I Like to Watch

From cooking shows to sci-fi, your fine suggestions are clogging up my TiVo, damn it! Plus: Olympic coverage, the perils of semi-scripted farce, and Grubman gets her own show for bad behavior.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published August 23, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Pandora's suggestion box
I always hate it when people say "Be careful what you ask for," mostly because I'm never careful enough about anything, least of all what I ask for. But when I found myself rifling through a massive pile of suggestions of TV shows to watch all week (283 at last count) and programming my TiVo to record far more television than any human reasonably should, I had to wonder if I wasn't getting to that crusty age where it pays to start living by old adages.

I'm downright ashamed at how many shows are piling up on my two TiVos, which is strange because I'm never ashamed about anything, least of all how much television I watch. Why, even the TiVo gods are frowning on me, grumbling, "Too much! Too much TV! You must learn boundaries, limits! Remember, child, never overindulge, particularly when it comes to perfume, whimsical hand puppets and the Sci Fi Channel!"

That's right, gentle couch-bound chickens. Thanks to you, I learned that the vastness and abundance of the televised universe knows no bounds. And I really wish it knew bounds, to be honest, because its boundlessness makes me feel small and insignificant and powerless, and not in that fun way that comes from gazing slack-jawed at the stars for hours. For some reason (one no doubt related to my Catholic upbringing), I feel compelled to start watching every single one of your favorite shows religiously, whether I like them or not, so I can include weekly updates of all of them in my column. Recognizing that this is completely impossible, I feel guilty at how few of your shows I can rationally include in my lineup and still check in with such essentials as "24" and "America's Next Top Model." (You didn't really think I was going to forsake Tyra, now did you? Come on, you know me better than that.)

What happens is, I start to move all the hours of TV around in my mind like wooden blocks, trying to figure out what's gonna need to go -- exercise? showering? social engagements? -- so that I can squeeze in all of the quirky cartoons and Canadian comedies and obscure cooking programs, not to mention the complete first few seasons of "Buffy," "Angel," "Alias," "Homicide" and "Sports Night" and any episodes of "Mr. Show" and "Freaks and Geeks" and "My So-Called Life" I've missed. And what about old classics I haven't seen much of, like "The Dick Van Dyke Show"? Just because I've seen every episode of "All in the Family" and often sing the theme song in a voice closely resembling Edith's doesn't make up for the fact that I've seen only three or four episodes of "The Honeymooners."

And then there's the sci-fi stuff. My god, where do I even start? I saw "The Empire Strikes Back" 15 times in the movie theater at age 10, I owned an AT-AT Walker and a Landspeeder and the Millennium Falcon, I spent half of my leisure time in fifth grade making my Han and Leia action figures make out, but that doesn't make up for my lack of familiarity with the last 10 years of the "Star Trek" franchise. Sure, I can get into the upcoming "Battlestar Galactica" remake, but the mere thought of wandering into "Enterprise" territory at this late date is like signing up for college-level biology courses so I can think about applying to med school in a few years. With enough perseverance, I'll be a heart surgeon and a Trekkie by my 55th birthday.

It's all very overwhelming. That said, thanks for opening my eyes to the horrifying vastness of it all, and rest assured that, sometime before Christmas, I might just have watched an episode or two of the shows you mentioned in your e-mail.

Oh, and special thanks to the reader who suggested that I watch "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," "Deadwood," "Entourage" and "Da Ali G Show." This Home Box Office channel sounds like something I should really look into!

The Millennium Grubman
Yes, I'm a jerk. But being a jerk gets you far in this life. For proof, look no further than the fall and rise of celebrity publicist Lizzie Grubman, who will appear in her very own reality show, "PoweR Girls," on MTV next spring.

Now, I can't personally verify whether Grubman is a jerk or not, but I do know that she's a celebrity publicist, and that in July 2001 she was arrested for allegedly trying to mow down a crowd full of people outside a club in the Hamptons shortly after reportedly getting into an argument with a bouncer and yelling "white trash!" at the crowd. She pleaded guilty to the charges and spent 37 days in jail. Sounds like a classy broad to me!

That incident made Grubman a household name, albeit a slightly unsavory one. But Grubman knows better than anyone that there's no such thing as unsavory publicity when your goal is to launch yourself "into that rare, elite stratosphere of which modern folklore is made."

Her Web site may feature flowery prose, but sadly, modern folklore is currently passed down through reality shows, so Grubman will engage in that classic, turn-of-the-millennium ritual of cashing in her notoriety to become a caricature of herself, rolling out her most absurd, colorful antics in front of a team of cameras day in and day out. The whole thing is sick, really -- which is why I, for one, will be watching.

For a peek of at the fun that lies ahead, look no further than the press release announcing Grubman's show, which also describes the favorite activities of some of her minions. While Rachel loves "dancing (preferably on tables)," Kelly prefers "shopping, reading trashy girlie novels, travel and experiencing the nightlife." Millie, on the other hand "is struggling with a deeply rooted shoe obsession." Our thoughts and prayers are with Millie during this challenging time.

Eat and greet
Onward: The show that you chickens seemed to be clucking the most hysterically over was neither a high-quality drama nor a well-nigh hilarious comedy, but a cooking show. I'm not a big viewer of cooking shows, since they tend to make me glare down at my third turkey burger of the week and long for enough free time to make careful decisions about which variety of heirloom tomato would go best with sweet corn and fresh basil.

As fate would have it, though, there was some kind of a "Good Eats" marathon running on Wednesday. With all the new programs in the queue, I knew I had to race through the episodes to make room for "Monk" and "Stargate Atlantis" and all of those quirky design shows I've been missing.

