apparently, though, memorizing all of those complicated offensive strategies left little room in his brain for the names of the 25 women standing before him in evening gowns, their hopes and dreams already pinned to his burly shoulders. After giving Katie Karen's rose and then grimacing in pain, Jesse yelled for host Chris Harrison's help. The two men then retreated to the courtyard for a negotiation more tense than President Palmer's recent discussions with Wade on the pros and cons of surrendering control of the free world to a terrorist mastermind. Like Wade, Chris wanted nothing to do with Jesse's blunder, and left the responsibility to rip the rose out of Katie's hand up to the normally smooth (see also: smoov) quarterback.


So after much grunting and sighing and "Oh, man"-ing, Jesse, who we'll just refer to as "Smoov" from now on, strode back into the room filled with teary-eyed wannabe Elizabeth Hasselbecks in sequins, and informed poor Katie that her rose was meant for someone else, but that he would "extend her the option" of staying. Like a hungry teenager at the Shoney's breakfast bar shoving French toast sticks into her handbag, Katie's face said "Damn straight I'm staying," but she voiced this sentiment in a carefree way, like, "What the hell? Why not just stay and see if shame and desperation win his heart? After all, what man doesn't find groveling attractive?"

But that's a testament to the stick-tuitiveness of these Bachelor girls, isn't it? Give them the Heisman and they'll brush the grass and dirt off their knees and line up for the next play. Which is nice, because this year, things are going to get nasty. In an attempt to raise the stakes and lower the bar "Average Joe"-style, the producers have thrown in a "spy" -- a close friend of Jesse's, married to his best friend -- who will pretend to be one of the women trying to win him over. Forget that "Average Joe: Adam Returns" was flatly awful and featured one of the least suspenseful or interesting finales in the long, storied history of dating shows. The spy is here to stir up trouble, mostly by creeping us out with her blurred face and distorted voice. (Of course, her identity is readily available on the Television Without Pity forums for those who are losing sleep over that horrid, hazy face each night.)

Although "The Bachelor" franchise has all of the excitement and appeal of a dream date at Hardee's, between the spy, the so-called "gold-digging skank" Trish, a stalker (I'm banking on the contestant previewed remarking: "It's really hard seeing all these other girls date my boyfriend") and Jesse's blunders, the show might at least be worthy of some TiVo-aided high-speed viewing. Without TiVo, I'd never make it through a single episode of "American Idol," not to mention those hubcap replacement moments on "Pimp My Ride," or the seven-minute-long commercial breaks during "The Real World."


Spare us the cutter
Speaking of which, it turns out that Frankie (see also: every twisted casting director's wet dream) not only has cystic fibrosis, multiple emotional issues, a Hello Kitty fetish, a thing for snakes, a fear of large boats and buildings, and a smoking habit, but she's also a cutter, meaning she cuts herself when she's feeling emotionally overwhelmed.

Even with so many colorful quirks, last week's "Real World" was less subtle than your average post-Ritter episode of "8 Simple Rules." After announcing that she is very, very upset, Frankie goes to the cupboard to get a knife, goes to the bathroom crying, yelps a few times and then drops a knife in front of her roommates on her way out. Lest anyone think this is entertainment (No, no! We know that this is serious. That thing about cystic fibrosis -- that's entertainment), Dr. Drew's somber face appears several times during the show to inform us that people who cut themselves have serious issues and need professional help. Thanks, Dr. Drew! Hey, by the way, I've been smoking heroin and then having sex with my uncle. That's just a normal part of growing up, right?

As long as Dr. Drew is around, though, it would be nice if he and Adam Carolla could do that thing they do on "Loveline," where they put the caller on hold and make bets about which factors led to the caller's current sexual pathologies. "I'm going to say she slept with someone in her immediate family, either her dad or a close relative, before age 14."


"I wouldn't rule that out, but I'm guessing that Dad beat up Mom in front of her, and that she's using."

Everyone's certainly wondering what Frankie's home life is like. And Brad's parents aren't exactly the coolest around, choosing a time when he's on camera to tell him he can't live with them anymore, then sending him a box of bills in the mail. If we knew a little bit more about the really dark side of some of these families, we might forgive Randy for hitting people, or let Frankie off the hook for the hot pink eye shadow that makes her look about as attractive as Gael on "24."


Pandora's suggestion box
Yes, it's official. "24" has suddenly kicked into high gear out of nowhere. The virus is out and about, Gael is dead, and Michelle is the next to go, a death sentence that has somehow transformed her from whiny wife to tragic hero overnight. Now it looks like even Ryan Chappelle will find himself in the line of fire, since the terrorist mastermind has demanded that the president kill him. After half a season of the quarrelling Salazar brothers, suddenly "24" is pure, nail-biting fun again. But how did they pull out of that tailspin? Did the writers read your suggestions on how to fix the show? Sure looks like it.

I can see queerly now the rain has gone
While the pile o' hotties cast photo is as old as those thin ties Chandler used to wear on "Friends," you have to admit, the hottie close-up feature on the "Queer as Folk" Web site is pretty mesmerizing. See, you drag your pointer across the name of the cast member, and the photo zooms in on him or her, lying prone, bedroom eyes flickering. And, perhaps in a tribute to the "Friends" pile o' hotties shot, Ted is donning his best David Schwimmer sad doggie eyes. How much is that meth addict in the window?

