I Like to Watch

"Gilmore Girls" womanly good! "Rescue Me" manly bad! Plus: Screaming under the sea with "Sealab 2021"! And even more screaming at MTV's Video Music Awards!

By Heather Havrilesky
Published August 30, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Speed bumps ahead
"These Olympic games" are over, and thank God for that so I can finally get some sleep. Trying to squeeze six hours of TiVoed coverage into an hour or two of midnight viewing isn't easy. For some reason, no matter how tired I was, I couldn't miss a single swimming or track event. I never watch swimming or track under any other circumstances, but the suspense of high stakes plus minuscule margins sucked me in. One one-hundredth of a second less than your opponent in the 100-meter sprint, and you're the fastest man in the world for the next years.

Didn't it seem like Maurice Greene or Shawn Crawford could've just thrown their heads forward a little more and taken the title from Justin Gatlin? I loved it when Crawford won the 200-meter dash -- didn't they call them "dashes" back in the day?

So what exactly was the big deal about Crawford and Gatlin goofing around during the 100-meter semifinal heat? This is how NBC's site described it: "Running in an adjoining lane in their semifinal heat, Crawford, Gatlin's training partner, turned to him at 90 meters and held his mock stare to the tape. The two then played to the crowd with a chest bump." A chest bump! Those ne'er-do-well black men did a chest bump in front of the entire world! NBC's announcers tsk-tsked as if the two had mooned the crowd midrace, saying that they should take these Olympic games more seriously.

How seriously do you think someone who can run 100 meters in less than 9.9 seconds takes what they do? Gatlin and Crawford train together, and they're two of the top four fastest men in the world. What do you suppose they do all day in Raleigh, N.C., sit on a stoop eating Wheaties and chest-bumping?

If I could run that fast, I'd feel entitled to dye my hair turquoise, scream obscenities and bark like a dog every time I won. Hell, I feel entitled to do that stuff right now.

Good girl!
Apparently I also feel entitled to avoid "Gilmore Girls" despite the fact that lots of people seem to love it. So why had I never seen a single episode until last week? Maybe it's the way people whisper when they admit to enjoying a woman-centered drama on the WB, as if they're discussing feminine protection or some other topic that's so filthy with femaleness that it has to be dressed in flowing white silk, bathed in fresh, clean scents and coated in shiny, light-pink paint to hide its shameful womanliness.

You have to love the way quality and talent banish shame and self-consciousness from the picture. This show is fantastic and anyone who's never seen it is missing out. Within the first 10 minutes, I was hooked. To think I wasted even a few hours of my time trying to get into soggy WB fare like "One Tree Hill," when "Gilmore Girls" (Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on WB) not only has great story lines, but the characters are all distinct and interesting, and it's funny. Isn't that going way beyond the call of duty?

I know I'm late to the party, but this show takes all of the charms of "Ed" (without the cloying sweetness) and mixes it with a little "Northern Exposure," a touch of "Thirtysomething" and a dash of "The O.C." Sure, it's a little cartoonish, a little fast-paced, a little goofy, but somehow it all works, and there's never a dull moment, at least not in the episodes I've seen so far. Plus, there are so many throwaway lines that would warrant a full-throttle blast from the laugh track on most sitcoms. Check out this exchange that occurs as Emily (Kelly Bishop), Lorelai's wealthy mother, is fussing over the furniture on the back patio before dinner guests arrive.

Emily: "Where's that awful light coming from?"

Rory: "I think it's the moon."

Lorelai: "You're not thinking of having the moon moved, are you Mom?"

That's not just a good joke, it's a good character-driven joke, which I don't need to tell you aren't exactly plentiful on TV these days. On so many shows, characters say slapsticky stuff to get a laugh, regardless of how out of character their comments might be. And it's easy to tell how great a show is by how quickly you start to feel familiar with the characters. When writers base their character choices on real people and they're willing to let real weaknesses show, you get rich, unpredictable characters who add depth to every scene. No matter how simple and cheery the situation might be, complex characters are suspicious, or judgmental, or distracted. They don't just go along for the ride or take things at face value. They aren't easily fooled.

