I Like to Watch

Meet the sweet nothings of "Laguna Beach"! Learn why women are from Venus, but Veronica is from Mars! Plus: Watch empty non sequiturs barked at the candidates in HBO's "Diary of a Political Tourist"!

By Heather Havrilesky
October 12, 2004 12:48AM (UTC)
main article image

I've been sick all week, fair chickens. Contrary to those comforting memories of curling up on the couch with a blanket and an icy ginger ale to watch "The Price Is Right" and "Match Game '76" on sick days home from school when I was little, I'm finding that television and illness don't really go all that well together. The scratchy drone of Dick Cheney's voice was too much to take during the vice presidential debate on Tuesday, like being lulled into a restless sleep by the buzz of chainsaws. Karomo's frustration with his roommates' lack of empathy on "The Real World" filled my eyes with big, salty tears, the kind that herald in a new ocean of snotty tissues at my feet. The mania and chaos of "E.R.'s" crowded corridors made me dizzy and uncomfortable, the smooth yet jerky movement of the animated lions on "Father of the Pride," when combined with John Goodman's booming voice, made me downright queasy, and the dour looks and somber snare-drum rolls of "The West Wing" made my heart race and my palms sweat.

Eventually, I began to feel that I must be experiencing TV through the eyes of those strange people who claim not to like it -- you know, people with gratifying high-level jobs and richly rewarding family lives, or maybe just people who feel that they have better things to do than find out why Luke is acting so weird around Lorelai this week. Like some normal human being with limited time for frivolous pursuits, I found myself fast-forwarding through both the Reward Challenge and the Immunity Challenge on "Survivor." I found myself skipping the part where the kids on "The Real World" go to work for Philadelphia's arena football team and meet part-owner Bon Jovi in person. I found myself hoping that the hot criminal on "Lost" would confess her crime to the hot doctor immediately so that the mystery wouldn't drag on, and then, when it did drag on, I found myself wishing for those big things in the jungle to charge out and crush the survivors on the beach in one big efficient, bloody stampede.


Armed with the newfound enlightenment that only the ailing truly know, how did I choose to spend those leisurely hours in bed when I wasn't sleeping? Writing a little witty prose, pondering the vast mysteries of the universe, or perhaps reading some highly regarded new novel?

No. The only way I could take my mind off the aching in my throat, the swirling in my stomach, the noise in my head, the chills and the pounding headaches, was by reading the Restoration Hardware catalog -- very, very slowly.

French Floral Damask Bedding: Ironically, a pattern this exuberant, this rampantly leafy, this unabashedly abloom, can only be created with the utmost control and precision in weaving.


Breathtaking, isn't it? The passion in that sentence -- unnecessary passion! Rampantly leafy, unabashedly abloom passion! Or what about this one:

Contrary to widespread, curmudgeonly grumblings, old-world craftmanship has not gone the way of the dodo.

Can't you just hear them all -- the curmudgeons -- grumbling loudly about how things just aren't made the way they used to be?


Of course, I'm not so vain as to think that I'm the first to take comfort in a close reading of the catalogs. No, no. Time was you couldn't swing a Kashan rug without hitting someone doing an interpretive reading of J. Crew or Pottery Barn or J. Peterman. But the combination of my hellish haze of sickness and these strangely compelling words has thrust me into some concrete but peaceful universe, filled to the brim with imposing maple armoires and whimsical Bombay sconces, and I plan to emerge from this special place just long enough to give you the scoop on some key new shows that those of you who aren't very busy, or ill, might want to check out.

Neptune's net worth
Isn't it strange that a bunch of TV writers would get together and create a character named "Veronica Mars" (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on UPN), then make her from a fictional place called Neptune, Calif.? Kinda cartoonish, huh? Maybe they were simply trying to alert us to the cartoonish nature of the show early on, before we stumbled on the really mean, really shallow rich kids straight out of a John Hughes film, or the local motorcycle gang, referred to -- how else? -- as "the motorcycle gang."


Then there's the adorably sassy, straight-talkin' Veronica, who basically does half of her dad's job as a private investigator, shooting artistically framed, sepia-toned photographs of evidence, or whipping out her digital video camera just as the suspect is entering a motel room for a dalliance with a mysterious stranger. Exuberant and rampantly leafy as Veronica may be, are we really prepared to believe that a teenage girl could run around town, shooting pictures, gathering evidence, calling on favors from some local officials and manipulating others? More importantly, do we care who killed her dumb best friend, even if her mother and her ex-boyfriend's father are both, somewhat cartoonishly, involved?

