I Like to Watch

When will zany freaks be as outdated as boxed Chablis? What do con men and burlesque dancers have in common? Should Tyra Banks be on anxiety medication?

Published April 18, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

I'll be your freakazoid
Lately the cow-eyed boy of prime-time programming has unmanned me, fair chickens. I've started noticing that, while in the years right after "Seinfeld" went off the air, everyone wanted to make shows about over-the-top, nutty humans with nothing but neurotic tics, bizarre relationships and time on their hands, it seems that this year, the networks have finally succeeded in bring us a full slate of programming about the bizarre tics of the moderately to deeply disturbed.

Let's start with this week's crop of dysfunctionals, which include heroin and cocaine addicts (HBO's "Rehab"), burlesque dancers (Bravo's "Forty Deuce"), deluded rich people (Fox's "Arrested Development"), and one con man (Comedy Central's "Con"). And that's just a random sampling of shows. When you throw in a wider segment of the fictional and reality programming population, what do you get? Bounty hunters, circus freaks, amateur models, morticians, spoiled rich teenagers, plastic surgeons, corrupt cops, weepy separated couples, backstabbing publicists, and Brigitte Nielsen bringing Flavor Flav home to meet the family.

Aside from Brigitte and Flav, who obviously represent the kind of wholesome love connection we all strive for, you have to admit that the naysayers could make a pretty strong case for the fall of Western civilization.

Maybe this is what Nietzsche was talking about when he wrote, in "The Will to Power," "For a long time now our whole civilization has been driving, with a tortured intensity growing from decade to decade, as if towards a catastrophe: restlessly, violently, tempestuously, like a mighty river desiring the end of its journey, without pausing to reflect, indeed fearful of reflection... Where we live, soon nobody will be able to exist."

OK, I'd better say goodbye to those of you who swore you'd never read this column again if I started quoting Nietzsche. Godspeed, and good luck!

Ah, yes. Now that those with any semblance of standards and morals are gone, the rest of us can finally relax and let our hair down! Mmm. Hey, could one of you run out and get some of that oatmeal-cookie-flavored Ben & Jerry's?

All right, so, who do you love more, amateur models trying to keep their mascara from smearing while swimming in giant fish tanks, or an angry wife trying to keep her mascara from smearing while explaining her husband's affair with his dental hygienist to Dr. Phil? You know how I love hapless girls in fish tanks, but a woman scorned always rates pretty high in my book, too. The only thing better than jilted wives are those husbands whose loyalty is fading fast -- you can tell by the way they sneer at Dr. Phil that they're heading for the cheatin' side of town the second the show wraps.

But who's better, who's better? Hmm. Let's have a few tumblers of blush Chablis out of the box and then decide.

Something zany this way comes
Drink enough boxed wine and you might just end up asking yourself big, unanswerable questions like, "Where does that mighty river of which Nietzsche speaks lead?" and "Is there a point when zany won't seem zany anymore?" and "What's this crusty stuff in my hair?"

As for the second question, my guess is that too much zany could make zany seem downright pedestrian. It happened to ironic. It happened to gay. It happened to Japanese.

But if anyone out there is fighting the good fight for zany, it's Mitch Hurwitz and the fine folks at "Arrested Development" (Sundays at 8:30 p.m. EDT on Fox). Each week, this show crackles with subversive wit and absurdity and clever obnoxiousness. In other words, it does zany proud every time. When mama's boy Buster gets his hand eaten off by a seal and winds up with a hook, which makes zipping up Mommy's dresses more than a little difficult? Well, it's just too damn funny to describe. But my favorite running bit is Ann, the awful, bland, Christian (not that that's bad or anything!) girlfriend of George Michael. It's so nice to see that old familiar parental reaction to mate mediocrity. Every time Michael (Jason Bateman) hears the name "Ann," his face goes blank and then clouds over with the kind of disgusted look you get when your bare foot steps on something slimy.

The odd thing about the weirdos of "Arrested Development" is that, even though the situations they're in are increasingly farcical, they seem more like real people each week. I mean, there really are women like Lucille who care about finding the right matching mother-and-son outfits for the "Motherboy" ball, and closeted men like Tobias, who try desperately to be straight and cling to hopes of becoming an actor despite an obvious lack of talent. And then there's Maeby, who holds down a position as a studio executive simply by bellowing idiotic Hollywood niceties in a self-confident tone. OK, I think that's my favorite running bit, actually.

