I Like to Watch

Meet the pragmatic heathens and deluded idealists of "The Shield," plus the latest additions to the list of Most Repugnant Reality Stars Ever!

Published April 11, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

Dear ILTW,

I always enjoy your columns (yes, here comes the "except for..." part) except for the derogatory comments about God and Christianity/Christians. You remind me of a dear friend who was the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher. A lot of understandable anger and ridicule there.

I'm not sure what I am trying to say here except that, well, to sound like my 4-year-old, you hurt my feelings. I believe God is infallible, but Christians sure the heck aren't. It's frustrating to feel that people I otherwise relate to think I have lost my mind and intelligence when it comes to faith. I really do have a sense of humor, honestly, and I love your style and your talent, but it hurts me when you ridicule God/Christ. It's not His fault so many of His followers are like that. To me Christianity is a radical message of forgiveness and compassion and loving people who are really hard to love or even like. That message gets lost a lot with the James Dobson types and their crusades but it is still there.

A Christian Reader

Dear Christian Reader,

Your words confuse me. I've always stood up for God/Christ and all that He stood for, whilst insulting ruthlessly the ne'er-do-wells and scruffy heathens who refuse to welcome Jesus/Our Lord into their hearts completely! I turn away from the sight of such sinners -- parading around town as they do, with their thong-style underpants hanging out the back of their dungarees -- and take solace in the fact that every last one of them is doomed to burn in a lake of fire.

And just to be clear, I would never ever insult those who love the Lord, nor would I dare besmirch the name of the Lord Himself! OK, I might occasionally bandy about the Lord's name without complete reverence, but with the sum total of human suffering in the world, I think the Lord and I are about even at the moment.

Oh, and trust me, I understand the Christian message loud and clear. I went to Catholic school as a child and heard the good word for hours while kneeling before Him. (That smarts, by the way.) I also heard about love and forgiveness while learning the finer points of long division, while reading the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, while sprinkling glitter over the glue outline of a butterfly, and while injuring ants on the playground so they could be admitted to the ant hospital.

Kids in Catholic school hear about forgiveness almost constantly, in fact, since a handful of our classmates are the types of violent, angry kids who get kicked out of other schools and sent to Catholic school to be ruthlessly beaten down by nuns whose grasp of forgiveness has perhaps waned over the course of 20 years in those hot, scratchy habits. You see, when these very bad kids aren't being lashed about the face and neck by the nuns, they're giving harmless little Catholic girls noogies or shoving them on the playground until they fall and skin their knees, which makes kneeling in the church even less pleasant. Even while our knees bled, though, we forgave them. Even when they wrote "fuck" all over the girl's bathroom in red felt-tip markers and whispered the word "pussy" in class just to throw us off our game, we forgave them, for they knew not what they were doing.

I still call on these important skills today when I'm watching "CSI: Miami." Without the spirit of love and forgiveness in my heart, I never would've made it more than 10 minutes into "Who Gets the Dog?"

Even so, you can't ask me to leave God out of this. I mean, if you can't blame God, who can you blame? Hell, even God doesn't mind when we blame Him. He just shakes His head and says, "Well, I did create the earth and the sky and made the Olsen twins internationally famous." If with great power comes great responsibility, then with omnipotence comes all responsibility, for everything. Why do you think God's so big on forgiveness in the first place?


Bad boys, bad boys
Those scruffy heathen cops on "The Shield" know all about the terrible burdens that come with having too much power. When Vic (Michael Chiklis) and Monica (Glenn Close) seized that poor little grandma's house in order to shake down a gang member for information, and then didn't even return the house afterward, don't think for a second it had anything to do with honor and getting the job done. Vic was quite clearly a very bad kid who got the daylights beat out of him by nuns for years. I'm not sure what Monica's beef is, beyond having to march around in a hot, scratchy cop uniform all day long, but her rousing "Let's change the world" speech to the troops was the perfect setup for her to brandish a clumsy idealist's touch in the hopelessly pragmatic, compromised world of the LAPD. The fact that she's enlisted Vic as her right-hand man is just too precious; the looks on the other cops' faces when she repeats her mantra -- "Vic's handling it" -- give this season lots of that jittery, wet-palmed dissonance that the show is known for.

It's an amazing feat, really, to infuse the same old corrupt-cop scenario with new life each season. But the addition of Close's idealist as the new captain provides exactly the kind of built-in conflict to drive the dramatic action. And that's not to mention Shane, Vic's surrogate son, who's taking his first wobbly steps as a junior corrupt cop free of daddy's oversight. Naturally, Vic's still keeping tabs on him and making it known that one false move by Shane and the whole fiefdom is jeopardized. If Shane squeals, everybody is screwed. It would be worth it, though, for the look on Monica's face when she realizes she's been collaborating with a slimy, no-good, double-crossing swindler (see also: pragmatist).

