I Like to Watch

From "Supernanny" to "Carnivale" to "Wickedly Perfect" to the new detective show "Numbers," Good tries to kick Evil's ass with naughty stools, roasted lamb and really tough math equations.


Heather Havrilesky
January 18, 2005 2:00AM (UTC)

Good morning, my darling double nonfat soy lattes! I don't need to tell you that life on the frontier of televised entertainment can be tough on a woman, even a woman of hardy stock like myself. There are dangers lurking around every corner -- and I'm not talking about the obvious dangers, like losing several hours a day to "Pimp My Ride" reruns, or getting sucked into yet another season of "The Bachelorette." The dangers of which I speak are far more menacing and demonic than can be expressed. There, in the shadows, linger shows that mess with your carefully constructed worldview, shows that haunt your dreams, shows that crawl under your skin and set up camp like bedbugs in a Beautyrest Luxury Firm Cal King.

Yes, you may have the illusion that you're safe out there on the frontier, with your advanced screening tapes and your press releases and not a soul to warn you about what ill wind might blow from that "Rough Cut -- Not for Air" DVD you drop so cavalierly into your player. But you're not safe, compadres. Out there lies a show that's so hideous and wrong, it corrupts your mind like a virus and makes it downright impossible to sally forth without a handful of prescription sedatives, a big bowl of homemade chocolate pudding and some bunny slippers.

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Nanny nanny boo-boo!
One word, my no-foam friends: "Supernanny." This is a show that will unravel your emotional sweater starting with one little thread at the end of your sleeve. Sure, you'll tune in out of curiosity, feeling all smug in the knowledge that it's just another reality ditty with a dumb premise. Cut to you, one hour later, naked and shivering, a pile of yarn at your feet.

Premiering on ABC Monday night (Jan. 17 at 10 p.m.), "Supernanny" is a horror show imported from across the lake, an ominous fable, if you will, all trussed up in reality sheep's clothing. It seems the heartless producers and brazen casting directors sought out some of the most ghoulish little creatures who roam the earth, untamed, eyes flashing and little hands grabby-grab-grab-grabbing.

First, we meet the Supernanny. She's British. Whatever.

Then, in wander Andra, Jessie and Leah, names that will forever bring a shiver to your spine. Three-year-old twins, and a 4-year-old older sister. At first, they seem shy.

Then suddenly, the world collapses in on itself and becomes an indiscernible haze of whines and screeches and unearthly wails, of wild eyes rolling back into heads, of tiny feet stomping, running, kicking. Hours are lost to this chaotic abyss, maybe even days. We become conscious and lose ourselves again as tricycles are rammed into counters, sippy cups are misplaced, potato chips are mangled and shoved into foaming, snapping jowls. And each time we're about to get a hold on reality, one of the creatures lets out a sound so piercing and shrill and high-pitched, glasses break, dogs howl, and the laws of time and space are temporarily suspended.

The three demons are shadowed closely by their underlings, this strange pair of somewhat tall, silent sidekicks who shudder and avert their eyes when their little masters shriek and bellow. These two move as if through dense fog and sticky mud, unable to lift their voices above a whisper. They make optimistic sounds, but the demons thrash and moan and kick, and eventually, their hirelings again fall silent, their faces filled with untold sorrows.

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Supernanny enters, talking brightly of "schedules" and "naughty stools," but the hollow eyes of the subordinates are devoid of hope. They've seen horrors we can't even imagine. Supernanny holds their hands and looks into their empty eyes and tries to console them, but you can see, behind her merry eyes, there is condemnation. "You brought this curse upon the land," her eyes tell them. "You created and molded this fiendish triumvirate, and you will suffer the consequences.

And so, the two haunted minions are made to schedule every waking minute, punished for their sins with tedious activities involving miniature shopping carts and glitter and Play-Doh. They pay for unleashing this scourge upon the earth, minute by minute, with interminable learning games and endless interactive activities and painfully collaborative trips to the grocery store that require the patience of a heavily sedated saint.