But who can choose? "Arrested Development" is so chock-full of goodness and flavor and ridiculous pranks and asides and tangents, you could stretch it out to make about two seasons' worth of [insert name of lame ABC sitcom here]. Sadly, though, Sunday's finale is the last serving we'll get for another four months -- that is, if Fox brings the show back. But we're just going to assume that they're not stupid enough to cancel an Emmy-winning gem like this one. Either way, at least we'll still have "Less Than Perfect"... Not!

Don't you just love that "Not!" thing? Let's bring that back. Ooo, and let's bring back "See ya. Wouldn't wanna be ya!" too. That always got a big laugh around the keg back in the day.

The Recovery Channel
See how good life can be when you drive restlessly, violently, tempestuously toward a catastrophe, without pausing to reflect, indeed are fearful of reflection? No one knows the beauty of this lifestyle better than addicts in recovery.

It's unnerving, in fact, how little the kids in Steven Okazaki's "Rehab," an HBO "America Undercover" documentary (Monday, April 18, at 8:30 p.m. EDT), seem to reflect on the world around them. The only thing the five young addicts Okazaki films appear to believe in and romanticize is their drug experiences. Some of them even seem to romanticize the crap they pulled -- stealing money from their parents, taking their parents' cars -- when they were jonesing for a fix. In contrast, their lives in rehab are flat and lifeless. These kids lack affect and don't seem moved or touched by anything the other recovering addicts tell them.

But after a while, they start to make some friends outside the rehab center, and they get a little more life in their eyes, and ... that's when you really have to watch out for them. It's not all that surprising that 80 percent of those in rehab relapse: The second these kids feel better, they want to use again.

Of course, there are those heartbreaking moments of clarity, like when Anitra tells her counselor in a session with her disapproving dad, "I just want to know my dad loves me no matter how bad I make it for myself or how many mistakes that I make. That's all that's important to me. I don't feel like I have that unless I pretend to be someone that I'm not."

Plenty of the parents in "Rehab" seem unable to accept their children for who they are. Sadly, even Brannon, a kid whose mother is affectionate and sticks by his side no matter how badly he screws up, doesn't seem any better off than the other kids. If this grueling documentary demonstrates anything, it's that there's a point where all the outside support doesn't make a difference: An addict usually doesn't recover from his or her addiction.

Pros and cons
That's the kind of sad story to which con man Skyler Stone would surely say, "See ya. Wouldn't wanna be ya!"

Skyler doesn't care much about other people's feelings. He's a con man, see? What that actually means is anyone's guess -- most of us get our notions of con artistry from Quentin Tarantino films. But basically, Comedy Central's "Con" (Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. EDT) is sort of like a meaner, non-celebrity version of "Punk'd," in which Skyler finagles ways to get exactly what he wants without paying for it.

If that sounds like fodder for those who argue that our culture is becoming increasingly unethical, that's because it is. Skyler instructs us on how to pull one over on The Man time and time again, from getting a free pizza delivered (call and claim that they sent a pizza with the wrong toppings last time, including specifics on the exact toppings you ordered) to getting a bunch of hot girls to clean your house (claim it's a photo shoot for a new magazine called "Stiff"). And, uh, remember, for many of these pranks, it helps to have a professional-looking TV crew shooting the whole thing. People really like being on TV, see?

Look, I'd be the first to shake my finger and proclaim "Con" just another freak show destined to propel us restlessly, violently, tempestuously to our collective untimely demise. The trouble is, Skyler's fantastically good at lying, and he's pretty funny, too. When he bellows idiotic Hollywood niceties in a self-confident tone, people do what he tells them to do. But the best episode so far was the first one of the season, when he posed as a homeless guy in order to get a free makeover (he and his friend pretend to be shooting an episode of "Extreme Homeless Makeover") and ended up on skid row getting tips from the homeless on how to act homeless. Half the time he's a complete lunatic, but when he really turns it on, he can charm anyone. I'm telling you, he could charm that tumbler of blush Chablis right out of your hands.

Yes, it's sad that our youths are being instructed on how to beat the system. Truly sad, indeed. And yet, amusing.

The dance of anger
I have but one thing to say about Bravo's new show about a bunch of burlesque dancers, "Forty Deuce" (Thursdays at 11 p.m. EDT): Let us watch the damn girls dance for once! Instead, we get the same little frenetic clips of these three crazy-hot dancers shaking their asses over and over again, without the music -- which is rumored to be live jazz -- without any extended shots, without any sense of what a real performance is like.