I guess it's pretty clear that eventually, Vic might have to cut Shane down to prevent a disaster. You know, as they did to Adriana on "The Sopranos"? Omnipresent as these Very Bad Kid microcosms are on television, the fragility of the bawdy pagan ecosystem is somehow endlessly fascinating -- in the right hands, that is. Naturally, the stories and dialogue are solid on "The Shield." Some of the acting, though, is not great, particularly among the smaller roles. Look, if the "Law & Order" franchise can ship in a small town's worth of character actors every week and their performances are mostly solid, I think "The Shield" can at least try to set the bar a little higher.

A starlet is born
But then, what do I know about acting? Not much, as the awkward, two-bit finale of "The Starlet" demonstrated once and for all. Mercedes was clearly -- clearly -- the best actress of the three finalists, but she looked too smart and grown-up to appear on a WB sitcom. In fact, this picture seems to indicate that she'd be best suited to play the new evil vixen on "The Bold and the Beautiful."

Compare that face to this one and you'll come a little closer to understanding the all-American vapid ideal we girls strive to achieve from an early age. I mean, come on. You don't need me to tell you Michelynne can't act -- you can gather as much from just glancing at that snapshot of her. I particularly love her wiggly little mouth, resting as it does in a perpetual undecided squiggle. See, they weren't looking for a starlet at all -- this is obviously not the next Meryl Streep or Nicole Kidman. They were looking for the next mediocre sitcom star, the next sweetly empty vessel to inhabit the next sweetly empty teen drama, fresh from the frog. Why didn't they just tell us that from the start? Why did they make Faye Dunaway a judge when Jennie Garth would've done just fine?

No matter. Let's just focus on how much we hate Katie for a second, shall we? OK, I know you didn't watch the show, but you still need to know about Katie, that perky little red-headed stepchild. All of the other little actresses hated Katie, and Katie hated them, which is why she would emerge from every evaluation with a simpering smile plastered across her mean little face, then kick her heels up in the air and gloat that she did sooo well and the judges absolutely adored her. Katie is the kind of actress who never stops acting. Latte a little too hot? Tragedy! Big, salty tears! Found your favorite shade of lipstick? Squeals of delight! Sound the trumpets! Notify the press!

Katie's last three minutes of fame rivaled the most deliciously idiotic reality TV appearances of all time. Blinking back tears, she delivered a post-evaluation soliloquy so dramatic, even the key grip had to be rolling his eyes and choking back laughter. She learned so much! She feels truly bless-ed! (Yes, she pronounced it that way.) Oh, Katie. Clean-living, spunky, forehead-wrinklin' Katie! If I had a daughter as foul and unlovable as you, I'd stay up nights daydreaming about ne'er-do-wells with thong-style underwear hanging out the back of their dungarees.

So I guess "The Starlet" was good for something -- another name to add to the list of Most Repugnant Reality Stars Ever. Otherwise, though, this was the sort of finale that makes you feel filthy and pathetic for watching the show at all. In the final moments after her win, Michelynne gets in a limo and ... drives around. You know, like the end of "The Bachelor," where the rejectee rides around in the back of a limo, weeping about lost love? Or the end of "The Apprentice," where the rejectee rides around in the back of a cab, spewing bile cleverly disguised in business lingo? Apparently, the producers of "The Starlet" decided it was just fine to take what's normally a big fat rejectee moment and use it as the glamorous moment of glory for their Starlet. Nice work, dummies. No wonder UPN is kicking the frog's little green ass lately.

They got robbed!
Apparently, many of you would have me add Boston Rob's name to the list of Most Repugnant Reality Stars Ever. You know, it hurts me when you ridicule Boston Rob and Amba. The truth is, I heart both of them. I heart them and I've always hearted them. I even hearted Boston Rob on his first "Survivor" stint, before he got the girl and the million dollars. Back then, I thought he was a little dumb. Then, when he and Amba won, his odd charms and secret smarts became clearer.

What about his many ethical lapses? What about the recent episode of "The Amazing Race," in which he and Amba witnessed a wreck and then -- gasp -- kept driving? Even Phil the Ethical New Zealander Host had some biting words about that one.

But I don't think Boston Rob and Amba are all that unethical. It's a game, they're pragmatists (see also: Vic), and they're working within the rules to gain an advantage in any way they can, just as they did on "Survivor: All Stars." Another team, Lynn and Alex, had already stopped to help the brothers and their cameraman after the wreck. What good were Rob and Amba gonna do? Slowing down to say, "Are you guys OK?" would've just been disingenuous, when they knew perfectly well that there was a big team of staffers nearby, racing to the site of the accident. Maybe Brother No. 1 (I can't tell them apart) should have resisted the urge to drive like a total lunatic in the first place, carelessly endangering Brother No. 2 and the cameraman like the filthy barbarian he is.

