Just when you thought it was safe to go back to your bookshelf, to go out to your garden, to call a few friends, to paint that trim in the bathroom, to make some plans for next Thursday night, along comes a whole new season of summer programming, one that's even more irresistibly fluffy and pointless than the last.
Why oh why do the networks insist on rolling out a full schedule of summer shows? Wasn't summer supposed to be the one time of year that we turned off our TVs?
Remember how the living used to be easy, just a few summers ago? Remember how you grilled fresh halibut and vegetables with little sprigs of rosemary on warm summer nights? Remember how you'd walk your golden retrievers by the honeysuckle and the weeping willows each evening as the sun set on the horizon? Remember how you'd whip up a pitcher of frozen Tangeritas, splash them into some festive pink glasses, and set out some chips and fresh mango salsa as some of your dearest, most photogenic friends arrived, and oddly enough, they'd all be wearing shades of pink that matched the pink in the glasses ... Wait, was that you, or Martha Stewart?
Does it really matter? At the very least, you used to buy the June issue of Martha Stewart and gaze at the pretty pictures while eating Fritos straight out of the bag. Now, sadly, you eat those Fritos in front of the TV set. It's pathetic, really, to see how far you've fallen.
Party of seven
Now that we've all come to accept the fact that we use TV as an escape from connecting with friends, enriching or educating ourselves, cooking delightful, nutritious meals, or speaking to the strangers we live with, it's time to discuss some of the latest televised distractions destined to deprive us of rich, fulfilling lives for the next few months.
Let's start with a little quiz: What happens when four attractive, single 30-somethings who live on a sunny beach in California suddenly find themselves raising three orphaned kids from the Midwest -- one teenager, one preteen and one child?
A) It's just like "Party of Five," except they don't live next door to those adorable twins from "Full House," Jennifer Love's Hewitts are nowhere in sight and the guy who plays Charlie mopes around a lot less.
B) It's just like "Baywatch," except with more Important Life Lessons and less cleavage, plus none of the guys has the raw charm and sex appeal of David Hasselhoff.
C) It's just like "The O.C.," except there's no mansion, no big parties where someone gets punched in the jaw and falls into the pool, no Adam Brody, and no angsty tunes by "The Fire Theft" to amp up the emotional impact of Ryan gazing pensively out the car window during magic hour.
D) It's just like "Beverly Hills, 90210" except the parents are far less square, the kids are far less sexy and there are far fewer snappy lines, like when Ian Ziering's girlfriend du jour caught him flirting with a hot chick and snipped, "Just remember who butters your bagel!"
E) All of the above.
F) I'm not watching TV this summer, damn it!
The correct answer is, of course, F. But for those of you who remain determined to drain your lives of all meaning, the only choice is E. The WB's "Summerland" (Tuesdays at 8 p.m.) manages to incorporate elements of "Party of Five" (dead parents, confused adult guardian), "The O.C." (story lines for adults and kids, sunshiny California setting), "Baywatch" (bikinis, insipid dialogue) and "Beverly Hills, 90210" (displaced Midwesterners, bikinis, insipid dialogue). And what, I ask, could be better than dead parents, confused adult guardians, story lines for adults and kids, Midwesterners, bikinis, insipid dialogue and a sunshiny California setting?
A lot of things, as it turns out. But this is how derivative TV is dreamt up by cynical imitators looking for a gig, and picked up by chumpy development executives who confuse a sloppy patchwork of vaguely familiar elements with a good pilot. So what else is new?
While the sexy singles and adorable orphans of "Summerland" don't live next door to John Stamos and the Olsen twins, Lori Loughlin -- who played Stamos' character's wife, Becky, on "Full House" -- is "Summerland's" lead character. Here's how her story goes, translated into lingo any small child and her Malibu Barbie can understand (and reenact, if necessary): Loughlin's character, Ava (Barbie), lives a carefree, happy life with her gal-pal (Christie) and two meaty guy-pals (Ken, Alan) in a swingin' pad on the beach. Ava works for a top fashion designer, which is such a cool job, but he's, like, a total jerk (GI Joe)! He wants them to fly to Japan together for a business meeting, but Ava's like, "No way! I don't care if you're my boss!" So she and her gal-pal decide to start their own fashion design company ... in Paris! ("Oh my God, we are totally going to Paris!" they squeal.) But then something terrible happens! Ava's sister and her husband (Skipper, Ken) who live on a really rainy, miserable farm in Kansas die when they're trying to save the ... farm or ... the village or something from ... the river. Or something. So the oldest son (Luke Skywalker?) calls Ava and he's crying and she's on the beach, and she's just decided to fly to Paris, but now ... she's got to raise these kids from Kansas instead! Bummer!
Ava is totally overwhelmed. She's just the Fun Aunt! She can't raise these kids! But then her three bestest friends totally want to help! You see, like most self-involved 30-somethings, they're anxious to sacrifice their time and personal freedom to raise other people's kids. It takes a village, after all.
