I Like to Watch

Why is Brokaw so fixated on your grandpa? What does kitty want for breakfast? What do desperate psychiatrists, cartoonish housewives and bad bosses have in common? You've got questions; we've got even more questions.

Published December 6, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

The bossman cometh
How much TV do I really have to watch? I'm asking you because, honestly, I consider you the boss of me. That's right, you, with the eyes in your head and the teeth in your mouth. You're the boss of me. You, with the ears and the lips and the deep sighs and the moments of existential angst when you gaze heavenward, beseeching the Lord (if there is one, which you seriously doubt), beseeching him (or her) to free you from the interminable grind, to give you the life of leisure and gourmet foods and luxury cars and spa vacations that you so richly deserve.

But the so-called good Lord doesn't seem to hear your stifled cries, so there you sit, with your nose on your face and your feet in your shoes, working full-time (that's practically around the clock) (it's downright inhumane, is what it is), just to pay for pointless, ephemeral things like car insurance and health insurance and life insurance and premium cable packages and high-speed Internet connections.

I know your life isn't easy. I know you're tempted to say to me, "It's your friggin' job to watch TV, you wilty little hothouse flower, you precious little tender paw! Watch everything! Watch every last thing, you pathetic, pampered, allergen-sensitive, milk-fed veal cutlet!"

And I don't blame you. But last night I watched five -- count 'em, five -- episodes of "Desperate Housewives" in a row, and about halfway through the third episode, I started to think, "Is this really necessary?"

Is it, boss? Is it really so crucial that I watch Teri Hatcher giggle nervously through each episode, just like she did on those Radio Shack commercials? Do we care whether or not the blockhead next door is into her? Does it surprise us that this show, which once looked so promising, has devolved into a mediocre cartoon, bouncing along to Danny Elfman's kitschy, plucky strings, or that its downward spiral has sucked in a massive, ravenous audience, one that drools uncontrollably over insipid subplots and shticky stereotypes?

You do know that I have only one functioning TV set, don't you? I told you about how the so-called Good Guys made me wait three weeks until they'd repair my 3-month-old TV set, but did I mention that they still didn't repair the thing, they just ordered parts and said they'd be back in a week or so, and they warned me that even then the TV might not work? Is it so wrong to think that Sony should just send me a new one, no questions asked?

What, you think I'm making excuses? You think that I'm whining like a lactose-intolerant milk-fed calf, that I should shut the hell up and not only watch every last episode of "Lost" and "CSI," but that I should catch up with "CSI: Miami" and "Cold Case" and "Smallville" while I'm at it? What's that? I should be watching everything from "Venture Brothers" and "Pet Detective" to "Drawn Together" and "Degrassi: The Next Generation," too?

Oh, I see. You won't be happy until I'm tearing at my hair and gnashing my teeth and beseeching the Lord to save me from my torturous fate the way you do. I get it. That's big of you, boss.

See, this is what's wrong with bosses in general. They want our suffering to match their own.

Brokaw! Brokaw!
Take Tom Brokaw, for example, the Bossy McBossman of "NBC Nightly News." Why must we be made to suffer through his long goodbye? Why must we endure so much hype over his final sign-off? Personally, I'm indifferent. His sturm and drang sort of grates on my nerves, to be honest. The greatest, bestest generation, blah blah blah? Those teensy little eyes of his, gazing at you sternly? The way he holds onto each syllable a little too long, to milk the drama, like he's Winston Churchill or something? That overly formal mumbo jumbo he spews through a mouthful of marbles?

Of course, last Wednesday night, when he reminded me of all that we'd been through together, the dark days and nights, the seasons of hope and joy, I started to feel a little bit choked up -- that is, before I remembered that I shared the dark days and nights and hope and joy with Peter Jennings, not Brokaw. Jennings always struck me as a better choice -- a little smarter, a little more prone to ask tough, intelligent questions, a little less afraid to challenge the status quo, a little less ego-driven, a little nicer. My man's Canadian, for Chrissakes. Plus, I remember when Jennings used to report from London or Beirut in a really nice trench coat. He was a strapping young fellow then, but let's face it, he still looks damn good, and he's two years older than Brokaw.

