I Like to Watch

Pill-popping sociopaths, bad actors in bad wigs, and Faye Dunaway snuffing out the hopes of young hopefuls. Have I died and gone to heaven?

By Heather Havrilesky
Published March 14, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

Immunity is at stake!
TV shows are like bacterial infections. Unless you have a bulletproof immune system, strengthened by hours of reading good books, listening to public radio, and attending enriching cultural events, you could become vulnerable to the invasion of pathogenic microorganisms known as "prime time."

Of course, each of us is susceptible to different infections. One person might have a recurring upper respiratory infection, yet remain utterly unaffected by, say, nontuberculous mycobacteria. Others might get a really bad bout of rabbit fever, but remain untouched by, say, just for example, Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

The same is true of TV shows. Some are consistently slain by procedural cop dramas, while lighthearted sitcoms leave them unmolested. Others are regularly humbled by teen soaps and courtroom dramas, but find that they're completely immune to design shows. Personally, I can't get within 50 feet of an ill-conceived reality show without falling prey to its limited charms. Like an unknown defect in my lung structure or a quirk in my immune system, my susceptibility to reality shows makes me sensitive to even the least robust reality organism around.

Luckily, most TV shows, like infections, will simply run their course, and eventually you'll emerge without chronic symptoms. In fact, it's best not to fight too hard against your natural desires: Just as an overuse of antibiotics can develop a virulent strain of infection that proves untreatable, so does a preemptive attack on your true desires often lead to an increase in those desires. Look at me. I tried desperately not to watch "Survivor" or "The Apprentice" anymore, and after a few weeks, I am still inexplicably hooked on those two shows, plus "The Starlet," "The Contender," "American Idol," "The Amazing Race" and too many others to name. I'm beyond hope. Nurse, pull the plug!

Dr. Grumpy Pants
But one strain of television I've remained immune to is the medical drama. Like most other mortals, I tuned in for the early days of "E.R.," but soon enough, the nonstop hysteria and melodrama took their toll. Even the steady flow of ambivalent love relationships, patterned after the ill-fated Julianna Margulies and George Clooney pairing that started in the pilot, weren't enough to hold my interest. It's tough to care when you know that, no matter how madly in love a couple is, eventually one of them is just going to die of cancer or take that residency in another city and never write or visit like they said they would.

Plus, the gore of the emergency room becomes predictable pretty quickly. Head trauma, bullet wounds and heart attacks roll down the hallway like 18-wheelers down I-40, halted only by the occasional knife-wielding psycho or spectacular Bruckheimer-style helicopter crash.

So naturally when I received a DVD of "House," the new medical drama on Fox (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST), I didn't even bother to unwrap it. I considered my chances of being conquered by a show about doctors about as good as my chances of coming down with meningococcal septicemia.

Well, I was wrong. "House" is indeed as virulent and indomitable as they say, and now I'm really worried about meningococcal septicemia, along with Legionnaire's disease, hepatitis B and pretty much anything that involves purulent sputum.

You see, "House" opens up a whole new world of afflictions for the psychosomatic neurotic compulsive paranoiac to savor. Instead of offering a superficial collage of cases, ranging widely from major traumas to minor abrasions, "House" focuses on those mysterious cases that demand relentless curiosity, sleuthing and long lists of possibilities scrawled on wipe boards.

Dr. Gregory House is the lead lieutenant in this process, and a bad lieutenant, indeed. Arrogant, snide and self-centered, House has no bedside manner whatsoever, thumbs his nose at authority, ignores all but the most serious cases, and treats his underlings like children. In other words, he may be the most accurate depiction of a doctor yet to appear on the small screen.

But House is unique! He's a sociopath, first of all, and he has no life and no friends and really nothing going for him. Oh yeah, and he's addicted to Vicodin. He's a real jackass, bottom line. Plus, his underlings are practically children -- or, as the Web site puts it, "three young genius doctors."

