I Like To Watch

Will the American Candidate outshine the actual candidates? Between "Big Brother 5" and "Celebrity Poker Showdown," who has time to shower and eat? Plus: What do we find when we follow punk rocker Ashlee Simpson back to her roots?

By Heather Havrilesky
Published August 1, 2004 8:37PM (EDT)

Showdown at the celebrity poker ranch
I used to wonder why anyone would watch something called "Celebrity Poker Showdown." Celebrities bore me at the moment (unless they're named "Mary-Kate"), I haven't played poker in years and never really understood it to begin with, and the word "showdown" just sounds cheesy, like some movie where The Rock greases up his man-titties, beds an ethnic-looking Victoria's Secret model, rips his shirt a few times, then runs through some flames carrying an automatic rifle.

But much to my surprise, Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown" (Thursdays at 9 p.m.) is truly a time-wasting delight. You check in for a few minutes, and the next thing you know, you've been watching for an hour and a half, and you can't stand not knowing how it all turns out. Since my top two priorities with any show are that 1). it's addictive and 2). it wastes vast amounts of time, I was hooked almost immediately.

But there are many, many reasons why this show works. First, the poker expert, Phil Gordon, is smart, insightful, concise, witty and kinda tall. It's strange, but after a few shows, I began picturing myself on a beach in Tahiti with him, sipping on margaritas while he laid out the finer points of Texas Hold 'em. My fantasy self has good instincts, as it turns out: Apparently, Gordon is a philanthropist, an adventure traveler, a genius, and a millionaire. Unfortunately, what I'm really looking for is a philanthropist, an adventure traveler, a genius, a millionaire, a masseur, a master chef and a masochist. Tough break for Gordon.

So let's move on to funny guy Dave Foley. Foley is not only extremely funny, but he's Canadian which means he's a nice person, plus I'm pretty sure he's not gay. Since "extremely funny" and "probably not gay" tend to trump "philanthropist/traveler/genius/millionaire" in my own sad little poker universe, let's swap out Gordon for Foley on that beach in Tahiti. He's a little bit paler and rounder, but he'll do, especially if he's this funny while the cameras aren't rolling:

Gordon: David Cross has a nine three.

Foley: If you notice, David is also growing a beard. Now this is a strategy a lot of bald men adopt, to try and trick people into thinking that his head is on upside down.

Then there are the celebrities themselves. No one really likes celebrities all that much these days, unless they have an eating disorder to humanize them, but watching these super-size personalities clash while trying to play a difficult, nuanced game is pretty hilarious. The producers throw together some great combinations of players: a sharp older woman like Mimi Rogers or Angie Dickinson, a wise-cracker like David Cross or Richard Kind, one mild-mannered Hollywood outsider like Jeff Gordon or Bobby Flay, plus someone who never shuts up, like Penn Jillette, Kathy Najimy or Kathy Griffin.

I know, it still sounds boring to watch these people play cards. That's where my boys Foley and Gordon come in. We get to see everyone's cards, and Gordon basically tells us what he thinks of each person's moves, as in, "I'd like to see a stronger bet from Steve, to scare Kathy off before she gets the queen she needs." I suppose if you know everything there is to know about Texas Hold'em, none of this would interest you much. Personally, I feel like I learn more every time I watch, so much so that I'm starting to mentally plan a monthly nickel-and-dime poker game. I can't wait to steal my friends' spare change right out of their pockets!

Project DNR
And speaking of low stakes, addiction, and wasting time, I find myself inexplicably hooked on "Big Brother 5," a show that leaves you with a gaping hole in your soul, and just enough time to eat a Power Bar and splash some water on your face in between episodes.

I've never liked the "Big Brother" franchise one bit. Like a greasy, lukewarm burger served under glaring neon lights in a tacky, orange-plastic setting, "Big Brother" was always the Hardee's of reality TV. But remember how Hardee's had an Arby's-like processed roast beef sandwich with nacho cheese dribbled on top? Remember how Hardee's had that big, crumbly chocolate chip cookie, and those weird Tater Tot potatoes? There was something trashy about Hardee's that kept you coming back (for those who've never been to the South, think Carl's Jr.). Even though the cashiers were slow and mean and the food was room temperature garbage, you still had a hankering for it occasionally.

