I Like to Watch

Is "Six Feet Under" becoming too moralistic? Does the brilliant awkwardness of "Joe Schmo 2" outweigh the boring awkwardness of its stars? Plus: The countless joys of bride humiliation.


Heather Havrilesky
July 27, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

Dear ILTW,

You are my Virgil, leading me through the dark wood of reality TV land. Under your influence, I almost believe that watching television can be an intellectual exercise rather than an unforgivable waste of time. It's also good for my self-image to know that smarter people than me can also become obsessed with watching bitchy, delusional narcissists whine and preen and back-stab each other for money and fame. I want to have, like, a million of your babies.

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But I was a bit surprised that you gave "Six Feet Under" a pass on last night's episode. Yes, Michael C. Hall gave a stunning performance (if we cared about the Emmys, we'd think he deserved one, right?), but the last half of the show felt like one of those anti-drug spots (usually aired between two beer commercials featuring Hawaiian Tropic bikini models or twin blonde hotties) that want to convince us that pot makes 13-year-old girls pregnant.

All of David and Keith's "encounters" outside of the relationship have been a little uneasy, as if the viewer is supposed to sense that, while the waters seem smooth enough for the moment, this sort of behavior is eventually going to get these guys in trouble. Voilà! David -- who, we are reminded, grew up in Los Angeles and so therefore really ought to know better -- picks up a sorta cute hitchhiker, and it's clear from the get-go that he is motivated by lust. The plot then proceeds to punish him for that lust in grotesque ways.

I understand your argument, but I'm just surprised to see "Six Feet Under" resemble a puritanical morality play in which the gross gay boy gets what Pat Robertson thinks he deserves. Except for the blow job, of course.

It was also a pretty lazy piece of writing. Lisa's disappearance -- though now implied to have been a suicide rather than a murder -- pretty much ate up SFU's "random act of an angry God" quotient for a while, if you ask me. The show is best at its subtlest moments: the odd romance between Arthur and Ruth (am I the only one who misses Arthur?), George's bizarro son and his boxes of dookie, Ruth learning how to steal from Kathy Bates, Brenda's less hysterical complications (especially with her brother Billy, a consistently hate-worthy and yet compelling character), Claire's love triangle with wimpy Russell and the fabulously caricaturish Olivier, Nate withering under Lisa's passive-aggressive tyranny, Keith's conflict with his parents over the custody of his sister's child, etc. The cheap and easy thrill of exploiting and torturing much-loved characters has yet to be justified, in any example. In this week's episode, it also plays on homophobic stereotypes. Bad things do happen to good people, and good people do make poor choices, but I just think it's fair for us loyal viewers to expect the instruments of our torture to be less blunt and crude in the gifted hands of Alan Ball and his talented minions.

Ed
Tallahassee, Fla.

Dear Ed,

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First of all, pot does make 13-year-old girls pregnant. I should know. I have, like, a million of my own babies already, thanks to my inability to remove my face from the bong during those formative preteen years. It was worth it, though, dude. Mommy got me this rad 6-foot bong for my 12th birthday that you could only use if you were sitting on my top bunk. Hot damn, those were good times.

Anyway, what's ... where am I? Oh yeah, "Six Feet Under." It's funny, because a lot of people wrote to me about the David Gets Tortured episode, saying that they found his predicament intolerable and found him irritatingly passive. Naturally I agree with you about the show's subtle moments and Arthur and wimpy Russell and scary Olivier, but I still don't feel it's fair to accuse "Six Feet Under" of being moralistic. When I think of all the times that characters on SFU 1) took drugs without killing themselves or someone else, 2) got drunk and drove without crashing, 3) had cheap sex without getting pregnant or getting an STD or even seeing the person ever again, 4) talked shit about each other without being found out, 5) got upset and ignored the baby without the baby falling off the bed onto its head, etc., I really have to say that, if anything, David's suddenly having to pay for his carelessness -- and it was his carelessness, and not his gayness, that got him into that mess -- is a truly unforeseeable twist. Most of the time on "Six Feet Under," there's seemingly very little rhyme or reason for the shit that hits the fan, from Nate's brain ailment to Lisa's drowning. If God strikes the Fisher family with misfortune a little more often than seems reasonable, maybe that's because the Fishers are so entertaining when they're suffering. You can't really blame God, can you? God needs to have his fun, too, just like the rest of us.

Plus, I thought it was cute how David tricked himself into thinking he wasn't cruising. As I see it, "Six Feet Under" is mostly concerned with punishing those who fool themselves and rationalize their behavior in ways that don't honor their ideals. What's wrong with a morality play that punishes those whose lack of self-awareness leads them far from their beliefs and their calling? Sounds like real life to me.

