I Like to Watch

Watch and learn: Viviana battles the workout robots on "Next Action Star"! The "Amazing Race"-ers stumble out of the starting gate! Plus: "The Casino" proves there's no such thing as a free lunch ... unless you're a millionaire.

Published July 6, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

The action faction
Contrary to popular belief, every single show on television serves some function or teaches some important lesson. No matter how pointless a program might seem on the surface, it's always fulfilling some purpose that's invisible to the naked eye.

For example, if NBC's "Next Action Star" had never aired, many of us wouldn't know just how many people out there are longing to be the next Steven Seagal. These are the kinds of people who work out several hours a day, who wear cross trainers and spandex thongs everywhere they go, who speak in Tony Robbins-style clichés and deliver steely monologues about how all they need is to believe in themselves and they're guaranteed to become globally recognized movie stars. Like the mutant offspring of an "American Idol" contestant and Tae Bo guru Billy Blanks, they swim through a bilious soup of diets and exercise routines and self-improvement seminars. In fact, they're so consumed by self-transformation that it's tough to locate a self in them behind so many layers of mastery and competitive spirit and commitment to physical perfection.

During the first episode of "Next Action Star" (now on Wednesdays at 8 p.m.), we're introduced to an endless parade of this species of upbeat workout robots, until we suspect that the planet is slowly but surely being taken over by pumped-up, psyched-up monsters in hot-pink Lycra. Throw in some snotty Hollywood judges, and you've got a sad little snapshot of what it must be like to be an actor in Los Angeles, wandering from one demeaning audition to the next alongside a herd of optimistic dim bulbs in wife-beaters.

But strangely enough, while most of the "Next Action Star" contestants in the first episode fit neatly into this category of idealistic beefcakey beasts, the finalists mostly seem like fairly sensitive, thoughtful human beings. They work well together, they're focused, and they have keen observations on their competitors. A few of the less contemplative ones struggle to put their feelings into words, but they struggle mightily, and show more focus and earnestness than your average aerobicizing ogre. With this alarmingly human mix of contestants, the competition might be a little more touching -- but a little less educational -- than it initially appeared.

Of course, just as every rose has its thorns, so every reality show has its Omarosa. All hail Viviana, a melodramatic Colombian woman known as much for her incomprehensible emotional outbursts as for her industrial-strength push-up bras. On last week's episode, she got into a major confrontation with a fellow actor over ... a chair. "Don't blow the nose on me, 'cause I'm Pinocchio!" she griped, cryptically. "I can take my nose and stick it up your ass!"

While all the sensitive action stars scurried about, trying desperately to soothe Viviana's flaring temper, it still wasn't long before she turned on everyone. "You guys are confusing my beauty with weakness!" she screeched, confusing her insanity with strength. Sadly, considering the countless life lessons she might teach viewers at home, Viviana quit at the end of the episode.

Thankfully, the egotistical production types that serve as judges provide a nice sideshow to the main event. Watching these snippy know-it-alls strain to determine which of the middling talents has even a remote chance of carrying an entire movie can be mildly pleasing, particularly for those of us with jobs that aren't quite as difficult, and aren't filmed for a national audience. Naturally, the three judges take turns shaming the contestants and each other, and often smirk as if they can hardly stand to hear one another's opinions -- all very satisfying, particularly for those of us who spend most of our days hiding smirks and disguising our lack of interest in the opinions of others.

Don't you wish you were a casting director or a producer, so you could spend your life delivering self-aggrandizing monologues and crushing the tender hopes of fragile young people, pausing only to throw a temper tantrum over the fact that there are anchovies in your Caesar salad? Forget the house with the lawn and the white picket fence; the American dream these days is to be a coddled egomaniac.

Gamble on
And where do coddled egomaniacs go to relax and get away from it all? Las Vegas, baby, where they can feel powerful and important just by whipping out big stacks of cash to lose at the blackjack tables.

Fox's "The Casino" (Mondays at 9 p.m.) is even more scripted and stiff than NBC's "The Restaurant," but it does offer a creepy glimpse at the way casinos sweet-talk the filthy rich into playing with their money so that they'll eventually impale themselves on their own worst impulses. When millionaire Jeff Mills and his entourage show up at the Golden Nugget, they disparage the place for being hokey from the start, but gladly accept the free suite and quickly set about losing $200,000, plus Mills' girlfriend misplaces a Louis Vuitton purse and the $25,000 in cash that's in it. Oops!

