I Like to Watch

Rocco faces a young foil, straight from central casting, and Jessica Simpson reveals the secrets to her feminine mystique. Plus: The depressing democracy of "American Idol."


Heather Havrilesky
April 27, 2004 1:09AM (UTC)

Do the Drew!
"It's got the best of both worlds, good food and beautiful people." -- a patron at Rocco's

Whether the beautiful people come to Rocco's to eat the good food, to catch a glimpse of Rocco DiSpirito, or to see themselves on the second season of "The Restaurant" is anybody's guess. To my jaded Southland eyes, the patrons look suspiciously similar to the shiny herds of aspiring actors standing in line outside of the Sky Bar on Sunset Boulevard. So what could Mark Burnett and Co. do to ensure that "The Restaurant" wasn't polluted by its own popularity?

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Enter "Drew the Intern."

"My specialty is problem-solving on the spot," Drew offers, in what's sure to be the first of several unsolicited monologues. "I'm very operational. I'm all about positive reinforcement with people. I'm not gonna get along with Rocco. I know this, I've been told this."

Leave it to Burnett to find the solution to his troubles at central casting. Still, it's pretty amazing how talented his team has become at locating human beings with the capacity to annoy and offend within a few milliseconds. Let's just break down Drew the Intern's introductory offenses, shall we?

"My specialty is problem-solving on the spot. I'm very operational." Translation: "I have no discernible skills beyond the fact that my major organs are currently functioning."

"I'm all about positive reinforcement with people." Translation: "Although I've never been in a management position, I know I'd treat my employees like dogs if I were.

"I'm not gonna get along with Rocco. I know this, I've been told this." Translation: "I watched the first season religiously. I was hired to be the guy everyone hates."

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True to his nature, Drew the Intern dominates the second episode (Monday night at 10 p.m. on NBC) and, despite being instructed to "just observe," compares himself to Tiger Woods while getting in everyone's way, then refers to Rocco as "Captain Douchebag," which Rocco overhears. Meanwhile, financier Jeffrey Chodorow might as well be a plant, for all of his stagey troublemaking. Obviously, Rocco has a ballooning budget and an ego to match, but Chodorow's smug strong-arming is already tiresome.

But "The Restaurant" has always felt scripted. The only two people who really act and speak naturally are Rocco, whose grandiosity shields him so completely from the way he's perceived that he's utterly unself-conscious, and his mother, who's just too cool to care how she appears on-screen. It makes sense that the producers would decide to put Rocco under even more pressure during the second season, since he's the only one who doesn't seem to be griping for the benefit of the cameras.

Of course, no one told Rocco about the second season's narrative, which is probably why he spends the majority of the first episode running away from the cameras. Imagine, in his entire meeting with Chodorow regarding budget cutbacks, which occurred behind closed doors with no cameras present, Rocco said only "No comment." That was probably wise, since it's clear enough that if he had said something, Chodorow would've scampered off to give his cronies a full report.

But isn't Chodorow just jealous of Rocco, who flits around town, signing copies of his cookbook, "Flavor," and basking in all the attention from his drooling female fans? "You're such a bad girl," he growled at one relentless fan. "You can't be such a bad girl!"

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Rocco's flirty flavor may turn your stomach, but his cookbook is supposed to be fantastic. Despite the guests and staff complaining nonstop about Rocco's absence, the restaurant's popularity obviously depends on his ability to promote it and himself, and those things naturally take up a lot of his time. By the second episode, it's hard not to sympathize with Rocco, doing his best to be pleasant while under siege. Still, between the absurdly bad voice-overs and the endless griping, the whole thing rings false. Without a competition or any real point beyond a lot of theatrical carping, "The Restaurant" amounts to a foolish three-ring circus of egomaniacal acting out.

All in the family
I'd certainly rather run a restaurant than a mortuary, particularly if my co-workers at the mortuary were also family members. How in the hell do people work side by side with their families? Don't the bratty outbursts and irrational clashes of family life stand in the way of professionalism just a tiny bit?

They do, which is why "Family Plots" (Mondays at 9 p.m. ET; A&E), the "Six Feet Under" of reality shows, is almost as entertaining as it is stomach-turning. But then, Shonna and her family, who run a mortuary in San Diego, are made for TV: garrulous yet relentlessly confrontational, the family allows the cameras to share the inner workings of the mortuary -- to a fault. One daughter fights with her dad and throws a slice of pizza at the wall, another daughter vows to quit smoking and has a cigarette less than an hour later when the stress of preparing a car accident victim to be viewed gets to be too much. For all of their assorted charms and flaws, the family seems very natural and unself-conscious on camera, and the scenarios that present themselves are surprisingly fascinating, and -- not surprisingly -- often very sad.

