I Like to Watch

Sadists savor "Six Feet Under," and Kathy Hilton shows us how to pair a skeazy slut tartlet with a nice chardonnay. Plus: Runaway brides are people, too!

By Heather Havrilesky
Published June 26, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

Things that make you go "Eww!"
People often ask me how I can maintain any hope for humanity when I watch so much crappy TV week after week. The truth is, it's easier than you think, as long as you avoid certain TV shows. Namely, "The Jerry Springer Show."

But, sadly, like a creepy ex-boyfriend or a moldy block of cheese in the back of the fridge, you can only avoid Springer for so long. True to form, Jerry tracked me down at my podiatrist's office last week. That's right, my podiatrist's office, that fondest of places, where I sit in mortal fear of having my feet scraped or covered in acid or cut up and then cauterized. They have a television on the wall of the waiting room that's perpetually tuned to "Jerry Springer," with a sign under it that says, "Please do not touch the Television."

Now, I know that we're not exactly living in times of great artistic and cultural enlightenment, but what kind of a crazy upside-down world is this, that forcing people to watch "Jerry Springer" doesn't result in an immediate violent uprising?

That day, I watched 38 minutes of "Springer," in a very small, very packed waiting room filled with people who couldn't walk very well and had at least one foot bandaged to the point where it looked like a small ottoman. It was like some tragic ballet: Each time one of the sad humans in Springer's audience leapt up and mustered those few brain cells that survived years of huffing spray paint to form an insult like "If you was a real man, she wouldn'a needed that dyke to make her happy!" one of the sad humans in the waiting room would be called in by the nurse, lurch to his feet and weave around the other bandaged ottomans to get to her.

The word "unpleasant" doesn't really do the experience justice. After a while, I started to suspect that either I was the subject of some sort of wildly unethical social experiment, or I was the lead character in a novel written by some sadistic French existentialist. And just as I began to lose my mind in earnest, just as a mother on "Springer" shouted at her daughter, "You've had so many men's pricks in you, you look like a porcupine!" the guy next to me pulled out one of those plastic dental floss devices and started flossing his teeth.

Look, I'm no snob. I watch "Dancing With the Stars" without the requisite degree of ironic distance. I try as best I can to laugh along with the bad joke that American culture has become. But when you really take a close look and see how complacent we all are in the total annihilation of any standards of quality or decency or taste, it's pretty impossible not to imagine that we're at the start of a very rapid descent downward, to the bottom of the global barrel -- you know, where we belong?

And this concerns me. Because once we reach the bottom and we no longer have the power to bully the international community with our military invasions and our humorless movie stars and our crappy franchise restaurants, what will become of us? That's right -- you know where I'm going with this -- we might have to go out and get real jobs, jobs that involve real work, like harvesting grapes or building dams or something. I mean, once we stop exporting Applebee's nacho platters and plug-in room deodorizers and spray-tanned jackasses, do you really think they'll be paying people like me to watch television?

Things that go "Trump" in the night
Just think, in a few years we'll all be huffing spray paint just to endure the countless indignities of our crappy jobs as manual laborers!

But we'll still have a little more class than Kathy Hilton. I mean, at least that woman on "Springer" can admit that her daughter is a whoring sea donkey. Hilton acts as if the fact that she can pair a nice chardonnay with her lobster somehow erases the fact that she gave birth to a skanky slut monkey who makes Porcupine Girl look like a nun. Not that I have a personal problem with skeazy slut-sucking tartlets or anything. Paris proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that sluts' dreams really do come true.

But the notion that her mom is going to show us all about taste in an "Apprentice"-alike venue, right before we cut to that commercial of her daughter with her ass crack in the air, shoving a burger the size of her head into her face? I don't know. I have trouble imagining that Kathy Hilton feels all that out of place among the unrefined hayseeds and blabbermouths on her show.

But ultimately, just as "I Want to Be a Hilton" (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC) is a way for Hilton to feel like she's still an arbiter of taste and dignity despite her daughter's status as the poster child for flashy whoredom, inspiring a herd of ambitious, skanky dingbats nationwide (one of whom is on the show), so, too, is the show a way for us classless skeazebags at home to imagine that we're refined and special because we know what merlot is.

Here's the trouble: I usually try to suspend my disbelief as much as humanly possible when watching reality TV, but you can't tell me this show isn't scripted. How about when one of the hayseeds blurts to the camera, "Definitely her shoes cost more than our mobile home!"? That remark is a little bit too good -- and too stereotyped -- to be true.

