I Like to Watch

Beware the ultimate love torture! Avoid that hairstyling Rocco wannabe! Plus: Margaret Cho, the Rosenbergs 50 years later and the finale of dirty, dirty "Deadwood."

Heather Havrilesky
June 15, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

The Bad Summer Television Advisory System has issued an alert to make the public aware of some truly atrocious shows that may be appearing on your televisions this summer if necessary precautions aren't taken. No matter what your current viewing conditions -- you TiVo everything, you don't have meddling kids in the house, you don't get the Women's Entertainment channel -- you should still take steps to avoid stumbling on some of the worst programming we've witnessed in recent history.

Keep in mind, the world has changed since the birth of cable television and reality shows. We remain a nation at risk of some seriously shitty TV.


Precautionary measures: In order to safeguard your home against the malignant programming that has struck our nation at its very core, you'll need to go to your local hardware and grocery stores and purchase some duct tape, a few 3-foot bungee cords, some plastic tarps, a little Super Glue, several gallons of water, 15 boxes of Little Debbie Oatmeal Pies and a year's supply of Ramen noodles (roast beef flavor is recommended).

First, lure any small children over to the neighbor's house by creating a trail of Little Debbie Oatmeal Pie crumbs, making sure to tuck a few 20s into their shoes to pay for any costs they might incur during the summer months. Next, insert Super Glue into the push-buttons of the remote, so that it no longer functions. Now you'll have to manually change channels on your television using the up and down channel cursors, which will exhaust you to the point of utter collapse. Next, create a Safe Zone by constructing a fortlike area in the living room made of couch cushions and plastic tarp. Drag the water and the Ramen noodles into the fort. Unplug the phone. Bind the front door closed with bungee cords, just in case your little offspring find the hide-a-key and try to let themselves in. Finally, retreat to the fort and await further instruction.

Regardless of our circumstances, we must remain vigilant, prepared and ready to deter truly awful television, even if it means turning tail and hiding until the dangers of "Naked Josh" and "The Simple Life II" have passed.


You don't have the meatballs
Thank the good Lord you'll be safe in your fort all summer, because you'll miss "Blow Out," a show that's so exquisitely awful, you're likely to watch every single teeth-gritting episode.

You don't need to watch any of it, trust me. Just imagine all of the staged bitchiness of "The Restaurant" without any of the delicious-looking pizzas. Celebrity hairstylist Jonathan Antin, who's starting a new salon in Beverly Hills, is even more of a narcissist than celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito, and has about one-tenth of his charm. That didn't stop Bravo from foisting this giant, styleless turd of a show at our faces just in time for summer.

But before we get into Jonathan and his foolishness, a short digression: Let's just go ahead and admit that this season of "The Restaurant" on NBC was an absolute cringe-inducing mess. There's nothing remotely enjoyable about watching Jeffrey Chodorow pout and preen and pull power moves while Rocco tries desperately not to sink into the stagey ugliness of it all. Then, after suffering through weeks of awkward, queasily depressing encounters between these two, the real story -- that they both give up on sorting out their differences and end up in a bitter legal battle -- is offered in the form of a brief note on the screen at the end of the finale. Huh? I don't care how your legal battles affect your ability to shoot footage, you made a TV show about your dumb fight, and now you can't even offer the camera a little summary of what's going on? In the end, the whole ridiculous second season amounted to a series of badly staged moments paired with huffy silence and sulking, and the second any of it had any substance or serious consequences, both parties were too prideful or too cautious to keep the cameras running.


Now back to "Blow Out" and Jonathan, whose "smoldering good looks" and "charisma" are utterly lost on me, maybe because he spends most of his camera time checking his look in the mirror, drooling over women on the street and savoring the ego rewards of hiring and firing people. So far, not only is the show devoid of any narrative arc despite the countless staged scenes that Jonathan isn't remotely enough of an actor to pull off naturally, but it's impossible to distinguish the show, with its many product placements (Revlon, American Express, LensCrafters) from the ads, many of which feature Jonathan prominently. Blah, is what I say to that. Blah! Even "Survivor" is more subtle than this alarming soup of indiscriminate promotional wanking.

And then there's Brandon Martinez, a stylist Jonathan interviews for his new salon who's described as "a motorcycle-riding, nightclub-hopping and tattoo-sporting heterosexual bad boy from Santa Monica" on the show's Web site. When Jonathan comes by to see how Brandon's haircut is coming, Brandon advises his future boss to "take notes," a hilariously arrogant remark that the hilariously arrogant Jonathan can't tolerate, so he pulls the bad boy aside and admonishes him with the self-seriousness of a first grade teacher.


