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California splinters in half! Dr. Phil does comedy! Mutual of Omaha's Jackass Kingdom! "Survivor" proclaimed "Best Dating Show Ever" by fans nationwide!

By Heather Havrilesky

Published May 10, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Relationship rubberneckers unite!
Now that the first season of "Significant Others" has wrapped up, those of us who take sick delight in the petty squabbles of other couples will have to move on from watching fictional couples bicker in couples' therapy to watching so-called real couples hash out their problems on "Dr. Phil."

You really have to hand it to the masterminds behind this show. Not only are the couples in the "Dr. Phil"-branded comedic miniseries "Relationship Rescue Retreat" alarmingly lifelike, but so is Dr. Toughlove himself, despite the funny paste-on mustache and the '80s-style hard-guy act. Dr. Phil is like a cross between the Great Santini and Phil Donahue; you're never sure whether to simultaneously fear him and feel sorry for him (the Great Santini) or to just feel sorry for him (Donahue).

Either way, central casting got it right -- the shiny bald head, the squinty mean eyes? This guy is so convincing he makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Plus, I love how the "Dr. Phil" comedy team dreams up imaginative scenarios to milk every conflict for all it's worth. First, Dr. Phil (Donahue) breaks the group of couples whose marriages are on the rocks into random pairs and coaxes them gently into looking each other in the eyes and finishing sentences like "What works in my marriage is ..." and "I feel like an idiot when ..."

Then, just as everyone is getting comfy with all of the sharing and caring in the room, Dr. Phil (the Great Santini) singles out those who seem to see themselves as irreproachable, aka "right-fighters," for a lesson.

The results sound a little bit like this:

Beth: I felt like an idiot when I gave birth to our baby boy, and Greg wasn't even there! He was out, cheating on me with a waitress from Hooters!

Dr. Phil: Beth, did you also mention how you beat Greg when he makes you mad, and that two of your ex-boyfriends have filed restraining orders against you, and that you've got a little problem with prescription pills?

But sabotaging emotionally vulnerable pudwhackers is just the tip of the laugh iceberg for this innovative comedy. Later, there's a reality-TV-style skit where we see the "couples" in their hotel rooms that night, complaining about how much they dislike Dr. Toughlove and how they really want to quit the Retreat but they're afraid they'll look like jackasses if they do.

Who says scripted comedy is dead? "Relationship Rescue Retreat" is a true comic gem, reminding us that Frasier Crane isn't the last funny-guy doctor on the small screen!

I want my DSM-V!
I wonder how Dr. Toughlove would handle a "wannabe," the term those who suffer from a lifelong compulsion to have one of their limbs amputated use to describe themselves. As strange as it might be to hear someone say that they're a one-legged human trapped in a two-legged human's body, that's about how it works for those who have what some psychologists feel is an identity disorder that should be included in the DSM-V, the next version of the official list of mental illnesses.

As awful and sick as it seems at first, the individuals profiled in the documentary "Whole" (Monday night at 9 p.m. on the Sundance Channel) not only seem utterly normal outside of their desire to lose a limb, but by the end of this very sensitive film, you'll find yourself hoping that some of them finally get the amputations they've always dreamed of.

One of the wannabes actually pretends to be missing a leg in order to cope with his condition. "When I'm pretending I feel good, I feel relaxed, I feel easy, more myself," he says. "I don't have to think about my leg. I don't see my leg now. It's not there, so it's no problem; it's easy. That's who I am. I am complete now.

Of course, people hear the words "voluntary amputation" and they're suspicious, regardless of how much they know about this odd condition. "Whole" offers a great example of how impossible it is to judge any human being as crazy without hearing firsthand what that person has been through.

Shake 'n' break
For example, I don't know anything about the creators of "10.5" and lack even the vaguest notion of what kinds of crippling personality disorders or emotional afflictions might have caused them to create what may go down in history as one of the worst disaster movies of all time -- and yes, I'm including "Earthquake," "Piranha" and "Volcano."

I really hope you didn't miss this small-screen wonder. My favorite part was when they drilled holes in the ground and lowered nuclear warheads into them because Kim Delaney's character, a seismologist, had a theory that it might stop half of California from falling into the Pacific. Unfortunately, though, while they were lowering the warheads into their holes using some sort of finely tuned, high-tech machinery closely resembling the Claw from "Toy Story," one of the machine's claws knocked into the side of the hole and the warhead went tumbling without being armed first!