Unfortunately, this village is inhabited by more than one idiot, from the coolio Australian surfer roomie whose fuck buddy shows up in the middle of the night, sneaks into bed and unbuttons her blouse before realizing that she's about to molest an 8-year-old, to the square-jawed manly stud roomie who lets the same 8-year-old wander off to the beach to play on big, scary rocks with waves crashing over them. The preteen girl is pouting, the teen boy is in love with his sexy, older surf instructor/seductress, and the youngest boy wants to die so he can meet his parents in heaven. The most compelling moment of the first hour of the show's premiere was, by far, a commercial introducing Reese's white chocolate peanut butter cups.
But, you know what? People might just watch "Summerland." And like it. Sexy singles raising needy orphans on a sun-dappled beach? That's almost as intriguing as white chocolate and peanut butter.
Design-show improv of the week
Thea Mann, co-host of the WE design show "Mix It Up," interviewing a couple about the female interior decorator who's about to give their apartment a makeover: "She's awful thin. Do you think she can do the job?"
Isn't it romantic?
"As the sun filtered through Newberry's quaint turn-of-the-century buildings, the horror of Vicki Beckham's death and possible murder filtered through the town."
No show captures the romance of murder quite like A&E's true-crime drama "City Confidential" (Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10 p.m.). Only this show could take a woman's murder by her jilted ex-husband and stretch it into an hour-long, epic tale of an isolated little Southern town and its gossiping inhabitants, torn apart at the seams by a brutal crime.
"Now all Newberry had to do was wait for the verdict -- wait to see if a jury could believe that a member of the quiet community, the favorite son of a powerful man, was also a vicious, cold-blooded killer!"
The facts aren't so hard to believe, really: A preacher's son marries the daughter of a senator. He starts hanging out at strip clubs in Myrtle Beach. She gets her act together and dumps him. He hires a thug to kill her and make it look like an accident.
The problem is, the narrator keeps telling us how the murder tore the town apart and pitted two high-profile families against each other, but all we get are extremely bland quotes like "We were all so shocked, we didn't think he was capable of this," and "Everyone liked Vicki. No one had an unkind word to say about her."
To make matters worse, no one seems less tuned in to the real dynamics of the town than the producers and writers themselves. The narrator drones on and on about what a small, small town Newberry is, but we never really see how the reaction in this small town is any different than it would be in a medium-sized or big town. While the narration tries to paint the town as a cartoonishly small, insular place, it's clear they don't have much understanding of the real flavor of the town. Besides, there are plenty of cities that feel far more provincial and homogenous than some very small towns do.
"Anderson's story hit Newberry harder than the advancing Union Army."
And, of course, we're continuously reminded that this is the South, which is somehow shorthand for backwards as hell, when, in my personal experience, small towns scattered across the country seem to have equal sprinklings of prejudice, ignorance and old-fashioned ways.
"City Confidential" certainly presents an approach that makes sense: Explore a murder through the lens of the city or town where it took place. When the Michael Peterson murder trial unfolded in my hometown of Durham, N.C., there was something fascinating about the local coverage of the trial. It was far less distant, and the sensational aspects of the story felt more personal and disturbing than they would've if they were reported by a major network or a larger newspaper.
Maybe "City Confidential's" producers should take the time to present the story in the local newspaper's tone to give a concrete feel for how the information was encountered by the town's population instead of just trumping up the most obvious, sensational aspects of the crime or dredging up their own prejudices about the region.
To bee or not to bee
The Scripps National Spelling Bee was held in Washington on Thursday and the whole thing was televised on ESPN2. Fans of the documentary "Spellbound" are familiar with the curious mix of nerves and big, huge brains that go into this tense spectacle. Something about watching poker-faced 13-year-olds onstage, pausing for several minutes between letters, squirming and rolling their eyes -- it's mesmerizing. These junior brainiacs have tons of character and personality, and once you start cheering on your favorites, you'll find yourself sitting on your hands and gasping as they miss that one difficult letter.
Then, you have to admire any kid who could sit around for several hours a day, memorizing the spelling of words like lagniappe (something given or obtained gratuitously) or sumpsimus (a strictly correct expression or usage) or oyez (used by criers of courts as a command to secure silence and attention before a proclamation).
But the really great thing about watching these kids compete is that they have very little sophrosyne (restraint exercised over one's own impulses, emotions or desires). When it came down to three eighth-graders -- Nicholas James Truelson, age 15, David Scott Tidmarsh, age 14, and Akshay Buddiga, age 13 -- each of them started to show weird little tics. Akshay looked miserable the whole time, and when he got a word that apparently wasn't on his practice lists, his older brother, who was in the audience, would cover his head in his hands. Nicholas, who attends a school called, hauntingly enough, The Pure Brains Academy, spelled each letter robotically. David was the most emotional of all, hiding his face behind his card when he heard another kid get a difficult word, and clapping wildly when he got it right.
In the end, David's schwarmerei (excessive unbridled enthusiasm or attachment) won out. Nicholas missed a word, and then, in the last round, Akshay misspelled "schwarmerei."
There's really nothing quite like seeing a 14-year-old cry tears of joy. After hours of suspense and heartbreak, David's post-game interview was satisfyingly dramatic.
