I Like to Watch

Hummers, hungry sharks, copycats and corsets! Little red-headed girls and cow-eyed boys! Plus: Enduring the atrocities of the War Channel.

By Heather Havrilesky
March 22, 2005 2:00AM (UTC)
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Taking no action
I watch TV for a living. I know that makes me vile and reprehensible. I can accept that. In fact, a little-known ancient Taoist text clearly asserts that accepting one's own vile and reprehensible nature is the fastest, most efficient route to getting in touch with one's divinity. I know that doesn't sound like a Taoist text -- the Taoists don't generally talk about shortcuts or doing stuff quickly -- but, as I said, it's a little known Taoist text, one that's made up entirely of bullet points. Yes, it's just a long, Taoist bullet list. And the really important bullet points have cute little icons to the left of them, like little thumbs with strings tied around them, to signify "Super Important! Don't forget!"

In fact -- and I'm betting you don't know this -- some of these earliest Taoist tales were originally written on flashcards, which the Taoists would use to grill their young children with. It's true. The front would say "To acknowledge one's ignorance..." and the back would say "shows strength of personality." If they didn't know the answer, they'd get smacked upside the head.

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What's interesting is that this Taoist passage is often cited as an ancient warning against the consumption of too much media:

Through sight, the colors may be seen,
but too much color blinds us.
Apprehending the tones of sound,
too much sound might make us deaf,
and too much flavor deadens taste.
When hunting for sport, and chasing for pleasure,
the mind easily becomes perplexed.
He who collects treasures for himself
more easily becomes anxious.

That sounds about right, doesn't it? Strangely enough, though, the most common translations of this passage are utterly incorrect. Recently, scholars have determined that the more accurate translation of the text is something like this:

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With the wide range of consumer A.V. equipment available,
You may never have to leave the house again!
But don't turn the color saturation up too high.
Surround sound rules,
but too much woofer and not enough tweeter sucks ass.
When leaving the house,
the mind easily becomes exhausted.
Only he who has Thai food delivered
can truly relax.

Such soothing words! It's truly a travesty that the other, less accurate translation has been circulating for so long. Luckily, organizations like the Taoist Restoration Society have embraced the restored text and are currently outfitting their outreach centers with 32-inch plasma TVs and high-end home-theater sound systems. They're also undergoing a widespread marketing blitz, image makeover, and brand-awareness campaign, with ads set to run during March Madness with their new slogan, "Tao: Tear it Up!"

Don't forget infinity! Super important!
Even though any Taoist worth his weight in mango sticky rice knows that knowledge is way overrated, he would still have to agree that those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it -- and they won't even know that they're repeating it, because they never learned it in the first place. Ouch!

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History is muy importante, cheese pufflets. And just because I get paid to sit on my ass, passively consuming the worst that the small tube has to offer, doesn't mean that I don't try to challenge myself in many ways. In fact, I love a good challenge... particularly one that involves watching a lot of TV.

That's why I've always wanted to know how much history a person could learn by watching the History Channel for 12 hours in a row. My ever inquisitive intellect -- more commonly distracted by such pressing questions as, Just how tall is Adam Brody? and, Which is better, pears in cherry gel, or peaches in strawberry gel? -- pondered this question relentlessly, until finally I took action. Much as taking action went against every Taoist bone in my Taoist body, I also knew that no progress would be made without concrete research!

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And so, last Wednesday, my dog and I settled in for a long, grueling day with the History Channel. Here's the play-by-play from that fateful day:

Surrender to history!
9 a.m. My day o' history begins! The first show of the day is called "Modern Marvels," an episode called "Big Rigs of Combat: Jeeps." Not incredibly exciting, but the whole point of the day is to yield my mind to history completely. After all, I never did that in school, and that is why, I suspect, my knowledge of history has so many holes in it. Today, I courageously abandon myself to History!

9:06 a.m. "Elite Panzers and Stuka bombers sliced through Europe, reinforced by the swift and revolutionary reconnaissance car, the Kübelwagen!" "Kübelwagen" means "bucket car," which is based on a Volkswagen chassis. Here's footage of Hitler driving a VW bug past cheering crowds. Gee, I wonder why the Volkswagen marketing team doesn't include that footage in its new campaign? Hitler parades by to the tune of ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky"...

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9:18 a.m. OK, this is a show about Jeeps. I'm bored. "The powerful engine, a Continental Y4112 gave the BRC the unprecedented ability to tow nearly half of its own weight." Who is this for, retired mechanics?

9:49 a.m. Snore. Eventually the Jeep was replaced by the Humvee. It's wider, which helps on rough terrain, but not so much on the streets of L.A., where the behemoths, driven by the sorts of people who watch this sort of war-gadgetry porn while fondling themselves, clog up the works.

