I Like to Watch

Does dropping a bad reality show make you feel like a quitter? Plus: It's a mixed-up, upside-down world, as Cinemax explores schizophrenia, Bill Clinton shows up on "The Daily Show," and Andy Dick dates one of his former assistants!

By Heather Havrilesky

Published August 16, 2004 9:51PM (EDT)

As inconstant as a reality star

Addicted as I am to certain puerile species of reality TV, it only recently dawned on me that I don't have to keep watching if I don't feel like it. What is this pointless compulsion to finish what I've started? It's like I'm 18 again, I work at the Gap, and I don't want to quit because it'll prove to my malevolent boss that I truly don't have a firm grasp on the countless subtleties of retail.

But there's something about having four episodes of "Next Action Star" on my TiVo that makes me feel like I have homework to do. Somehow, because I made that initial investment of watching five or six episodes, I feel that I shouldn't lose the thread, that I need to witness the conclusion of each narrative arc. Forget that there aren't any narrative arcs, beyond the sorts that you find in dive bars frequented by 20-something temp workers drinking off the unspeakable horrors of their latest assignment manning a switchboard at an accounting firm whose name they can't pronounce.

Then there was "Joe Schmo 2." I don't know what happened. It's a good show, I just forgot which night it was on, and then a bunch of episodes piled up, and I kept putting off watching them because I had other, more pressing and important programming to watch, like "Big Brother 5."

Sliding into "Big Brother 5" addiction may be the most bittersweet TV experience I've had so far. After all, I resisted "Big Brothers" 1-4, proclaiming the franchise the trashiest, most pointless series on television, and now here I am, concerned about who'll win the Power of Veto. I have countless hours of worthwhile stuff to watch, but instead I'm tuning in to witness the spitty outbursts of some egomaniacal Brad Pitt wannabe.

I have to learn to quit, to draw the line. See, it's a little easier for you, because you don't have any obligation to keep up with anything. You can watch three episodes of "American Candidate," proclaim it boring, and move on to retiling the kitchen. Meanwhile, I get e-mails that say things like like, "Wasn't that weird when they brought Jase's girlfriend Holly out, and Jase got all stiff and said something like 'I live here in L.A., you know, I don't even live in Illinois' and Holly was all freaked out like she hadn't even watched the show since she'd been out of the house. Is she deranged or what? He called her a nut job! She should know that, at least!" I feel I have a moral obligation to know what the hell is going on, especially with the really bad shows.

But I'm turning over a new leaf. From now on, I'm going to be a real quitter. I'm going to quit when things get pointless and bland. The problem is, when things are pointless and bland, I have hopes that the show might veer into that exquisitely delectable "Drunk Asshole Hotel" territory. Still, shouldn't I be checking out more of those truly compelling, character-driven scripted dramas everyone's talking about?

Um, which truly compelling, character-driven scripted dramas are those, again?

Underlings & playthings
Speaking of shitty jobs and pointless, bland shows, MTV's "The Assistant" quickly went from mildly amusing to inconceivably bad within the first few episodes. It sounded promising enough: a parody of "The Apprentice" starring Andy Dick and a cast of young people battling it out for a crappy Hollywood job. Naturally, Dick would be more malevolent and punishing than an assistant manager at the Gap, finding creative ways to torture the young folks while we old folks laughed heartily and pretended our own jobs bore no resemblance to what we were witnessing on the screen. Meanwhile, those crazy kids would struggle mightily through tasks more confusing and formidable than manning a 50-line switchboard at a firm with a dirty name like Deloitte and Touche, never once suspecting that the whole thing was a bad joke and the joke was on them.

They certainly cast the show nicely, according to this plan. "I want this more than I've ever wanted anything in my life," says Tanika. Yes, that's right. Tanika wants to be an assistant more than she's ever wanted anything before. Come to think of it, I could use a few Tanikas around here ... Dolores! Get Dick's people on the phone and set up a 3 o'clock with Tanika for tomorrow!

Dick does rail off his fair share of witty comments over the course of the show, and his choices of who to fire are delightfully arbitrary. During one elimination session, he fires two very capable players with lukewarm attitudes, but keeps a big, strapping stud, Colin, who failed miserably at his assigned task.

"Colin, you didn't do your job but ... you looked good failing," says Dick.

Of the other two, he says, "I think they probably learned a very good lesson that night. What that lesson is, I wouldn't know. But they do. They know what it is."

Good stuff, except that we have to sit through elaborate staged scenarios that the concrete thinkers they selected for the show don't seem to understand are completely fake. When the contestants throw a birthday party for Dick and he announces that it's not his birthday, they all start stressing out about getting it wrong, instead of concluding that they've been set up. Next, Dick's ex-girlfriend shows up, and gets in a fight with Dick's current girlfriend. Quelle horreur! It's kinda almost funny, in a World Wide Wrestling sort of a way, but not quite. The worst part, though, is watching these odd moron kids scamper around, worrying about who foolishly invited Dick's ex to the party. Um, I'm no conspiracy theorist, but I'm thinking her name was on the list on purpose, kids.