Q: You kept hiding your face behind your number. What was going through your mind?
David: Yeah. I was a little nervous. I couldn't even begin to explain it.
Q: Could you try?
David: Um. I was just hoping that I got a word that I studied and that I would be able to do well.
Q: Well, you were here last year, and your favorite movie is "Spellbound." Is this as good as Hollywood can make it?
David: (blinking back tears) It's even better!
To Miss Infinity and beyond!
"And now let's meet the 80 wonders of the world!"
From pure brains to pure beauty we go, in search of the next Miss Universe. Tuesday night's pageant was pure Trump from the starting gate, with Daisy Fuentes defying gravity in an '80s-style gown designed to reveal a wide swath of cleavage and under-boob. Meanwhile, under-boob Billy Bush was on hand to crack the jokes of a Bad American in Paris. After giving each contestant a personal tongue-bath with his eyes, he announced the first set of finalists with remarkable moron flair. Example: "Gonna be tough to stay neutral tonight -- where's Switzerland?!"
But that was just the tip of The Donald's iceberg. After a robotic group dance that called to mind Shields and Yarnell, the 80 "ambassadors of beauty" donned their native apparel, which apparently meant whipping out their country's version of a Vegas showgirl's outfit. Miss USA, who looks more like Malibu Barbie than any human I've ever seen, traipsed across the stage like an exotic dancer in a futuristic slut-cowboy outfit made up of a silver bikini and a huge white feather headdress.
Next was the evening-gown competition, featuring gowns nothing like the ones I remember from the '70s, which were basically the same skintight dress with a few different colors and necklines. This year, Miss Costa Rica stepped out in a see-through number that looked like it belonged in Britney Spears' dressing room, while Miss Australia donned what appeared to be a mass of gold lamé seaweed. Displaying remarkable taste, Miss USA marched onstage in a light-blue prom dress that Cinderella wouldn't have touched with a 10-foot pole.
The judges seemed to really dig the cheesiest and sleaziest, though, so all three of the above moved on to the top 10, but not until Gloria Estefan swaggered out to sing such timeless classics as "Turn the Beat Around" and "Conga," which should be fresh in your mind from the all-Estefan "American Idol," also known as the worst episode of "American Idol" ever. Next, all of the finalists put on the same exact bikini, which unfortunately emphasized the fact that all of the finalists have the same exact body, give or take half a cup size. Miss India was very petite, and Miss Trinidad & Tobago was very athletic, but the rest were big-breasted Amazons. Hmm. A whole universe filled with women, but somehow only the American ideal of beauty is represented onstage ...
Oh, don't worry your pretty little head over it. We're now down to five Amazons, and it's time for the Final Question, that one question that will determine who becomes the next Miss The Donald ... I mean, Miss Universe!
Miss USA was offered a lagniappe (something given or obtained gratuitously) of a question, but still sounded about as soulful as a frozen pizza.
Q: What do you think has been women's greatest contribution to today's world, and why?
Miss USA: By far, children! (Giggle) We wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for the caregiver, the homemaker, the person who takes care of the home and who makes it what it is. Yes, men are great, and we need men, but what would we do without women? Thank you!"
Controversial answer! Children, a great contribution to the world? Few would agree. Men, great? I think not! Women, essential? Needed? Now you're really going out on a limb, young lady.
After the next few finalists proclaimed puppies "cute" and food "yummy," Miss Trinidad & Tobago succeeded in making Miss USA look like a rocket scientist.
Q: What is one failure in your life that you learned the most about?
Miss Trinidad & Tobago: One failure I learned the most from in my life ... would definitely be when I hit my head on stage in my first fashion show, because here I am now, I learned how to walk and to overcome that fear of a big audience, and what a big audience we have here tonight!"
Ah yes, learning to walk in four-inch stilettos is indeed one of life's greatest challenges. Apparently, someone's been floating by on her schwarmerei for years now. Oh yeah -- her perfect face and body probably help, too.
The judges weren't having any of it. Miss Trinidad & Tobago was fourth runner-up, and it came down to Miss USA and Miss Australia in the top two. That's right! In a contest with about three or four blondes total, the top two finalists were both blond. Isn't it amazing? With countless shapes, sizes and colors of women in this great big universe of ours, the most beautiful of all are the fair-skinned Caucasians!
Mercifully, Miss Australia, who appeared to at least have blood flowing through her veins, won the crown, but she looked like she was having mixed feelings about it almost immediately. While the ladies gathered to cry and kiss and hug her, she simply looked shell-shocked and homesick.
Sure enough, in the papers the next day, Jennifer Hawkins revealed that she felt extremely sad about leaving her family and boyfriend in Australia to move to New York. She also said that she had the weirdest feeling in the world when she won, that she couldn't begin to explain it. That's OK! Please, don't even try.
Next week: Oyez! More schwarmerei for summer TV! HBO offers a lagniappe to out-of-work sitcom writers! Plus: Brenda and Nate show very little sophrosyne on the premiere of "Six Feet Under"!