I Like to Watch

Yow! Avalanche of reality TV, heading this way! A new batch of fame-seeking mutants, strutting hotties and whining losers. Plus: Simon, please keep your sexual fantasies to yourself.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published February 28, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

Opposable thumbs up!
Remember when we almost got away? We early adopters of reality TV, we loved it from the second it let out its first shrill cry, loved it when it kept us home on those lonely Thursday nights before we had TiVo, loved it unconditionally and completely back when people squinted and grunted at us when we said we were big fans of "Temptation Island," throwing us those looks they reserve for bad, shallow humans. Even though we clung to reality TV's every word, dabbed applesauce off its chin and didn't even smack it hard when it ruined our best pair of pants with its muddy paws, there was a time when we almost abandoned it. Yep, we almost packed up our stuff, left a hasty note ("Done run oft!") and never looked back.

That was back in the days of "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!" and "Are You Hot?" -- a dark time when the entire genre was starting to look like a great big mistake. And then, at the peak of it all, during one of the most exquisitely awful moments in pop cultural history, Trista and Ryan got married in one big, pink, sloppy mess on national TV, as helicopters circled overhead despite the fact that Madonna and Julia Roberts were nowhere to be seen.

Clearly, it was time to move on to more important pursuits, like learning to crochet oven mitts or grow tomatoes that don't taste like a mud puddle. "Survivor" was undeniably getting very old and crusty. In just its second season, "The Apprentice" looked more and more like an hour-long infomercial for Pepsi hosted by some of the least charismatic humans ever to grace the Home Shopping Network. Sure, "The Amazing Race" and "America's Next Top Model" were both a pure joy, but they were a limited indulgence designed to get us through those slow summer months, like an occasional banana split or several icy-cold margaritas gulped down in rapid succession.

But now, not only do we get a steady flow of the good stuff all year long -- "The Amazing Race" and "America's Next Top Model" are about to start up again, even though their last seasons just ended a few weeks ago -- but Hollywood's natural selection eventually kicked in. Shows like "Forever Eden" were the genre's lemmings, hurling themselves over the cliffs into the swirling seas below, while more adaptive creatures like "American Idol" crawled out of the swamp and started using tools and dancing the Macarena. Just when we thought we were out, they pulled us back in!

Overused clichés aside, my little golabki, the point is, we're completely screwed. Not only are all of our favorite shows on the air at once, but there are also new reality shows that don't suck, shows that no reality lover can deny. Who can resist the unsubtle charms of watching Candace Bushnell demand that a team of high-strung perfectionists fetch her dog a home-cooked meal on "Wickedly Perfect"? Who can fight the temptation of watching Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, sucking on a pink lollypop and emitting a cloud of too-cool-for-school disdain, transform a handful of hip-hopper-than-thou hopefuls into pandering elbow-lickers?

I can't, that's who can't. And here's the thing: It never ends. Never. Ends. Time was when you could tune in for "Survivor" and call it a day. Now the reality-TV conveyor belt is stuck on "Very, very fast." Jane, stop this crazy thing!

Oh, you know my name is Simon!
How many tired pop cultural clichés can I pack into one column? Trouble is, my little pirogi, almost everything from our pathetically empty little childhoods is a cliché now. Remember the Wonder Years, darlings, devoid as they were of Ritalin and soccer games? That's right! We kids of the '70s weren't shepherded around from piano lessons to T-ball games to Spanish class, no sir! We were left to mope around at home, passing the long hours with aggressive misappropriations of the neighbor kid's Sit 'n Spin.

Remember that, bobatki-heads? Remember walking home from the bus stop all by yourself, armed only with the knowledge that accepting a ride with a stranger was a very bad idea, particularly when he said stuff like, "Your mom said I should pick you up," and not only did he not know your mother's name, not to mention her maiden name, but he had a big box of chocolates right there in the car with him! He might as well have had a flashing purple sign on his forehead that said "Big Perv!" (I think they sold those at Spencer Gifts, right next to the sexy board games and the ashtrays shaped like boobies.)

Well, that's how Amanda Avila on "American Idol" must've felt when Simon Cowell told her that in another life, he'd like to come back as her microphone. Holy disgusto! And nobody even batted an eye! That's right: Simon basically admits that he spent this girl's entire performance -- which he dismissed as mediocre, by the way -- imagining his pecker grasped in her hands, up by her, you know, face! By her... big mouth! Nasty, nasty Simon.

And look, I love it when Simon insults those hair-gel-slicked monkeys, particularly those girly men who sing pussified ballads from Disney animated movies, as if that's going to win the hearts of America's preteens. Dummies! This is not "Star Search," and if we wanted to hear the soundtrack from "The Little Mermaid" over and over and over again, we'd have gotten ourselves knocked up by now. Part of the reason we watch "American Idol" at all is to be annoyed to the point of hurling angry insults and then fast-forwarding through the majority of each performance. Yes, we skip over two-thirds of each song, along with Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul's comments and every single word from Ryan Seacrest's pouty little mouth. We know what they're saying. Randy's saying it was "pitchy" (and he's almost always wrong, and the stuff that was "pitchy" he doesn't call out until he sees it played back on TV), and Paula's spewing innocuous drivel like, "Well, you look really pretty and you have such a great spirit." We haven't listened to a thing from Seacrest for years. We can't even remember what his voice sounds like.