This meant that the head of Operation: Earthquake, Roy Nolan (Fred Ward), had to personally climb down into the hole with the warhead (Hello, Jack Bauer!) in order to arm it, knowing that he'd never survive the task. But, as he was trying to arm the warhead using a special code, another earthquake struck! He fell to the bottom of the hole, and the warhead fell on top of him!

Now Nolan was in quite a pickle. A nuclear warhead, right there on his lap! First, he told the folks at command central to patch him over to his son, with whom he had a strained relationship (Hello, George Mason!). After explaining to his son that he had several tons of atomic bombage crushing his groin, he apologized for being a major dickhead dad these long years. Then he hung up in time to push the final button in the arming code. Blam, he's a hero! Again, who says scripted comedy is dead?

But forget all of that, we've got elaborate train sets to wreck and smash and flood with water. Did I mention how ultra-crappy the effects were? Did I mention the interminable scenes between John Schneider's character and some teenage girl who played his daughter, both of whom spent most of the movie wandering around the countryside and hashing out their Lifetime Channel-style father-daughter issues?

But the really good part was when California ripped in two, with millions perishing except for a lucky handful who live right around Santa Barbara, which was transformed into an island offshore (Hello, exclusive spa destination to the stars!). As the Pacific was pouring into Barstow, where many of our lead characters had congregated, the crowds were forced to flee the rushing waters on foot. While fleeing, Delaney's love interest fell. He twisted his ankle or something! But the water was coming! Danger! "Kim, leave the jerk. You can't drag him along fast enough!" some moronic voice from deep inside us yelled at the screen. But just as the water seemed to be overtaking them ... it stopped! The fleeing masses, who had just seen millions of people die before their eyes, stopped, and turned to gaze at the new coastline.

And as a group, they murmured, "Oh my god, it's so beautiful-hul-hul!" Cue credits.

Does every show on TV end just like "The Swan," or is it just my imagination?

Kings of pain
That's why I like "Wild Boyz." Instead of concerning themselves with all things bright and beautiful-hul-hul, Chris Pontius and Steve-O focus on more important matters, like getting maimed by wild rhinos.

For those who don't know, "Wild Boyz" is sort of an international version of "Jackass" with all of the thick-skulled comedic stylings and wanton self-destruction and none of the little ditties involving riding shopping carts down ski slopes or firing paint pellets at point-blank range. After all, danger comes in far more exotic forms.

Basically, you take two guys with the total lack of dignity and dearth of concern for their personal safety that made "Jackass" famous, and you give them plane tickets to untamed locations across the globe, where they do incredibly stupid stuff like pick up dangerous snakes and spiders, put on lettuce suits and jump into pools filled with manatees, or stand waist-deep in water waiting for a massive electric eel to shock them.

What's nice is that Pontius and Steve-O are a little bit weirder and geekier than Johnny Knoxville and Bam Margera. They're much more gleeful and dorky, singing weird little songs and speaking in nonsensical puns, and they seem to be wearing G-strings everywhere they go. On a recent episode in the Amazon, Pontius sits in a tree with a furry-looking monkey and muses, "In Brazil, wool doesn't come from sheep. It comes from these woolly little motherscratchers!" Later, when the two are engaged in an Indian coming-of-age ritual that involves shoving their hands in ants, they even make the somewhat stoical Indians around them laugh with their absurd proclamations. "I think I'm a man now!" Steve-O screeches. Cut to an emergency room, where they're both getting shots to numb the pain, their ant-stung hands the size of catcher's mitts.

Yes, it's all very reckless and juvenile. But there's something more than a little irresistible about crossing "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" with "Beavis & Butthead."

How the West was run
Speaking of reckless and juvenile, I can't believe I haven't written about "Deadwood" yet, since David Milch's new series is easily the best thing to hit HBO since "Six Feet Under." While the characters and situations -- a local swindler, a former marshal, a rich man with a gold claim -- seemed limited during the first few episodes, "Deadwood's" plot has become exponentially richer each week, the main characters are showing new sides, and just enough new characters have entered the picture to keep things interesting.