Now, I happen to know that the technical term those in the medical profession use for "young genius doctors" is "badasses," as in, "He's doing a fellowship in pediatric neurosurgery. He's a total badass." I also find it hard to believe that, in this day of HMOs and three-minute diagnoses, four or five M.D.'s should have the luxury of lengthy brainstorming sessions during which they revisit a particular patient's symptoms, develop new diagnoses every few hours, sometimes even visit the patient's home to find evidence of termites or toxic mold or a hot tub doubling as a giant petri dish.

But I don't really care about all that, because it's exactly these brainstorming sessions that make "House" so fascinating. While, on other shows, we get shouting about 50 ccs of this and 20 ccs of that, along with some talk of defibrillating and crashing and bleeding out, it's never apparent what's going on, and we never truly understand that the doctors onscreen are really just making a series of informed guesses. I mean, sure, occasionally Dr. Elizabeth Corday misdiagnoses a calcium deposit as a cancerous mass, or Carter messes up and drops the donor heart and it rolls under a counter and rests among a colony of dust bunnies, but all that means is that someone will have to endure grief-stricken parents and an internal inquiry, during which Dr. Kerry Weaver will get medieval on their asses, mostly in the form of some extremely aggressive management speak.

Instead of shouting orders and then holding hands, House and his team of badasses put their big brains together and try to figure out whether the guy with the low blood pressure and the rash has Lyme disease or chlamydia pneumonia. Each case is an unfolding mystery. Sure, you know that the first diagnosis of pneumonia won't stick -- next, she'll get dizzy, or start hallucinating, or experience partial blindness, and then the badasses will go back to the drawing board! But that's the beauty of this show: You actually learn a little bit about medical science -- albeit mostly about extremely rare afflictions like leprosy and rabies and anthrax poisoning.

That makes sense, though, because even real doctors sometimes wish their work was filled with rare afflictions instead of yet another recurring migraine or "funny feeling" in the stomach. And when a case is extremely mysterious, House relishes solving the mystery, asking such questions as, "Your pet cat just died? Where did it sleep?" and "How did your wife pass away?" He's also fascinated by interpersonal problems among his coworkers, prying into their lives even though he says he doesn't really care that much emotionally -- he's just curious.

Now that's a rare affliction indeed: having a lot of insight into people's psychological dramas, but lacking any real, deep concern for them. Ah, but of course, House only claims not to care! And who do we love more than a grumpy old pill-popping curmudgeon with a heart of gold? Almost no one, which is why I can't stop watching "House," and why I plan on becoming a grumpy old pill-popping curmudgeon with a heart of gold when I get older. Now all I have to do is get my hands on a heart of gold...

Nobody's perfect
If TV shows were bacterial infections, then the "Wickedly Perfect" finale would cause watery diarrhea with abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills. Yes, it was that bad, so bad that I couldn't even bring myself to write about it last week. Not only was a two-hour finale a big, boring mistake -- I had to split it into two parts, personally -- but narrowing the group from five to two for the final round was a very bad idea, since Kimberly and Mitch both proved to be troublingly mediocre in the home stretch.

Let me explain, since the ratings for the finale were so low that I'm sure nobody reading this saw it. From the start of the show, Mitch, a fussy florist, met each challenge with admirable zeal and scary perfectionism, consistently outperforming the competition. Whether it meant whipping together a magnificent yet thoroughly modern table setting in lovely orange and red hues or choosing and restoring a whimsical selection of antiques, Mitch's skills, his eye for design and his sensibilities were impeccable. Kimberly, in contrast, was really into flowers: pictures of flowers, ribbon roses, boxes covered in flowers. OK, once she made a really cool headboard, but it still looked boring enough to belong in a Pottery Barn catalog.

In other words, Kimberly's taste was about as imaginative as an old copy of Good Housekeeping. Not only that, but she actually seemed proud of her blandness, the kind of person who uses the words "classic" and "sophisticated" to cover up her copycat nature.

Now, personally, I couldn't care less who's an original and who isn't when it comes to decoupaging and creating table landscapes and such, but still, it was painfully obvious that, where Kimberly was consistently lame, Mitch was consistently inventive. Kimberly was, in fact, ejected from the game, only to worm her way back with an ejectee challenge in which her topiary was proclaimed -- what else? -- "classic."

