I Like to Watch

What's more depressing than relentlessly critical parents, aging one-hit wonders and starving children? How about those poor people on "The Real Gilligan's Island"?

Published June 20, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

Portrait of a drone as a young man
You can't please everyone, chicken livers. I know you've known this for years, ever since your finger painting took a turn toward the avant-garde in the second grade, and instead of proclaiming you a young prodigy or an artiste or, at the very least, a mildly precocious little bugger, your parents sent you to see that child therapist whose office was always freezing cold and smelled like mothballs. There, the therapist would ask you to play with toys, hoping you'd reenact some violent or perverse exchange that would shed light on your home life, but instead all you'd do is stare at the weird pattern in the carpet, making your eyes focus and unfocus, and kick your feet against the leather couch in a way that seemed to make the therapist uncomfortable.

You were an artist, damn it! But the powers that be taught you to be a sociopath instead, to sublimate all your good, pure talents and creative urges into repressed, disturbing, vaguely antisocial behaviors, behaviors more appropriate to your future life in a corporate setting. Not only were you forced to take your raw intelligence and originality and force it into the confines of social expectations, reducing your passions to passive-aggressive manipulations and deeply irritating tics, but some small, beautiful part of you died a fast, painful death. Eventually, your brilliant finger painting lost all originality and freedom and boundary-pushing explosiveness, and began to resemble closely the mediocre scribblings of your dim-witted peers.

Aww! Just think of how you bottled up all your unbridled, violently authentic, primitive, archetypal urges, just to please your parents! I mean, sure, you'd probably be pissing in your pants and eating custard-filled doughnuts for dinner and shooting heroin under a bush somewhere if your parents let all those primeval urges run free ... But still! It's so no fair!

This is what I like about reality TV: We're all invited to watch the no-fair process unfold. From the unguarded optimism of "Mary Ann Mandy" on "The Real Gilligan's Island" to the nervous tics of Bryce on "Sports Kids Moms and Dads," we witness these free spirits being dismembered and packed into corrugated cardboard and sold to the highest bidder, until the wildest gaggle of free-range chickens becomes just another flat of frozen, breaded chicken tenders on its way to some food court in Ohio.

Now, sure, most people don't enjoy watching the free will and curiosity and romantic notions and ideals of talented, sweet innocents crushed under the wheels of a repressive, conformist society, only to spend the balance of their lives as soulless, commodified roadkill. But to me, it's soothing, somehow. I break out the chocolate and murmur to myself, "Ahhh, yes. Here comes another brick in the wall!"

I think we're old and alone now
OK, you're not there yet. It's cool. You're just not seeing where the fun is in any of this. You're feeling a little sad about it, and thinking about all those finger-painted masterpieces that your mom oohed and ahhed over, then clandestinely shoved into the trash. Meanwhile, Donny, that redheaded moron across the street, had his vastly inferior finger-painted blobs posted all over the goddamn refrigerator! Some of his aesthetically dissonant disasters were even framed, for Chrissakes!

But you can't please everyone, chickens, and life just isn't fair. Take a look at a Flock of Seagulls. Remember the guy with the terrible hairdo? Remember how, way back when, you thought of him as the kind of guy whose parents proclaimed him a prodigy or an artiste the second he wandered over to the piano and banged his fist into the keys a couple of times? I mean, who has hair like that, but a guy whose parents blew smoke up his ass about how original and special he was for years and years? The kid was obviously raised by nonconformist sycophants (see also: the Best Parents in the Universe).

But that guy, the bad-hair Flock of Seagulls guy -- how did his story end? Didn't you always imagine that he retired to some palatial modern home in Sweden or somewhere very hip and austere? Wasn't it easy to picture him with a new, more sensible but still stylish haircut, sipping port and listening to classical music in his hip urban abode?

Well, it's time to cast those images upon the rocks, because thanks to "Hit Me Baby One More Time," which premiered just in time to pick up where "Kevin and Britney: Chaotic" left off as the current Worst Show on Television, we know that Bad Hair Guy's name is Mike Score, he was actually a hairdresser when he started the band, and not only does he have a whole new, terrible variety of bad hair, but his voice is shot, he's 30 pounds overweight, and he lives in Florida with a 50-something woman who still wears short-shorts and has hair down to her butt.