We're honestly expected to tune in next week, when the "rock 'n' roll" staff starts giving everyone who wanders through the salon the same trendy haircut -- you know the one, with the highlighted, upturned fringes? I know I can't shut up about what a genius Tyra Banks is, but just take a minute and compare this stinking heap of reality garbage with the fluffy but brilliant "America's Next Top Model," which never seems forced or staged but remains dramatic and fresh week after week. Where is Janice Dickinson when you need her?

Bound to fail
What's so fun about bringing people together, when you can tear them apart instead? That's the logic of ABC's "The Ultimate Love Test," a show that's about as uplifting and fun as your last miserable breakup.

Here's how it works: The show starts with four couples who profess their interest in determining whether or not they should get married. Then, the producers send the more confident partner away for a fun-filled vacation while the other, less secure partner stays at home and becomes increasingly miserable. Occasionally, footage of his or her happy, suntanned partner appears on a monitor, after which the sad human tries not to seem pathetic, but ends up crying and throwing stuff across the room anyway. Meanwhile, The Confident One is joking around or cuddling with some stud or hot babe who has all of the qualities that The Insecure One lacks.


Basically, the whole thing is just like "Temptation Island," except only one partner is squealing as someone sucks tequila out of his or her bellybutton, while the other partner's sanity slowly erodes. All of this would be absolutely delightful, of course, if it didn't feature a dull cast, bad editing, silly scenarios and a genuinely mean-spirited structure. Ah yes, nothing like an ethically questionable show that isn't even that amusing to watch.

Luckily for you reality TV rubberneckers, this may be the one show that is exactly as entertaining and informative as its summary on TiVo. Instead of slaving through a full hour of toxic trash, you can simply read, for example, the following short description:

The Ultimate Love Test: (2004) Roy romances Amber while Diego tries to stifle his jealousy; Brandon and Brooke spend the day parasailing as Kenesha looks on; Jayre and Eva picnic on the beach and infuriate Carolyn; Heather and C.R. go bungee jumping, which bothers Frank. (CC, Stereo)


See? Is there really any need to see Carolyn infuriated and Frank bothered? I think not. Stay in your fort.

A little light treason
OK, you're allowed to come out tonight, but only for a few hours to watch "Heir to an Execution," (Monday June 14 at 8 p.m.; HBO) Ivy Meeropol's documentary about her grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

For you young guns out there, something called "communism" used to be as popular as hip-hop among certain circles in New York way back in the day, and despite what you might have heard about "the evil empire" or how "the fall of the Soviet Union proved that communism didn't work," in truth, the "Reds" in this country had largely honorable concerns about social injustice. You know, like Ani DiFranco. See, many of these so-called "commies" had lived through such atrocities as the Great Depression, and ... What? Oh, that was a time when everyone went hungry, because Ramen noodles hadn't been invented yet.


Anyway, the Rosenbergs were a married couple who were executed as traitors in 1953 for allegedly giving the Soviets the secret of the atom bomb. Although the Rosenbergs' guilt in feeding secrets to the Soviets is still uncertain, Meeropol's film is incredibly personal and laced with unexpectedly heart-wrenching moments. Ultimately, "Heir to an Execution" is an eerily moving examination of the abuses and missteps of this country's criminal justice system.

Pretty heady stuff, huh? Yep. Now get back in your fort.

You say you want a revolution, yeah, etc.
While you're heating up your next meal of beef-flavored Ramen, I'll tell you a little story. A long, long time ago, I went to see this comedian perform. She was a friend of my then-boyfriend and turned out to be very funny, much to my surprise.

After the show, we went backstage to talk with her, and she turned out to be one of the most repellent, intolerable, irritatingly manic humans to roam the face of the earth. She spoke in a very loud voice and pretended to listen for about two-second intervals in between hyperspeed comic routines that, away from the stage, just seemed depressing and psychotic.


I'm told that comedians are often outrageously narcissistic and impossible to tolerate, but one comedian I've never had that impression of is Margaret Cho. Cho seems pretty likable, which is why I was looking forward to seeing her movie, "Revolution," which premieres this Saturday at 10 p.m. on Sundance.

