I Like to Watch

From fruit cups to "Beauty and the Geek" to "Dancing With the Stars," today's freaks are tomorrow's survivors!

By Heather Havrilesky
Published June 13, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

Mutants rule!
During the summer months, when the weather gets hot and the talk turns to all the bizarre, freakish shows on the summer schedule, it's important to remember a little lesson we learned way back when from a guy by the name of Charles Darwin: Yesterday's freaks are today's survivors. Or, if you'd prefer, today's freaks are tomorrow's survivors.

You see, those very strange new television shows you proclaim "unthinkably odd" today are the very same that might thrive tomorrow! But don't take my word for it -- just study the example of the long-nosed nitpicker. Years ago, the world was absolutely filthy with nitpickers, so much so that the coveted plumquat tree on which the nitpicker feasted came close to extinction! This left many a nitpicker thin and hungry. Sadly, only the three or four nitpickers with freakishly long noses were able to knock jars of marshmallow creme off the high shelves of the townspeople's kitchens, nourishing themselves and their long-nosed families. Thus, the long-nosed nitpicker survived, while the regular-nosed nitpicker starved to death.

Now, I know this story confuses many of you, particularly those who still believe that the universe and all of the creatures in it, including the long-nosed nitpicker, were created in just six days, and on the seventh day God rented the first season of "Buffy."

Let's try a simpler example, then: Fruit! You know how the fruit you eat today comes in a little cup, with a laminated seal over the top? Well, ages ago, when your mommies and daddies were running around in short pants and Gavin MacLeod still had his self-respect, fruit used to come covered in dirty skin and filled with seeds! Very inconvenient! Needless to say, no one really ate fruit back then. But luckily, one day, a big friendly food corporation had the clarity of vision to clean fruit up, dice it into little pieces and stick it into a plastic cup with some lukewarm strawberry Jello so that the world could enjoy fruit as nature intended!

You see, fruit evolved. And while many early naysayers decried the sight of diced fruit, calling it "unnatural" and "way too square to eat," eventually these very traits were the ones that helped it to survive!

So that's the open-minded, accepting attitude toward the freaks and mutants of the world that I'd like you to embrace, chickens, as we survey the summer TV landscape for the first time. When I say words like "Fire Me ... Please" and "Dancing With the Stars" and "Beauty and the Geek," I don't want you to chuckle and snort and scoff and then go read more about the Jackson trial. I want you to picture a delicious cup of pineapples in lime "gel," all lovely and laminated shut, OK? Because today's hilariously stupid summer TV shows are tomorrow's widely embraced hits.

"The Amazing Race." "The O.C." "America's Next Top Model." Summer shows, once upon a time! Sure, they seemed as awkward and silly as the long-nosed nitpicker, back in the day. But now, look how substantive and wholesome they are, compared to the rest. That's progress, kids. That's -- let's say it together -- ev-o-lu-tion!

I got chills, they're multiplyin'!
Just look at John O'Hurley. He once played J. Peterman, Elaine's clothier boss on "Seinfeld," the guy who would wax philosophic about clothing just as they did in the J. Peterman catalog. O'Hurley played a freak, a mutant, the kind of guy whose quirks could strike you as fanciful or charismatic in an executive setting, but would take on a different cast if you found him, say, begging for change outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, or picking something out between his toes along the banks of the Seine. It seemed certain that O'Hurley's mutations -- a certain flourish, a certain lightness in the loafers -- would not prove to be all that adaptive.

But look at O'Hurley now! Not only does he own part of the J. Peterman catalog, he's also the current favorite to win on "Dancing With the Stars"!

And speaking of mutants, yes, you heard that right: "Dancing With the Stars" (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC), a show featuring D-list celebrities who, each week, learn a new style of dance from their professional-dancer partners, then compete against each other on the dance floor in front of a live audience and three dance-expert judges. Imagine a cross between "Lawrence Welk," "Dance Fever" and "American Idol." Got a mental image? Now throw in Trista Sutter from "The Bachelorette," a former member of "New Kids on the Block," and some actress from "General Hospital." Clearly, "Dancing With the Stars" is the chubby, awkward dodo bird of the summer lineup, right?

