I Like to Watch

Do you want to be a rock star, a soap star, a sitcom writer or a dancer? Or, would you rather be forever free from Wannabe TV?

Published July 10, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

Memoroids flaring
I've been a fan of reality TV since most of you were running around in pajamas with feet. Now, I was no stranger to "The Real World" or "Survivor," but what I remember the most from the old days was the very first broadcast of "Temptation Island." We didn't have TiVos back then, you see, so as the clock ticked closer to 9 p.m., the whole family would gather around the television in anticipation of our favorite show of all. Mama would pop a big bowl of popcorn, and Pa would set his spectacles and his book aside to join us in watching those daring young couples as they tried to keep their love strong in the company of a herd of whoring sea donkeys. I can still remember it like it was yesterday! How Mama would gasp and wring her hands, and all the kids would huddle close on the floor in anticipation. Would ripped abs and fake jugs and the promise of tequila body shots lure these fit young whippersnappers away from true love? None of us knew! All we could do is sigh and hope for the best.

Yes, those were simpler times. But I think about them a lot now that reality TV has evolved into an entirely different beast. You see, soon after that, the producers wised up and discovered that the whoring sea donkeys in question weren't really whoring sea donkeys at all. In fact, they had no interest whatsoever in whoring. What they really wanted was to get their ripped abs and fake jugs on TV at any cost. They were wannabes!

Thus, a whole new branch of reality TV was born -- Wannabe TV, let's call it. These days, whether you want to be a soap star, rock star, style-maker, real estate mogul, fashion designer, chef, Hilton, starlet, model, dancer, rapper, boxer, kept man, Food Network star, comedian or male stripper, you can pursue your dreams while the cameras roll.

Which is unfortunate, since most of these shows are about as exciting as watching Pa wipe lint off his spectacles. Sure, back when Tyra Banks took her first wobbly steps as a budding reality diva, it was fun. You could hear one of the wannabes confessing, "That's when reality set in. That's when I realized one of us would be going home!" and you wouldn't even roll your eyes or scream in agony. You would actually think, "Wow, I can't believe another aspiring bricklayer has to go home already!"

This week, I realized that I'm done with the aspiring demographic. I am thoroughly sick of the hopeful this or the struggling that. I don't want to hear about their lifelong dreams or their crappy jobs at Wal-Mart back home. I'm through with the way they miss their awesome boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, children, dogs, parents and third cousins. I don't want to know how bad they want this. And most of all, I don't care at all about the moment they realized that one of them would be going home soon. I want them all to go home.

Either that, or ship them off to an island with their awesome boyfriends and girlfriends and husbands and wives and children and see if they're still so awesome after a herd of whoring sea donkeys armed with flaming Jägermeister shots and fruit-flavored condoms stampedes in.

Old, familiar sensation
I've come to this conclusion thanks in part to the arrival this week of Mark Burnett's latest creation, "Rock Star," which takes us through the process of auditioning a new lead singer for INXS. But see, the way I just described the show, it almost sounds original or different or interesting. An auditioning process? A search for a new lead singer?

So let me reframe that. "Rock Star" (Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBS) is like "The Apprentice," only replace the type-A yuppies with tattooed, ultra-sensitive rocker types and replace The Donald with Dave Navarro, and replace the business-speak with words like "sweet" and "no way!" and "I'm not feeling her, dude."

You know the rest: There's the typical Mark Burnett opening credits, with smiling sepia-tone faces and names, set to a really awful Muzak-y version of "New Sensation." There's the host, Brooke Burke, who's basically just like "Survivor's" Jeff Probst, but with fake boobs and rocker lingo.

And, of course, there's the moment when the wannabes enter the mansion where they'll be staying, which, of course, looks exactly like the mansion where all reality TV wannabes stay. "Oh my god, look at that pool!" "Can you believe this place?" they mumble like a bunch of extras ad-libbing unconvincingly. The sound of bad rock music can be heard. Brooke huskily intones, "Now I know you guys hear that sweet music that's coming from inside the house, right?" Yeah, man! So the wannabes shuffle inside, where they find -- oh my god! -- Dave Navarro, jamming with INXS! Everyone is very psyched, but no one says anything specific about INXS, probably because they're all too young to remember how the hit single "Suicide Blonde" took the rock world by storm. We old folks can remember it well, but only because we were once drunk, whoring sea donkeys, and INXS was the kind of blandly aggressive pop they played in the murky dive bars and back-alley vomitoriums we frequented way back when.