Here's how we know this: "Hit Me Baby One More Time" is like an "American Idol" for fat has-beens. Thus, instead of watching dewy-faced young people sing horrible covers of oldies you hoped you'd never hear again, you can see crusty old folks perform their own horrible oldies in their failing, tone-deaf voices. And as if that weren't depressing enough, we're also treated to biopics detailing just how empty and hopeless their lives have become. After that -- and this is really the worst part -- the has-beens come back onstage and perform again, covering a current hit of their choice!

And look, you really haven't lived until you've seen Tiffany (whose one hit was a cover anyway), so pear-shaped in her terrible outfit that you'd think she was pregnant, trying and failing miserably at a reasonable cover of -- get this -- Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway." That's right, yesterday's stars, overweight and wrinkled and unwieldy, reduced to warbling the hit songs of today's manufactured stars like Clarkson.

Not that Clarkson is all that bad. Sure, she has the freakishly short little wings of a dodo bird, but compared to a girl who took her Mr. Microphone to the mall and got famous for it, she looks like an absolute superstar.

And I haven't even mentioned our host, Vernon Kay, a confusing jumble of odd pronunciations, faux-gushing proclamations and deeply irritating tics. He flails his arms like a marionette, blinks down at the camera like a peculiar child, and blurts hysterical remarks through a mouthful of oversize teeth. Was this kid encouraged way too much by fawning parents, or was he chained to the toilet? It's so hard to tell!

Building the wall, part deux
But why wonder about such abstract matters, when we can see a confusing mix of fawning and emotional abuse up close and in person, while the cameras roll? You can't please everyone, but you can please a hell of a lot of people by exposing some of the scariest monster-parents in the world.

Remember "Showbiz Moms and Dads," the cult hit that whipped a nation of rubberneckers into a self-righteous frenzy and reopened those old wounds caused by the recurring appearance of JonBenet Ramsey's parents on "Larry King Live"? Well, the latest and greatest offering from World of Wonder, the production company that brought you "Inside Deep Throat," "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," "Gay Republicans," "Party Monster" and about a million other whimsical peeks at American pop cultural oddities, is "Sports Kids Moms and Dads" (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo).

This is a show that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you can't please everyone, and sometimes trying to do so will only buy you a world of pain. You run stairs, you endure tackles, you do suicides, you practice your double axels until your legs are weak, you rush from ballet to cheerleading practice and, in the end, you come in second, your mom criticizes you, and she sells your horse to some stranger.

You see, chickens, there are some parents who won't rest until their children are as obsessive, anal-retentive, stressed-out and self-hating as they are. Sharon drags her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, from dance practice to dance events to cheerleading competitions, so many that it's tough to keep track of them all, and then screams at Sarah for not bubbling over with enthusiasm when she's half asleep. Bryce, a 16-year-old figure skater, practices his jumps over and over, but seems to get nothing but criticism and abuse from his sourpuss mom, Kim. Not surprisingly, Bryce says that it makes him nervous when his mom watches him skate. When his grandmother comes to watch him, though, he loosens up and enjoys himself. Bryce's grandmother, you see, is an actual human being, prone to clapping and saying things like "Good job!" when he does something well.

And then there's Trenton, an 8-year-old who needs a chiropractor to handle the fact that he gets tackled countless times a week as an aspiring wide receiver. And don't forget Karli, a 17-year-old equestrian whose mother shows up an hour late to pick her up from the train station, then acts defensive about it instead of apologizing sincerely. She puts Karli's horse (see also: her best friend) up for sale, then barely remembers doing it.

Yes, Karli's mother is going through a divorce, Trenton's father believes seven days of practice and training are necessary for Trenton to go pro 13 years from now, and Bryce's mother would probably be surly and critical whether Bryce was a figure skater or a lazy jerk, so he might as well get in shape and focus his energy on something. And I'm sure all of these parents think that they're selflessly giving their kids opportunities that they didn't have as kids. You know, like the opportunity to have a nervous breakdown before age 11.

Watching the spirits of these sad little puppies get smashed to smithereens makes me hope that I'll have a lazy, unfocused, wisecracking, finger-painting ne'er-do-well under my roof some day.

Who's your little buddy?
But then I meet the free spirits of "The Real Gilligan's Island" (in its second season, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on TBS) and I change my mind. This show is just what it sounds like, a reality reenactment of "Gilligan's Island," with contestants chosen based on their similarity to the characters on the sitcom. Thus, we have Gilligan Zac, Mary Ann Mandy, Ginger Erika, Professor Andy, and so on. There are two of each character: two Mary Anns, two Professors, etc., who compete against each other to make the final team. Then, the members of the final team compete against one another and vote each other off, "Survivor"-style.