But Simon. We count on Simon for the True Verdict. And when Simon lets us down and talks about his microphone pecker? Well, that's a sock to the gut of even the most casual "American Idol" viewer. Simon, keep your slimy unspeakables in your pants and save your powers of imagination for dreaming up inventive ways to rip the hearts out of the creepy "Up With People!" mutants onstage. Your job is to act all mean and British, not to invite us into your wildly delusional fantasy life.

See, kids? This is what fame does to people. It makes them forget that they're wearing a mock turtleneck and their hair looks like a pair of ass cheeks.

The irony is that "American Idol" is populated by self-serious teen weirdos who yearn to swim in the same delusional soup Simon is drowning in. These grinning, gesturing chorus geeks want nothing more than to break wide. It's enough to make you lose your lunch, witnessing the indignant reactions when these self-proclaimed superstars get ungraciously booted by America's voters.

Last Wednesday night, when it was announced that Melinda Lira got the second-lowest number of votes, she stood onstage in total silence for several awkward minutes, with a look of shock on her face, a look just like the one people get when they receive very, very bad news on the phone -- you know, the second before they start wailing, and then collapse into a heap on the floor? This is television, dipshits. Why must we suffer so?

I have a little message for Melinda: Pull it together, freak. As crushed as we are that you won't be able to continue on your path to mediocre pop stardom, here's the thing: We don't like you! We really, really don't. Let me just refresh your memory. Last night, you took the stage dressed like a high school vice principal's secretary, and sang "Power of Love" by Celine Dion ("'Cause I'm your ladeeeeh!"). Your very trained, power-ballad voice, however impressive in a show-choir format in most small-town high schools across this great land, does not entitle you to a record contract. True, Amanda sucked even more, and she made it through, but you didn't. Here's the thing: Simon essentially said he liked her mouth. Remember when the president liked Monica Lewinsky's mouth? Remember how popular that made her? See, when you have strong sexual imagery associated with the mere sight of your features, well ... people want to see more of you. Tough lesson, but it's time you learned it.

Teenagers! Sigh. Don't you just want to smack them so hard their naive little heads spin around on their naive little necks at about a million miles an hour? Yeah, me, too.

More reality madness
Dear ILTW,

Mock this concept if you must (and you must, I know, I know), but believe me when I tell you that tormenting toddlers has been a staple of Japanese television for years. That is to say that I saw it once many years ago, and logic surely dictates that there is likely little else comprising the daily programming schedule in the Far East.

The premise of the segment, if I remember correctly, consisted of following a 5-year-old boy (at a great distance) with a camera as he trekked two miles (each way) to the store to pick up some milk. He had to cross busy highways and walk through abandoned fields that reminded me more of Dr. Zhivago than Back to Bataan. Whatever. The poor kid was shaking with tears by the time he finally got home to his mother. It was part of a larger theme that had very small children attempting to perform tasks that for adults wouldn't be more that marginally inconvenient -- with predictably weepy results.

It goes without saying that it was the most genius thing I've seen since USA Network canceled "Night Flight." As in many things, it's only a matter of time until we catch up with our friends on the other side of the rim.


Dave Moses

Dear Dave,

Oh, how I long to see such a show! It's not enough that I should sit in a corner cafe, secretly relishing the moment when a wee human drops his or her neutered Frappuccino and screeches in a pitch high enough to strip the polish off my toenails. I'd like to see these adorable mini-humans completing complicated tasks, preferably ones that take advantage of their lack of dexterity, which include inappropriate adult undercurrents meant to escape them entirely, so that we dirty, beastly, hairy old creatures might have a great big hearty guffaw at their expense. I mean, screw them, they're young! They have their whole lives ahead of them to seethe silently and avenge our humiliating whimsies.

If there's any lesson we learn from reality TV, it's that the key to happiness lies in indulging our whims at any cost. I saw this dog on the Fox local news that could say "I love you," and it was, honestly, the most gratifying thing I've seen on TV in years. I kept rewinding it and playing it over and over and over, "Ri Rove Rooo!" "Ri Rove Rooo!" until I was in a state of ecstasy.

Anyway. Yeah.


The life of mean
Speaking of ecstasy, the best show on television is coming your way again, and this time you have the opportunity to start from the very beginning. And that's important, because you need to meet all the judges and understand just how disturbed they are in a vacuum, otherwise you'll assume that there's some history between them or some back story with the girls that makes the judges say things that are utterly caustic and depraved and therefore delightful.