That should be the end of their story, but what transpires is the sort of horror show anyone who's hung out with vaguely self-destructive privileged kids will recognize: Despondent but still drinking and gambling around the clock, Mills and his friends take their frustrations out on the casino's playing cards, which they rip into tiny shreds. When Tim, the co-owner, insists that they stop, they vow not to return. Tim stomps off, griping, "I don't have time for that shit."

But the bottom line is always the bottom line, so the co-owners get together and decide they'd better find the time to lure the rich monkeys back to their casino. Invited to play golf at Bali Hai and then have lunch in the presidential suite, Mills and his posse return, more than willing to hang up their pride for more schmoozing and free stuff. After lunch, Mills' girlfriend is presented with a brand new Louis Vuitton handbag. Amazing how cheap it is to be rich!

And how rich it is to be cheap. Last week's episode featured the absurd adventures of Jenn, a young hottie who moves to Las Vegas from Oregon to start a new life. When she finds out the casino isn't hiring cocktail waitresses, she resorts to being "arm candy" for a local pimp who was obviously dragged into the picture by the show's producers. Then, at the end of the show, one of the owners spots the pimp, supposedly for the first time ("Who's that guy?" "Oh, you mean the one with the cameras following him around? I don't know"), and throws him out. I just wonder how it feels to be invited to be filmed at a casino, only to end up getting kicked out while the cameras roll.

Reality TV has a human cost! But no matter. The real moral of our story is that, in Vegas -- and in Hollywood -- money trumps all principles. And don't you wish you had more money than principles, so you could dress like Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick, get wrecked on Scotch and lose hundreds of thousands at roulette?

Don't be silly, of course you do.

Mr. Show, don't tell
You know that feeling you get when you're out to dinner with some friends, and you've had a couple of glasses of red wine and the conversation seems incredibly intense and witty and fascinating? You know that temporary glow you get, when your friends seem so sharp and unique and entertaining, that it almost makes you wish you had a video camera, so you could tape the whole brilliant conversation and show it to other people, who would surely find it endlessly insightful and intriguing?

But then you wake up the next morning and your mouth is an ashtray and your head is a bowling ball and you thank your lucky stars there's not a video somewhere of you recounting how it felt to read "The Hite Report" at age 12.

Comic stars with cachet never really learn this basic lesson. In the tradition of talky classics like "The Anniversary Party" and "Before Sunrise," the Sundance channel recently aired "Melvin Goes to Dinner" (2003), the rambling story of four very clever, very intelligent middle-aged people who have dinner together and confess all kinds of secrets, most of them fairly awkward and unsavory. Directed by Bob Odenkirk ("Mr. Show") and featuring small parts by Jack Black, David Cross and Maura Tierney with music by Michael Penn, "Melvin Goes to Dinner" is at times funny and at times even poignant, but the sum of its parts don't add up to a very memorable whole.

The chatty, tell-don't-show independent movie certainly has its charms, but there's something about the aimless effeteness of a boozy dinner conversation that chafes mercilessly. Since this is the kind of rambling film that only an insider like Odenkirk could find the money to make, all of its philosophizing about religion and marriage and sex feels just a little bit too baldly self-congratulatory, too queasily pretentious to stomach.

"I have a friend who's a psychic, right? And she says she communicates with the dead all the time..."

"People are into whatever they're into, it's like, um, anal sex never used to turn me on, I mean, like, the idea of it, but you know..."

"I'm totally not into the whole organized religion thing either, but I'm saying that I know that something goes on after we die."

Some of the flashbacks are worthwhile, most notably one that features Jack Black as a hospital patient who's convinced that he's the creator of the universe. But the four lead characters are more smug and irritating than charming and delightful. With all of their snappy retorts and cleverness, I found myself appreciating their wit about as much as I'd appreciate the conversation of a neighboring table at a restaurant whose voices were drowning out the voice of my dinner companion. And strangely enough, with all that they tell us about their views and experiences, all but one (Melvin, played by Michael Blieden) remain vague and shapeless to the bitter end. Certainly there's a place for rambling, absurd, nonlinear narrative, but in the wrong hands, such stories slide from mildly amusing to dull with alarming speed.

"Melvin Goes to Dinner" has won lots of critical praise and a bunch of awards at film festivals, but to me, aside from a few choice flashbacks, this film landed somewhere between the self-indulgent egotism of IFC's "Dinner for Five" (when no one as entertaining as Carrie Fisher is invited to dinner) and the unpalatable horniness of HBO's now-canceled "Mind of the Married Man."