If that sounds incredibly goofy and stupid, that's because it is. Remember how, in "Galaxy Quest," the aliens think that all television shows are real, referring to them as "the historical documents," and when someone brings up "Gilligan's Island," the aliens sigh and look at each other and say, "Those poooor people!" That's about how you feel when you watch this show.

Still, it has its moments. One of the Professors almost drowned, and one set of Millionaires expressed interest in having a threesome with the other Millionaire's wife when the other Millionaire was booted off the set. But best of all, the producers somehow located the bubbliest, happiest, sweetest girl in the universe, Mary Ann Mandy (and luckily, like the real Mary Ann, she has a butt that looks really good hanging out of the bottom of her shorts), and then found the sourest, most annoying girl in the universe, Mary Ann Randi (and she also has the requisite Mary Ann butt). If you can't get into a battle between Good Mary Ann and Evil Mary Ann, then that faux-concerned child therapist really did screw you up but good.

So far, not surprisingly, evil has won out over good more times than not. What can you do? It's a verifiable trend of the new millennium.

Liberals in love
Don't give in to the dark side just yet, though, young Skywalker. There's a sweetly idealistic movie coming to HBO that's sure to restore your faith in humankind, or at least in aging geeks and wide-eyed innocents not yet crushed and reconstituted and freeze-dried and distributed globally.

You know how the words "romantic comedy" make you think of Jennifer Lopez playing a waitress with a heart of gold and an ass of steel who spills hot coffee on some dreamy, slightly wussified British guy in a suit, and they hate each other for about 45 minutes, then they kiss, then everything falls apart, and then, after 90 minutes, they kiss again and the credits roll and, even though they don't show it, you know by the way they kiss that he'll whisk her away from her warm but slightly frayed working-class home and plant her in his penthouse, where she'll feel out of place, miss her friends, and get fat on imported cheese, at which point he'll dump her for another street urchin while our heroine loses her looks and drinks away her sorrows at the local watering hole?

Well, "The Girl in the Café" is sort of, kind of a romantic comedy, but it's made for people whose sense of romance is a little more nuanced than your average preteen's. This movie (which premieres Saturday, June 25, at 8 p.m. on HBO) proves that awkward, normal-looking people fall in love, too, and sometimes even when they're in love, they still care about things like the G8 Summit in Scotland in July, or the fact that thousands of children starve every day despite the obvious fact that we have the resources to stop it.

"The Girl in the Café" isn't perfect, and it'll seem slow to fans of modern, Nora Ephron-style quick wit and neat endings. But I found it really touching, precisely because its characters are preoccupied by more than sex and love and each other's asses of steel. Through their concern for larger issues, we begin to care for them and want to see them together. It's sweet, and difficult to describe, and frankly, I really don't want to ruin it because I started watching without reading a single word about the movie, and I want you to do the same thing.

Basically, this is a love story for the kinds of people who read this here online magazine. And although that probably makes you feel all dirty inside, the way that being a part of a definable demographic will sometimes do, please just trust me. Watch this movie this Saturday on HBO, and that small, beautiful part of you that died when your finger paintings weren't hung in galleries will rise from the dead like a zombie, I personally guarantee it. What you're going to do with your inner zombie, I have no idea. That's your problem.

Brick by brick
You can't please everyone, chickens. I can't stress that enough. You can try and try and try to get it right, to nail your double axel, to cook the best vegetable lasagna ever made, to defeat the forces of evil and then give the forces of good a really great back rub, but you still won't do it. Mom will still disparage your efforts, Dad will still expect more from you, your kids will resent you, your one hit will drop from the charts, your initiative on world hunger will fail, and Brad will still cheat on you with an Amazonian nut job.

Life isn't fair, hairdressers aren't meant to be pop stars, and depending on their parents' mistakes, most people are either neurotic or lazy. Chances are, any spark of life inside you was snuffed out over a decade ago. All we are is bricks in the wall, etc. See how many timeless truths you soak up in these parts? Now go buy yourself a corn dog with yellow mustard, and forget everything you've learned here.

Next week: Soulless drones strike gold -- yet another show about an LAPD unit specializing in high-profile murder cases, only this one is a big hit!

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