I Like to Watch

Does "Nighty Night" signal that black comedy is the new black? What makes a cartoon milkshake so damn funny? Plus: Which show does Mark Burnett call the worst work of his career?

Published September 7, 2004 8:48PM (EDT)

A great disturbance in the Hunger Force
Can you hear that sound? It's the sound of a million voices crying out and then suddenly going silent. They're silent because they're concentrating on writing me an e-mail to tell me that "Sealab 2021" is OK, but "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" is the best cartoon in Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" lineup, hands down.

Either tons of people watch cartoons these days, or tons of the people who read this (admittedly juvenile) column watch cartoons. Either way, everyone seems to agree that "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" (Monday, Sept. 12 at midnight on Cartoon Network) is fantastically weird and clever and original and I'd better check it out, pronto.

All, except for one reader named Jay who hates ATHF almost as much as he hates "Sealab 2021," "The Brak Show" and the rest of "Adult Swim." Jay writes, "One can just picture the writers sitting around in their ironic logo T-shirts, purchased from Hot Topic or Urban Outfitters, congratulating themselves for what they believe to be edgy, brilliant, subversive humor. 'Dude, have one of them start barking for no apparent reason!' I would almost -- almost -- rather watch some contrived, formulaic network sitcom that at least has a beginning, middle and end than any of the aforementioned crapfests."

Much as I applaud such harsh words, I have to admit I really enjoyed the episode of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" I saw last week. Yes, the three stars of our show are a milkshake, some fries and a meat patty, and yes, the humor often tumbles into Barking for No Reason territory, but the stories at least begin with concrete, relatable jokes.

In the episode I saw, which was called "E-Dork," Master Shake (that's the milkshake guy) takes the wireless craze to an illogical extreme. With several hundred pounds of equipment strapped to his back, Master Shake can't stop praising the supreme efficiency and convenience of life with his new wireless gadgets, including a digital screen on his forehead that types out text messages like "OMG!" and "LOL! :)"

Master Shake: Those are my electronic emotions. They allow me to conserve my body's energy, for carrying all this stuff.

Frylock: Yeah, it looks like it's gotten bigger.

Master Shake: Oh, you must be referring to the e-photo plug-in. You pop it on your back and you go. These are travel-size, baby!

Frylock: All that is a camera?

Master Shake: Mostly. The bottom part here keeps me intravenously hydrated, because let me tell ya, this e-crap is heavy.

Meatwad: Why don't you just go to the hose and drink you some water?

Master Shake: I'm not turning on some analog faucet to drink some barbaric water! The mouth is a primitive hole that will soon be phased out. You'd better start taking some pictures of those!

Meatwad: Can you phase it out now? Because it's pissing me off.

Master Shake: (Screen on his forehead says "Hel yeah!") Can you read that? Or should I try a different font?

Frylock: Uh, you spelled "Hell" wrong.

Master Shake: That's how it's spelled in the e-world.

See, this is the kind of (admittedly juvenile) humor I love: You start with something familiar and then take it to an absurd extreme. Whereas, the writers on "Sealab 2021" start with the extreme and then take it into the realm of ridiculous, screechy chaos.

Beyond that, it's tough to say why this show makes me giggle like a fool while "Sealab 2021" gives me a headache. Something in the way Master Shake calls water "barbaric" and refers to the mouth as a "primitive hole." That milkshake is a damn good character, actually. He's prissy and superior, but fickle and crude, enthusiastic but bitchy, confused but pompous ... Why does he seem so familiar?

Sheer force of Will
Speaking of screechy chaos and great disturbances in the force, it seems that the evil twins (aka Those Two Bitches) on "Big Brother 5" have met their fate, while the evil twins (aka The Bad Seeds) on "The Amazing Race" have somehow managed to stay in the race despite screwing up and screaming at each other countless times.

On BB5 (playing constantly, check listings), I love that Marvin, of all people, is avenging Will's premature dismissal by Adria and Natalie, both of whom revealed their claws the second they had the tiniest bit of power. Nice work, girls. As twins, it was imperative that they lie low and act humble. Instead, one of the two of them (I can't remember which) went on a rampage and got Will evicted, then blamed the Lord for her evildoing. That was cool how, right after that, they cut to the Lord, who was all, "Nuh-uh, bitch! Don't pin that shit on me!"