The answer is yes. "Veronica Mars" embraces the classic warmth and deep comfort of the Teenage Girl Protagonist With Unrealistic Abilities formula but throws in a bunch of lovable underdogs and finely crafted storylines with just a soupçon of melodrama and wit. Each episode is rich in color but spirited in tone and texture. This show reflects a time when Oriental met Occidental, at the turn of the 20th century. No, that's not really true. This show reflects a time when teen drama met procedural drama, and then they went out to a party on the beach populated by hot girls in bikinis. Sadly, the party was broken up by a gang of lovable-underdog members of the working class, who roared up on their Harleys clad from head to toe in what appeared to be soft, distressed Italian leather in ebony. By the time Veronica got there, sporting an outfit befitting a modern Pippi Longstockings, the crimson blood had hit the flaxen shores, and the local sheriff, as corrupt as English dove-tailed drawers are reassuringly old-fashioned, had ambled in to arrest the lovable roughnecks while leaving the mean, rich little hotties and the hot, rich little meanies unmolested. These are the crisp, geometric storylines designed for years of sumptuous use and ease in loitering!

Stating the obvious -- with flair!
Here's a question for all you aspiring-journalist chickens out there: If you were given a digital video camera and some money and the chance to spend two years on the Democratic campaign trail, what do you think you would come up with? Remember, you'd spend your days running into the same candidates over and over again, boarding those campaign buses with the same crews of journalists and handlers, visiting bowling alleys and churches and hot dog stands across this great land of ours. Pretty soon, you'd be a fixture, a familiar face, to most of the key players in the campaign. What sorts of questions would you ask when you ran into them?


How about: "How's the whole soup kitchen thing going?" "Do you like having private conversations with all these cameras in your face?" "Who's your favorite person to sit next to?"

These are some of Alexandra Pelosi's hardballs in "Diary of a Political Tourist" (premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO). While Pelosi's 2002 documentary "Journeys With George" persuaded HBO to sponsor her next foray into the manic handshaking and baby kissing of the campaign trail, Pelosi offers about as much insight into the campaign itself as you'd get from glancing at the newspaper every other week for the past year. Kerry Lags Behind. Clark Enters Race. Dean Makes Strange Sound. Aside from a few amusing takes of kids talking about politics, and Joe Lieberman eating a deep-fried Twinkie, Pelosi mostly seems to include footage of the candidates when they're not mobbed by cameras, when they're leaving their hotel rooms or waiting for an event to begin. Why? Because that's when they have half a second to say something about -- you guessed it -- Alexandra Pelosi.

"I already made you famous once, Alexandra." That's the line George W. Bush repeats every time he sees Pelosi (daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.), but she still seems to include every second of footage she can get of her within 15 feet of him, even when he's ignoring her. The Democrats are willing to play nice, of course. Still, all of the candidates, except for the unflappable Dick Gephardt, get that look on their faces when they recognize Pelosi, like they've just spotted an irritating, slightly clingy and pathetic younger kid rushing toward them across the school yard. Oddly, this doesn't stop Pelosi from blurting limply flirtatious non sequiturs, like (to Dick Gephardt), "What are you going to get me for Christmas?" or to Dean, as he's entering the men's bathroom, "Can I come in with you?"


Ultimately, the point of these two years, for Pelosi, is to document the candidates reacting to her, talking about her. If she can't manage that, she simply scrambles along next to them as they dash off to their next event, yelling things like "After party! Let's go!" or "Woo hoo! Off the hook!" or "Rock 'n' roll!" While the HBO press release refers to Pelosi's "unique perspective and humorous style," it's impossible to locate anything unique or humorous about her, unless you're the sort of person who finds someone looking at a packed crowd at a Dean rally and saying, "Man, it's like Beatlemania!" wildly original and funny.

Of course, in order to live up to her edgy youth appeal, Pelosi tries to rub salt in the candidates' wounds in ways most journalists would avoid. When Dean is suddenly falling behind, she goads him shamelessly. "Howard Dean alone? Alone? Alone?" she drones as Dean walks through a hotel lobby without any press. When the newspapers proclaim that Kerry's campaign is dead and it's time for him to quit the race, Alexandra asks a dejected-looking Kerry, "Are you a dead man walking?"