Nate, for one, continues to suffer because he's starting to build his whole personality around suffering. He's obsessed with the unfairness of it all -- not surprising, but any kind of a belief system, even if it's built around the supreme deliciousness of blueberries, would get him out of the mess he's in. If he knew himself better, he'd know that arbitrarily choosing some belief to trick himself into moving forward would be a good call for an idealist like him. But then, idealists are not very good at willfully tricking themselves, so that, once they trip and Pandora's Box spills open, they end up wallowing in their own 100 percent pure and natural bitterness indefinitely.

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"Six Feet Under" does such a great job of overturning stereotypes (while working within the bounds of reality, mind you -- this isn't the typical "Free to Be You and Me" P.C. fantasy) that it's not exactly fair to attack the writers the second they stumble on a story that doesn't topple the common wisdom on a subject. Look, self-loathing, drug-abusing gay men who are gay bashers certainly exist, and I really felt that the story fit into David's unpredictable emotional trajectory well. Here he is, in a good relationship, he's finally safe, and he not only insists on feeling insecure anyway (sounds familiar, doesn't it?) but invites disaster into his life out of that insecurity. People who feel tremendously needy do stupid, stupid things in an effort to get rid of that feeling, and often end up knocking down the walls of their happy little Hobbit holes in the process.

See, just considering this makes me want to set my little Hobbit hole on fire right now.

ILTW

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ILTW --

I love "Six Feet Under" too, but one aspect of the show is starting to drive me nuts: Maya never speaks. In fact, she doesn't do anything. She doesn't play, eat, drink or cry. Diapers are never even discussed, much less trips to the potty. During the scene when Nate was sitting at the kitchen table with Maya in his arms, my wife and I, at the same moment, exclaimed "That's a doll!", because the child in Nate's arms looked so lifeless. So what's up with that? I love Alan Ball, but can he be that clueless about living with small children? They never shut up. Unless she has some serious type of disability, Maya should be driving Nate insane with constant chatter and general neediness. Please comment.

Thanks,

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Dave Swanson
Milwaukee, Wis.

Dave,

I noticed that, too. Maya's head didn't move once during that conversation in the kitchen where Nate was lamenting the state of the universe. Maybe she's really into Daddy's existential angst right now and will use it one day to formulate a groundbreaking dialectic inquiry into the nature of human suffering.

The main benefit of her calmness, of course, is that it makes Nate seem even more whiny and impossible, like he's the baby and she's the Mommy. But it's true, she's like the puppies in TV commercials -- adorable, but never ripping stuff to shreds or crapping in the house.

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Puppies are still great, don't get me wrong. But they do have flaws. No one likes to admit it, but it's true.

ILTW

Oh, Heather.

I waited this long for you to comment on "Joe Schmo 2," and this is what we get? I can't believe you're not enjoying this version as much if not more than the last. Other than "Six Feet Under," it's the only show I'm watching this summer, and I look forward to it as one of the highlights of the week.

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Sure, they ratchet up the comedy a bit much, but I think this has added to the danger of the high-wire act that they're pulling, seeing how much cheese they can ladle on without everyone drowning in it. The fun isn't in wondering why Tim and Amanda would believe such a show is real; it's in watching them recognize that they've landed in the absolute turkey of the reality show world and gamely soldiering on. The sad truth is that "Last Chance for Love" is all too believable.

One of the pluses this season has been that the cast seems to include much more talented improvisational comedians. Much of last season was very staged, but it certainly seems that with contests like the challenges at dinner with the bachelor/bachelorette's parents, the outcomes weren't predetermined and the actors actually had to try work their way through it. The result was some genuine awkwardness, skillful improv and much fun.

And don't be too hard on Amanda. She only seems dim in relation to Ingrid's uncanny perceptiveness.

Mockingbird! Mockingbird!

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Andy
New York, N.Y.

Oh, Andy.

You're right. The show is about seeing how much cheesiness they can get away with. And it has been a great season so far.

But you have to admit, Tim and Amanda are boring. Don't you sometimes feel like you're a guest at an elaborate, expensive surprise party, and the birthday girl is a real zero? When Tim says something like, "Man, Bryce is a total psycho!" don't you feel a little like busting in his kneecaps with a baseball bat? And I can't help but be hard on Amanda. She's so sorority-girl catty and judgmental, yet so totally dull. If you're gonna jump to premature conclusions and formulate unfair assumptions about people, at least make sure they're insightful or colorfully mean.