Brooke and Dave don't even try to convince us that INXS matters or ever did. Instead, everyone's told that they'll have to perform a song in an hour, at the Mayan, a club that no one's ever heard of or it wouldn't require on-air promotion in the first place.

So then there are the performances. You know how "American Idol" presents a Disneyfied, plastic version of pop music? Well, not surprisingly, "Rock Star" makes rock 'n' roll look about as spontaneous and sexy as a ham sandwich. Basically, you could've turned on this part of the show and convinced me that I was watching the "fierce rock star" challenge on "America's Next Top Model."

Apparently, most of the assembled wannabes think that "acting like a rock star" translates into the same handful of gestures: pumping fists, flailing arms, thrusting hip action and the knee-dip appeal to the screaming fraudience. (Striding back and forth, wailing as if in pain, and covering eyes with hair are all optional.) Still, the whole goony spectacle is deliciously self-conscious and awkward and sad, and features the level of talent and originality you'd find at a high school talent show, with two notable exceptions, Ty and Heather. I'm sure there are a few more decent contestants in there, but the leather and the tattoos and the carefully mussed hair sort of blend together in my mind.

Look, the performances were sort of fun, to be honest, and most were edited down until mercifully short. But as soon as they were over, we were left with the same old bunch of dreamers, mingling and offending each other back at the mansion. Snore city. "We got drunk, I didn't sleep a wink, one of us is going home soon!" Blah blah blah.

Basically, Wannabe TV is now about as exciting as most procedural cop shows, which have the excuse of having been around for decades. Those producers better go back to their Big Idea Laboratories and come up with the next big thing in reality TV before we all go back to watching families cracking bad jokes around the couch and cops mumbling incoherently around the water cooler.

Don't need you tonight
And then there are the emoting mutants of the second season of "I Wanna Be a Soap Star" (Thursdays at 11 p.m. on Soapnet), perhaps the weakest of the wannabe species, mostly because we've seen so much bad acting in our sorry lives, we hardly need to see any more. I would review this show right here, right now, only there's nothing to say. You can fill in all the gaps using your powers of imagination and the loose outline we've already established: Fit young humans, bantering host, bad acting, mingling and offending, more bad acting, empty feedback, worries about who's going home, and finally, the weepy departure. Next!

Devil inside
OK, it's a little premature, but let's go ahead and tackle "Situation: Comedy" (premieres Tuesday, July 26, at 8 p.m. on Bravo) while we're on the topic of Wannabe TV, because that means I won't have to waste my time writing about it next week. (See how my attitude is suffering from all this shitty summer television? You really wouldn't believe how erratic my behavior has been lately. Just yesterday I deleted "I Want to Be a Hilton," "The Real Gilligan's Island" and "Blow Out" without even watching them!)

But don't cry for me, chicken tacos. Just take my word for it that "Situation: Comedy" is the same species of wannabe tedium, the sort that screams to be erased halfway through the first episode.

Here's how it works: First you take a bunch of comedy writers and show runners whose personalities are anything but made-for-TV, and throw in one comedy star (Sean Hayes) who could be silly and outrageous and fun (he supposedly is, in real life) but instead chooses to wear his "I'm a serious guy" hat to this gig. It's boring. Then you introduce the wannabes. And not only are they wannabes, but they're wannabe sitcom writers, so they don't even look good.

Next you toss in some studio executives, i.e., tossers. This part is sort of amusing, actually, because you get to witness firsthand how these incredible geniuses make all those great decisions that bring you "Life According to Jim" and "Hope & Faith" and "Two and a Half Men" year after year after year. (Yes, I know, "Two and a Half Men" is a huge hit, which means that it's scientifically proven to be super-duper funny.)

One of the wannabes, for example, has a really bad idea for a sitcom. Basically, there's this guy, and he has a bunch of wacky roommates. That's it. That's the whole idea. But the wannabe practices his pitch over and over. After he delivers it, the sitcom writers and show runners and studio people all look at each other and say, "That was a great pitch!" In other words, he's a bad writer with unoriginal ideas but ... he just made us laugh in person! That was fun! Hire him!

It's also mildly amusing when the wannabes start to draw lines in the sand and insist on not compromising their standards. Ha ha ha! Standards! You do know this is television, right? Are you OK? Did you think you were at NYU film school for a second there? Dude, that was funny!

