I Like to Watch

Enough plasma TVs will make the scary gangbangers go away, Ewan McGregor tours Mongolia by motorcycle, and "Tom Goes to the Mayor" is extremely weird yet not funny!


Heather Havrilesky
November 30, 2004 1:32AM (UTC)

This land was made for you and me
Greetings from New Mosul, Calif., where not only is gang behavior on parade, but it parades through the center of New Mosul daily, drawing an unruly crowd of hip-hoppers and gangbangers and the like. They pull out their ghetto blasters and their gats and their AK-47s and they get primitive on our asses. Then, at around noon, they break for lunch.

They need anger-management courses! Like the ones that we civilized, sophisticated humans take in order to remain pawns in the game. But playas got no respect for us pawns! They ain't goin' down like that. So they loot and riot instead ... or at least look as though they might.

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But you know what? Those ne'er-do-well gangbangers out there just want to participate in the spoils of high capitalism, yo! If they had access to the means of production, things would be different for them. They might craft some kind of whimsical hip-hop tchotchke and then sell a bunch of them and accumulate a little capital, aka Benjamins. Then they could afford some of the conveniences that the rest of us take for granted -- the plasma TVs, the espresso makers, the Swiffer devices that clean your bathroom and then fix you a light lunch.

If the brawlers and the playas and the playa-hatas out there had 32-inch plasma screens in their living rooms, do you really think they'd be brawlin' and playa-hatin'? What's their big beef with playas, anyway? It takes a pretty angry person to get bent out of shape over a sandy, level desert basin that temporarily becomes a lake after heavy rains.

But that's just how they roll. My pimps, my dubs, my hos, etc., etc. I don't pretend to understand, and quite frankly, I have way too many episodes of "The O.C." and "Desperate Housewives" and other honky-centric programming to catch up on to concern myself with insurgent leader Ron Artest or the latest showdown in New Fallujah. All I'm saying is that those of us who lock our doors each time the parade rolls through town need to write some big fat checks and slip them under the door for the mailman so that we can feel proud of ourselves as we double-check our security systems and attempt to hide all of our crappy, overpriced appliances from view. With enough charitable donations, we can make a difference, a difference that doesn't require awkward face-to-face interactions or understanding what a shorty is. Together, from behind our double-bolted doors, we can get those unruly kids off the streets and in front of giant TV screens where they belong!

My air, my water, my hos, my hos
What's really sad is that certain third-world peoples have it even worse than those poor, impoverished hip-hop kids. Not only do most of the little international world peoples not have 1,500-watt woofers or shiny rims or AK-47s, some of them don't even have clean air to breathe or clean water to drink -- which is probably why many third-world children go to bed at night and dream of Angelina Jolie adopting them and whisking them away to sunny California to enjoy a life of PlayStation 2 games and cheese-filled pizza crusts. (Of course, most of us dream about that.)

Let's take, just for example, the happy little hamlet of Bhopal, India, site of the worst industrial disaster in history, brought to you by the good people of Union Carbide. The citizens of Bhopal continue to suffer from the consequences of that night of Dec. 3, 1984, when the Union Carbide plant spewed toxic methyl isocyanate gas, used to make pesticides, that killed 3,800 (according to Union Carbide) or 8,000 (according to conservative estimates based on shroud sales) or 15,000 people (according to some witnesses who loaded bodies into mass graves). And while the Union Carbide-sponsored site Bhopal.com states that 2,800 people "experienced partial disability" and a laughable 40 people "experienced permanent disability," the Bhopal Medical Appeal site site estimates that about 120,000 people suffer serious effects from the incident.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy, Link TV will air "Litigating Disaster" (Tuesday at 8 p.m. -- check listings), a documentary about the continuing efforts to bring Union Carbide to justice. While the company paid the government of India $470 million, no criminal charges resulted, and the average settlement was reportedly around $500, which I don't need to remind you isn't nearly enough for a high-definition TV, let alone a plasma.

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Cleanup efforts since have been widely denounced as inadequate. The Bhopal Medical Appeal reports that in 1999, "local groundwater and wellwater testing near the site of the accident revealed mercury at levels between 20,000 and 6 million times those expected."

Forgoing anger-management courses, local residents march in the streets each year and burn an effigy of former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson, haunting footage of which is included in the Link TV documentary. Unlike American rabble rousers, though, the citizens of Bhopal seem to lack a catchy chant. Might I suggest something along the lines of "Bhopal, tick tack, grab your gat, watch your back, here I come!"?