9:55 a.m. Here's Todd Eberhard, private Humvee owner (see also: paid Humvee spokesmodel) to tell us all about the fabulous features of the Humvee, most of which are utterly useless unless you're a paid assassin in the Sahara. Eberhard (yes, that's really his name) says the Humvee can drive in really deep water! Cue triumphant music -- the Humvee led a "modern cavalry charge" into Kuwait!

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9:58 a.m. "But when Arnold Schwarzenegger expressed interest in purchasing a Humvee, the radical new vehicle caught on with the public." Good job, bozo! Now he has five of them, Eberhard breathlessly reports. Together, they burn enough fuel to heat a small town in Alaska for a week.

9:59 a.m. "As long as men continue to fight wars, victory will belong to those... who can move!" No kidding. I would've figured victory would rest firmly in the hands of the infirm and the immobilized.

10:05 a.m. Another episode of "Modern Marvels." This one is about -- gasp! -- oil.

10:07 a.m. I'm in pain. Maybe I should check what's coming up next, just so I know that there's relief in sight.

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10:08 a.m. Let's see. 11 a.m.-noon, "Modern Marvels." Noon-1 p.m., "Modern Marvels." 1-2 p.m., "Modern Marvels." It's a daylong 'Modern Marvels" marathon! I'm out.

The next day, I tried again. After two hours of shows about World War II, I broke down and checked the schedule again. The entire day was focused on Nazis and war machines, with just one hour at the end dedicated to King Tut's tomb.

Here's my new question: Why don't they just call it the War Channel? Or better yet, the Bore Channel.

Of corsets and cocksuckers
As any card-carrying Taoist and historian knows, if you don't trust the people, they will become untrustworthy. Maybe that's why the town of Deadwood seems to be awash in chaos and violence lately. Swearengen and Bullock are each natural leaders in their own right, but Lord, they have less trust than a troop of Girl Scouts peddling Thin Mints at a kleptomaniac fat farm.

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God, but it's good to have those scrubby cocksuckers back in our loving arms again, isn't it? The first three episodes have been pretty outstanding, what with Swearengen and Bullock finally having it out, even though it sort of seemed like they had achieved an uneasy peace last season.

And speaking of uneasy pieces, how about that bed-thumping affair between Mrs. Garret and Bullock? Yow! I love it when corsets and niceties give way to sweaty lust. Why would anyone slog through hundreds of pages of "The Age of Innocence" otherwise? Wait -- did anyone actually get down in that book, or was it all just heavy breathing and the slipping off of lace gloves for clandestine hand-fondling? I can't remember. But no matter, the hand-fondling was just as good as any bed-thumping affair could've been, if not better.

In fact, there was something a little melancholy about the bed-thumping, wasn't there? It was as if Mrs. Garret and Bullock were admitting that this was the end game. No more need for polite talk and longing looks. It would all be downhill from here. Much as I like Mrs. Garret, there's something a little bit nasty and passive about her. She reminds me a little of Lisa, Nate's passive-aggressive hippie wife on "Six Feet Under," one of those honey-sweetened, wheat-free earth mothers who one suspects is huffing paint thinner and drowning kittens and trampling on alfalfa sprouts when no one is looking. Nice as it was to see love in bloom in such a godforsaken place, it was tough not to hope that Mrs. Garret and Bullock would both get their comeuppance for being so prideful or lustful... or something.

And Swearengen would've stabbed Bullock in the back, too -- at least he claimed as much -- if it weren't for the stagecoach carrying Bullock's wife and son, inherited from his dead brother, that rolled into town at that moment. "It was the cow-eyed boy that unmanned me!" Swearengen spat in typical Swearengen-speak.

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The cow-eyed boy unmanned me, too! But my favorite turn of phrase from the season premiere had to be Cy Tolliver's. He told the whores fresh from the stagecoach that while Bullock's wife was riding to town with them, Bullock was "pickling his prick in the cunt brine of another!"

Pickling his prick in the cunt brine of another! Sweet Jesus! How much do you want to bet that the writer who dreamt up that line stood up in the middle of the writers' room and screamed, "I rule! I friggin' rule!" and then did a touchdown dance the likes of which those pointy-nosed wordsmiths had never seen?

OK, maybe not. But it's nice to imagine it that way, isn't it?

Paper pushers and copycats
But then, it's probably better that it didn't happen that way, since all bona fide Taoists know that when people see things as good, evil is created. Look no further than NBC's "The Office" (Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. EST) for more proof of this phenomenon. Yes, "The Office," an Americanized version of the BBC show we all watched and loved and couldn't imagine being changed in any way, since every single aspect of it was pure genius. Why, we wondered, would the idiots at NBC even try to mess with such a good thing? Why not just replay the original, insanely brilliant series on prime-time network television?