If "Big Brother 5" is like a truck filled with Hardee's food that pulls up to your front door every few hours, so that you're constantly confronted with trashy temptation, then Jase is the lunchmeat-and-nacho-cheese hoagie on board. Jase is a blonde guy with triple-processed hair (that means it's three different shades), a baby blue headband, a sculpted hairless body that's always on display, an oft-professed love and adoration for Brad Pitt and a domineering, paranoid attitude about alliances in the house, despite the constant cultivation of his own cozy alliance ("The Four Horsemen" - so intimidating!) with his fellow pretty boys.

And if Jase is the trashy hoagie, Scott is the Tater Tot of the group, with his crimping iron (I'm not kidding), those odd little 'N Sync bands wrapped around his biceps, his habit of leaving button-down shirts unbuttoned lest his man-titties be hidden from view for even a second, and his evil-idiot comments behind the scenes. In one challenge where the roommates were asked to spell out the foods they wanted, Scott spelled out "CHEESSE." In another challenge, after each made statements that the others had to judge as true or a bluff, Scott recounted how "Jase really screwed me up, up there." How did he do that? By using the word "confide" in his statement. "'Confide'? I didn't know what it meant."

Two scary mutants wouldn't be nearly enough to hold our attention, if not for the fact that the sun-kissed masochists in the house are all fired up and ready for a showdown between the high-maintenance frat boys and the girls (plus one gay man). With the departure of cutesy halfwit Holly, whom most viewers were sure would turn out to be an alien from the far reaches of Pluto in the latest twist, the house seems to be split evenly into two factions. But if Adria and her twin Natalie, who've been playing as one person, can avoid elimination for another week, they'll both be in the house together, which should tip the scales for the girls' side. And it sure would be great to see the cocky, endlessly primping men picked off one by one.

Of course, the problem with all of this tasty trash is that, the second the show is over, it hardens into a lump in your stomach and you feel like you just ate a massive block of CHEESSE. The queasiness and self-loathing is so bad, you'll never want to eat a single bite again.

Of course, a little anorexia might just humanize you a little...

Ashlee Simpson has an entire TV show to help humanize her, and it seems to be working. Her first album, "Autobiography," debuted at number one on the charts after selling 398,000 copies in its first week in stores. Thank God Ashlee dyed her hair brown, so that everyone knows she's totally punk rock, and not just some clone of her fluffy blonde bunny sister, Jessica!

My hair is that natural shade of punk rock that doesn't come from a bottle -- "Graying Mousy Brown," I call it. So I fully expected to loathe the little faux-rocker (See also: "quasi-punkette") and the show she rode in on when I settled down Saturday for "The Ashlee Simpson Show" marathon on MTV Saturday. Aside from the obvious fact that I'm trying to humanize myself by letting you know that I spent part of my weekend watching a 19-year-old lament how totally hard it is to, like, make an album, I actually kind of enjoyed it. And look, it is really hard to make an album, even if you do have a team of the most sought-after, highest paid producers and songwriters in the business on call to write melodies, type in lyrics, set levels, record, mix and submit the demo to Geffen. Basically, it looks like Ashlee mostly had to show up and tell them what flavor of herbal tea she wanted.

Having written songs the old-fashioned way since I was Ashlee's age, I can tell you that comparing the scrappy, real-life version of making an album to Ashlee's version is sort of like comparing boot camp to an extended stay at a luxury spa. Like when Ashlee felt all, like, sad about breaking up with her boyfriend, what did she do? She flew to New York City and stayed in a great hotel and her producers flew there to meet up with her and write songs in her room all night! Yay!

All right, so we've established that Ashlee is rich, she's basically already famous (because of big sis and a recurring role on "7th Heaven") and Geffen has the resources to essentially will a hit record into existence. We've established that Ashlee is the sort of person who shows up late to a meeting with Geffen president Jordan Schur and doesn't blink when he tells her, "I don't want people to buy Ashlee Simpson for a song, I want them to buy Ashlee Simpson," even though he's telling her that she is the product and her songs have very little to do with anything. We've established that Ashlee wants dark hair so that she's nothing like her sister without whom she wouldn't have a career in the first place. We've established that Ashlee spells her name with two e's, which really isn't her fault, but which is still enough grounds for loathing her, sight unseen.