Wrong. It was the top-rated show in its time slot last week. Did I mention that the dancers wear sequin-covered outfits that would look right at home in the Acapulco Lounge of a Carnival Cruise Line? Can you picture Trista in a white sequined get-up that she obviously stole off the set of "Ice Castles"? Did I mention that most of the contestants dance to the terrible strains of Disneyfied pop songs like "You're the One That I Want"? Do you know how disturbing it is to watch a soap star do the rumba to a Muzak-y version of "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing"?

It calls to mind the plight of the long-nosed nitpicker, doesn't it? Think of the Nanny Nanny Boo-Boos those poor things had to endure from their button-nosed peers at Nitpicker Elementary! Think of how foolish and fey the Peach-in-Strawberry-Gel fruit cup felt among its filthy, skin-covered, seed-filled peers at Fruity McFruiterson High School!

But who had the last laugh, chickens? The so-called mutants, that's who! And just as you never thought you'd live to see Evander Holyfield dancing the quick step in a tux, most of us figured this show would be off the air before we even got to gawk and point and stare, slack-jawed and disbelieving, at its strange sights and sounds. That's why, um, so many of us tuned in to check it out.

See how experimentation so often leads to bad habits that we can't shake, children? Yet, like the millions of other emotionally unstable imbeciles who tuned in, I found myself strangely drawn to the idiotic flair of the whole thing. Watching this show is like traveling back in time, to a simpler era, when most of our pop culture was considered foolish and sad. Like the deformed offspring of "Solid Gold," "Match Game '75," "Battle of the Network Stars" and "Star Search," "Dancing With the Stars'" most hideous features are exactly those that pull us in deeper. It would be difficult to care about an actual star who could actually dance. But watching former supermodel Rachel Hunter try to rumba, then stand, stricken, before the judges, clearly mortified and hoping like hell for a decent score? No one else is going to say it, so I will: The whole thing was oddly touching. "Dancing With the Stars" is the mutant survivor of the summer.

Get fired up!
Then there are those perfect genetic specimens of the small screen: They sound good. You hear about them and say, "I want to see that!" They're even well enacted -- good casting, smart editing. They entertain you. And yet, somehow, you'll never watch again.

"Fire Me ... Please" (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on CBS) is a great idea for a silly summer show: Two people compete to see who can get fired, on their first day on the job, by 3 p.m. Hidden cameras capture their antics, and the first contestant who's fired closest to 3 p.m. without staying past 3 p.m. wins $25,000.

The producers picked a great cast for the first episode. Yes, we're expected to believe that they're yoga instructors and such when they're clearly comedians and actors, but the show would suck without sociopathic showoffs in play. The first contestant gets a job in a coffee shop and quickly sets about bugging everyone around him. After introducing himself to customers and insisting that they call him "T-Bone," he tells his boss that the espresso machine is "way too hot." When a female co-worker's boyfriend calls, he answers the phone and says, "Her name is no longer Molly, her name is Pistol!" And then, "Let me tell you, that is quite a lady you got there." Later, he takes to bellowing the names of drinks in a voice loud enough to make everyone in the place jump a few feet. Footage of customers jumping out of their skins lands up there with dogs falling off high shelves and Daddy getting smacked in the nards by a baseball bat on the "America's Funniest Home Videos" Scale of Funny.

Meanwhile, his female competitor is spending her first day at a women's clothing store. When the boss tells her just to walk around, touching and getting to know the clothes, she buries her nose in the clothes and smells them. Another contestant whistles loudly, and, when confronted, says, "Oh, was I whistling?" then begins whistling minutes later.

The best part, though, is when it gets very close to 3 p.m. and contestants are desperately trying to get fired, but their bosses are too afraid of confrontation to deal with them. Watching passive-aggressive bosses faced with their own inability to confront their bad employees is somehow deeply rewarding.

And yet ... the show is only as funny as each contestant's antics, and while "T-Bone" is a comic genius, the rest are just mildly amusing. A full hour of mildly amusing is roughly equivalent to being plump, juicy, flightless and exceptionally trusting on an island populated by hungry dogs and pigs.

I'm evolving, I'm evolving!
Speaking of hungry dogs and pigs, isn't it fascinating how the dating-contest genre, featuring love matches between attractive dummies, a genre that once crowded the small screen, has given way to the pairing up of dorky men with big-breasted hotties? While at first it might have seemed odd to pair up nerds with bosomy bimbos, the nerd-bimbo genre is like a flightless bird that learned to roll cigarettes with its useless little wings.