The fourth season of the show premiered on Thursday, and QAF fans will be delighted to learn that Ted is crawling out of his meth-addled, gang-banging phase (Ah yes, we've all been there, haven't we?), Justin cuts his golden locks and joins a group dedicated to taking the streets back from gay bashers and Michael and Ben take an active role in keeping that annoying teenager out of trouble and away from his cartoonishly evil mother. And just when things are starting to feel a little too "After School Special," everyone goes to Babylon and dances, drinks and makes out with hot strangers while muscle men in outfits stolen from Caesar's Palace leap around onstage. Ah, boys will be boys!


Adriana and Tony
Of course, when it comes to portraying the tragic carelessness of overgrown boys, no drama can touch "The Sopranos." Tony, in particular, is following in the footsteps of the black bear from the first episode of the season, recklessly wielding his power and clumsily swiping at what he wants, heedless of what might get destroyed along the way. Suddenly, he doesn't seem to have any intimate relationships -- no wife and no girlfriends, he turns to his cohorts less and less for advice and support, he leans on his cousin Tony B. but the relationship continues to feel strained, and he seems to have less faith in his nephew Christopher than ever before. With his ties to Carmela and Meadow severed, A.J. was the only family member he had any rapport with, up until last night's episode, when his bullying led his son to move back to Carmela's.

As unthinkable as it might have seemed for Tony to suddenly find himself attracted to Adriana, in some ways it made more sense than anything else he's done since his separation from Carmela. Adriana and Tony have always been birds of a feather, really - they're practical and concrete, without needs that go too far beyond wanting to care for and be cared for by someone else. So, while Carmela falls in and out of love and Christopher writes screenplays, becomes an addict, and chafes at the limitations of the mob's hierarchy, Tony and Adriana stay the course, handling whatever lands directly in front of them. In many ways, they belong together.

Which is what makes their temptation, and the mess that ensues, all the more heartbreaking. The second we can imagine Adriana and Tony together, even as the disastrous consequences crowd into the picture, we want it to happen, partially because they're each on such a lonely, tragic path, and partially because it may force Tony to break with Christopher, which he may have to regardless, as it becomes increasingly clear that Christopher's self-pity and temper would make him a liability as second-in-command.


Of course, the strength of "The Sopranos" lies largely in its remarkable ability to make us empathize with its characters no matter how foolish and self-destructive their actions might be. In last week's episode, the writers allowed us a glimpse of what immense destruction an affair between Adriana and Tony would yield, but sidestepped the truly apocalyptic effects, beyond an erosion of what little trust was left between Tony and Christopher.

In contrast to that episode, which may have been the strongest of the season, last night's episode sped along too quickly, with Tony B. shifting from earnest entrepreneur to self-destructive gambler within a few scenes, and Carmela falling in lust and then falling apart at a similar breakneck speed. Given the whiplash of the last two weeks, it's tempting to suggest that the structure of the show is too inconsistent from week to week. But while Carmela and Tony B.'s stories could have unfolded more slowly, last week's episode, which focused solely on the heat between Adriana and Tony, benefited from its unusual lack of subplots. It also makes sense that each character's story is handled separately this season, since they're each faced with the challenge of how to steer a course, cut loose from the constraints -- and the comforts -- of family.

Variety doesn't guarantee quality
Ever since Bennifer fell to pieces and Trista and Ryan led us too far behind the scenes of their sickly-pink wedding extravaganza, the powers that be have been searching for a fresh young couple to overexpose. Still, you really have to wonder who thought recasting Nick and Jessica as a modern day Donnie and Marie made the least bit of sense. Jessica Simpson may be delightfully dense in real life, as evidenced by the steady trail of dim remarks she makes on "Newlyweds," but that doesn't mean she's a comedian or an actress or even a very comanding presence onstage. Likewise, Nick Lachey is amusing enough rolling his eyes at his wife's idiocy or hauling furniture around his McMansion, but does it follow that we'd want to see him sing a duet with Kitt, the car from "Knight Rider"?

While you may have a tough time recalling just how inane "The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour" or "The Donny & Marie Show" were, "The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour" will bring it all back for you, and then some. Whether they're performing pointless, comedy-free skits for a fraudience that thinks the mere sight of Mr. T is a laugh riot, or singing ballads with special guests like Jewel and Kenny Rogers, Nick and Jessica keep reminding us that they are far more entertaining when they're at home in their sweats, eating tuna fish on the couch. Nick, Jessica: Yes, you can sing. Sure, you look pretty in lots of different outfits. But mostly, we just like watching you bicker.


But it's appropriate that "The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour" would air the same week that Fox cancelled "Wonderfalls" and ran a replay of its plastic surgery pageant, "The Swan," in its place. At this rate, "Arrested Development" will get axed so that "Forever Eden" can move to Sunday nights.

Next week: More high quality programming ahead, when the contestants on "Miss USA: Fear Factor" face the twin terrors of split ends and back-ne. Then, in a truly suspenseful finale, Trump takes a full two hours to fire Kwame and hire Bill!

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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