The movie is just footage of her show, but it's pretty funny. Sometimes, it's very funny, in fact. Other times, it's just OK. Other times, it's annoying. Most of all, watching "Revolution" made me wonder if comedians don't have to be either insane or self-loathing or both in order to be very, very funny.

I just don't think Cho sets the bar high enough. She has too many fans. People love her too damn much. That's not good for a comedian who clearly isn't insane and isn't utterly full of self-loathing. As likable and cool as Cho is, she needs to weed out the mediocre jokes and aim a little higher.

See, Jerry Seinfeld doesn't have this problem. Watch the movie "Comedian." He's always questioning whether his material is funny enough. Everyone in the room is in pain from laughing, and Seinfeld isn't sure he deserves the free beer he's sipping. He doesn't trust people's opinions. He thinks most people are idiots.


Ray Romano is delightfully self-loathing. Chris Rock only performs when he's built up enough great material to justify it. Of course it's tough and time consuming to set the bar high, particularly with comedy -- I'm sure that for every joke that makes it into Seinfeld's or Romano's or Rock's final acts, there are hundreds that get cut. What about the days when you're in a shitty mood? What about the days when you'd rather eat live maggots than make someone laugh? What about those weeks when you're trying to give up coffee?

Cry me a river. If I wanted to hear jokes about how monogamy is "weird" or how Bush mispronounces "nuclear," I'd get some of my stupid jerk friends drunk on raspberry Megaritas. You make a film that's supposed to be funny, it's time to cut the part where your friend gives birth and it's, like, gross.

You can come out of your fort to watch Cho's "Revolution," because I'm interested in your opinion. Please let me know if it's hilarious and I'm just being a cocksucker about it.

Deadwood like me
Sorry, I can't stop saying "cocksucker" these days, thanks to "Deadwood," HBO's strange little western that quickly matured into an oddly affecting tapestry of twisted stories and riveting characters. The smirking and scheming of town menace Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) alone was enough to have me tuning in all season.


Still, it was tough to predict what shape last night's finale would take, given the strangely shifting terrain and nonlinear structure of the first 11 episodes. Like an improvised meal by a talented but incautious cook, a thrillingly unpredictable narrative can turn into a disappointing, ill-defined mess in the wink of an eye if certain basic audience needs aren't satisfied.

"Deadwood" creator David Milch may be a risk taker, but he's not exactly green. And last night's episode turned out to be both ominous and sublime, drawing to a close like the first act of a finely crafted screenplay or the first chapter of a commanding page-turner.

"When did you start thinking every wrong had a remedy, Wu? Did you come to camp for justice, or to make your way?" Swearengen's words echo in every corner of this lawless town, whose inhabitants have to choose between their highest ideals and the more practical, less honorable solutions to their problems day in and day out. Swearengen the saloon owner and Seth Bullock the former marshal may have been introduced as the black hat and the white hat at the outset, but now their roles are far less easily defined.

In fact, both are pragmatists. Swearengen is an opportunist and a manipulative mastermind with a sad, corrupted soul -- but a soul, nonetheless -- and Bullock is an honorable man who finds himself stooping to fit the cramped dimensions of his sordid surroundings. By the end of last night's episode, it became clear that these two are sides of the same coin, and they're fated to work together and clash and envy and respect and loathe each other like arch enemies or blood brothers, depending on the day.

What could be more satisfying, after a whole season of hoping for some human side of Swearengen to show through, than watching him take pity on the minister and pine for Trixie, even as the demonic wheels of his empire continue to spin? And, after a whole season spent waiting for Bullock to take charge, we finally have the satisfaction of seeing him take his rightful position as sheriff of this chaotic, ungovernable town.

Now the only question is, how long do we have to wait until the next season? Have mercy on us, dear HBO, and send us some fresh "Deadwood" real quick-like.

Feed your heads!
Between the finale of "Deadwood" and the long-awaited premiere of "Six Feet Under," you probably worked yourselves up into a lather last night and knocked over your fort. Well, you'd better get to repairing your shelter and fast, chicken little, because those network cocksuckers are churning out all kinds of fresh tripe to sling your way before the return of "The Amazing Race" in July.

Remember, bad TV preparedness is the responsibility of every American. Our goal here at ILTW is to make all citizens better equipped to prevent and handle threats of skin-deep dramas, laugh-free comedies, and perversely stupid reality shows of all kinds. So stay alert -- don't get hurt!

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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