I Like to Watch

Nostalgia TV: Culture stalls and we choke on its fumes. At least we can all be warmed by the return of "Greg the Bunny."

By Heather Havrilesky
August 15, 2005 1:11AM (UTC)
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Nostalgia, Inc.
Our culture is driven by nostalgia, chickens. Even the brand-spanking-new stuff, the newest of the new, the stuff that parades around showing off its supreme novelty is, nine times out of 10, just some crusty 20-year-old idea with a pretty new hat and scarf on it so you won't recognize it at first. Most of our movements, our trends, our cultural blunders, even our foreign policies, are created or at least endorsed and funded by crusty old hosebags who are so nostalgic for their glory days that they can't get it up for anything but recycled ideas, remakes, adaptations of old books and movies, styles that were crappy the first three times around, and antiquated notions of our rightful place at the top of the globo-cultural trash heap.

Nostalgia informs us and drives us and keeps us dating the same variety of jerk over and over again. Nostalgia ensures that we fly home to visit our families for a regular dose of emotional abuse and debilitating family dynamics. Nostalgia tricks us into procreating, because we imagine that having a Mini-Me around will restore our youth or at least restore our childlike innocence and wonder -- you know, so that we can be more like Tom Cruise.


The trouble with all this nostalgia is that not only does it make us look like losers because we either can't create anything new or can't appreciate anything that is new, but it also dooms us to repeat our old mistakes over and over again. In other words, those who learn history are doomed to repeat it -- or replicate it -- badly.

Half-empty glass only
Some would rather think of this process as cultural recycling. These are the people who treat their stinky concepts as shiny and special and brand-new in every way. "TV producers," I think they're called. But they are learning a very painful lesson lately: Reality stars aren't remotely interesting outside their native environments.

In other words, when you take all of the notable sociopaths from various shows -- Jonathan of "The Amazing Race," Richard Hatch and Jonny Fairplay of "Survivor," Stacy J of "The Apprentice 2," Toni of "Paradise Hotel" -- and put them all together in a new scenario, say, competing against each other on an obstacle course or filming a really terrible horror movie together -- somehow they're only about one-third as interesting as they were on their original shows. Which is not to say that Jonathan of "The Amazing Race" isn't just as aggressive and blind to himself on "Battle of the Network Reality Stars" (Wednesday, Aug. 17, at 9 p.m. EDT on Bravo) as he ever was; it just doesn't seem very interesting to find out that he knows how to give an inspired repeat performance before the cameras. After all, the appeal of "reality" -- and here we understand "reality" as a brand, one that denotes lots of arguing and tears and some of the unguarded dismay you might expect to see in someone who's not surrounded by cameras -- is that you meet these "characters" and then watch as they "lose their shit."


Watching the same characters lose their shit in exactly the same way as they did the first time you met them is kind of like riding "It's a Small World After All" at Disney World for the sixth time, 30 years after you rode it for the first time. No matter how much you loved the little girl in the sari way back when, now you know that only Brangelina has any real love for those cute little foreign peoples these days. The rest of us just want our Thai delivery to show up on time.

This is a service economy, after all, so not only do we want our friggin' green curry chicken to arrive piping hot, we want that bonehead Jonny Fairplay to do his dumb Jonny Fairplay thing: Lie, use people, manipulate, charm (if you can call it that), snicker to the camera over what suckers they all are, etc. But when he does it on "Kill Reality" -- the show where a bunch of reality stars make what appears to be an unspeakably awful horror movie together -- it's just not the same, kind of like hearing "Axle F" again for the first time in 20 years, but this time it sounds really lame and tinny and you don't feel like doing the Snake at all, not even just a little bit.

Not surprisingly, "Kill Reality" (Mondays at 10 p.m. EDT on E!) features some of the most outrageous idiocy ever seen on any reality show, much of it brought to you by Toni, notorious bug-eyed mutant of "Paradise Hotel" fame. These kids know how to earn their keep, after all -- they want off the Z-list so bad, they'll do any old thing that viewers might consider "outrageous" just to be back in the public's consciousness. But when it comes to recycled reality has-beens, nothing's shocking.


For those about to shock
Man, I loved that album. It's hard to believe that the guy who's responsible for all those amazing guitar riffs is the same guy who sits, all made up and hairsprayed, next to INXS every week, delivering his one-line rockerisms to a screaming fraudience of dolled-up non-hotties.

I know it makes me a hateful human being for saying so, chicken curries, but have you noticed how the decorated floozies in the fraudience on "Rock Star: INXS" are exceptionally, um, difficult to look at? I guess they don't have the cash to hire extras, or to recruit a higher caliber of bimbosity. But when I think about all of the exceptionally nice-looking life-size dolls that live in this town who would happily shake their fists at warmed-over rock 'n' roll covers sung by other exceptionally nice-looking life-size dolls, it really makes me wonder what's wrong with those cultural recyclers over at CBS.


And speaking of life-size dolls, don't you love how host Brooke Burke tries to growl every line just like the guy on the "Carl's Jr." commercial? And more importantly, did you see that oversize metallic belt she was trying to pass off as a skirt the other day? You could actually see her crotch. Not only that, but she contributed to the illusion by wearing a leather jacket with it. She looked like she was having one of those bad dreams where you get up in the morning and leave for work, and halfway through the day you realize that you forgot to put on pants, but no one told you -- only for Brooke, it was all too real!