Take, for example, the judges' early discussions about whom to cut from the gaggle of beautiful wannabe models they've just met. When a certain girl's name comes up, runway tranny judge Miss Jay pouts and grumbles, "You know how I feel about no-neck monsters."

Or, after a discussion of another girl's androgynous look, judge Nolé Marin refers to her as "Michelle slash Michael."

Yes, a theme is emerging, dumplings. Mean is the new hot pink, which was the new black but is now more like a baby blue or a brown. Unless I'm wrong about that, which I probably am. See, this is part of why I'm in awe of these vitriolic fashion freakwieners: They know stuff like this. Personally, I can't even see fashions or styles, even when I'm at a party packed with fashionable people -- well, I never am, but still. I'm style-blind.

I'm style-blind, but as I get older and let go of any semblance of pride or any notion that I should be dressed better than a shlumpy, crusty old bag lady, my curiosity grows. My interest in so-called style-makers has perked up. Who are these weird people? I've never been in line with their way of seeing the world, but still, I admire their abusive, bossy natures and their ability to make snap judgments based on the tiniest criteria. Because really, that's what reality TV is all about: abusiveness and snap judgments. Yay!

Anyway, "America's Next Top Model" premieres this Wednesday at 8 p.m. on UPN, so don't miss it this time, OK?

Who am I kidding? I know half of you don't even own a TV, and the other half are just waiting for me to finally write about "The Venture Brothers" like I promised.

Dolphin trainers and firemen and Bobby Jons, oh my!
But you should know by now that I don't keep my promises. In fact, after vowing not to watch "Survivor: Palau" once and for all, after convincing myself that to watch yet another season of "Survivor" would constitute a pure waste of time, there I was, wondering about the premiere. After skimming through a dissatisfying Television Without Pity recaplet, I was even more curious. Well, I did have the episode TiVo'ed, I could just rush through it, scanning for highlights and lowlights and ...

Cut to me, one hour later, all previous resolutions obsolete. I'm addicted again. Why? They're just going to argue about who's doing more work and whether or not to get rid of physical threats. I've seen this a million times. And why did they get rid of Jolanda? It's annoying that you have to act like a wishy-washy honky zero to avoid the ax.

Still, there are all these man-titties around, man-titties galore! And that cute dolphin trainer geek boy with his Belgian schoolboy haircut, who can resist that little bugger? Oh my lord, who can resist man-titties that answer to the name of "Bobby Jon"? Before there's time to grab a cool glass of water or take a deep breath, visions of red-and-white gingham and picnic baskets and barns filled with hay flood to mind ... Grrrr. Damn you, country-fried meat chiclets!

Once again, when your features and your name invoke strong sexual imagery, that makes you popular. Just look at Gov. Schwarzenegger -- his features and his name invoke images of a pumped-up, domineering robot. But isn't that what we Americans really want, to be led to our doom by a pumped-up, domineering robot? I know I do.

Amba alert!
And just look at Amba, of "Survivor" fame. Boston Rob is one part pumped-up, domineering robot, one part Bobby Jon, man-titty, haystack dreaminess, and one part average jerk, all wrapped up in a sneering, heavily accented package.

I love Rob and Amba, though, to be honest, and I hope they win this season of "The Amazing Race." From the very start of the first episode, which airs this Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS, everyone is talking shit about Rob, saying he's cutthroat and stupid and he and Amba already have a million dollars from winning "Survivor." But you have to be cutthroat to win "Survivor," and I can tell you right now, Rob is not remotely stupid. In fact, I question the intelligence of those who would assume that someone with a heavy accent is stupid. I love how it's always the people who fancy themselves as embracing enlightened, multicultural notions and "Free to Be You and Me" hand-holding who are the ones who turn around and slander Americans with accents that aren't strictly anchorman-bland.

Plus, Rob and Amba are always smiling and laughing and making dumb jokes. What's not to like? I also gained serious respect for the older woman, Gretchen, who, when getting strapped into a harness, says, "I think this is what the young people refer to as a wedgie." And naturally I love the snarky gay couple with their steady flow of mean-spirited meanness. They seem nice.

In conclusion
Reality TV addiction is no laughing matter -- unless, that is, you've given in to it so completely that you're forever lost to your friends and family, in which case it's just one big fat laugh after another. Personally, I've only recently come to terms with the fact that I will never, ever abandon my messy reality TV baby again, even as it gurgles and drools and requires more attention than ever before. Because, no matter how mad it makes me, no matter how much of my precious time it wastes, time I could be using to achieve a sense of inner calm or just to run a brush through my hair, I still love it dearly. It's the little things that you can't express that make it all worthwhile: some brutal remark from a bossy fashion type, some body part that makes you think vile, filthy thoughts. How can you put such heartwarming little moments into words?

You can't. All you can do is say, "Ri rove rooo!"

Next week: Finally, I'll have watched enough episodes of "The Venture Brothers" to write about it! Also: Jennifer Love Hewitt plays a sociopathic social climber -- one with big boobies!

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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I Like To Watch Television