I Like to Watch

When your television is your guru, everyone seems crazy or sad -- from teens who go under the knife to the "winners" on "Antiques Roadshow."

Published May 3, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Gnash bridges
If the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name.
-- Adrienne Rich, "On Lies, Secrets and Silence"

For the first time in months, I really, really wasn't in the mood for TV this week. Proving for about the 72,548th time in my life that a bad attitude can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, everything I watched made me want to wail and gnash my teeth and tear my hair like the old women in Greek tragedies.

Almost every show was some variety of depressing: Heartwarming but depressing, depressingly soul-sucking, funny but depressingly likely to be canceled, pathological with a side of depressing slaw. So what went wrong this week? Did my bad attitude toward my easy job make the gods want to punish me with depressing fare? Did I seek out depressing programs? Am I depressed?

Trying to solve this puzzle not only made me want to wail and gnash my teeth and tear my hair more, but also had me contemplating the horrible state of American culture and the impossibility of real change and the awful pressing weight of my own mortality.

Luckily, though, I have Ram Dass' "Be Here Now" sitting on my desk. For you young 'uns, "Be Here Now" is sort of like McSweeney's without the irony. I opened the book, and it told me that the Guru is all my impurities, he is all my corruption, and he is smiling at me through them and saying, "This, too!"

"Aha!" I thought. "So these dark hours of viewing displeasure are a gift wrapped up like a curse! What might at first seem depressing is actually a pathway to pure bliss! I must encounter even the most sordid examples of the blue screen's emptiness and corruption as just another manifestation of pure love."

Sugar and spice and everything nice injections
I tried to keep this in mind while I watched teenagers get liposuction and double-D breast implants on MTV's "I Want a Famous Face." Granted, it was hard to appreciate what pure love had to do with the determination of Shay, an aspiring Playboy centerfold, to go under the knife in the pursuit of super-sized lips and massive fake mammary glands. I'm in the early stages of my spiritual development, though, and have much to learn. Were I more enlightened, I might recognize the eternal spirit in Shay's decision to get huge, drum-tight jugs and turgid slug lips, even as her ex-centerfold mentor warned her that the editors of Playboy weren't as hot on Fakey McFakerson as they were in the '90s.

Likewise, my ignorance of the true path blocks me from understanding why a young girl (who used to be a guy) needs to have chin implants, breast implants, butt implants and a surgically repositioned hairline to look exactly like Jennifer Lopez. I can grasp the concept of being a woman trapped in a man's body, but a Jennifer Lopez trapped in a man's body? Instead of embracing Jessica's painful journey to become a replica of J.Lo, then, I kept wishing that someone would hint delicately that, once Ms. Lopez is no longer in the spotlight, Jessica might feel more like a Mischa Barton or a Lindsay Lohan trapped in a man's body, and then what? Remove the breast and butt implants and turn the liposuction machine on "Very High/Painfully Thin"? Start a strict regimen of self-tanning, pronto? Do you have any idea how long it takes to get your skin to be this orange?

Sweat like a superstar
It seems only yesterday that health and beauty experts were prescribing aerobic exercise and a diet of fruits and vegetables to cure the "I'm not sexy enough to stop traffic" blues, not to mention the "I'm not cute enough to screw my ugly husband" blues. Now there's nothing but plastic surgery on every channel, from "Extreme Makeover" and "I Want a Famous Face" to The Show That Dare Not Speak Its Name, which appears to be staffed by evil, surgically altered mutants anxious to transform the world's population into an army of small-nosed, fat-lipped, big-breasted, taut-faced clones.

Thankfully, VH1 will soon present us with a healthy alternative to this pathological Invasion of the Surgical Body Snatchers. On "Flab to Fab" (airs 10 p.m. on May 10; VH1) six women are put on an old-school workout-and-diet program modeled after the routines of Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé. After 90 days, those who stick with the program will be awarded with makeovers and a shopping spree at Saks Fifth Avenue. Imagine, a flat stomach without paying a surgeon $6,000 to suck out unwanted fat! It's almost too good to be true.