Oh, maybe because Americans can't understand those funny accents and don't get jokes that British people make about British stuff because it's all weird and foreign and who wants to learn new things about faraway places anyway? Not us!

Still, I was willing to give "The Office" a shot. The contrarian in me had heard all the angry fuss about the remake, most of it coming from me, and eventually I got sick of hearing me whining about it and started to think, "Oh yeah? Well, who knows? Maybe the NBC version will kick ass!" Not only that, but I love Steve Carell and knew that he'd be about as good at the job as anyone short of, say, Harry Shearer, who, now that I think about it, would've been way better.

OK, here's the thing. It's basically impossible to tell that Steve Carell is pretty funny in the first episode, because all you can think is, "He's no Ricky Gervais!" And annoyingly enough, the first episode is almost exactly the same as the BBC version, with the stapler in the "jelly" and David making Dawn cry and Tim shooting the shit with Dawn, only there are these strange Americans where our favorite office drones should be. I mean, how can you swap out Gareth (Mackenzie Crook) and replace him with someone new?

Here's the good news -- or the evil news, depending on your perspective: After watching two more episodes, I was beginning to almost enjoy the NBC version on its own merits. The new Gareth has his own special charms, actually, and Carell is pretty fantastic. It's still not clear that the awkwardness, a staple of the original, really works on American TV, but when compared to the shrill, chirpy pace of most sitcoms, well... why not at least hope that this show finds its own little place in the universe? It's better than another "My Wife and Kids" or "According to Jim," isn't it?

So let's just try to suspend our disbelief and block the comparison to the superior original from our minds as long as we can. Because, as we all know, the sage needs no comparisons, and all things change in time.

Of wife beaters and cheaters and burrito eaters
As you well know, the spirit of emptiness is immortal. That's why I watch "The O.C." But I'm still pissed that the cute little red-headed girl who Ryan fell in like with had to flee Orange County, Anna-style, just so she could make it over to CBS's "Spring Break Shark Attack"(!) in time. How could Lindsay forsake the fabulous O.C. for some filthy, made-for-TV bit of shark porn, featuring the two things Americans love to watch the most: scary sharks, and babes in bikinis that barely cover their asses. Best of all, of course, is scary sharks taking big, juicy bites out of those barely covered asses on a Sunday night. Yums!

So now Ryan is forced to don a wife beater and romance the stone again, the stone being, of course, bony, saucer-eyed alien Marissa, who was oh-so-much more fetching as a lesbian. But aren't all saucer-eyed aliens much more fetching as lesbians? Take, for example, Michelle/Michael, the no-neck monster of "America's Next Top Model," who, upon declaring her gayness for all the world to hear, suddenly became, as Miss Tyra would put it, fierce.

Sadly, Marissa's gayness was just an elaborate prank, designed to piss off her shallow, pouty mommy, Julie Cooper, who has big problems of her own, now that her trashy ex-boyfriend has emerged, "Dynasty"-style, with cheesy porn tapes starring Julie herself. Nitpick alert: Why the hell was her bad porno, supposedly shot in the '80s, called "The Porn Identity"? I don't remotely care about such details typically, but this was just a lazy, sloppy choice the likes of which I cannot abide, particularly given the normally sharp wits of "The O.C.'s" writers.

Ah, but the sharper the knife, the easier it is to dull, no? And the more self-righteous the hot mommy, the easier she is to seduce, too. Check out Kirsten, whose face had almost hardened into a permanent scowl thanks to Kim Delaney's guest role as Sandy's long-lost love, returned from the dead. Look who's flirting with disaster now, my beloved breakfast burritos! It sure looks like Carter's got a breakfast burrito in his pants with Kirsten's name on it.

Springtime in Orange County, yes ma'am! No matter how silly and repetitive this show gets, I still love it dearly. I wouldn't go so far as to call it beautiful, though, since when people see things as beautiful, ugliness is created.

The Tao of TV
Even the finest TV program is not the Tao itself.
Even the finest copy of the finest TV program is insufficiently fine.
Without little red-headed girls, "The O.C." can be found wanting,
Without Alma Garret, Bullock's breakfast burritos
Will go untasted.
To conduct one's life according to the History Channel
is to drive a Hummer and obsess about the Nazis;
Do not let the cow-eyed boy of life
unman you!
Hear me, pistachio rhubarb trifles!
Like Faye Dunaway scolding
Those giggling whores of "The Starlet,"
Sink your razor-sharp shark teeth
Into the plump, juicy asslet of life!

Next week: "Robot Chicken" may just be savory enough to make savory chicken cutlets with, singlehandedly saving "Adult Swim" from bland, not-quite-funny boy fare!


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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