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Last season, there were more stunts that put the Schmo in uncomfortable situations, like when the hot girl was handcuffed to the Schmo and then her boyfriend made a surprise visit and Schmo ended up getting dragged around the house with the girl as she tried to soothe her boyfriend's hurt feelings. You're right that the cast is much better -- I loved Rita (Natasha Leggero), and Bryce (Kevin Kirkpatrick) is incredible -- but it seems to me that their scripts have been toned down since the beginning of this season, for fear of being discovered again.

Anyway, given the fact that you like the Schmos and SFU, you might want to check out "Things I Hate About You" on Bravo (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.). I can't say enough good things about a show on which couples use video cameras to document their partners' annoying habits, and while you might expect the execution of this show to sink to that typical, crappy FOX level, it's actually fantastic. Mo Rocca is likably snide as the host, the editing is extremely sharp and absurd, and the first couple trotted out a memorable blend of neurotic tics and gaseous emissions. Granted, Renee and Patrick were two very showy humans -- she's a radio personality and he's her producer. But it still worked. I'm anxious to see the next episode.

"Mockingbird! Mockingbird!", huh? Personally, I prefer "Yellow-throated warbler! Yellow-throated warbler!"

You know, maybe when I get a little older, I can move to the middle of nowhere live in a little homemade shack like Henry David Thoreau, and rename this column "I Like To Watch Birds." You guys would read about the time I spotted a White-faced Storm-petrel and a Sooty Shearwater fighting over a fish, wouldn't you?

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I know you would, loyal monkeys.

ILTW

Dear ILTW,

Tonight I saw the stupidest thing I've ever seen on TV (and I watched every episode of "Drunk Asshole Hotel"). Four women, vying for the attention of a middle-aged dad with a very suspicious hairline. Really, his plugs haven't even grown in completely yet.

Anyway, these women were made to DRESS UP IN THEIR DREAM WEDDING GOWNS (sorry about the shouting, but I can't seem to help it) and READ THE VOWS THEY WILL MAKE IF CHOSEN TO MARRY THE GUY, in front of the guy, his three daughters and what I am sure is a mere handful of North Americans who have nothing better to do on a summer evening. THEN (sorry, stop shouting), the daughters have to eliminate one of the women who had to LEAVE THE HOUSE, pulling her suitcase behind her, STILL WEARING THE WEDDING DRESS. Yucky voiceovers, sappy music, my system shut down, I couldn't hear any more. It was freakin' unbelievable. I both hope you caught it and hope you didn't, having something much better to do on a Monday night.

Nancy Weaver
Vancouver, B.C., Canada

Dear Nancy,

First of all, never, ever imagine me anywhere else but in front of my TV set. In order to optimize your viewing pleasure, it's important that you feel that I'm watching just as much crappy shit as you are, although we both know I watch volumes more of it. Even if there are "busier" or "more important" people than you in the world, people who have "better things to do" than watch TV, it's crucial that you forget that these people exist, if only until the show is over and the snacks run out.

Now. Where do we start with the bride thing? Why are brides simultaneously the most exalted and the most humiliated humans on the planet? Why are the stresses and worries of brides so hilarious to us? Why do we feed brides Valium and then act surprised when they "glow"? Why do brides get praise and adoration just for being brides, and why does everything a bride says make us weep and snot? Even after all the adoring, weeping and snotting, why is it sort of funny when the same bride spills something on her dress, or gets in a fight, or is forced to carry her own suitcase?

Clearly, we Americans are incredibly conflicted about marriage.

I can't wait to see this foul, foul show.

ILTW

Dear ILTW,

You sure hit the nail on the head with this:

"Plus, he and Alex Trebek are becoming really close buddies! When the show ends and everyone stands on the stage together, Alex and Ken chat happily while the other two contestants pick stuff out from under their fingernails."

I was a "Jeopardy" loser a couple of years ago, and Alex has a very clear bias in favor of the winners at the end of the show. I was up there with the other contestants trying to do the mingle/small talk, but he just wouldn't have it; he spends all his time chatting with the winner.

He will also like you more if you have an interestingly stupid personal story during that part of the show. Otherwise, you suck.

Eli Cotham
Los Angeles, Calif.

Dear Eli,

What an interestingly stupid personal story that is!

But I'm not surprised about old Trebek. Sometimes you just want to say to him, "Look, you're not fooling anyone. You're no genius. You're the guy with the melodic voice and the good hair."

I'm not like him. Personally, I prefer to talk to losers like yourself.

Best wishes!

ILTW

Want to chime in with an opinion, insight, or interestingly stupid personal story of your own? Just go to the new "I Like to Watch" thread on Table Talk, where I'll be chatting with loyal monkeys and indifferent monkeys alike about everything from the wit of Dave Foley on "Celebrity Poker Showdown" to those alarmingly metrosexual frat boys on "Big Brother 5," the show you don't really watch, not really. Because it's stupid.


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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