Again, evolution. You take "Average Joe," a big, seed-filled mess, and throw in Ashton Kutcher as producer, and what have you got? Delectable, laminated fruity convenience, that's what! Still, "Beauty and the Geek" (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on WB) didn't appeal to me at first. The beauties weren't all that beautiful, they just had really hot bodies, and some of the geeks weren't adequately geeky. I didn't care for the emphasis on how dumb the women were, and how unappealing and hopeless the men were. As heartless as I am, nerds and idiots have it bad enough as it is.

But then the intelligence of the producers started to show: These hotties weren't chosen for their looks, exactly. The producers cast women with A) jaw-droppingly voluptuous bodies, because, well, that's what soft Americans like to look at while they shovel salty snacks into their faces, and B) really strong personalities -- high self-esteem plus strong opinions mixed with some flexibility and open-minded qualities that make them open to growing fond of the froggy little dorks in their midst. Watching this show, you start to understand just how adaptive good casting is in the reality show era. No matter whom the camera focuses on, the viewer naturally has an opinion on that person. These aren't the dippy, boring hotties of "The Bachelor" or even "Average Joe"; these women are poorly educated but sharp. Likewise, their nerdy counterparts are highly educated but totally out of it and odd and poorly adapted to the real world.

So, when you see the girls try to change a tire or answer basic questions about U.S. history, it's like watching Evander Holyfield dance the quick step. You may think it's all about pointing and jeering, but when you find yourself holding your breath and hoping that Miss Booboo Kitty can remember where the air filter goes or that Holyfield makes it through his routine without stumbling, that's when you know that you're as helpless to the charms of these adaptive mutant shows as a long-nosed nitpicker is to a swimming pool filled with marshmallow creme.

In conclusion
You know, children, your parents probably whine long and loud about how bad television is these days, and look, they're not wrong. Still, keep in mind, these are the same people who danced the electric slide at your cousin's wedding last week. The truth is, if you look closely enough, you can tell if there are smart people behind any given reality show. If you're interested in the mutants on your screen in spite of yourself, if the supposedly dumb women are saying clever things and the stereotypes are naturally breaking down because you're being introduced to human beings who transcend their assigned roles, then that means there are some very intelligent little humans behind the curtain. It's like eating a little cup of Peaches-in-Strawberry-Gel and remembering the raw appeal of a peach -- filthy skin, obnoxious seed and all. The show might be too cheesy or silly to hold your attention, but saying that it fails at its goals or that it's the product of small minds is like saying that diced fruit is "way too square to eat."

Test your knowledge!
Are you a long-nosed nitpicker? Take this quiz and find out!

1. What's the best new show on TV this summer?

a) Technically, summer shows have been out for a few weeks, and therefore hardly qualify as "new."

b) I don't know. I can't stop thinking about the fact that the author clearly misunderstands the basic concepts of evolution, as evidenced by her fruit cup example in the fourth paragraph.

c) When the author refers to a flightless bird that learned to roll cigarettes with its useless little wings, that really bothered me. Evolution is not learning. Doesn't she know that?

d) I'm sorry, it's just that so few people truly understand even the basics of evolution -- hell, most of them believe in creationism anyway. Is it really right for Salon to spread misinformation like this?

e) I've been a loyal Premium member for years, but now ... I'm just not sure I can support a publication that would publish such erroneous information.

f) That's not funny, making fun of loyal Premium members, when you depend on us for your livelihood. Also, I'm not sure information can be erroneous, technically. Conclusions can be erroneous but information? I'm not sure about that. I'm not saying it's wrong; I just need to look into it.

g) All of the above.

Answer Key: If you answer is g, then you're a long-nosed nitpicker. If your answer is a-e, you're a regular-nosed nitpicker, and therefore shouldn't consider yourself particularly special or all that adaptive, although I'm sure you will anyway. If your answer is "Dancing With the Stars" then it's about time you put down the bong and ordered HBO.

Next week: Let's watch that little cheerleader on "Sports Kids Moms and Dads" for one more week, so we have plenty of really mean comments and erroneous conclusions to draw about her and her mother before we go off half-cocked on the whole filthy, seedy mess.

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