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But even with so much built-in provocation, "Family Plots" may not amount to more than a novelty. After all, watching dad and daughter bicker while trying not to drop a dead body on the floor might be a queasy mix of funny and disturbing the first time around, but can you really see yourself tuning in, week after week? No matter how flexible we try to be about death and dead bodies, the truth is, none of us really want to think about it more than we have to. While the fictional deaths at the start of "Six Feet Under" add an eerie weight to the Fishers' struggle to find happiness in life, the corpses of "Family Plots" are a little too heavy not to crush the mood. As repetitive as the empty dates and endless rose bestowals of other second-string reality shows might be, at least they distract us from the inevitability of our own deaths.

Then again, there are really two types of people in the world, the avoidant and the gleefully morbid. While avoidants see caskets and are struck with the crushing weight of their own mortality, the gleefully morbid delight in getting a small taste of the unbearable sadness of death. Avoidants tend to embrace picnics in the park and long walks on the beach as diversion from the inevitability of death, but nothing in the world makes the gleefully morbid more painfully aware of the meaningless of human existence than a spit of champagne and a cruise on a luxury yacht. Or, as a female friend of mine used to say, "Having a boyfriend is fine, as long as I don't have to lay around on a blanket in the park with him."

The Jessica mystique
Just in case that comment makes you feel a little bit more comfortable with the fact that you're a grumpy bitch of a wife/girlfriend, Jessica Simpson's sweet smile and massive rack are on display in last week's "Us Weekly" next to the words "How I Keep Nick Happy." Forget all those babyish tantrums she throws on "Newlyweds"! According to this very informative article, Jessica knows just how to please her man. Not only does she make his hobbies her own, but she's more of a homemaker than you might think! She gives Nick her undivided attention, she helps him lighten up, she lets him know she's committed, she gets him expensive gifts and she can't live without him!

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That sounds like a lot of work. How does Jessica do all of that, and stay so fit and beautiful? Oh yeah, she has a team of footservants to help her. Why couldn't "She has a team of footservants to help her" at least make it to third or fourth on her list of how she pleases Nick?

With or without a staff of handmaidens and an army of fluffers, though, Jessica knows how to keep the passion burning! According to the article, the couple likes to take bubble baths, drink wine and listen to jazz!

Funny, my friend also used to say, "Having a husband is fine, as long as I don't have to take bubble baths, drink wine and listen to jazz."

America has spoken!
Avoidants, gleeful morbids, park haters, bubble bath boozers ... This culture war is really starting to make my head spin! Thank God some choices in this great country of ours still boil down to black and white.

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Take, for example, last week's results on "American Idol." As I mentioned in my last column, there are three extremely talented contestants on "American Idol" this year, all of whom happen to be black women. The other contestants range from just OK to cringe-inducingly bad. This past week, when Ryan Seacrest announced the three contestants who received the least number of votes, most viewers assumed that Diana DiGarmo and John Stevens, two white teenagers who should be practicing their box steps in show choir instead of paining the nation with their clumsy karaoke routines, would surely land in the bottom heap.

Not so, America! Instead, La Toya London, Fantasia Barrino and Jennifer Hudson, all of whom were praised to high heaven for their fantastic performances, were in the bottom three. The judges were asked what they thought of the results. They expressed disappointment, but reminded us that, after all, this is a democracy.

Others talked about a conspiracy.

Um, racism isn't really a conspiracy. It's pretty much out in the open. This is a racist country. Most people in this country are racists. Every single black person in this country knows it. Can't you just take their word for it? Even if you don't personally see evidence of racism in this country, can't you trust those who are in the position to see it, those who are telling you, day after day, that it's there?

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Or do you not trust them?

Personally, despite my disappointment that Fantasia, the only true star in the group, was voted in the bottom three and might not win, this vote seems like a good opportunity for us to see the "conspiracy" that's right in front of our faces and always has been.

You say you want a revolution
"We felt that doing nothing, at a time of repressive violence, is itself a form of violence." -- Naomi Jaffe, a member of the militant revolutionary group The Weather Underground.

This Tuesday night, those preoccupied with racism and the war in Iraq absolutely won't want to miss the Oscar-nominated documentary "The Weather Underground" on PBS (10 p.m. ET, Tuesday -- check local listings). After years of nonviolent protests that many felt had done little to change things, a group of radicals known as the Weather Underground emerged in the '70s and waged a war on the U.S. government and its policies. Through old film footage, photographs, FBI documents and interviews with the group's leaders today, the film tells the story of the group's battles on the streets of Chicago, its plots to bomb targets across the country, and its success in breaking Timothy Leary out of jail. Whether their actions were courageous or ill-considered or some combination of the two, the film paints a provocative, complicated picture of the role of radical movements at a time when violence not sanctioned by the government is widely disdained.

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"To me it was a question of what had to be done to stop the much greater violence that was going on," offers David Gilbert, who was a member of the Weather Underground and is still serving a life sentence for his role in a violent holdup. While outspoken critics of the group abound, "The Weather Underground" offers a balanced look at a time in history that, unfortunately, feels more familiar than ever.


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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