And then there's Latricia, the big black woman, and Allan, the odd gay foreigner, and Jules, the loud girl from Long Island, N.Y., and Johnny, the guido. Obviously the casting department collaborated with the writers to find exactly those stereotypes for whom the writers could dream up snappy remarks while half-asleep.

And now the Writers Guild is killing the golden goose by rallying for union-scale pay for reality show writers. Can't you little men behind the curtain take care of your business without making everyone lose their faith in the great and powerful Oz? Jeez. The wheels are coming off faster than even I predicted.

Things that jump on a bus to Albuquerque when you scare them
And speaking of choosy beggars, here's a news flash: The Runaway Bride doesn't want to be known as the Runaway Bride! She'd prefer to be seen as a human being, you know, albeit a confused one, with feelings and emotions and stuff.

Here's the thing, though, little lady: When you get your 15 minutes of fame, and you want to extend it to 30 or 40 minutes or even a full hour of fame, and maybe you'd like to get a big fat paycheck out of it, too? Well, then you have to take whatever it is you got famous for, and you have to ride that pony basically until it dies -- or you die. Whichever comes first.

That's how lame former contestants on "The Real World" like Trishelle get paid to speak at colleges, or just to romp around in a hot tub on "The Surreal Life." That's how Amber Frey got her own made-for-TV movie and her own book deal. That's how Stephen Glass and Michael Jackson's accuser and so on manage to have such an extended half-life in the public eye. You get money, and we get "That Slut From 'The Real World'" or "That Chick Who Slept With Scott Peterson Then Helped Turn Him In" or "That Liar Whose Lies Were Published."

You got a book deal, buttercup, because you promised to serve up the Runaway Bride, and she only exists because you're reasonably attractive and ran like a chicken and lied with impunity about the whole thing. We love overwhelmed, freaked-out, attractive, self-destructive liars like you. We want to hear all about what a lying rat you are, so we can hate you even more for making your poor parents lose sleep and wring their hands and weep on national TV.

That said, I sort of felt sorry for the little perfectionist in her interview with Katie Couric on NBC. She reminds me of a lot of the repressed, cheery Southern types of girls I grew up with, really nice women with nothing but pure intentions who didn't have anywhere to put the occasional negative thought, because Southern girls aren't supposed to have negative thoughts, even the smart, driven, slightly quirky girls like Jennifer Wilbanks. So all those negative thoughts pile up as they smile through the pain, and eventually they end up shoplifting $38 worth of crap from Wal-Mart (like Jennifer did) or they run away with the plumber or kill themselves or just die slowly inside while driving the kids back and forth from soccer practice.

That fiancé of hers is pretty wooden, too. I'm not convinced that his repressive notions, including the one that they shouldn't have sex until they're married, isn't a big part of the problem there. We all admire him for standing by his woman, but ... I'm guessing that she sort of wishes he'd bail. Dumping him outright would be an admission of failure, something she's said is nearly impossible for her.

So, fine! I have empathy for the stupid Runaway Bride! I see her as a human being, not just some sad chump meant to solicit our spite, Jerry Springer-style! This kind of empathy for small-time criminals and media one-hit wonders is obviously just another step on the pathway to total insignificance, culturally, but what can we do? The beauty of the small screen is that it manipulates us into investing our emotions and thoughts in people who clearly don't -- and shouldn't -- matter to us at all.

Things to do in Los Angeles when you're dead
Take cops in general, and Los Angeles cops in particular. Why in the world should we care about another unconventional detective investigating high-profile murder cases in La-la land? And just how lazy are the studios that they would dare to set so very many shows in The Southland! when there are so many more interesting places in the country that we never see on our TV screens?

The geniuses behind TNT's "The Closer" (Mondays at 9 p.m.) figured it was enough that the main character, Brenda Johnson (played by Kyra Sedgwick), was from Atlanta, so those of us from the South can cringe every time Sedgwick opens her mouth. She's not all that bad at the accent, to be fair, but like most fake Southern accents, it's far too exaggerated, and then missing completely from certain words, which are delivered in the actress's Manhattan-private-school default accent.

As usual, the writers find ways to get us to invest in this woman, and as usual, I'm a sucker for their cheap tricks. She loves MoonPies (aww!), she has cute conversations on the phone with her mom (double awww!), and she's treated with resentment and outright hostility by her underlings in the department (booo!). And then, of course, there are the scenes where she proves herself to be absolutely brilliant in the interrogation room! Her peers slowly start to develop a grudging respect for her skills, one that's sure to give way to full-on admiration and unconditional positive regard by the season's end. We know this arc, we've seen it, oh, 50 or 60 times before.