Mostly I love how Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the tyrannical salon owner, has been on some kind of a crazy high lately. The episode in which, after glowering over the town like a shadow for weeks, he came up with a plan to downplay the town's smallpox outbreak and then helped with the wording of a newspaper article on the outbreak was one of the best so far.

"I think maybe it should have a question mark: 'A Plague in Deadwood?'" Swearengen told A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones), the local journalist.

"The type is set. You're reading the definitive edition!" Merrick replied primly.

But Milch is an old pro at these sorts of satisfying character turns, having written Emmy-winning episodes of "Hill Street Blues" and co-created "NYPD Blue." Plus, after the death of Wild Bill Hickok and the aftermath, Milch and the writers were wise to inject a little more hope into the picture.

What really sets "Deadwood" apart, though, is that unlike other dramas on TV, which introduce a few compelling figures or satisfying scenarios then repeat them episode after episode, "Deadwood" expands in every direction like a well-written novel. Somehow, even as the scope of the show widens with more characters and more complicated story lines, instead of losing us, the writers keep drawing us in deeper.

But best of all, the dialogue is absolutely poetic, from Swearengen's coarse haikus ("Open the bar. Get the girls fucking." "I'd rather try touching the moon than take on a whore's thinking.") to Calamity Jane's (Robin Weigert) roundabout outbursts ("I been drunk awhile, correct. What the fuck is that to you?"). As fun as "24" is, compare five minutes of its unimaginative dialogue ("Where's the virus? What should we do now?") to "Deadwood's" artful conversations. It's hard to believe that -- in Milch's hands -- a western, of all things, could feel so original and inspired.

Let Sweetums ring!
"Survivor: All Stars" ended with a big bang last night in one of the most satisfying finales in the show's history. If you TiVoed the finale and haven't watched it yet, for chrissakes, what are you doing reading this? Avert your eyes and avoid the water cooler, because this was a big one.

In short, I think it's safe to say that Boston Rob will go down in history as the most impressive "Survivor" player ever: He dominated every physical challenge. He built the most elaborate shelter "Survivor" has ever seen. He utterly controlled the voting from the first day. He snuffed out every attempt to overthrow his power. And when he and his main squeeze, Amber, made it to the final two, he proposed to her on live television before the winner was announced. Seconds after he lay a fat diamond on his future wife's hand, she won the million dollars.

Boston Rob, I'm in awe of you.

But I'm also impressed with Shi Ann and Rupert who, unlike whiny little bitches Lex, Big Tom and Alicia, refused to be bitter about the outcome. Rupert was arguably the most screwed over of all by the last minute, strategically idiotic defection of his bumbling ally Jenna, but he rose above it and treated all of his fellow players graciously.

Meanwhile, Lex bemoaned Boston Rob's unbearable double-crossing, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Rob's maneuvers didn't come close to his own strategically idiotic attack on his so-called friends Colby and Ethan. Hobbling into the final weeks with his pathetic team, a team he weakened single-handedly by eliminating its strongest players, Lex stupidly tried to win Boston Rob's mercy by doing him a favor. But in this game, the second you admit openly that your fate rests in another player's hands, you're screwed.

Unless, of course, that player is your future spouse. It may have been strategically idiotic of Amber to agree to marry Rob when, with her looks, personality, brains and tall dollars, she could choose from thousands of men anxious to make her feel safe, beautiful, special, you name it, but I still have a soft spot for opposites who attract. And let's face it: Even though there were no roses involved, last night's finale was, hands down, The Best Rose Ceremony Ever.

But that's not all, folks. Proving once again that he's the undisputed champion of reality TV -- sorry, I mean unscripted dramas -- creator/producer Mark Burnett devised an "American Idol"-inspired twist: America gets to vote and award one of the All Stars another million dollars. You can text message your vote, or go to cbs.com. Naturally, you'll be casting your vote for Sweetums (Rupert), as will I, and if he wins, I'll be so happy, I'll never need to watch another episode of "Survivor" again.

Next week: Pigs fly, hell freezes over, and Fonzie teaches Rumsfeld to admit that he was wrrr... wrrrr... wrrrrong.

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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