Next came the screen test. Kimberly has a really big head. As we all know, people with big heads look good on TV, otherwise Jay Leno would be out of work. Mitch did not ace the screen test, but the judges felt sorry for him because he was obviously the most talented of the group, except for maybe Darlene, who was kicked off the show the week before and looked like a sales clerk from Casual Corner anyway.

Finally, Kimberly and Mitch threw parties to launch their brand-new fictional magazines. Kimberly's magazine cover looked like the demon offspring of Modern Bride and Better Homes and Gardens. Mitch's magazine cover looked like one of those Planned Parenthood pamphlets explaining the most common STDs and how to treat them. When Kimberly spoke, the same four words (sophisticated, classic, warm, inviting) kept coming out. When Mitch spoke, he rambled on about himself, his journey -- it was Mitch, Mitch, Mitch from start to finish. In her final appeal to the judges, Kimberly repeated her four words, then smiled real big so that everyone present would consider, once again, what a wonderfully large head she had. In his final appeal, Mitch made his knack with floral arrangements and throw pillows sound like Manifest Destiny. God blessed Mitch with sooo many gifts, and Mitch wants to share those gifts with the world to, you know, make it a better place and stuff? Somebody put a tiara on his head already!

The judges were in a quandary. What could they do? Both candidates sucked! Kimberly was so incredibly grotesque, but Mitch was absolutely unhinged and looked about as relaxed and self-confident as a young Judy Garland pumped full of uppers for her big scene with the Wicked Witch.

So the scaredy-cats picked yucky Kimberly. Booo! "Wickedly Perfect" proved to be one of those shows that's great at first and then it's even better, and then, in the final stretch, it's terrible -- just like an infection that starts with really cool hallucinations and ends with massive hemorrhaging.

A starlet is born
You know, I think the only thing more unpleasant than massive hemorrhaging is having Faye Dunaway condescend to you, and then, when you try to respond, Vivica Fox scolds you for speaking that way to a legend.

You've had that dream too, right? Well, "The Starlet" makes that dream a reality -- while crushing the dreams of a herd of hopeful young actresses. And what's more fun than crushing the dreams of hopeful young actresses? Why nothing, my little egg noodles. Nothing in the whole wide world!

Luckily for us, the judges -- Faye Dunaway, Vivica Fox and some intensely irritating casting director -- really seem to delight in tormenting the girls. "In a scene, you have to have colors!" Vivica scolds. "It cannot be all one note." Oooh, where'd you learn that, Vivica? "Booty Call"?

First, redhead Andie gets kicked to the curb. She's a character actor, say the judges (see also: too fugging fugly) to be a star of the silver screen. In bidding her adieu, Faye hisses, "Andie, don't call us. We'll call you." Ah, yes. A catchphrase so awkward and obnoxious, the young hopefuls must suspect that they're on a fake reality show like "Joe Blow" or "My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss."

No such luck for them. After Andie leaves, Andria, a petite Mira Sorvino, is also dismissed. "You're not talented!" they practically screech at her, hoping she'll fall to pieces.

But the judges aren't always so negative. In fact, during the second episode, when the girls are forced to make out with each other in a hot tub ... No, I'm not kidding. See, Tyra Banks does control the known universe, just as I said. Sadly, the ratings for "The Starlet" are so abysmal that it seems unlikely that the show will last long enough for us to witness more depravity. Fresh from the frog, straight to the reality trash-heap!

Let's just hope that the ratings improve enough that we'll still get to see the one where the girls are forced to lick chocolate pudding off David Hasselhoff's naked loins. That frog is a serious pimp, and this show is to "America's Next Top Model" what cherry Jell-O and Dream Whip are to crème brûlée.

What? Hell yeah, I like cherry Jell-O and Dream Whip! Bring it, frog!

The brothers grim
Cherry Jell-O and Dream Whip and doctor jackasses! Weepy young actresses, dressed up in sashes! Small dogs in tutus, hair color that stings -- these are a few of my favorite things!

