I Like to Watch

Torment and torture hit the small screen, from "24" to "Taxicab Confessions" to the finale of "The Amazing Race." Plus: Find out what artistic integrity and chunky eyeliner have in common!


Heather Havrilesky
February 15, 2005 2:00AM (UTC)

Meet the press
Imagine, for a moment, that you're a TV critic.

Now imagine that an e-mail like this one drops into your in box, oh, about once every few hours:

AFTER HER PARENTS FORBID HER TO GO ON AN OVERNIGHT TRIP WITH ADAM TO ATTEND A CONCERT, JOAN GOES ANYWAY BY PRETENDING TO STAY AT GRACE'S, ON "JOAN OF ARCADIA," FEB. 18 ON THE CBS TELEVISION NETWORK.

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Does this make you want to watch "Joan of Arcadia"? I mean, it's a good show, don't get me wrong. But, um, this plot summary doesn't exactly draw me in.

Let's edit it a little, shall we?

GOD IS ROYALLY PISSED OFF! AFTER JOAN DISOBEYS HIS COMMAND TO TAKE GREYHOUND BUS TO TUCUMCARI, N.M., SHE SKIPS SCHOOL AND SUCKS HITS FROM ADAM'S 8-FOOT BONG. GOD GOES APESHIT, RELEASES PLAGUE OF LOCUSTS ON ARCADIA, MONROVIA AND SIERRA MADRE, GIVES ADAM CRABS, ON "JOAN OF ARCADIA," FEB. 18 ON THE CBS TELEVISION NETWORK.

Here's another example of a riveting press announcement:

AMERICA LOVES CLAY AIKEN!

CLAY AIKEN WILL BE DOING A CONFERENCE CALL ON MONDAY, NOV. 29...

As we all know, TV and film critics care less about what America loves than almost anyone else in America, hence the commonly used phrase, "F*** the critics." I'd like to propose this edit:

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CLAY AIKEN NOT ACTUALLY GAY!

CLAY AIKEN, WHO REALLY SEEMS GAY, IS A PARTICULAR VARIETY OF GAY KNOWN IN HIS HOME STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA AS "STRAIGHT." HE'LL BE AVAILABLE TO DISCUSS THIS AND MORE IN A CONFERENCE CALL THIS MONDAY...

Now here's a press release that works, in no small part due to the use of upper- and lowercase letters:

"As part of the new Sunday Stew lineup, MTV will debut 'Damage Control,' wherein one all-American teenager is left home alone for the weekend while MTV's hidden cameras follow every move. Faced with compromising situations thanks to the 'Damage Control' team of actors, the parents watch from next door with host, and Simple Plan lead singer, Pierre Bouvier, trying to guess just what their son or daughter might do next. When guest star/rapper Fat Joe stops by and offers to buy the family's house, will the subject of the prank sign the deal -- without checking with his parents first? Will another subject star in a local politician's commercials after finding out that the politician isn't quite the upstanding citizen he appears to be? With cash at stake, how well do these parents know their kids, and how honest will these teenagers be with their parents when the parents return home?"

I'm sold. After all, what could be better than messing with teenagers? Maybe the "Damage Control" team should send God himself to the door and have him tell the kid to get on a bus to Tucumcari -- or better yet, set the house on fire! Maybe God could offer the kid some methamphetamines and then encourage him to jump off the roof. Haw haw! "No really, kid. You can fly, I swear. What, you don't trust me? I'm omnipotent, for chrissakes! Pussy."

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Do you see the pattern emerging here? America loves to watch teenagers get messed with. First it was those poor suckers on "The Real World," then it was Jack and Kelly Osbourne, then the talentless mobs on "American Idol," then Joan, then Ashlee, then the chumps of "Laguna Beach," and now it's just a free-for-all. And random teenagers are so enamored with being on TV, they line up to take any abuse MTV can dish out.

You'd sort of think that the adults in the picture -- "parents," I think they're called -- would step in and save these kids from making asses of themselves in front of millions before they're even old enough to vote or drink. Nah! Let's expose our kids as half-wits with poor judgment who lie through their teeth on national television! That sounds like much more fun.

The artist's way
Speaking of humiliating teenagers, I know I'm a little stuck on Ashlee Simpson lately, but something about the challenges presented by the "Saturday Night Live" lip-syncing escándalo have transformed Ashlee into a mesmerizingly sad manifestation of the pretensions of the teenage mind. You know, like that awfully self-important stuff you scribbled in your journal when you were 16, the stuff that hopefully no one ever read or will ever read in a million years? Well, thanks to her really wise and understanding parents, Ashlee's journal is broadcast on TV each week.