Froggy went a courtin'
Don't you wish you were an announcer for the WB, so that you could pronounce "Summerland" "Summerlund"? As in, "Next, on the WB... 'Summerlund.'"

Why is everything that's fresh from the frog so deeply tweaked? What distant planet did the WB's creative staff come from, and when will they return? More important, will they take "One Tree Hill" with them?

Those amazing animals
While Mark Burnett is widely regarded as the king of reality TV, those of you who majored in Scripted Drama know from your Reality Programming History class that one of the early classics of the reality genre was created not by Burnett or "Real World" visionaries Bunim and Murray, but by blockbuster bigwig Jerry Bruckheimer. That timeless show, "The Amazing Race," returns for its fifth season this Tuesday, July 6, at 9:30 p.m. on CBS. Perhaps the most consistently entertaining of the reality competitions, the race begins on the Santa Monica, Calif., pier this year, and somehow kicks into high gear within, oh, I'd say the first few seconds, thanks to some early injuries and a very determined little person carrying a massive side of beef through the streets of a crowded village.

Of all the reality shows I've watched -- and that's all of them -- "The Amazing Race" might be the most difficult to sell people on, sight unseen. When you explain how teams of two travel around the world together, completing various tasks, and the first team to reach the final destination wins, it ends up sounding like some kind of vaguely educational bore. You just can't do justice to how well this show is edited to create suspense, or to the great feel you get for the exotic locales that the players visit, thanks to some first-rate, frenetic camera work. Even with 11 teams of two, each with their own camera crew, you never see any crew members in any of the shots. Imagine the choreography and camera skills that requires, particularly when the teams are dashing to the finish line in a pack.

The teams of two are crucial, of course. There's nothing quite like watching old friends, or couples, or siblings trying not to fault each other for stupid mistakes while rushing to make a flight to Tokyo or packing onto a crowded bus in India. In fact, they should really change the title of the show to "The Blame Game," since so much of the drama comes from seeing how the two-person teams handle the stresses of traveling together under time pressures.

But the bickering would just be irritating, if the casting of the show weren't so consistently impressive. Somehow the casting director of "The Amazing Race" seems to locate teams that will either quarrel in interesting ways, or support each other so gracefully that it's downright touching. Who can forget the countless evils of Team Guido, a scary gay couple who wore matching outfits and ruthlessly sabotaged the other teams to stay in the lead for weeks? Or the way Kelly and John picked each other apart, but only seemed to get closer as the pressures mounted? Or the slightly dimwitted wisecracking of best friends Kevin and Drew ("This looks like a house of ill refute!" they mumbled upon spotting a prostitute in their hotel's lobby)? And then there were Chip and Reichen, the beautiful gay couple whose calm way of handling each other under pressure was inspiring enough to make you want to jump off the nearest cliff (and drag your relatively unsupportive significant other with you).

Don't you wish you were a beautiful gay man with a devoted, gorgeous Adonis as a husband? I sure do!

The moral of our story
Like every single show on television, this column also has a moral. Lately, I've noticed that many people have a knee-jerk negative reaction to all reality TV, as if watching young entrepreneurs sell lemonade on the streets of New York or seeing a retired couple hang glide in New Zealand is so much trashier than watching a bunch of hammy comic actors stand in a semicircle on a cheap set, telling corny jokes to the relentless roar of a laugh track. Why don't all you reality TV naysayers step off already?

Think about how much you can learn from reality TV. What would you know about the life of a Hollywood hair stylist, if not for "Blow Out"? Without a wide range of reality programming, how would you ever understand the perils of modeling, or the pitfalls of running a restaurant, the emotional impact of eating nothing but rice for 39 days, or the psychological side effects of paying close attention to Donald Trump for weeks on end?

Look, I'm not suggesting that you spend your time watching this shit like I do, but you could at least keep an open mind about the fact that not every show described as "reality" is just another version of "Joe Millionaire." I'm not saying that there aren't thousands of better things to do with your time, like learning to cook curries or planting stuff in the yard or walking your dog or practicing your guitar or calling your mom or giving your wife a nice backrub. I'm not implying that sitting in front of the idiot box is a good way to waste what little time on this earth you have left, or that you won't wake up one morning 30 years from now and regret every second of television you ever watched. I'm just saying that, uh, some of these shows aren't really ... quite as bad ... as you think. Um ... So there!

Next week: Ali G is back!

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.

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