In a startling act of vengeance, the Lord made sure that Adria and Natalie were both evicted. It's no surprise that the Lord would favor Will, though, since he was clearly the smartest, funniest and the gayest in the whole house. Even Those Two Bitches knew that not even Wondertwin powers of Bible-fueled evil can triumph over the awesome power of smart, funny and gay. Smart, funny and gay rule the universe!

Sadly, "The Amazing Race" (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on CBS) isn't the center of all that is smart, funny and gay this year, but Chip and Kim are a fine substitute for Chip and Reichen, being that they're smart, funny and extremely likable. While the other ugly American teams seem to view the world as their own private Disneyland, quibbling over the inferior customer service provided by the world's inhabitants, Chip and Kim treat everyone with respect and kindness. I particularly enjoyed watching Colin bitch at local cops as if they were the general managers of a Circuit City that sold him a damaged TV set. Apparently Colin is unaware that occasionally, ugly Americans spend a few weeks or even months rotting in jails on foreign soil, and it takes some diplomatic hysteria plus big piles of American dollars to bring them back to the butter-soft towels and insect-free hot meals that they so deeply deserve.

In contrast, Chip and Kim are humble and sweet and grateful for every day they spend in the race, referring to it as a "second honeymoon." Even though they get along great, they still have an edge, charming the other teams to their faces and then rolling out the sharp observations about their weaknesses for the cameras. Like the viewers at home, Chip and Kim dislike pompous Colin and feel sorry for passive, abused Christie, but they're determined to puff up Colin's ego, sensing that overconfidence will lead to an eventual misstep on his part.

In other words, these two are a casting director's wet dream. They should be allowed to tour the entire reality TV circuit, bouncing from one show until the next until they're old and gray. Chip and Kim could single-handedly save the genre from whiny wannabe actors and fussy models.

Speaking of fussy models, let's not forget Brandon and Nicole, who chose the Fast Forward this week, but then backed out when it required that they shave their heads. Apparently these two pretty Christians would rather be eliminated from the race than cut off all their shiny locks. They kept saying they need their pretty hair to get work, but who needs to work when you've got a million dollars?

It turned out not to be an elimination round, but thanks to the fact that Brandon and Nicole came in last, they'll have to complete the next leg of the race without any money. Other teams have made it through by begging for cash, but I have a hunch these two will find it a little more difficult to do that in India than, say, Egypt.

It's actually nice to have them around for another week, given how entertaining they are. I particularly loved the part where they had to pack onto a train with groping Indian men, and Nicole whined. "Brandon, help me!" Brandon's response? "Lord, help her!"

Right after that, they cut to the Lord, who was all, "Nuh uh! No you di-int!"

Darker than thou
If you enjoy watching prissy young people suffer as much as I do, then you're also likely to enjoy the sick humor of "Nighty Night" (Fridays at 11 p.m. on Oxygen). Who knew that Oxygen (Oh!) had the stomach for fare this brutal?

This absurdly weird comedy focuses on the foibles of Jill (Julia Davis, who also writes the show), a beauty salon owner whose husband Terry has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Jill handles his sickness by hurrying him along to the grave so that she can start a new life with her married neighbor, Don (Angus Deayton). Forget that Don's wife Catherine (Rebecca Front) is suffering from multiple sclerosis -- Jill befriends "Cath," and occasionally torments her, in order to get closer to Don. She also comes on to their son, makes them a hideously bad meal, and dances like a drunk, horny teenager every time she hears music playing.

Not surprisingly, about half of "Nighty Night" is completely over the top, but Julia Davis is so funny she gets away with it. One of her smartest moves was to make her victims that flavor of hapless and annoying that we all know too well. Catherine is so passive and has such a forced cheer and falseness about her, you almost don't mind when Jill tortures her. And Terry is such a complete wreck, somehow it seems like he'd be suffering whether Jill were in the picture or not. He's just suffering a little bit more with her around.