But basically, this is "Project Greenlight," except with crappy sitcoms instead of a crappy movie, and no Chris Moore in sight. Unless Sean Hayes starts pounding Frappuccinos and wearing his boxer briefs on his head, I'm out.

Suicide blondes
Of course, the most pathetic denizens of the wannabe genre populate "The Real World." These are dreamers who don't dream of becoming chefs or models or even male strippers, they dream of becoming ... stars of "The Real World."

Since the producers have long since abandoned the original goal of enlightening rednecks about gays and blacks about whites and so on (all the kids in the house know about that stuff already anyway, from watching every season of "The Real World" ever), the show is free to focus full-time on following the kids around as they get drunk, get naked, and get into fist-fights with the locals, not necessarily in that order.

In accordance with this shift in focus, "The Real World" no longer features a house filled with odd-looking oddballs or thoughtful weirdos or ignorant hayseeds. Instead, we get six extremely hot, extremely fit drinkers, and one slightly nerdy virgin to make sure none of them get killed. That's no joke, either: On the first episode, one kid gets his face smashed to bits in a brawl and has to have surgery. And last week, the nerdy virgin had to wrangle three stumbling-drunk hotties home at once.

What's the deal with body shots? Why do these kids love them so much? Watching them suck tequila out of each other's bellybuttons makes me feel 3,000 years old. Apparently I'm not the only one: A reader from Austin wrote to me last week and proclaimed his total dismay and confusion, having watched his first episode of "The Real World" ever only to discover that his niece's favorite show celebrates the drunken antics of a gaggle of pretty half-wits.

If you like that sort of thing, though, clearly this season of "The Real World" will not disappoint. My only objection is that the show has clearly evolved into pornography, but the producers are still in denial about it, so it's all bad dialogue and unbelievable scenarios without the money shot.

What we really need -- and don't lie, you need it, too -- is to see these whippersnappers actually performing sex acts on each other. Come on, that's not too much to ask from fame-hungry, drunken, whoring sea donkeys, is it? Move the show to pay-per-view or Cinemax, and replace those under-the-sheets shots with naked butt-pumping glory!

Just to prove that I am, indeed, 3,000 years old, let me add that no, of course I didn't miss the finale of "Dancing With the Stars" (see also: The Best Show of the Summer), and I was a little disappointed with the results. Now, I'll admit, Kelly Monaco has a belly that cries out for tequila shots. I'll also admit that she's plucky and likable and I've been rooting for her over, say, Rachel Hunter or Evander Holyfield. I'll even admit that she's very fit and flexible and therefore very good at those crazy lifts and back walkovers and other sexually perverse athletic stunts. But girlfriend can't dance. She can shimmy, sure, she can shake it, but she can't actually dance. So I was annoyed that she won, and irritated that the judges all gave her three 10s in her last performance when, well, it was flashy but the dancing wasn't any good.

John O'Hurley (J. Peterman from "Seinfeld") can dance. He can't shake his ass, and his gut doesn't cry out for tequila, but he can dance. Fit little bunny rabbits may be taking over the universe (and more power to them), but this is a show called "Dancing With the Stars." Remember? Let's say it together: "Dancing With the Stars"! Now, can we please hold on to our creaky Lawrence Welk values for long enough to vote for the guy who does a mean quick-step, instead of being hypnotized by big, bouncing boobies?

Who am I kidding? Big, bouncing boobies win every time, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Pop quiz!
1. We learned so many important lessons this week! But which was the most important?

a. Big, bouncing boobies win every time.
b. Only very old drunks remember INXS.
c. The only thing worse than wanting to be a soap star is dragging out your best fist-pumping, hip-thrusting rocker moves for a screaming fraudience on a reality show, just to join a band that only very old drunks remember.
d. People involved in making TV aren't fun to watch on TV.
e. "The Real World" is just cheap pornography without any of the naked butt-pumping glory.
f. Sometimes deleting pointless reality shows from your TiVo without watching them can be very thrilling, particularly if a herd of whoring sea donkeys armed with flaming Jägermeister shots and fruit-flavored condoms stampedes in right after that.

Answer Key: 1. a.

Next week: Of mind freaks and men! Plus: MTV2's "Wonder Showzen" blows my fragile mind!

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