It's not hard to imagine Andy Dick saying, "Get me 12 completely self-serious morons!" It's not even tough to imagine that the whole show was conceived in an effort to find Dick his next Trishelle (pretty dim bulb from "The Real World: Las Vegas" who became "friends" with Dick afterward). I hate to bandy about the term "starfucker" too recklessly, but if you're willing to strip down to a bikini and wash some jerk's Hummer on national TV, it's not too hard to imagine what else you might do to stay in the spotlight. Reality TV wannabes are most likely Dick's target demographic, in terms of locating a steady source of young women to, um, hang out with.

And, hey, what do you know? Andy found love among the contestants on his show! Nice going, Dick!

Crazy people are right on
Some people make mental instability look like so much fun! Sadly, most of those suffering from mental health issues don't have the kinds of resources -- like MTV reality shows and guest spots on "The Surreal Life" -- that might make their illnesses easier to bear.

In "People Say I'm Crazy," a documentary that airs on Cinemax this Wednesday, Aug. 18 at 7 p.m., diagnosed schizophrenic John Cardigan does the best with what he has. And compared to many of those who suffer from the disease, Cardigan has a lot: a supportive family, good friends, a passion for creating elaborate wood carvings, a studio where he can work on his art. Still, as we see through first-person narrative and footage from Cardigan's hand-held camera, the biggest battle for Cardigan takes place in his head. No matter how many times he demonstrates that he can distinguish between rational and irrational thoughts, he still struggles with paranoia. Feelings that others are working against him seem to set in without warning, based on seemingly innocuous details.

"At the food closet, everything was fine for a while, until the paranoia crept in. It all revolved around name tags. Patrick, my friend, had a name tag, and this woman Shelly did, and this other guy Morris did, and so did Gloria. They all had name tags and I didn't, and I thought it was a secret message telling me: 'We hate you, John. We don't want you around, John. We think you're an awful person, John.' It sounds so stupid when I say it, but it really devastates me. This kind of stuff happens to me all the time."

Cardigan, who turns 30 during the course of the documentary, does a real service to the public by forcing himself to be honest and emotional on camera, recording his darkest thoughts so that the audience can get a window into what the disease is like for those who suffer from it. For a very private person, one who's utterly ashamed of his illness and its effects on his thought processes, offering us a glimpse of his battle is nothing short of heroic. Although "People Say I'm Crazy" can be a little depressing and difficult to watch at times, it's guaranteed to offer you a clearer understanding of the experiences of those who suffer from mental illness, and the determination and warmth of Cardigan and those who refuse to give up on him are truly inspiring.

Wild Bill, mild Bill
Before James McGreevey and Hurricane Charley took center stage, former headliner Bill Clinton showed up on "The Daily Show" wearing a lovely lavender tie and an unusually somber attitude. This is Clinton as elder statesman, Clinton as pensive policy wonk, Clinton as sensitive thinker. He sounded and even looked a little bit like Jimmy Carter, as a matter of fact.

But Carter isn't this good. It's incredible how detailed paragraphs of information roll off Clinton's tongue so effortlessly. You'd think he was recalling a fun trip to the beach, the way he so casually placed the current foreign policy dilemmas into a historical context for a flabbergasted Jon Stewart:

"Anytime we go through a period of big change, it really matters who gets elected. And we're about midway through a cycle after the end of the Cold War, when the new security threats are terror, weapons of mass destruction, and racial and religious conflicts. And we're in a new cycle where the end of the nation-state industrial economy's been replaced by a global information economy. So these decisions matter, and you've got two parties that see the world in different ways and will make different decisions. These elections are big deals."

Our current president could definitely understand that last part about "big deals," but that's about it.

An ounce of intervention
OK, I'll admit it: It's time for an intervention. From now on, I'm going to focus on scripted stuff, and cartoons, and weird little shows. My summer slump is officially over. I'm going to watch design shows and check out cool stuff on the Discovery Channel and learn how to cook from "Naked Chef." I'm going to achieve better living through television, damn it, and you're going to do it with me.

In fact, to signal my resolve, I'm going to find out who won "Next Action Star" right now, and delete all of my past episodes.

Whoa, I can't believe those two won. I really didn't like him at all. Now I have to catch up and see how that happened.

No, I don't. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I couldn't care less. See? This is going to be a worthwhile experiment: Can today's scripted programming really measure up to the raw unpredictability and dumb-fun factor of reality TV? What are the lasting effects of stepping away from the reality TV cookie jar? Does life become empty and unbearable like it does when you stop drinking coffee? Or do the colors become brighter and more vivid the less reality TV you soak in?

I need your help to pull this off. Send me your suggestions on all those high-quality dramas and well-nigh hilarious comedies I'm missing!

Next week: Find out more about those high-quality dramas and well-nigh hilarious comedies you've been missing!

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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