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Last one to Kazakhstan is a rotten egg
What truly amazes me is that there are people who don't merely muse behind double-bolted doors about the plight of the little international world peoples. Apparently, there are those who are willing to go out into the world and meet all of those huddled Swiffer-less and plasma-less masses face to face. And while most of these adventurous types stay in four-star hotels and bring a hefty supply of antibacterial wipes with them wherever they go, others just ride their motorcycles around and camp -- which, for those who don't know, means that they sleep on the ground like common hobos.

International movie star Ewan McGregor and his friend and fellow actor Charley Boorman are two such lunatics. Lucky for us, Bravo's "Long Way Round (Thursdays at 8 p.m. EST) follows these two as they ride their motorcycles around the world, from East London through Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, Siberia, Alaska and Canada, then across the United States to New York.

Sounds fun, huh? Not in Kazakhstan, where the locals offer them fermented camel's milk at every turn (and, to their credit, they're too polite to refuse it). The dirt roads there force the duo to drive at a snail's pace, toppling over again and again on bikes that are too heavy to pick up without some help. And it doesn't look all that fun in Mongolia either, where the roads are covered in slick mud and the cameraman's motorcycle breaks down and the three of them are quite obviously exhausted and snippy for a large portion of the trip.

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Still, the landscape is incredible and utterly unfamiliar, and both McGregor and Boorman pick themselves up and dust themselves off after each nightmarish turn. They're honest about their frustrations -- one of the best moments in the Kazakhstan episode comes when McGregor freaks out over the fact that he'd been talking for several minutes while his Diary Camera was on Pause. Minutes later, though, he gleefully shows off a spider bite that's formed a swollen knot on his head the size of a baseball. "I look a bit like Manimal," he chuckles.

Boorman also has a steady flow of one-liners at the ready, cracking wise about everything from the horse penis they're served at one home to McGregor's spider bite being so big it's casting a shadow. Later in the Kazakhstan episode, the two men are treated to a downright brutal "massage" during which a pained-looking McGregor whispers, "I'm terrified of what's coming next!" The scene made me laugh harder than I've laughed at anything on TV in recent memory, including Ashlee Simpson dancing a jig on "SNL."

Together these two guys are so good-natured and humble and smart, they're just all-around good company. Their wit and toughness and sensitivity, along with the strange sites and the beautiful landscape, makes "Long Way Round" a pure joy to watch. Too bad there are only six one-hour episodes altogether. Better catch the last one and keep your eyes peeled for repeats, piglets!

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Weirder than weird, radder than rad
Most of all, shows like "Long Way Round" and "The Amazing Race" remind us that living in an industrialized nation is way cool. But you know what's the coolest thing about living in an industrialized nation, piggies? The disposable wipes. Who else on our planet has even half as much access to so many kinds of disposable wipes as we do? Window wipes, floor wipes, bathroom wipes, facial wipes, butt wipes. There's no limit to what we can wipe on and then throw away!

You know what's next, don't you? Chocolate pudding wipes. Yum! Barbecue chicken wipes. And then come the Abercrombie & Fitch detached, disaffected preppy wipes. And the Restoration Hardware tasteful but spendy professional wipes. But what I'm really looking forward to is the Adult Swim ironic humor wipe. Imagine, being able to wipe yourself down with humor so cool and ironic, it's utterly incomprehensible!

For a quick taste of what's to come, just flip over to "Tom Goes to the Mayor," an 11-minute-long exercise in self-congratulatory weirdness that you'd think someone as self-congratulatory and weird as myself might appreciate. I don't.

Here's why: It's not funny. The show is about this guy, Tom Peters, who has all of these really stupid, adorably absurd ideas about how to improve the town. (Set up bear traps to protect our children! Use that education grant to start a WW2-themed restaurant!) The buffoonish mayor loves all of Tom's ideas and encourages him to put them into motion. Then, Tom sets bear traps, or is harassed by an obnoxious kid with an inhaler, and total mayhem ensues.

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That probably sounds sort of amusing, and it is, occasionally, a little bit amusing. But there's something about the tone of the whole thing that puts me off my lunch. It's so willfully odd, so utterly filthy with smug idiocy. Most of all, though, it could be a lot funnier. If your entire premise is fantastical, then you have tons of leeway to do whatever you want. Why, then, do we get so many minutes of city council members mumbling to the mayor? Someone somewhere obviously thinks this is damn funny. Maybe I should interview that person and find out why.