But then, it's sort of appropriate that a cry of "The host is wearing no pants!" wouldn't go up among the sycophantic sea donkeys in the fraudience, given that every time one of those faux rockers takes the stage, not only do we all feel, quite palpably, that the emperor (Mark Burnett, in this case) is wearing no clothes, but we're too pathetic and old and nostalgic for authentic moments of pre-stadium-tour rock 'n' roll performance magic to say so, or to change the channel, for that matter.

And that's not to mention that every time one of those faux rockers takes the stage, a little angel in heaven loses its wings and gets sent straight to hell. Except for Ty, who's a genuinely great, organic performer and an exceptional vocalist, and is, therefore, way too talented to sing those painfully flat INXS songs. Poor Ty. I'm nostalgic for the pre-Mark-Burnett days of his career already.


People who don't need people
OK, I know, I know. It's time to talk about a show that's actually good, one that actually matters, or one that's at least smart and funny enough to warrant our attention. Have no fear, little Welsh bunny rarebits, because IFC has a lineup on Fridays that you're sure to savor like glorified melted cheese. Not that melted cheese needs to be glorified, but still.

Yes, indeed, Three new shows (starting at 10 p.m. EDT) are airing: "Greg the Bunny," "Hopeless Pictures," and "The Festival." You've probably seen "Greg the Bunny" before -- it started as a New York public access show, then it was on IFC, then it became a sitcom and moved to Fox, where it was quickly canceled because Fox had very important episodes of "Nanny 911" to air instead, so now it's back on IFC. "Greg the Bunny" mostly features a bunch of addled-looking puppets doing extremely odd film parodies. In other words, it's the greatest.

I also enjoyed "Hopeless Pictures," which provides one of the most realistic snapshots of life in Los Angeles that I've ever seen, more realistic than, say, "Six Feet Under," because, as you all know, we don't actually have feelings about other people here in the Southland! unless, of course, they're somehow related to our deepest, innermost neuroticisms about ourselves and our innermost needs and desires and our feelings about those innermost needs and desires and neuroticisms, and our feelings about the fact that exploring our feelings about our feelings makes us feel, like, so selfish and weird and stuff but, like, we have to give ourselves a little space to just feel our feelings about our feelings about our feelings, in order to feel more, like, alive and good and satisfied and stuff. If you enjoyed reading that last sentence, "Hopeless Pictures" is for you.


The third show of the block is called "The Festival," and it involves a wannabe filmmaker guy whose film has made it into this indie film festival that's sort of like Sundance, but the fact is that we all know way, way too much about Sundance: It's so commercial, it's so pretentious, the filmmakers are so broke, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, all anyone does is stand around at promotional events, tossing back branded vodka drinks, having the same bad conversations about Sundance while scanning the crowd for Paris Hilton. The free lip balm is pretty exciting, though.

Helpless pictures
Speaking of free lip balm for the chicken soul, those of you who like watching good films more than you like hearing about the bad parties at good film festivals are going to want to tune in for the premiere of "Born Into Brothels" (Tuesday, Aug. 16 at 7 p.m. EDT on Cinemax). That's the Oscar-winning Sundance documentary about kids growing up in the red-light district of Calcutta. Filmmaker Zana Briski lived with the women in the brothels for years, then started to teach some of the kids who lived there photography, and the documentary chronicles their experiences and her attempts to get them out of the brothels and into boarding schools. The kids are sweet and insightful and in many cases, very talented, and their lives are pretty far removed from anything you're likely to have seen before.

When you see the kids play in the ocean, then return, sullenly, to their lives at the brothel, you get a fleeting glimpse of just how lucky you are to be dating the same variety of jerk over and over again and visiting your family over and over again for a regular dose of emotional abuse and so on. In other words, it will restore your youth or at least restore your childlike innocence and wonder -- you know, so that you can be more like Tom Cruise.

In summary
A wise young woman named Missy once said, "Nostalgia is the best. Are you kidding me? That's why I make memories in the first place!"


On the other hand, without nostalgia, Mark Burnett wouldn't be foolish enough to think that anyone considers a lead singer for INXS a "rock star." Without nostalgia, Bobby Brown wouldn't be on our TV screens, George W. Bush wouldn't be in the White House, and Tom Cruise would be leading his own twisted cult somewhere in the Mojave Desert, leaving Katie Holmes safe to play hopscotch and read teen magazines unmolested.

All of this talk of nostalgia reminds me of that terrible song by the band Bowling for Soup, called "1985." For those of you not swimming through the globo-cultural trash heap, "1985" tells the story of a pathetic suburban mom who wishes it were still 1985, because that's when she listened to Madonna and U2 and Blondie, but now she's married to an accountant and her high-school-age kids think she's incredibly lame. Maybe the little bastards even wrote the song. But the point is, idiot loser nostalgic mom has no taste, while her mean cooler-than-thou kids obviously listen to quality music by Ashlee Simpson and Hoobastank.

That song makes me nostalgic for a time when I thought I was cooler than my mom. She had these big, weird, tinted Barbra Streisand glasses, and she'd sometimes wear these old Army jackets and she carried this huge leather purse, all of which prompted me to sing (to the tune of "Our Love's in Jeopardy!") "My mom's a refugee, baby!" Meanwhile, I listened to Duran Duran and wore jackets with huge shoulder pads in them and sprayed my terrible bangs with a really strong hairspray called Stiff Stuff. In other words, I had it all wrong: My mom was a lot cooler than I was. Yet, like a greasy teenager tipsy on peach wine coolers, I'm still a little nostalgic for those days. The moral to our story? Nostalgia makes jackasses of us all.

Next week: The nostalgia of HBO's "Rome" makes a jackass of ABC's inferior "Empire," but it's still nowhere near as good as the most of the other dramas on HBO.

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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