And yet, "The Closer" deserves its high ratings (it was the highest-rated premiere ever of an original scripted series on basic cable), because Sedgwick is a good actress, the supporting cast (except for that twerpy boss man -- we're supposed to believe she once had a thing for him?) is strong, the whodunits are unpredictable enough to hold your interest and there's not a single skanky dingbat in sight.

Things that make sadists smile

Dear ILTW,

I think you've expressed this very emotion before and I thought you might understand. Now I'm not a bad person. I like people in general. But why do I want to see such horrible things happen to Nate on "Six Feet Under"? He's the most pathetic character I've ever seen but still none of the earthly disasters that occur to him on a daily basis are sufficient to satiate my lust for his pain. I need a spinoff show, set in hell, where Nate experiences unspeakable horror for the entire two-hour weekly show. I also have to confess what a tease Brenda's miscarriage was. I want more. I started out liking the show a few years back, but now it's become a channel for all my sadistic impulses and they are much stronger than I thought. And I like it.


Sadistic in San Francisco

Dear SISF,

These feelings you've been experiencing are perfectly natural. While many of us might feel "strange" or "uncomfortable" about wanting to see Nate on "Six Feet Under" suffer, scientific evidence suggests that we're encountering a strictly physiological phenomenon. In a recent study, when subjects watched Alan Ball's show, the part of the brain neurologists have coined the "Empathy Lobe" switched off, while the Vengeful and Sadistic Nodes of the brain started lighting up like a pinball machine.

This means that our urge to grab Nate by the throat and scream, "Oh my god, will you ever stop whining and just be happy for one friggin' second of your pathetic miserable life?" is actually a predictable involuntary response. While you should find tonight's episode (Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO) at least a little bit gratifying, I'm betting your thirst for Nate's suffering will take on new proportions as well.

I used to have this problem with Lisa, Nate's passive-aggressive loser of a wife. I knew she was bad news from the minute I laid eyes on her, and the more she suffered or whined or didn't get what she wanted, the happier I was. Her disappearance was a joyous occasion; my only regret was that she didn't suffer more when her sister's husband (aka her lover) killed her.

The characters of "Six Feet Under" present an interesting alternative to Springer-style rubbernecking, when you think about it. Because, as much as we detest glue-sniffing half-wits who sleep with their sisters' husbands and then taunt their sisters about it on national television, what could possibly be worse than passive-aggressive hippies who sleep with their sisters' husbands, but hide it and act like they're soulful, innocent sweeties who do nothing but bake wheat-free cookies all day? Ultimately, Nate draws our ire because he acts like this enlightened, thoughtful, smug human being, and then, every time the shit hits the fan, he soils his pants and runs whining to the nearest wounded stranger for a pat on the head and a little dose of the kind of unconditional positive regard that only a stranger can give.

The self-pity! The self-deception! The bald-faced lies! At least those creeps on "Springer" don't whine in therapy about how hard it is to be so creepy!

Pop quiz!
Whenever emotions start running this high, that's when we know it's time for a little quiz. You see, we have to channel our emotions into concrete activities, chickens, so we can learn important lessons -- and also, so we don't smash someone's face in with a baseball bat, or bail on our very expensive weddings, or bake wheat-free cookies for our children. So, look deep within yourself and answer the following questions:

1. Which is worse?
a) A scrappy-looking mother who tells her skeazy daughter that she's a skeaze live on "Jerry Springer," or
b) A prissy socialite mother who borrows on her skeazy daughter's fame to get her own TV show.

2. Who do you love more?
a) A smart Southern lady cop who channels her negative emotions into squeezing confessions out of hardened criminals and gorging on chocolate MoonPies, or
b) A smart Southern bride-to-be who channels her negative emotions into six-figure book deals and heart-to-heart talks with Katie Couric.

3. Who do you want to throttle the most?
a) A supposedly enlightened, educated, intelligent guy who won't foster intimacy with anyone who actually cares about him, and refuses to crawl out of a pit of self-pity and despair, and just generally acts like he's a lead character in a novel written by a sadistic French existentialist, or
b) A meth addict who's sleeping with his wife's best friend and his best friend's wife, or
c) Tom Cruise.

Answer Key: 1. b, 2. a, 3. c

Next week: Of course I'm watching "Blow Out" and "Kept" and "Strip Search"! What do you take me for, a self-respecting, healthy human with better ways to spend her time?

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