I Like to Watch

Summer detox time: Avoid refined sugar, alcohol, caffeine and "Cheaters." Plus: The delicious hair-sprayed dorkiness of Lisa Kudrow in "The Comeback."

Published June 6, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

Stank you very much
As the older and crustier among you already know, there are times in life when you have to ignore all your aches and pains and push forward, undaunted, and there are other times when it's more appropriate to stumble, flail, whine, stub your toe, weep, eat a few brownies, and then go to therapy and blame someone else -- usually your significant other -- for the whole thing.

This week, I felt completely saturated by TV. It was as if a whole season of television had accumulated in my pores, sinking deep into my fat cells like toxins, and it took a few days away from the boob tube for me to realize how bad the problem was. Instead of being free and clear the second I put down the remote, I carried the taint of sleazy entertainments around with me like a reeking heap of rotting trash.

You know when you leave something uncovered in the refrigerator, like butter, and after a while it starts to taste the way the inside of a refrigerator smells? You know it's butter, but instead of tasting like butter, it has these haunting hints of strawberry jam and month-old apples and raw onions, all with a mysterious, musky underbelly? The collective unsavory tang of "The Starlet" and "Nanny 911" and "Point Pleasant" and "CSI: Miami" and "According to Jim" lay over every inch of my skin like a fine, greasy film, and even if I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed for hours, I would never come clean. My organs, my fasciae, my inner ear, my large intestine and all those other guts I'd rather not think about were all, surely, filthy with idiotic dialogue and stilted situations and bad jokes and Faye Dunaway hissing, "That's acting! That's acting!"

And then, just when I realized that only a regimen of severely taxing, Martin Lawrence-style workouts plus a strict diet of raw kale, spring water and Shakespeare would purge my cells of the memory of Disneyfied soul standards and hot Barbie-on- Barbie action, I took my idiot friend's advice and tuned in for a show called "Cheaters." That's when the stumbling and weeping and brownies entered the picture.

Do you suspect your boyfriend or husband of cheating? Well, here's a really good idea: Hire a bunch of TV producers to find out, once and for all, if he's plundering someone else's rice paddies, and then get them to film the big moment when you confront your sweetheart! Imagine, all that weeping and hysteria, your weakest, lowest, most vengeful moment, aired for the bemusement of a national audience!

That's what we all long for, after all: the privilege of having our most intimate, private moments exposed to the universe forever and ever. We aspire to have our deepest wounds bring chortles of joy to the masses -- just like Jen and Brad! When a nation surveys your biggest heartbreak and bursts into laughter, that's when you know you've made it.

Now I know you're imagining a seriously classy show with lots of tasteful graphics and a supportive host and some nicely dressed mental-health professionals on hand to ease the Cheatee through that heartbreaking moment where they roll the tape of the Cheater meeting the Other Woman at the Cheesecake Factory for -- gasp -- chicken and biscuits! (Whoa, those two are hot and heavy!)

Sadly, though, "Cheaters" (syndicated, check listings) is to "Oprah" what "Glamour Shots" is to professional fashion photography. The Cheatee and the host do sit and talk, but they do so in a van, on their way to the spot where they hope to apprehend the Cheater with his/her new lady/man. What is truly hysterical is that the host still plasters a look of real concern on his face and talks in hushed tones while he's bouncing around in the back seat of the van. He sighs heavily and says things like, "You gonna be all right?" while nearly hitting his head on the ceiling of the van, and then picks up his cell. "Lay it out!" he barks to his spies inside the restaurant. "OK, we'll go into high alert!" He hangs up. Phone rings again seconds later. "What do you have?" the host intones, and then gasps, "They're moving toward the door!"

"Move! Let's go!" he yells to the driver of the van. Meanwhile, the Cheatee inevitably bounces silently beside him, looking like she's about to get sick all over the back seat -- either from nerves or motion sickness, it's anybody's guess.

And sure, it sounds sort of fun to confront a bona fide jerkwad with his or her pants down. In the episode I saw, both of the Cheaters featured were living with the girl they were cheating on, and one of them was actually spotted looking at wedding dresses and rings and, worst of all, riding a carousel with his new honey! Ouch! All of which raises the question: "Could this actually be real?"