Still, some are sure to find all that exercise and healthy eating too old-fashioned to be exciting. Personally, I'd rather see women do hundreds of sit-ups than watch them emerge from surgery, hunched over and moaning, with huge scars and bruised faces and lips swollen to three times their size and tubes draining bloody liquid from their massive wounds.

Michelle, ma belle
But, then again, if the moaning, scarred, swollen, bloody humans are victims of the virus on "24," I delight in their agony. I guess our reaction to suffering depends on whom we secretly hate more: regular-looking women with low self-esteem, or the general public.

I pick the general public! Of course, the way the general public is depicted on "24," they're about as sympathetic as those dopes who drive Cheetahs and Sabre Turbos around in "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," waiting for you to steal their cars. No matter how much the ordinary citizens trapped in the Chandler Hotel cry and hemorrhage, they're just getting in the way.

Tony Almeida seems to agree, since last week he basically sold the safety of the American people up the river, just to prevent terrorist mastermind Steven Saunders from cutting his wife's eye out. Almeida may not be a field agent, but you'd think that he might've had the teensiest bit of training in handling high-pressure situations in which he has to choose between saving millions of innocent lives and coming to the aid of the woman he loves passionately as long as he hasn't been in the same room with her in the past few hours.

Also, you'd sort of hope that a major military operation on which the safety of the free world depends would have a few more checks and balances, that one weak-willed, self-serving agent with a bullet in his neck who's been acting kinda weird all day wouldn't have the power to mess up everything completely, or that, among all of the agents who were instructed to move to the front of the building, just one might think, "Leaving this side of the building unprotected makes no sense. I think I'll just stay here, in case that wily international criminal emerges!"

But why should we complain? This just means that the president will be forced to comply with Saunders' oh-so-trendy anti-American demands, more people will get sick, and civil unrest is sure to follow. Who could ask for anything more?

OK, fine, we also want them to tie up Kim, drug her, and put her in a lacy white number like the one Jessica Lange wore in "King Kong."

Adopting a new attitude
I know, I know. Even the thought of Kim throwing temper tantrums in King Kong's big, hairy hand can't wipe the bad memory of that "Grand Theft Auto" Web site from your mind. (My favorite part: "When you go riding, it's a good idea to have an Uzi along. That way, if need be, you can stick that sucker out the window and spray whoever is hassling you.")

See how it works? Let a little corruption get under your skin, and suddenly the whole damn world looks rotten to the core. But remember what Ram Dass told us: This, too. This, too!

Susan Tom seemed to follow Ram Dass' advice when she began adopting special-needs children. "America Undercover: My Flesh and Blood" (6:30 p.m. ET, May 9 on HBO) takes a startlingly artful look at Tom's struggle to raise 11 children with a wide range of conditions, from cystic fibrosis to the rare degenerative skin disease epidermolysis bullosa.

For the first few minutes of the film, it's difficult to take in the severity of these kids' conditions, or to accept the idea that they might be able to live full lives in spite of all they've endured. And some of them really can't -- the emotional hurdles of feeling abandoned by their birth parents, combined with the challenges of their illnesses, do seem to block some of these kids from the possibility of happiness.

But for all of the sadness and loss inherent in some of the kids' lives, many of them are so cheerfully resilient and so grateful for their adopted mother that they shift the narrative to one of acceptance and survival. Which is nice, but it won't keep an unexpected, tragic twist in the Toms' story from haunting you for days to come.

Antiques road kill
Are you starting to see what I mean about this week's subjects yet? Sick children, bloody viruses, massive scars and swollen lips! With gore around every corner, you'd think we might find cheerful respite in "Antiques Roadshow: Greatest Finds," airing on PBS Monday night (check local listings).