Take this exchange, which occurs in the car outside a hospice where Terry is to spend his final days, right after Jill rushes him out of the hospital before his doctor can tell him that his cancer has been successfully treated.

Terry: Actually, I've been thinking of donating organs.

Jill: That is sweet, Terry. But from what the doctor said there's not a lot left to use, darling. I mean, I could put "eyes, ears and nose" down, if you're desperate.

It's funny how, after decades of toothless family sitcoms, everyone wants to set the comedy toaster on "Very Dark" these days. Dark times must call for dark comedy.

Insufficiently stinky
Then again, those familiar with Trio's "Brilliant but Cancelled," which airs great, canceled TV shows of the last few decades, recognize that no matter how dark our entertainment might seem right now, we've hardly cornered the market.

On the phone from his home in New Jersey, Trio VP of Acquisitions Kris Slava talked with me about the inspiration for the series. "Every year there's a show that you like, the critics like, and boom, it's gone. It's just one of those eternal questions: Why? Why does that always happen to the best shows?"

So ... why does it happen? "One of the things that we found again and again were that shows were ahead of their time," Slava says. "They were pushing boundaries that a mass audience couldn't tolerate. That's what it boils down to with TV. In order to be successful, especially before cable became big, you had to appeal to 40 percent of the people in the entire country. Anything that was pushing a social agenda or pushing the boundaries of taste -- and in that respect, I always think of 'East Side/West Side' with George C. Scott, a show made in 1963 about a social worker in the city that had episodes about teenage pregnancy and all sorts of social issues that were really dark and tough. Even though the show won a lot of Emmys and had the first recurring role for a black actor, it still didn't make the ratings it needed to make in those days to stay on the air."

Slava admits that many of the fans of the series are critics and media insiders, and those types like shows that "tend to be dark." But if black comedy is the new black, then this fall's "Brilliant but Cancelled" offerings shouldn't disappoint. The series includes a show about an invisible man created by Steven Bochco, another mob show starring Joe Pantoliano, and a family sitcom with Leo DiCaprio playing one of the kids, not to mention "Perfect Pitch" (October 3 at 8:30 p.m.), a documentary about selling a series to the networks, and "Pilot Season," an original comedy starring Sam Seder, Sarah Silverman and David Cross that focuses on the TV business. "Pilot Season" premiered Monday, September 6 at 9 p.m., right after "Brilliant but Cancelled" at 8 p.m.

In the boardroom
"We had boardroom scenes that were so good, I told Mark [Burnett], 'There's no way you're gonna get that into one hour.'" -- Donald Trump on the upcoming second season of "The Apprentice"

"You will scream at the TV screen during the first three episodes. I truly believe [this is] the best work of my career." -- Mark Burnett

Last Tuesday was a typical morning in my very busy and important life. After a high-protein, low-carb power breakfast, I climbed onto my elliptical trainer and took a conference call with Donald Trump and Mark Burnett to discuss upcoming business.

OK, fine. I'm a compulsive carb-loader, I don't have an elliptical trainer and there were about 15 other journalists on the phone with me, but forget about those monkeys -- they just wanted to know what The Donald thought of Mindy or Rick or whichever aspiring apprentices grew up in their hometowns. I had more important matters on my mind, like whether or not The Donald is getting sick of saying "You're fired!"

Sadly, I didn't get a chance to ask that hard-hitting question, but I did, I have to confess, get excited about the new season. Along with hyping the show, The Donald admitted that it was disturbing to address the contestant named "Ivana," and Burnett didn't mince words in disparaging one of his summer offerings. "'The Casino' is my worst work." he stated bluntly. "I'll never do that show again."

Hey, neither will we! At least the reigning king of the unscripted realm is honest about his failures -- which probably isn't too difficult, for someone who hardly ever fails. I wouldn't know anything about that, so it's time for me to shut my primitive hole and wind up this (admittedly juvenile) column.

Anyway, I hope you ate, drank and basked in the sun during your Dies Laboris, fair chickens, because now it's time to crawl back into your dank little hidey holes to await the new season of televised slop that's fast approaching!

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  • By 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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