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Last week, Ashlee got a haircut. To give her stylist an idea of what she wanted, she showed her a picture of the hairstyle of one-hit wonder Natalie Imbruglia. Nice choice, little lady!

But Mom thought the haircut was a big mistake. "Oh my god, Ashlee! Where's your hair back here? Your dad's going to have an absolute frickin' cow."

See, Mom didn't understand that, for Ashlee, cutting her hair shorter was tantamount to keeping it real, yo. "It is a time where I am coming into my own and wanting to make decisions on my own. And cutting my hair is a part of, you know, finding myself."

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But short hair isn't the only way to find yourself. Wearing big eyelashes and thickly applied mascara during a photo shoot for "Entertainment Weekly" is another way to really show the world what you stand for. After her makeup was finished, Ashlee pulled the makeup artist aside and told her she wanted fake eyelashes and less color, but "cute rosy cheeks."

"I know how I want my clothes and my makeup and my hair to look, and for this photo, I really wanted to represent who I am as an artist, and represent me."

The best part of the episode, though, was when Ashlee thought she might be doing something really fun and glamorous as a surprise for her 20th birthday, and instead her friends took her to Medieval Times -- you know, where you eat dinner and cheer while these guys in knight outfits ride around on horses and pretend to spar? Ashlee was clearly mortified.

But what's better than watching teenagers become mortified? As far as reality TV goes, humiliating teens is the new black.

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Let's just review the evolution of rubbernecking, shall we? First, we loved watching people win fabulous prize showcases. After that, we enjoyed watching trashy women fight over ne'er-do-well men. Then, we liked watching type-A overachievers quarreling over how to cook rice on a beach in Thailand. Later, we dug watching pageant-circuit ladies competing for the same mediocre man. Recently, we became thrilled at witnessing yuppies insulting each other's business acumen. But today, it's all about shaming teens.

What's next, teasing young children? Manipulating toddlers? Taunting hungry infants? Kicking small animals? Confusing the handicapped?

AMERICA LOVES "TORMENTING TODDLERS"!

AFTER GIVING THE DOG AWAY TO NEIGHBORS, PARENTS TELL THIS SOBBING 4-YEAR-OLD THAT GOD IS DEAD, AND THE EARTH IS LIKELY TO SPIN OFF ITS TRAJECTORY AND COLLIDE WITH THE SUN! WATCH AS A LITTLE MIND STRUGGLES TO COME TO GRIPS WITH THE APOCALYPSE, THIS SUNDAY AT 9 P.M.!

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Torture is, like, soooo torturous!
A few readers have pointed out a delightfully disturbing theme emerging this season on "24" -- torture! First, Jack tortures Sherak, the guy involved in the train hijacking, by shooting him in the leg. He's a bad guy, so we like this. Next, CTU tortures Secretary of Defense Heller's son, since Heller was at his son's house at the time of Heller's kidnapping. However, it's not clear that Heller's son told any of his deviant hippie friends about the meeting, and the kid weeps so piteously throughout the process, you can't help but feel a little sorry for him, even if he does have a squirrel's understanding of foreign policy, or whatever his mean daddy said to him in a fit of rage.

Finally, the head of CTU, Erin Driscoll, orders the torture of Sarah, a mild-mannered CTU employee who's suspected of being a spy thanks to the sneaky work of the real spy, Marianne. After Sarah cries and pleads for mercy, Driscoll grimly ushers in one of those ominously bland agents with metal suitcases, and the guy pulls out a syringe.

So, we get it. The torturous aspect of torture is, you can't always be sure that you're torturing the right person, and even if you are, you can't always know whether or not that person is holding out on you. Maybe you assume they've told you everything they know, or maybe you choose option B and shoot them in the leg instead. Remember last season, when Jack convinced one of those drug lords that he was about to shoot his wife and children in the head if he didn't start talking? You can't deny that "24" does a rather nice job of exploring the moral slippery slopes of CIA-style covert operations. How many ominously bland agents were on call in Guantánamo Bay after 9/11? We probably won't know until the champagne corks are already flying at the dedication of the cornerstone of the George W. Bush Library at some fine university deep in the heart of Texas.

What I really want to know is, what's in the syringe? How painful is it to be shocked with that thing that looks like an electric razor? Why was Sarah unconscious? Did she pass out from the pain, or was there something in the syringe that made her dopey, and if so, how would that help at all? Is it about decreasing her inhibitions? Maybe someone who's familiar with such procedures could drop me a line and explain these little details, just so we can all take even more satisfaction in savoring the torture of innocents from now on.