But back to the real point: You'd think it would be cool, right? The sneaky bastard gets confronted, the wronged girlfriend gets her big moment to take the higher ground (Tsk-tsk!) and proclaim the bastard worthless. It might even be nice to see her throw his Game Boy out the window, onto the street below, but whatever, we'll take what we can get.

Here's the big surprise: It's just plain awful. Not just depressing, but crushingly, mind-bendingly sad. Now, we do have to take into account my toxic, stanky state. Maybe I was already queasy and dejected, so I couldn't take the proper delight in the brutal heartbreak and humiliation of others. It's certainly possible.

But picture this: A cheating boyfriend whose struggles with addiction are mentioned several times by his live-in girlfriend. Said boyfriend takes his girlfriend's two black pug dogs out for a walk. He meets up with the Other Woman. They hold hands and kiss. Girlfriend is ushered into the van so the Evil Host himself can show her gripping footage of Bad Boyfriend kissing the Other Woman all around town, usually with the little dogs in tow.

I'm surprised the Evil Host didn't interview the dogs. Can't you see it? "Why didn't you tell your mom what was going on?" The dogs' eyes bulge glassily. One of them begins to whine softly. "Clearly, these dogs have been tortured by guilt over this for weeks, if not months!" the host murmurs. He offers the doggies a brownie, but they refuse. "Too upset to eat!" he breathes. The dogs give the camera a knowing look -- chocolate can kill a dog, idiot!

Back to our story: Girlfriend is shoved from the moving van so she can catch her pathetic boyfriend in the act. Boyfriend claims he's just hanging with a friend. Girlfriend weeps, black mascara dripping down her face. The dogs look panicked. The host actually does kneel down and tell the dogs, "It's OK, it's all right. Nothing's gonna happen to you. Mommy's gonna be OK."

The Other Woman, whose face is blurred, runs down the street, away from the cameras. What the hell is wrong with her? Don't we all share the same dream of nationwide humiliation? Girlfriend shoves Boyfriend, and, this being New York, he lands in a pile of garbage. Struggling to get up among several overstuffed black garbage bags, he starts to cry. Girlfriend sobs to a cameraman, "Who's got my dogs? I want my dogs! I want to go home now!" Girlfriend gets in van with dogs and Evil Host, and tearfully tells the two dogs, who look traumatized, "It's OK, girls. I'm sorry."

It was terrible. Now, maybe you're numb from your morning staff meeting or several strong coffees or a potent mix of psychotropic drugs, and all of this sounds absolutely delightful. Well, let me assure you, it's not. It's completely wrenching and sick and depressing and deeply sad and horrible. Maybe it was all the black mascara running down Girlfriend's face, or maybe it was the way pathetic addiction-plagued Boyfriend stumbled when he tried to get up from the pile of garbage bags, or maybe it was the two scared, upset little dogs, or maybe it was the way Girlfriend apologized to the little dogs through tears, but the whole ugly spectacle is making me cry right now, just from thinking about it. Jesus, is that what we look for in our televised entertainments? Grueling, pathetic scenes that scar our memories forever and make us cry every time we so much as think of them?

I don't think so. As you know, I hate to get sanctimonious about anything but "The Swan," but I swear, "Cheaters" is the most depressing crap I've ever seen on television outside of the evening news.

Comeback in black
But just when I'm ready to layer on three or four jogging suits and go running in 100-degree heat, just to sweat the poisonously sad rubbernecking toxins out of my body, I get a package in the mail from HBO: "The Comeback," starring Lisa Kudrow. Oh goody, a show about a has-been actress who's willing to humiliate herself to win back her fame. Sounds just like "Fat Actress," except even more depressing and pathetic and even less funny.