That's what I like immediately about Emily Gilmore. She's got a lot going on. She's bossy and controlling, sure, but she also has a warm side -- it just disappears without any warning.

And then there's Chris Eigeman, who plays Jason, Lorelai's boyfriend. I always thought he was the best thing about those sometimes redeemable, always pretentious Whit Stillman movies like "Barcelona" (good) and "The Last Days of Disco" (unspeakably bad). He also appeared in one of my favorite twentysomething angst movies, "Kicking and Screaming," which was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, who, just so you know, also co-wrote Wes Anderson's new film (which I can't wait to see), "The Life Aquatic," which is about a Jacques Cousteau-type oceanographer played by Bill Murray.

See how you can trace a quality show to a great movie to another probably-going-to-be-great movie and so on? Doesn't it sometimes seem like all the really talented people know each other? That's because they do. They just try to keep that fact hidden from the unwashed masses because it might make us feel like we're at a disadvantage (which we are) or that we're out of the loop (also true) or that we're not a part of their little club (we aren't) or that our lives aren't as fabulous as theirs are (that is correct).

I hate all of those discreet, chummy elitists! It makes me want to chest-bump the hell out of someone!

Bad, bad boy!
Sadly, all the chest-bumping in the world couldn't get me to appreciate F/X's "Rescue Me," which is sort of like a "Gilmore Girls" for tough guys. Starring Denis Leary as a hard-drinking, lying thug of a New York City fireman named Tommy, "Rescue Me" borrows elements from some of the best dramas on TV, but throws them together in a messy heap, populated by poorly drawn characters navigating through unbelievable situations.

Let's just focus on Tommy, who beats up his wife's boyfriend, messes with the guy's computer, then gets him arrested for retaliating. Tommy's wife, who seems to have neither a brain nor a discernible personality, believes Tommy when he tells her that her boyfriend is no good, and shortly after cutting the boyfriend out of her life, she asks Tommy if he wants to get back together with her, only to discover Tommy's even-dumber girlfriend emerging from the bedroom upstairs. Tommy's wife is angry, Tommy can't remember Even Dumber's name, and Even Dumber sets Tom's house on fire that night. Ha ha ha!

Then there's Sean, who goes out with a transvestite right after his lover, who's also his buddy Franco's ex-girlfriend, drops dead in front of him. Or Chief Reilly, who asks his gay son to vouch for him in a gay-bashing case in court, but won't introduce his son to his macho friends. Or Franco, who drops his daughter off at Family Services, then changes his mind and tracks down her foster family, only to pull up just as the foster father is screaming at her in the front yard. Good timing! When Franco confronts the guy, he says, "You gonna tell me what to do? I got three of these damn foster kids! The city doesn't pay me enough to have to deal with this little bitch who doesn't listen!" All about as subtle as your average episode of "Scooby-Doo."

And, in contrast to the characters on "Gilmore Girls," the tough guys of "Rescue Me" are decorated with faults and qualities like gaudy Christmas ornaments on a dead tree. None of their traits, good or bad, seem organic or make any sense or add up to a real human being. Not only that, but the characters do and say outrageous things that don't feel motivated. And let's not even get into the fact that Tommy sees and talks to dead people, or that he's about to visit a shrink. When you've got a silly yet reasonably entertaining show on your hands, why in the world would you practically force viewers to compare it to two of the best shows on television? Unlike "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under," "Rescue Me" isn't a thoughtful, rich exploration of human relationships, it's a knee-deep three-ring circus populated by snarky thugs. But hey, if you like that sort of thing, this is the show for you!

I'd like to be under the sea
The final pick from the suggestion bin this week is "Sealab 2021," a cartoon that runs during Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" segment (Thursday through Saturday nights, 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.). After watching just one episode of "Sealab 2021" I quickly recognized that it was totally foolish, nonlinear, pointless, absurd, repetitive, shrill, juvenile, and it had absolutely no plot.