If you want to see unethical, review the tapes of Team Guido, who almost won it all in the most debased manner imaginable, all the while wearing adorable matching outfits. In contrast, Rob and Amba are smart: They win consistently, they never argue like most of the other couples, and they always look like they're having a great time.

Most of all, though, you have to hand it to the old folks, Meredith and Gretchen. Dorky and clumsy as those two are, they've held on longer than any other older couple so far, enduring countless indignities, from a bloody accident in a cave to being stripped of all their money, clothes and belongings. Hell, this past week they even bested the brothers -- not surprising, though, since the brothers appear to have the collective intelligence of a can of peaches. (What was that nonsense about stopping to change their clothes before they reached the finish line, when they weren't even sure where the other teams were?)

But go ahead. Hate Rob and Amba all you want, because God is clearly on their side. Or, as Amba put it, "We're, like, the luckiest people in the entire world!"

Red light, green light
You know who the unluckiest people in the entire world are? The ones who have to work on "Feast," the horror movie at the center of "Project Greenlight 3" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. EST on Bravo). This time around, the director is a soft-spoken misfit, the type of guy you'd imagine sitting around in a cluttered apartment drawing bitter cartoons about a soft-spoken misfit who sits around in a cluttered apartment drawing bitter cartoons.

Instead, director John Gulager is not just forced to interact with real, live humans, but expected to instruct said humans on what to do. This is a serious challenge for Gulager, who's accustomed to spending lots of time with his warm, loving father and his sexy, smart, adoring wife. OK, so obviously Gulager isn't a complete zero -- true losers generally lack adoring parents and sexy spouses. Plus, he seems like exactly the kind of guy who knows what he wants (though it remains a secret), has a very distinct vision (though he has trouble communicating it to others), and gets the job done (unless he has a panic attack or insecure meltdown in along the way). Wes Craven seems to think he's talented, anyway.

But it's painful watching Gulager attempt to play nicely with others. Of course, the "others" in question have a funny way of making working in a production office look about as appealing as a root canal -- you know, the thing where they rip out your nerve endings? Michelle Gertz, the casting director, makes another lovely addition to the Most Repugnant list, what with that blank stare and manipulative, passive-aggressive manner. Despite Gulager's repeated assertions that he's not enthusiastic about casting Navi Rawat as the lead role in "Feast," Gertz sends Rawat's name to Dimension Films and they give her the thumbs up. This basically means Gulager and the producers have no choice in the matter, and they're all caught off-guard, having assumed that Rawat's name would never be submitted in the first place.

While the casting director often looks out for the studio's interest, it's still absurd that Gertz would entirely disregard the director's wishes and then throw everyone a wide-eyed "Who, me?" look when the shit hit the fan. And what makes her think that she's helping Rawat by putting her in a situation where the director and producers don't want her in the film? If you want to talk about unethical, personally I vastly prefer straightforward bad intentions (Boston Rob) to sneaky dealings and smug trickery disguised as professional imperative (Michelle Gertz). And then, after playing the naive innocent all week, Gertz has the gall to accuse Gulager of avoiding her and grumbling behind her back instead of confronting her with his anger? Um, please note that when Ms. Gertz was confronted, she snipped, "I shouldn't have to deal with people's moods and attitudes and people walking around mad at me! How old are we?" She's that classic, evil girly-girl, passively manipulating and then playing the victim and arguing whichever side serves her at the moment. Screw the monsters, "Feast" should showcase the horrors of a rabid, sniveling, googly-eyed former P.R. flack with a thirst for the innocent blood of those not thoroughly corrupted by the studio system.

And one last thing...
Speaking of professional terrorists, how good has "24" been lately? I can't wait until the fate of the free world rests in the hands of those dirty desert hippies who, according to the preview, will happen upon the wreckage of Air Force One and then be instructed by Jack to flee with some container within which lies our nation's most treasured secrets! Run, dirty desert hippies! Run like the wind! The future of this great land rests in your scummy, patchouli-scented hands!

And another thing -- are you watching "The Staircase," as I specifically instructed you to? You'd better be -- Monday nights in April on the Sundance Channel. Don't miss it.

Next week: More stuff to blame God for! Plus: It might sound like a rehash of "Punk'd," but the subtle (and not-so-subtle) charms of Comedy Central's "Con" are not to be overlooked.

By 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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