As harrowing an omen as "Supernanny" may be, there are some clear winners here: Ortho-McNeil and Wyeth, who obviously funded this hair-raising bit of programming to boost the consumption of oral contraceptives in America. But do they realize that, by exposing the ways in which family life can plunge straight into the white-hot center of hell, they've sullied the American dream irretrievably? Do they know that they've created a specter that's almost certain to slow population growth in America, if not across the Western world?

Of course, lower first-world population growth means less of the people with extra cash around to spend on Wellbutrin and Cialis and Paxil. When the CEOs start doing the math on this, those sneaky bastards in the cross-marketing department better watch it, because heads are gonna roll.

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In a dry and waterless place
"On the heels of the skirmish man foolishly called the war to end all wars, the dark one sought to elude his destiny and live as a mortal. So he fled across the ocean, to an empire called America, and by his mere presence, a cancer corrupted the spirit of the land." -- Samson, "Carnivàle"

While Samson would seem to be talking about Boy George, it turns out that Justin, the preacher, is the embodiment of pure evil. We can kind of see this, now, thanks to little hints, like the way his eyes sometimes turn black and his voice rumbles like thunder, and -- oh yeah, he made this random woman rip her clothes off and claw at her skin, leaving a big bloody mark across her chest. That seemed pretty telling.

But you can never be sure. After all, really eerie, wicked things like that happen about once every 10 minutes on "Carnivàle" (Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO), or about as often as a 6-train pulls into Grand Central. It's getting to the point where Ben gets visions of snakes and massive explosions and ominous tangled trees, and you figure he overslept or he's just got a little indigestion or something.

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Meanwhile, it seems clear that Justin isn't the only one possessed by the devil: The bearded lady, Management, Apollonia, Samson, the stripper family ... they all seem possessed to me. And did Iris kill those children and burn down the church? Will that creepy inmate track down Hawkins and say something premonitory to him before Hawkins busts his face in? Where do Andra, Jessie and Leah factor into this -- are they Justin's archangels?

I don't know about you, little chai lattes, but I find "Carnivàle" almost as creepy and depressing as "Supernanny," and that's saying a lot. Still, there's that feeling you get when you don't watch it. You know, there are smart people behind this show, and the acting is really good, and most of all, it's so stunning and beautifully shot. How could you miss it, when surely something is about to happen?

But then, when you read the summaries on the Web site, you can recognize how little actually happens in each episode: Justin acts strange, Iris throws him a look. Ben wakes up and looks confused. Justin has a vision. Ben finds a strange mark on his hand. Justin gets a great big tattoo. Ben has a vision.

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And when you ask yourself what's likely to happen eventually, it's obvious: Ben has some kind of a showdown with the inmate disciple, then Ben has a showdown with Scudder and probably kills him, then Ben and Justin face off, and a few more from the traveling carnival die dramatically along the way. Will that be enough action -- punctuated by very sparse, enigmatic dialogue -- to sustain you for another 10 weeks?

Probably so, you blindly devoted HBO zombies! And really, how dare I shun the true path, the one that leads to every whim and passing fancy of those HBO development executives? "If you try to escape your destiny," they whisper to me, "the world will not escape its terrible fate!" And so, critics were rendered mute by fools who spoke many words but said nothing, for whom oppression and cowardice were virtues, and freedom, an obscenity.

I love to count! One! Two! Three!
"Everything is numbers." That's Charlie, the mathematical genius, and it sounds like he's talking about ratings, but he's not. He's explaining to his brother, Don, the tenacious detective, that he needs to come up with a complicated equation to help him crack his serial rapist case. Charlie, played by David Krumholtz, is one part Zach Braff of "Scrubs" and two parts Fred Savage of "The Wonder Years." Don, played by Rob Morrow, is about five parts Rob Morrow with one part David Duchovny doing a guest spot on "CSI: New York." And looky here! It's Navi Rawat, Ryan's knocked-up girlfriend from "The O.C.," playing a grad student who's Charlie's slow-simmering love interest.