Later, when Kerry is winning and mobbed constantly by the press, Pelosi uses her rudeness as a calling card, yelling at him, "I was there back in the day when nobody wanted to shake your hand!" As usual, Pelosi is always at the center of her own flaccid story.

The best moment of this rambling, poorly narrated, largely redundant documentary comes at the end, when Pelosi finally scores a one-on-one interview with Kerry. Not surprisingly, her questions don't show us any side of Kerry we haven't already seen, plus she talks a lot, interrupts him, and sticks to shallow subjects. Then, suddenly, toward the end of the interview, Kerry grabs Pelosi's camera and turns it on her and says, "What makes you do this?"


Pelosi rambles nervously about the documentary she apparently set out to make.

Pelosi: Well, what I'm trying to do with this movie, is I'm trying to show, the other side, I'm trapped between, I'm not with the press corps, and I'm not working for the candidate, I'm in between, and there's this dance between the candidate, his staff and the press, and I'm trying to show that dance. Do you understand?

Kerry: I do. Is this the kind of dirty dancing I heard about in New Orleans?

Pelosi: OK, but, here, do you understand what I'm saying, like, I am not the enemy! I'm...


Kerry: [playing on one of Pelosi's earlier questions] Are you a caricature of this whole process?

This is probably the first time anyone outside the HBO offices has paid Pelosi such a high compliment. But, while she's not really close enough to the center of things to qualify as a caricature of the political trail, she's certainly a caricature of something.

Jeer Factor

Girl No. 1: Last night with Steven was really, really weird.


Girl No. 2: Why?

Girl No. 1: Well, it wasn't so much weird, it was just like ... I don't know.

Welcome to "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" (MTV, check listings)! You see, in the real Orange County, people are just as hot as they are on "The O.C.," and they're just as rich and their parties are just as fabulous. It's just that they have nothing at all to say.

An awkward cross between a scripted drama and a reality show, "Laguna Beach" treats us to endless magic-hour shots of pretty, tan teenagers walking on the beach, giving each other goo-goo eyes across the room, driving in their shiny cars, so that the feeling of being a glowing California youth with nothing but time and money and brain cells to kill is never far from our grasp. The sad part is that, even though the scenes are very, very short, even though the kids are quite clearly given talking points for each scene ("Discuss your rival, Kristin," "Discuss plans for tonight's party"), even though MTV has countless skilled editors at its disposal, even though each scene ends with a burst of pop music ("Fifteen, there's still time for you!") that very likely cost the show a small fortune, this appears to be among the emptiest, most pointless television shows ever conceived.

There's basically no story and no dialogue. The kids stare into the middle distance, occasionally attempt to act "upset" or "confused" or "enamored" in a way that mirrors the thespian stylings of most high school plays, and mumble "I don't know" or "Like, forget it!" while blinking their big mascara'd eyes and flipping their ironed blond hair dramatically. There is one scene in the most recent episode that accidentally has a tiny sliver of substance to it, but that's only because this guy named Polster, who's not one of the main characters, wanders directly into the void at a bonfire on the beach and attempts to communicate with one of the void's inhabitants, Lauren.

Polster: I did my whole senior project on the whole humanist potential movement.

Lauren: [apathetically] I don't know what that is.

Polster: OK, a brief summary. In the '50s, there are these humanistic psychologists who introduced this idea that, instead of being told what your problems were and how to have your problems fixed, it was more like they would look within themselves and try to solve it within themselves. It was a life-changing experience for me. Most people say that if they could've gone back and won the Lotto, that they would rather have gone back and done this seminar.

Lauren: Personally, I think I would go for Lotto.

Nice as it is to relive the horrors of having a functioning brain among the vacuously cool dolts of high school, "Laguna Beach" is still, easily, the worst new show on television. Better grab that TiVo remote and do some programming, tender chicken cutlets, before you miss out on all the fun!

At any rate, that's all the fun that I can generate in my current state, so until next week, may the gods smile upon you and bring you all of the good health, breathtaking fall days, and cherry-stained maple occasional tables that you so richly deserve!

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.

MORE FROM Heather Havrilesky

Related Topics ------------------------------------------