Despite all of these fine qualities, I can't say that I love this cartoon. Basically, the episodes are 15 minutes long, and the writers take one joke and beat it into the ground for the entire show. Watching "Sealab 2021" reminds me of hanging out with someone who decides a joke is funny and then, when he doesn't get the laugh he wants the first time, yells it at the top of his lungs again and again until somebody punches his teeth out.

Loud, repetitive stuff seems to happen in every episode. In one episode, a character repeats the word "Bizzarro!" in a very high, very irritating voice about 50 times in a row. In another, the power goes out, and we're treated to a 14-minute-long shot of the exterior of the Sealab while the characters bug the living crap out of each other (and me).

That doesn't mean that some of the episodes aren't a lot of fun. One episode is a really long, funny TV ad for "Grizzlebee's," a bar and grill chain that serves massive plates of fatty foods. On another episode, Hollywood actor Beck Bristow comes down to Sealab to research a role. "This does not reflect on any of you as people, per se, but I'm not going to remember any of your names," he tells the crew. "So if I wish to speak to anyone, I'll probably address that person simply as 'Hey.'"

I understand why lots of people like "Sealab 2021." It's extremely weird and clever, and characters mumble non sequiturs like "Hey, let's make smoothies!" I like the random digressions. There's a lot of intelligence there. Unfortunately, there's also a lot of potty humor and screaming.

In short, the folks at "Sealab 2021" should stop it with the self-indulgent chest-bumping. You're not the center of the universe, dudes! I am. So stick to worthwhile parodies and skip the screaming and the repetition, and maybe your show will get on my nerves a little less.

The fraudience isn't listening
Speaking of screaming and repetition, this year's Video Music Awards offered the usual knee-deep three-ring circus you've come to expect from MTV, minus the spontaneity of years past.

I hate to blame it all on the matching promotional cell phones the fraudience kept waving around during the slow songs, but I do. Come to think of it, I also blame the venue, which featured one of those busy-looking multi-level, curved stages they set up in the middle of basketball stadiums. Performances are never as visually appealing or as easy to take in as a whole when the performers are scattered all over a tangled spaghetti-style stage. Nelly and Christina Aguilera offered one of the night's few dynamic numbers, but it was impossible to watch Nelly, Aguilera and the dancers at the same time, since they were all moving in different directions across a huge area, so instead we just got lots of close-ups of Aguilera walking away from Nelly in that sassy style made popular by Olivia Newton-John in "Grease." Very cutting edge.

And I have no idea why MTV feels it has to usher in another fraudience for every performer who appears, from the rocker kids squealing for Hoobastank (apparently drug use is up among this demographic) to the preteens waving their promotional phones to express their love for the ever-style-challenged Jessica Simpson, in pin-striped pants and a bustier, doing her best impression of Jewel. This relentless recirculation of fans resulted in a near-constant level of screaming through the entire three-hour awards show. All that screaming caused the announcers to scream, which made the fans scream louder -- which would be OK, if there were ever anything remotely exciting to yell about.

Instead, most of the night featured predictable winners (Outkast, Usher, Beyoncé and No Doubt, anyone?), mediocre medley-style performances and rah-rah celebrities parading across the garish stage and barking upbeat lines, after which they sat a few feet away from the celebrity cam and pretended to be caught up in the groove of every single song.

But the worst moment of all came when some preteen named Jo Jo (don't ask me) skip-hopped onstage and blurted, "I have some amazing people all the way from Greece, complete with Olympic bling!"

That's right. Olympic bling. Scrub as long as you want, you'll never come clean from hearing that one. Remember when MTV was actually cool?

Yeah, neither do I.

Next week: Trio's "Brilliant, but Canceled" series highlights some of the shows that didn't stink nearly enough for the networks to air them.

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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