Aside from a few quick clips, the producers fill up the entire hour with Ivan Kane, the slightly unsavory owner of the L.A. club (also called Forty Deuce), babbling on about each dancer's psychosocial makeup. Please. We already know more than we need to about the innermost thoughts and feelings of supernaturally hot women, thanks to Tyra. What makes these women special is their ability to dance. So, let us watch them dance, for chrissakes!

Sometimes the unbearable importance of zany really does ruin everything. Don't they know that jazz and hot women taking their clothes off trumps zany every time? I mean, would Tyra offer only brief snippets of the models modeling? Would even the slow-moving children behind "The Starlet" refuse to let us watch those bad actresses acting? I think not.

Tyrannosaurus rex!
But Tyra is not without fault, as those of you who caught last week's episode of "America's Next Top Model" (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EDT, on UPN) know all too well. Nigel said they need a wakeup call, Tyra, not an abusive tirade.

Here's how it went: Tiffany, who is from the ghetto, is struggling with almost everything because it's not easy to act cheery, butt-white and camera-ready when you grew up on the mean streets. At some point, she gives up, realizing that there's some important part of herself that she's selling up the mighty, tempestuous river in order to win. It's clear to anyone who's tried to be something that they're not that, when Tiffany cries, she's admitting that she can't play the part that she'd need to play in order to be a model.

So Tyra sends Tiffany and another girl, Rebecca, home at the same time. Rebecca bursts into tears, but Tiffany handles it rather well, cracking jokes and trying to stay tough. That's who she is. Tyra, who cannot tolerate that a girl wouldn't be absolutely crushed at being dismissed, gets up on her soapbox and flips out.

First she congratulates Rebecca for having the appropriate emotional response for the camera. Then she turns to Tiffany and says, "I'm extremely disappointed in you." Tyra stands there and takes the hell Tiffany's been through and throws it in her face. "You've been through anger management, you've been through your grandmother getting her lights turned off to buy you a swimsuit for this competition, and then you go over there and you joke and you laugh?"

Tiffany explains, "Looks can be deceiving. I'm hurt, I am, but I can't change it, Tyra. I'm sick of crying about stuff that I cannot change."

Tyra basically tells her no, if she were really a worthwhile human, she'd continue to attempt to sell out who she is on national television. Eventually, feeling misunderstood, Tiffany stands up for herself. "I don't have a bad attitude," she says. "Maybe I am angry inside! I've been through stuff, so I'm angry!"

Tyra interrupts her and screeches, "Be quiet, Tiffany! Be quiet! Stop it! I have never in my life yelled at a girl like this! I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you! How dare you! Learn something from this! You take responsibility for yourself! You have no idea what I've been through. But I'm not a victim, I grow from it and I learn!"

Yes, Tyra, you learned how to stick your ass out so your ass could be plastered over every building in America. You're a real hero, an inspiration to girls everywhere. Get over yourself, lady.

Impromptu quizlet
Good lord, I'm insulting my personal Lord and Savior, Tyra Banks! Maybe the world is ending. So what does it all mean? Have we learned anything? Is the end near? Does your moral compass work? How much Chablis is left in the box? Take this quiz and find out!

1. Who's the creepiest?
a. John Gulager of "Project Greenlight 3"
b. A burlesque-dancing midget
c. A mama's boy with a hook for a hand
d. Katie of "The Starlet"
e. Tyra Banks on her soapbox

2. What would you least like to do?
a. Swim across a river of snot
b. Kiss Forty Deuce owner Ivan Kane on the mouth
c. Trim Bill Pullman's nose hairs
d. Do Tyra Banks' "I'm feeling a little emotional today" makeup
e. Share an office with "Project Greenlight" casting director Michelle Gertz

3. Who's to blame for the overly zany state of television?
a. Mark Burnett, who's too busy hanging with Donald Trump and Sylvester Stallone to produce "Eco-Challenge"
b. All of the above

4. For a long time now our whole civilization has been driving, with a tortured intensity growing from decade to decade, like a mighty river desiring the end of its journey. This river could be described as:
a. restless
b. violent
c. tempestuous
d. zany
e. reflective

Answer key: 1. e, 2. e, 3. b, 4. d

Next week: The mighty river roils closer to its destination, you get your tax refund and use it to pay off your credit cards, and PBS airs a documentary about the Ramones!

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.

MORE FROM Heather Havrilesky

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Arrested Development I Like To Watch Television Tyra Banks