Plus, he's not constantly swooning over the greatest generation like they saved the world from Hitler or something. OK, maybe they did, but still. Even when Brokaw was summing up what he learned over the past 21 years at NBC, he couldn't help trailing off into yet another "greatest generation" digression:

"What have I learned here? More than we have time to recount this evening, but the enduring lessons through the decades are these: It's not the questions that get us in trouble, it's the answers. And just as important, no one person has all the answers. Just ask a member of the generation that I came to know well, the men and women who came of age in the Great Depression, who at great personal sacrifice saved the world in World War II and returned home to dedicate their lives to improving the nation they had already served so nobly. They weren't perfect -- no generation is -- but this one left a large and vital legacy of common effort to find common ground here and abroad and with which to solve our most vexing problems. They did not give up their personal beliefs and greatest passions but they never stopped learning from each other, and most of all, they did not give up on the idea that we're all in this together. We still are, and it is in that spirit that I say thanks, for all that I have learned from you. That's been my richest reward. That's 'Nightly News' for this Wednesday night, I'm Tom Brokaw. You'll see Brian Williams here tomorrow night, and I'll see you along the way."

Cue dorky "Thanks for the Memories"-type song.

So, let's review what Brokaw has learned, shall we?

1. Questions? Good. Answers? Bad!

2. No one person has all the answers.

3. Unless they're a member of the greatest generation. The greatest generation rocked!

4. I want to have, like, a million of the greatest generation's babies. "Baby boomers," I'll call them.

5.We're all in this together.

6. Except for me. I'll be on a golf course in Rio. Smell ya later!

Huff, the magic dramedy
With bossy Brokaw saving his weighty tones for the bartenders in Rio, we'll have to turn to someone else for more hugging and learning. Well, hey now, how about Hank Azaria, who plays a troubled psychiatrist on the new dark dramedy "Huff" (Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime)?

Showtime loves her some dark dramedies, don't she? It's like dozens of little "Six Feet Under" wannabes hatched and then flocked over to the Other Premium Channel, looking for a mama bird with worms aplenty to share. "Dead Like Me," anyone? "Out of Order"? "The L Word" could be a little darker, but I'm betting "Fat Actress" will likely pick up the slack.

So, I know what you're wondering: Is "Huff" any good? But remember what we learned from Master Brokaw: It's not the questions that get us in trouble, it's the answers. Thus, it would be easier (and it would take a lot fewer words) to simply state that "Huff" is flatly bad. It would be more fun (and it would take a lot fewer words) to assert that "Huff" is fantastically good. Sadly, "Huff" is neither. "Huff" exists in that limbo land between pretty good and not so great. "Huff" is the unpretty border town, the unsightly taint of the dramedy world.

Accordingly, we find ourselves in the kitchen of one confused psychiatrist (pretty good) and his rather dull wife (not so great), being wheedled by his manipulative mother (not so great), who's played by Blythe Danner (pretty good). Next, Huff (Azaria) visits his big, fat, obnoxious friend and lawyer (Wait -- is this "Mind of the Married Man"?) played by Oliver Platt (pretty good) who prepares him for his malpractice deposition (not so great) concerning his teen patient who committed suicide (not so great). A few nights ago, his BFO friend (yuck) did drugs with some Good Guys-type appliance peddlers (oh, yes!) and they managed to ruin his new flat-screen TV in the process (oddly lifelike!).

There's still that cartoonish "ER" element, though: the control-freak patient who won't let himself have a bowel movement and ends up in the hospital with a colostomy bag; the high-maintenance bimbo patient who won't accept that Huff's dumped her because she won't respect the boundaries of their doctor-patient relationship (Dr. Melfi could learn a few tips from this one). I know you like "Nip/Tuck," boss, but to me, these kinds of absurdly unrealistic stories and circus freaks are best left to pure comedies like "Arrested Development." On dramedies, the high jinks leave me cold, particularly when blended with melodramatic flourishes.

Still, "Huff" has its moments, and unlike "Nip/Tuck" or even stultifyingly snide "Dead Like Me," it could mature into a whole that's greater than the sum of its rather scrappy-looking parts.

Want to feel rejuvenated?
Speaking of scrappy-looking parts, I've been tuning in for HBO's raunchy "Pornucopia: Going Down in the Valley" for several weeks now, and I'm happy to report that I've learned a great deal about the current state of female genitalia. Alarmingly, most of the female population appears to have naughty bits that are very, very tiny and powder pink and shaved within an inch of their lives.

More alarming still, though, was the recent New York Times article on vaginal rejuvenation. Apparently, a handful of women out there are convinced that they're downright disgusting because they don't look exactly like porn stars between their legs. Naturally, they require expensive surgery to fix this "problem."