Of course, it doesn't help that Adult Swim's pre-show promos announce that the show is "funny as hell" or that critics tend to fall all over themselves over humor that they admit that they don't even understand, or that this show makes "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" look like a "Family Circus" cartoon by comparison.

But you know what? I'm still glad stuff this strange is on TV, if only to pave the way for other stuff this strange that might actually be good. Anyway, check it out yourself (Sundays at 11:30 p.m. on Cartoon Network) and tell me what you think. Maybe I'm missing something because I just anointed myself with my third Urban Outfitters snide 'n' skeptical wipe of the day.

This suffering clay
That refreshing blast of snideness and skepticism might also explain why I found last week's three-hour finale of "The Bachelor" even more grueling and insipid than usual.

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While the final two women made goo-goo eyes over a drearily unworthy Bachelor as their ashamed parents looked on, it was at least fascinating to note how many traits Bachelor Byron and romantic poet Lord Byron seemed to have in common. First, I think it's safe to say Bachleor Byron would agree with Lord Byron's assertion that "There is no instinct like that of the heart." Wasn't it heart and nothing but heart that brought Bachelor Byron to this fine moment, ready to pledge his eternal love with conviction for the cameras? In fact, if "The Bachelor" existed in Lord Byron's time, he also might've written that, "Love blooms nowhere brighter and fuller than it does in the Fantasy Suite."

But unlike Bachelor Byron, Lord Byron was a true romantic. His feelings didn't require a team of producers, grips and gaffers or a four-poster bed from Pottery Barn, it only required that the object of his affections be under the age of 20 and married to another man. In fact, when Lord Byron wrote "Love will find a way through paths where wolves fear to prey," what he really meant was that adultery and death threats were the ultimate turn-ons, and that love can flourish even between sheets with a thread count under 250.

No matter. By the second hour of that endless finale, Bachelor Byron seemed determined to follow in Lord Byron's fearless footsteps, simultaneously fawning over two women and appearing to swoon over each in equal measure. By the time the hopelessly gaudy flower arrangements and candles were carted out to that disastrously ugly island in the middle of that big, ugly swimming pool, an unpretty site cursed with more than one ill-fated proposal, viewers at home had little clue as to which woman Bachelor Byron intended to marry. Could it be Tanya, who seemed low-key enough to tolerate Byron's oft-evidenced defensiveness, fiery temper and stunted emotional development? Or would it be Mary, whose ass appears to control the known universe?

Similar to Lord Byron, whose treatment of women was once said to have "violated the Christian principles of purity and honor," Bachelor Byron did an expert job of keeping his two ladies -- and their families, and the viewers at home -- guessing until the very last minute. But the second he slid that ring onto Mary's finger, the whole thing went from strangely suspenseful to tiresome and unsavory, much like so many of Lord Byron's failed relationships.

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Tanya, who was sure she was to be Bachelor Byron's brand new wife, was not at all amused by this turn of events. She told BB in no uncertain terms that she was very, very disappointed, but instead of just hearing her out, he interrupted her and bitterly defended himself, reminding viewers at home that Tanya had just dodged a serious bullet. Next, on "After the Final Rose" (see also: "After the Final Hose"), Byron's defensive streak and his creepy ability to act for the cameras were in full effect. Much to our horror and disgust, the final egregious moments on Proposal Island were replayed, after which we cut to our live taping, where, given several months to ponder the depth of their feelings, Bachelor Byron and Mary continued to describe their love for each other in the most generic, unconvincing terms imaginable.

Months of fantasy dates and cat fights and Chris Harrison grimacing in the background, and it all boils down to this: two mediocre humans, summing up their inadequate feelings with the blandest, limpest terms. Perhaps Lord Byron was right when he wrote that man is "half dust, half deity, alike unfit to sink or soar."

But that's just how they roll, yo. My rings, my bling, my final rose, my hos, etc, etc. I don't pretend to understand, and quite frankly, I have way too many episodes of "Lost" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" to catch up on to concern myself with Bachelor Byron or thoughts of poor Tanya, Swiffer-ing up the pieces of her broken heart. Self-interest is the new black, honey-roasted hams. Downward and backward!

Next week: The countless joys of "The Pet Psychic." Plus: Big, Fat and Obnoxious, who are you, to take these many forms?

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  • 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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