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Another concept comes to mind...

AMERICA LOVES "TORTURING TEENS"!

AFTER ADMINISTERING 50 CCs OF TRUTH SERUM, PARENTS GRILL THEIR WEEPY TEEN ON THE LOGISTICS OF SUCKING HITS OUT OF AN 8-FOOT BONG, THEN CUT HER HAIR USING A FLOWBEE. WATCH AS A YOUNG MIND REALIZES THAT SHE HAS A LOOK THAT DOESN'T REPRESENT HER AS AN ARTIST, THIS FRIDAY AT 8 P.M.!

They just keep breeding!
Speaking of torture, fans who tuned in for the finale of "The Amazing Race" last week reported shock, disbelief and feelings of helplessness after witnessing ugly Americans Kendra and Freddy come in first in the race around the world. Spectators said that watching the "dating models" (known for their rather unsettling disdain for the peoples of Africa) walk away with $1 million -- while the much more deserving Jon and Kris came in second -- left them with lingering depression, sleeplessness and unpredictable fits of anger for several days. While some wept tears of joy to see Aaron emerge from weeks of being maligned by his girlfriend, only to propose to her in front of millions ("The more she attacks him, the more he loves her!" the romantics sniffled), others found themselves haunted by Kendra's words in Senegal weeks before. "They just keep breeding!" she whined, the sight of crowds of underprivileged minorities making her cute, rosy cheeks even cuter and rosier, her glossed lips pursing in disgust. The mind reels. How could this mannequin be going home with half a million dollars?

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Some viewers reported that several glasses of Zinfandel, along with guided meditations on the next season of "TAR," eased symptoms substantially. "I just kept picturing Boston Rob and Amber, belaying off the side of a building in Lima, Peru," one devoted viewer told us, referring to the winning "Survivor" couple who'll appear on "The Amazing Race" in just two weeks. "Deep into my meditation, I could almost hear Boston Rob yelling Amber's name. 'Amba! Amba!' he was yelling. I found that very soothing, somehow."

Do you have to let it linger?
Speaking of soothing: Bong-sucking teens will be super-psyched to know that a recent study indicates that marijuana, like, totally messes with your head. More specifically, it affects the flow of blood to the brain in some ways that are similar to high blood pressure, and the effects linger for a full month after the pot is smoked.

According to the article about the study, "Light marijuana users smoked two to 15 joints per week, moderate users smoked 17 to 70 joints per week, and heavy users smoked 78 to 350 joints per week." Yes, that's right: 350 joints a week. I'm just going to assume that someone else rolled the joints for the subjects in the study, because not even the most dedicated stoner I've ever met has the motivation to roll 50 joints a day. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the tedium of joint rolling is one of the leading factors limiting marijuana intake.

Next time, scientists should consider bringing in an 8-foot bong and some bunk beds to increase the accuracy of their research.

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Startling confessions du jour
Maybe it's the 23 joints I smoked this morning talking, but I'm not nearly as excited about HBO's "Taxicab Confessions" as I used to be. Back in the innocent days when teenagers weren't manipulated into getting bad haircuts and snorting drugs with God, watching random weirdos act like random weirdos in the backs of cabs used to seem really riveting and outrageous. Now, though, when the scuzzy girl strips down to her undies, gives her guy a blow job, and then whines to the cab driver, "We want to fuck you," it's far less fascinating than downright unsavory. And they just keep breeding!

I'd rather investigate the latest "sickening realizations" about Michael Jackson to come to light this week. You can take your pick: Martin Bashir's "Michael Jackson's Secret World," which premieres on Thursday, Feb. 17, on ABC's "Primetime Live," or "Michael Jackson's Secret Childhood," on Wednesday, Feb. 16, on VH1.

For those who like dog shows better than freak shows, I'd suggest tuning in for "America's Dog Show" today and tomorrow (Feb. 14 and 15) from 8 to 11 a.m. on ABC, where some of the dog world's Kendras and Freddys will walk proudly in tight little circles. Personally, I would love to watch a dog show that featured a wide range of beautiful and odd-looking mutts, highly intelligent and utterly original. Just gazing at a parade of dogs with untraceably strange colors, weirdly placed eyes, oversize heads, and elbows that stick out awkwardly would fill my heart with more love than all of the half-priced heart-shaped boxes of chocolates in town. "The Prettiest Mutt in the World" they could call it.

Would people in this God-fearing, dog-loving nation of ours tune in for that, or what? Man! Why am I giving this stuff away for free?

Next week: "The Venture Brothers," "Jonny Zero" and everything else I promised to mention before but never did.


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

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