Unfortunately, as easy as it is to despise Ashlee and everything she stands for, the girl really isn't so bad. Even though she's floating along, completely oblivious to the bubble she's living in, making ridiculous, naive comments about how challenging her little world is, she's still sweet and clever and goofy and pretty much everything you want a 19-year-old to be. There are cameras following this girl around the clock -- you know that if she had a temper tantrum or just lashed out at someone, we'd see it. In fact, she keeps her composure and her sense of humor the whole time, even when she's grappling with unnervingly incomprehensible notes from label execs trying to figure out how to "break her," the ironic term for locating the proper sales category under which to introduce their new product.

Not only that, but she seems to really charm everyone around her. The montages of her goofing around are the best parts of the show - when she's socializing, she seems to spends a lot of the time dancing around and acting like a freak. At one point, she tells the camera that she likes to slip into this character she made up who's named "Lordene." Cut to Ashlee, affecting an extremely low voice and the mannerisms of a woman who wears sensible shoes and listens to "Prairie Home Companion" every Sunday. "I drive a Suzuki Sidekick. A turquoise one," she offers gruffly.

Lordene really humanized Ashlee for me. But see, that's the problem with these disposable products offered up to us at every turn. Some of them are actually humans underneath their sugary consumable shells, but even the revelation of their essential humanity is just another bit of carefully considered marketing. We're made to feel so grateful that they're not rotten to the core, that they're normal and maybe even vaguely likeable. But why would Ashlee be rotten to the core? She's a product that's been on the shelf for exactly one week! She's fresh from the factory! She's packaged as a world-weary rocker, but what she's seen of the world consists of hotel rooms, cute boys and clothing boutiques. What is there to grow weary of, exactly?

No matter. It's beyond obvious that art has been commodified to the point where you don't even have to put any art into the commodification Fun Factory -- a little unformed teenage Play Doh will do just fine. Is it all a damn shame? I don't know. I figure that great art has the tenacity to endure under the harshest conditions imaginable. And of course, contributing to the NEA and supporting the artists you admire helps, too. With the support of a nation of Lordenes, great art will prevail!

Candid candidate
And while we're spouting heroic rhetoric, let's turn to the premiere of the long-awaited "American Candidate" on Showtime (Sundays at 9 p.m.). From the moment the cameras start rolling, the slew of faux politicians running in this mock presidential election are truly impressive. They speak out firmly for what they believe in! They respond to tough questions with straightforward, concise answers! They embrace their ideals and refuse to compromise or back down! They're willing to go to bat and risk everything for the issues they feel are important to the future of this country!

In other words, they aren't politicians at all. And even though the show poses the question, "What would happen if ordinary people could run for president?" the answer seems to be that they'd immediately impale themselves on their least popular beliefs.

This is exactly what happened to (Yes, now is a good time to stop reading if you haven't watched the show and plan to check it out) the first person eliminated, Chrissy Gephardt (daughter of Congressman Dick). The candidates had to throw a rally, and the two with the lowest attendance were asked to convince the others why they should stay in the race. Chrissy was a far more effective speaker than James Strock, but the vote was tied, which meant pro-life candidate Parks Gillespie got to decide who to eliminate. One question about partial-birth abortions later, Chrissy was sent packing.

Unlike the actual presidential campaign, in which candidates obscure their beliefs and positions in safe, palatable terms, eventually becoming so mechanical that they need to affect quirks and weaknesses in order to humanize themselves, "American Candidate" offers up real live humans, humans so human that they're downright unelectable. Then, Americans (those Americans who subscribe to Showtime, that is) have the opportunity to elect an unelectable, one-issue candidate. Ultimately, then, in a year when even former Nader supporters are speaking in relentlessly pragmatic terms, Showtime offers up the fantasy of putting your vote where your conscience is. Ah, the satisfaction of voting for a PETA member! Mmm, how nice to support someone brave enough to speak up for gun owners in this country! Finally, a champion of gay rights on the ballot!

It's Ashlee all over again. We long for candidates who feel as real as these people do, but these people haven't been squeezed through the political Fun Factory yet, and know nothing of the sacrifices it takes to become an electable politician.

See how TV offers us false feelings of satisfaction and a false sense of power at a time when we feel the least satisfied and the most powerless? That's why we love it so much.

Next week: Humanizing the Amish!


Chat with Heather Havrilesky at the "I Like to Watch" thread on Table Talk.

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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