That just goes to show you what I know. "The Comeback" is positively, absolutely, terrifyingly hilarious. Yes, it's got many of the elements of "The Office" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," all of which you'd expect to see in any new comedy by HBO. What's unexpected is ... well, almost everything else. First of all, Lisa Kudrow is amazing, and I'm not someone who's been repeating that for years with not much evidence to back it up. I've always thought she was just OK. But my god, this is really the perfect show to showcase her talents. She's mastered the lame Hollywood affectations of the aging starlet, and layered on all of this jittery, dismissive, vulnerable, self-conscious, self-aggrandizing twitchiness that you just have to see to believe.

Kudrow's character, Valerie, was a sitcom star 10 years ago, but hasn't done a thing since. Now she's filming a reality show, and she's been cast in a sitcom for the same network. She shows up on set, thinking that she's in a show about a bunch of sexy roommates around her age, and instead meets two actresses in their early 20s. Apparently the network wanted the roommates to be younger, so Valerie is recast as the middle-aged landlord who lives upstairs. You know, like a female Mr. Roper? So instead of playing a "sexy architect" as originally intended, Valerie is dressed in a pastel jogging suit and given a hokey line "I don't want to see that!" in reaction to walking in on the hot young things making out with each other downstairs.

And unlike pretty much every other show that's attempting to mimic this loose, reality-based format, "The Comeback" is packed with genuinely funny moments, from the promotional shoot in which Valerie is asked to look grumpy in the distant background while the coeds frolic in bikinis, to the reality-spoof scenes where Valerie's maid hides from the camera while her husband acts stiff and uncomfortable and crosses the camera's path quickly like he's worried he's blocking the view.

But there's no way I can do the countless charms of "The Comeback" justice here. Go watch it (Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on HBO) and we'll talk it over in a few weeks.

Six feet low and sinking
Along with weeping over sad pugs and guffawing over has-been actresses, I spent the week trying to choose one character from "Six Feet Under" that I'd most like to be. After watching the first four episodes of the upcoming final season and writing about it, though, I decided that I would truly hate to be any of them (and apparently you did, too, since only one person wrote to me about it). If pressed, I guess I'd pick David, but as good a relationship as he has with Keith these days, he's still a sad sack. Claire is more irritating than ever, and Nate? I could strangle Nate with my bare hands.

That doesn't mean I don't love this show with a passion. Who else could make grueling, pathetic scenes that scar our memories forever and make us cry every time we so much as think of them quite so enjoyable? Hurts so good, baby. Don't forget to watch the first episode (Monday, June 6, at 9 p.m.), and if you're a purist, read about it afterward here.

In summary
As the stankier and creakier among you already know, there are times in life when you have to moan, slouch, kick yourself, turn the screw, sob inconsolably, inhale a box of Parmesan cheese sticks and call your closest friends to complain in a self-involved manner for hours. But there are also times in life when you have to put down the phone, brush the Parmesan cheese crumbs off your shirt, wipe the mascara from your face and feed your sad little doggies a delicious desiccated pig ear. No matter how often the inhumane and humiliating turns of today's entertainments eat away at the core of your soul, just remember: It's not your fault. It has nothing to do with you. In fact, you're not responsible for anything in the big bad world out there. All you need concern yourself with is you -- glorious, special, precious, incomparable, privileged, educated, lovely, sweet-smelling you.

See, doesn't that feel better? So, go ahead: Turn the channel when the evening news comes on, throw away those silly Greenpeace envelopes, skip the next neighborhood association or PTA meeting to shop for whimsical trinkets and aromatherapeutic bath salts. The second you stop taking your role in the world so seriously, that's when you'll be able to watch "Cheaters" without feeling the vaguest pang of sadness or anger. And isn't that the real goal, to have a sense of irony about everything, so that nothing ever bothers you? Just think, soon enough even global warming and slaughtered Iraqis won't get under your skin, while obese children, poisonous streams and clubbed baby seals will make you giggle like a schoolgirl!

Next week: Ever seen an 8-year-old girl in blue eye shadow and a half-shirt making pouty, sexy faces while doing crazy hip-hop moves, then being tossed in the air like a Hacky Sack? No? Then you have yet to taste the subtle flavors of Bravo's "Sports Kids Moms and Dads"!

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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I Like To Watch Television