The word out in the chicken yard is that "Good Eats" (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on the Food Network) is waaay better than "The Naked Chef" and features a host, Alton Brown, who's delightful and seems to remind most chickens of a charmingly enthusiastic high school physics teacher. Naturally, I doubted the appeal of such a character and lamented that I had ever promised to watch anything other than those Christian twins waging a malevolent Head of Household crusade to take down the black man and the gay man, come hell or high Power of Veto.

But about halfway through the third episode, I began to feel very close to Alton Brown. See, he's smart and he's a foodie, but he's also very practical, not snobby. He anticipates your fears, worries, questions, confusion, everything. Is it OK to eat frozen vegetables? (Yes!) Can we really leave out that salmon covered in spices for a half hour? (Yes!) What if we don't have a pressure cooker or a Dutch oven? What do we do if the words "Dutch oven" make us laugh like preschoolers?

Brown is pretty goofy, but he illustrates cooking concepts beautifully, like when he plays a chord to make you understand how spices should work together instead of clashing. He performs an entire show on chili dressed up as a cowboy, talking in a cowboy voice. Sounds awful, right? It works. I don't know how it works, but it does.

Plus, the guy is just amazing to watch. He talks about a million miles a minute without tripping on his words. He's so animated and odd and intense and likable that it's impossible to look away.

Not only is "Good Eats" fun and weird, it's extremely educational in an "Ah, that makes sense!" way, in an "I never knew that!" way, in a "Hey, that'll come in handy!" way, and also in a "Well, ain't that a corker!" way. Before commercials and at other random times, messages appear on the screen in large letters that say things like "When invading Rome in 408 A.D., the Goths demanded a ransom of 3,000 peppercorns." If physics were this fun, I might not be so tempted to drive my car into a brick wall just to see what happens.

Trailer-park boys in the 'hood
Now, it seems that many of you are dedicated fans of "Reno 911" and "Trailer Park Boys." I've got to warn you, I watched about four episodes of the last season of "Reno 911" and, aside from a handful of really funny pratfalls, I wasn't that excited about it. I know this is sacrilege for some of you, and I want to keep an open mind, so I'll go back and watch some more. But my question is, how long does it take to get into this show? Because I'm not sure I want to watch an entire season just to catch the spirit.

I also caught an episode of "Trailer Park Boys" last week and had the same problem. The show has plenty of funny lines and great choices, but sometimes the improv is so flat, I just get antsy watching it.

But to be honest, I didn't really love "Arrested Development" until about two months into it -- it was amusing, sure, but the pace was unfamiliar and it took me some time to recognize that caring about the characters or getting invested in their situations had exactly nothing to do with enjoying the show. Then, after you appreciate the ridiculous jokes and absurd plot twists, you do start to invest in the characters in spite of yourself.

Same thing with "The Office," although that show was easy to love straight out of the gate. So why are some of these absurd little one-camera comedies such an acquired taste? Am I just getting to that crusty age where I expect everyone to stand around in a living room in a semicircle wisecracking while a tangle of tourists guffaws loudly in the background?

Olympics and stuff
Luckily, I am crusty enough to appreciate the blaring trumpets of that old Olympics theme as we sail over Athens at magic hour. That's the best part of the broadcast for me: Right after the first trumpets blare, and right before Bob Costas begins to speak in those measured, earnest tones.

Insane as it sounds, I'm not sure TiVo and the Olympics go together all that well. Yes, it's nice to skip the endless commercials, not to mention the middle of that beach volleyball match where you're mostly just gazing at everyone's ripped abs. But there was something about watching the entire broadcast, from start to finish, as we did back in the olden days, that made the whole experience more ... I don't know, more Olympian.

Plus, if you leave it to TiVo instead of crawling onto your couch for a good four hours every night, you'll wake up the next morning and check out your horoscope on Yahoo only to glance inadvertently at that headline, "U.S. Gymnast Patterson Wins All-Around Gold." Granted, you can have this problem with TiVo or without it, so it's best just to avoid all media if you really want to be surprised.

Thursday night I avoided my computer and the local news and stayed up late to catch the women's gymnastics individual all-around, but Carly Patterson's victory was still a little bit anticlimactic. I really wanted to root for self-proclaimed diva Svetlana Khorkina from Russia, because she has an actual personality and was cheated in Sydney by a vault that was set too low. Strangely, though, no one seemed willing to mention that Svetlana had absolutely awful form on Thursday and if she doesn't have an eating disorder, she has some kind of a thyroid problem, because no healthy 25-year-old looks like Skeletor.

But the best part of the evening had to be Costas' interview with Patterson, who offered one-word answers while gazing at herself on the playback screen. How disappointingly similar to a normal 16-year-old girl she is! Don't worry, though. They'll invent some freakishly spunky personality for her before her new Saturn campaign launches this fall.

Thankfully I didn't go online before Paul Hamm's unexpected gold-medal victory in the men's gymnastics individual all-around. I'm not a huge fan of men's gymnastics outside of the gymnastic-style sex scenes between Janet Jones and Mitch Gaylord in "American Anthem," but what a spectacle! That moment where Hamm was waiting for his score, clearly unaware that the gold was within reach? And then, when his coaches were screaming that he won, and he kept shaking his head in disbelief? I must've watched that 10 times.

OK, maybe the Olympics and TiVo do go well together.

So when do my checks start rolling in for plugging TiVo constantly? How about sending me a free TiVo? I'm gonna need one for all this sci-fi stuff alone...

Next week: Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim," F/X's "Rescue Me," the new season of "The Wire" and about 50 other highly recommended shows!

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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I Like To Watch Olympics Television