Why? Because I'm a woman. Men prefer stuff like "The Venture Brothers" (part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim; check listings) -- you know, hapless teenage boys running around, escaping danger, while a thug beats up their enemies and their dad develops a papular lesion, 1 centimeter long, on top of a long, thin scab, and it turns out to be the evil work of the Monarch, who sent over a hot chick with a man's voice, and she screwed Dr. Venture, then screwed him up with a potion, and now he's turning into a huge caterpillar.

It's a really well-written cartoon. Um... It's sometimes very clever. It's often funny. Sigh. I recognize its qualities, and I've now watched enough episodes to know that I don't want to watch any more. I hate to generalize, but -- no, that's not true. I love to generalize! I cherish generalizing! See how my ambivalence about this show has me all confused? I just know, down deep inside, that this is a show made by guys for guys, and it makes me feel limited by my gender that I can't appreciate it anyway. I mean, I make the Boyfriend Du Jour watch "America's Top Model" with me, and without fail, by the second episode, he's chirping about how Amanda looks sooo much better with blond hair and Eva has the best runway walk ever. So why can't I appreciate sock'em-ups that are heavy on the fart jokes?

Oof. I hate the word "fart." Now I have to concentrate on cherry Jell-O and becoming a grumpy old pill-popping curmudgeon with a heart of gold to make the bad feeling go away.

Courtroom trauma
While we're on the topic of boys and bad feelings, though, I must mention the hideous reenactments of the Michael Jackson trial running on E! all week. Yes, reenactments. Due to the horrible injustice that cameras aren't allowed in the courtroom, E! has resorted to staging highlights from the trial every single day, using paid actors in bad wigs. The actor who plays defense attorney Thomas Mesereau looks like he has a white Persian cat on his head. Michael Jackson impersonator Edward Moss, in the role of a lifetime, scowls at his accuser with so much conviction, it's crystal clear how much is at stake for his career if Jackson does hard time. But the kid who plays the accuser deserves an Emmy for his performance -- he's so good at stuttering and getting defensive without overdoing it, at times I forget that I'm not watching the actual testimony. However, the big white Persian kitty is certainly a helpful visual reminder.

Most of all, though, I can't help but imagine myself, at age 8, turning on E! by accident in my search for "The Price Is Right" and catching this delectable snippet:

Mesereau: And there are times you said that Michael Jackson touched his butt and not his crotch, right?

Accuser: I never said he touched his butt!

Mesereau: Did you ever tell anyone that when you saw Michael Jackson in bed with your brother he was rubbing his butt?

Accuser: No.

As if high farce weren't enough, E! also has a panel of experts who do nothing but cheer on the defense. Hmm, let's see: Out of the three experts, one, Shawn Chapman Holley, is a lawyer from Johnnie Cochran's firm, and another, Howard L. Weitzman, used to represent Jackson (which isn't mentioned on his bio on the E! site, but has come up during the broadcast). Not surprisingly, Weitzman and Holley take turns stating that they're absolutely certain that everything the accuser says is a total fabrication.

In short, this show is a glob of purulent sputum. You'll give it a wide berth if you know what's good for you -- which I'm sure you don't.

In summary
As children, whether we flip over to the E! channel at the wrong moment or stumble on our mother's dog-eared copy of "The Hite Report," we're bound to go from thinking that sex is a long, loving hug under the covers between two married people to realizing that sex is a big, dirty, technically complicated tar pit. And that's OK, because knowledge, like television, is just another pathogenic microorganism, looking to infect us with vile thoughts and filthy urges and cravings for cherry Jell-O. We may wish to stay innocent and immune, but the world is a dirty place, filled with pill-popping jackasses and malevolent aging actresses and evil little boys who accuse sweet, innocent pop stars of naughty things, and it's better that we know the truth than learn it the hard way, on the mean streets of Neverland.

Next week: Can you learn more history in one full day of watching the History Channel than you did from four years of college? Tune in and find out!

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