Despite the reenactment flashes and the Hollywood one-liners spewed out in the first scene ("Murder is the ultimate act of possession"), which call to mind the swarming "CSI"-bots that control half of our prime-time viewing slots, "Numbers" has an original feel. Including Charlie the whiz kid in the loop is a good idea -- he's much cuter and spunkier than your typical detective, and we like the little love crockpot he's got going with Rawat. The dad, played by Judd Hirsch from "Taxi" and "A Beautiful Mind" (ahem), is also a nice touch.

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But the real trouble with this crime show is that ... it's about crime. You can make every other element totally fresh and original, but the crimes themselves are always the same, and they've all been done a thousand times over. How many times can we track the same serial murderer-rapist around the streets of L.A.? Why does he always have an odd mark or a brand or a signature he leaves on the bodies? How many movies have we seen about this, let alone episodes of "NYPD: Blue" and "Law & Order" and "CSI," and that's not to mention "Kojak" and a hundred others from the archives?

We just have to live with the fact that lots of talented people and millions of dollars go into churning out the same five plots every week. So let's ponder a more important question: Why, when mathematicians start to formulate an equation, do they always do it on a massive chalkboard in an empty, badly lit classroom? Isn't that just a little bit exhausting? Why not curl up by a fire with a nice glass of Chianti, a big pad of paper and a very sharp pencil? Does the paper get too shreddy when you keep reworking the same variables over and over? Gosh, I don't know much about logarithmic differentiation or derivatives of inverse trig functions, but I'd say you're not very good at math if you have to keep erasing all the damn time!

Perfectly wicked
I'm running out of time and space, thanks to those small, shrieking demons who altered the laws of physics irretrievably, but I can't sign off without mentioning "Wickedly Perfect" (Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBS), a disarming and delightful show about a gaggle of floral designers, gourmet chefs and general-purpose events-planning types, stewing and primping and blanching and fussing their way to the top. This is basically "The Apprentice" for the Martha Stewart set, and as such it's much more interesting than the weekly rollout of overly commercial tasks assigned by The Donald.

Besides, who else but Martha demonstrated to us the slow, seething energy behind any two-tiered sponge cake with raspberry-almond filling and a fresh rosebud garnish? That same swallowed rage that goes into each elaborate table setting, each whimsical gift bag, each rosemary-infused rack of lamb is the secret ingredient to "Wickedly Perfect." When you force a bunch of detail-oriented control freaks to work together, all of that raw emotion -- so neatly compartmentalized by hours of tying tiny ribbons on little boxes and gluing rose petals to tablecloths and babying enormous ice sculptures -- comes cascading out like chocolate truffles out of a lovely decorative box. Hurray!

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And so Mitch hisses at Mychael, even though her beef tenderloin looks sumptuous and his table setting is remarkable, and Darlene detests Michelle, even though her trio of deserts is proclaimed fantastic by judges Candace Bushnell, David Evangelista and Bobby Flay. Of course, the judges, who are prone to irritable outbursts over lukewarm champagne and bland appetizers, add to the chaos of repressed anger and deep-seated emotional insecurity already present, just by using their best disapproving Mommy and Daddy voices. The so-called perfectionists -- animals that thrive only with plenty of space and independence, animals that really should be caged separately -- cringe and flinch and wince accordingly. And let's face it, there's nothing better than watching a perfectionist wince.

While one of the contestants would love to win such prizes as a book deal and several appearances on "The Early Show," it's clear that the real stakes of this escapade -- pride, appearances, reputation -- dwarf the concrete prizes like a towering multilayer floral centerpiece. This desperation gives the entire show a surprise layer of aged parmesan, garlic and fresh basil certain to woo the most ambivalent channel surfer.

In summary: Evil
There is so much evil in the world, and most of it can be seen in the visage of Jonathan, a man sometimes accused of single-handedly bringing about the "Fear Factorization" of "The Amazing Race." As much as I'd love to dive into this and about a hundred other aspects of this season of "TAR," I'm out of time, space and buttercream frosting.

Next week: Your exhaustive guide to this season of "The Amazing Race" -- I really mean it this time. Plus: "Nova scienceNOW" erases the smelly frog guts and the dumb baking-soda volcanos and makes science fun, mostly by introducing us to the freaks and geeks who love it so dearly.

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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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