But ... there's really something sort of sad about this show. When two sisters find out their mother's Tiffany lamp is worth $100,000, do they cry silently because they need the money, or because they miss their mother? When the woman with the marble sculpture from the Tang Dynasty finds out that she could sell it for around a quarter of a million, why doesn't she show more emotion? Would it be sadder for her to sell something her parents brought from China at the turn of the century, or to hold on to it while she can barely cover her mortgage?

Ultimately, "Antiques Roadshow" is a Rorschach test that measures the complexity of our attitudes about money and possessions, and somehow, the higher the stakes are, the stranger our responses become. After watching a bunch of people discover they're holding a small fortune in their hands, you start to lose your sense of what a small fortune means. You imagine these people selling their grandparents' treasured antique desks and paintings and spending the money on minivans and hot tubs and trips to Hawaii. Remember that scene in "About Schmidt" when Jack Nicholson is sitting in the Winnebago his wife bought hoping they'd spend their golden years touring the country together? Remember that look on Jack's face? It was a lot like the look on Dustin Hoffman's face at the end of "The Graduate" -- once you get exactly what you want, then what? Just as the means -- the struggle to win Elaine's heart or to save up for retirement -- was more vital and satisfying for these characters than the ends, so does owning a hatchet that George Washington gave to John Harding somehow seem a little more important than remodeling the kitchen and adding a whirlpool to the master bathroom.

The greatest find of the show is, strangely, the most bittersweet. When an older man with a Navajo blanket discovers that it's a "national treasure" worth more than he could ever have imagined, his voice gets very high as he wipes tears from his eyes. "It was just sitting on the back of a chair!" he squeaks in disbelief. But the camera stays on him for far too long, waiting for more. "I can't believe it," he says, then we watch him wipe away more tears in silence. This being PBS, we're left with him struggling to regain his composure, long enough for us to wonder: Is he a lonely guy? Will his life change after this? What are his plans now? Does he have a wife and family? What if all that money doesn't change a thing?

This being PBS, none of our questions are answered. Of course, we're so accustomed to the booming voice of commercial stations, announcing that what we're seeing is another clear case of Happily Ever After, that the absence of that shrill sound of victory actually makes us feel like we're witnessing an awful defeat. Like salt and sugar and fat, the over-the-top trilling and amped-up cheer of American culture kills our taste for more subtle moods and flavors.

Developmentally challenged
Which is why, when something truly unique and tweaked and absurd comes along, we all feel so certain that the malevolent mutants in power will snatch it away from us like a mean mommy snatching "The Hite Report" out of our curious little toddler hands.

This is not the proper attitude, of course. And since I've neglected to embrace an attitude of hope and optimism throughout this column, I'll put my pride and pessimism on hold for a millisecond and open my heart to the Fox network on a very pressing and important matter:

Dear Fox Network,

O great master of "The O.C." and "Paradise Hotel," you are wise indeed! So wise that you're sure to pick up "Arrested Development" for another season. Naturally you recognize that it's the best new comedy on TV by far. And your omniscience allows you to see far into the future, to next season at this time, when the show will have doubled its audience merely through those twin forces that buoy every classic show: quality and word of mouth. With all of your supreme foresight and discernment, you see clearly this is the kind of show that gains momentum during its second season. People are just starting to talk about how dearly they love this show! They love it more than they love "King of the Hill." They love it more than they ever loved "Malcolm in the Middle" or "That '70s Show." They love it far more than "Skin," which was not good. They never tuned in for "Forever Eden," but they heard that it sucked.

"Arrested Development" is truly funny. You recognize how rare and beautiful that is, don't you? You do, don't you, O wise and powerful Fox network? Of course you do, for you are pure love.


Your Helpless Puppet

P.S.: You are pure love, aren't you?

Next week: Goodbye, Frasier, it's been nice. Charity golf events, scotch on ice! Goodbye, Rachel. Goodbye, Ross. Will we even feel your loss? Goodbye, Spader. Goodbye, Crane. Will we ever meet again?

By 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

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

I Like To Watch Television