Once again, it's not the questions that get us in trouble ("Do I look weird to you, and might expensive surgery help?"), but the answers ("Yes, and yes"). Casting aside the fact that many of us blame the bottle-blond, twiggy, fake-jugged creatures who populate mainstream porn for rendering it unconvincing, unsavory and unsexy (with a close second in blame going to the big lunks with the mullets and the thighs that rub together and the frightening horse wieners and the habit of growling scintillating things like, "S-ck that c-ck, baby, yeah!"), I feel it my personal duty as a human to mention to the ladies out there that, slithering silicone mutants aside, all women look very different, and I'm betting that your stupid boyfriend or husband doesn't remotely care how things look down below, as long as he gets to survey the landscape once in a blue moon. So please, save your money for some good wine and a little French maid uniform and some bad shoes that make you fall on your face when you've had a few glasses of good wine.

Read your kitty's foul little mind!
Once again, it's the answers (bad shoes, good wine) that get us in trouble, not the questions ("What kinds of things will help me get laid?"). That's why, when we're watching a show like "The Pet Psychic" (Weekdays at 5 a.m. on Animal Planet), such questions as "Are you kidding me?" and "You're kidding me, right?" are perfectly harmless, as are such questions as, "Does Boo-Boo like Whiskas or Science Diet better?" or "When Spot snaps at me like he'd like to bite my hand off, he's just joking around, right?"

Not surprisingly, the most troubling aspect of "The Pet Psychic" is the answers Sonya Fitzpatrick has for the pet owners' questions -- or rather, the fact that you will believe that these answers are quite literally coming straight from the minds of the pets themselves. Take Sonya's visit with a little dog named Munch.

Sonya: Oh, well. When was he around the cat?

Munch's mom: Yesterday.

Sonya: And he would like to know, will he be around that cat a lot more?

Munch's mom: Yes. Scratch is staying.

Sonya: Oh, good.

Now, isn't it uncanny, how only a dog would ask such questions? It's as if they're coming straight from the mind of a dog! Is there any doubt that Sonya is a psychic? How about this visit with a rescued fox:

Sonya: Was he with another one? Because he said he was with another one, and he wants to know where that other one is, and he wants to know will he be with that other one because he's sad about the other one.

Fox's caretaker: His brother died.

Sonya: So let me tell him that the other one is just fine. He's in the spirit world, and he's doing well.

Between such heartbreaking scenes and the part where James Avery comes on the show and weeps openly about his dead dog, this show's got more raw drama than Bambi. It's a little weird that none of the animals are really unlovable, or have dirty minds, though. I'd imagine that at least one dog in five sometimes has the urge to rip his owner from limb to limb.

Sonya sugarcoats a little, but it would be nice to know if your dog wanted to kill you, wouldn't it? Luckily, you too can communicate telepathically with your pets! Just to prove that it's possible, I'm going to try it right now with my dog, Potus.

Me: Hello, Potus!

Potus: Why don't you just say it out loud, weirdo?

Me: Potus, what do you want?

Potus: I want you to adopt five more dogs, and then I want you to swing by the pet store and get an assortment of varmints -- perhaps a slightly crippled squirrel or two -- for us to chase around in the backyard. Then let's throw some filet mignon and pork loin on the grill to celebrate, since the squirrel meat's just for sport. Also, me and the boys are gonna sleep on the king-size bed together. You can curl up on the carpet, Chumpy.

Me: Chumpy?

Potus: Oh, yeah. Sorry. That's my little nickname for you.

In summary
What have we learned here? More than we have time to recount today, but the enduring lessons through the decades are these: It's not the questions that confuse us into thinking that pet psychics exist or that Hank Azaria should have a show of his own; it's the answers. And just as important, no one person has all the answers -- least of all Tom Brokaw.

Just ask a member of the generation that you can barely remember, the men and women who prattle on about how tough everything was during the Great Depression, the ones who still have bread boxes and play bridge and say things like "Goodness gracious!" when they can't remember your name. They weren't perfect -- a lot of them got drunk and beat the living crap out of their kids -- but at least they didn't talk about it in therapy or anything. And you can be damn sure they'd never let a doctor's scalpel within 10 feet of their coochies.

Look, even if they could read their pets' minds, they'd still tie them up out back by the shed where they belong. They did not give up their personal beliefs and greatest passions, but they did serve canned green beans for dinner, and they were known to watch "Lawrence Welk" regularly, without any hint of irony. They never gave up on the idea that we're all in this together -- except for the coloreds, of course. We still are in this together -- except for the queers and the Mexicans -- and it is in that spirit that I say thanks, for all that I have learned from you ... those of you who aren't morons, anyway. That, and Tyra Banks' weekly glamour shot, have been my richest reward.

Next week: Hear it straight from the adulterer's mouth, on "Diary of an Affair"! See bathtubs more disgusting than your own, on "How Clean Is Your House?"! Plus: Crappy holiday programming to avoid.

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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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