I Like to Watch

"Rome" burns but doesn't ignite. Plus: The comedic stylings of J.D. from "Rock Star: INXS"!

By Heather Havrilesky
August 29, 2005 1:25AM (UTC)
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Beware of dog
I've got to level with you, veal cutlets. I've watched about 30 pilots for the new fall season this week, and I'm much worse for the wear. Nothing really does justice to the experience of watching hour after hour of untested televised entertainments for a week straight, but suffice it to say that it's not unlike eating three chili dogs, taking a ride on Space Mountain, and then vomiting down the side of the nearest trash can at Disneyland.

Pilots suck. It's amazing, really, that lots of smart people get paid millions of dollars to make a handful of shows that are about as refreshing and clever and original as a Grateful Dead cover band. And the same actors are in all of the pilots every year! And the plots of the pilots are always the same! It's like they take the same four dogs and dress them up in different outfits every fall and hope that no one will notice.


See how I have to show you dogs in funny outfits just to keep this interesting? The sitcoms aren't funny. They're always about hip young folks who make jokes about plastic surgery and how their gaydar is malfunctioning -- you know, the stuff that made you chuckle about five or six years ago -- but they haven't found Mr. Right or they don't know how to approach the bland-looking Love Interest across the room. Yawn. The dramas are unoriginal and soapy, and feature blandly pretty actors who make your skin crawl every time they open their mouths. The cop shows have all the same crimes and the same detectives with haunted pasts (Her parents were mysteriously murdered! His former partner was killed in the line of duty!).

And every single one of the law shows features the same exact self-righteous yet poignant climax, where the lawyer wobbles at first but then gets his/her footing and delivers an achingly earnest, teary-eyed appeal to the jury to make sure that justice is served. Hell, I could probably write a compelling closing argument to a murder case all by myself -- one that rhymed and sounded really good when sung to the tune of "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal Mo." (Who says this whole damn case is a joke?/ Our John Doe, who lies like a pro!/ He keeps to himself, says the neighbor next do'!/ Creepy Doe, don't let him kill mo'!)

That said, there are a few good new shows in the mix, the most surprising of which has to be CBS's "Threshold," which looked cheesy as hell in the promos, but in the second half hour, shifts from slightly dark to downright disturbing. Actually, thanks to "Lost" and the global struggle against violent extremism, there are a bunch of shows this fall that are both violent and extreme. Hurray!


Slow-cooked meats at play
But I'm getting ahead of myself now -- you have to wait for the big fall preview exposé to learn more about how the TV studios are in cahoots with al-Qaida to scare the bejeezus out of the American populace. In the meantime, let's leave our tumultuous world behind and travel back in time, to ancient Rome. Glorious, lusty Rome, with its elaborate feasts and its gladiators and its fat-bottomed girls, who even then made the rockin' world go round.

Those were simpler times, indeed! While the blood-thirsty armies of Rome wandered far from home to conquer those pathetic, hairy foreign peoples, plundering their riches and scoffing at their subpar plumbing systems, the people of Rome feasted on roasted pig and tossed back goblets of wine and indulged the desires of the flesh and danced the night away, and soon they lost sight of any guiding principles and values, so numb were they from so much booze and babes and slow-cooked meats.

Oh those foolish Romans! If only they had the wisdom and foresight that we have now, they might've put down the vino and taken some interest in those wars waging in foreign lands. But at least their depravity makes for good television, especially on HBO, where they can leave behind the noble stares and bland pronouncements and British accents of every other depiction of ancient Rome we've seen, and show us the fat-bottomed girls and frenzied orgies we crave. If "Deadwood" could make the old West interesting, after all, just think of what HBO can do with the Roman empire!


Ahem. And those of you who caught Sunday night's premiere are probably still holding out hope that things will get grittier or some of these characters who, right now, are about as compelling as guests at a retirement community toga party, will be transformed into sandal-wearing Al Swearengens overnight. Unfortunately, HBO's "Rome" not only doesn't color outside the lines nearly enough, but the characters have very little to offer. Having watched five episodes of "Rome," I know about as much about these characters as I did after the first hour, and now that I know they're not going to interest me or surprise me, the whole pretty picture puts me right to sleep.

What can you do if you're HBO? They've hired absolute visionaries and given them total freedom, but how many David Chases are there in the world? How many Alan Balls and David Milches are roaming around out there? It's pretty absurd to expect that every historical drama created by HBO could possibly be as jarringly original as "Deadwood," or as complicated and as real and as dark as "The Sopranos."


But even as "Rome" has its saving graces -- it's beautiful, the dialogue is sharp, the villainess looks and acts just like Julie Cooper from "The O.C." -- after several episodes, it's almost alarming how little we know about Caesar himself. What drives him? How does he come to his decisions? What's his favorite color? Not only do we see nothing of, say, Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen here, but there's nothing here at all. Even if you end up enjoying this series, you have to really wonder what they were thinking, giving us a lead this flat and lifeless. Even his character description on the HBO site asserts that Caesar "can be witty and charming or warm and caring, but these qualities are always performances, produced as needed, and rarely prompted by genuine feeling." So our lead is a big fake, yet even this isn't demonstrated clearly through dramatic action?

Are dramas today so character driven that straightforward stories driven by plot feel utterly empty? Are we so flooded with the complications of the psyche that historical dramas that sidestep Freudian minutiae leave us cold?

Maybe so. But the fact remains that, aside from some aggressive banter between Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, watching "Rome" is like spending time with your really beautiful girlfriend who has nothing to say and won't sleep with you.


A time to mourn, a time to move the hell on
Of course, I know how that feels, since I spent the last week mooning over "Six Feet Under" like a heartsick teenager. I'm still not as bad as my boss, though, who e-mailed me several times this week to ask, "Why did they kill Keith that way, Heather? Why?"

I had almost convinced her that Claire merely imagined that Keith might die that way, until HBO, damn them, put up obituaries for each character.

Why did they do that to Keith, God? Why? Answer meeeeeee!


Heroin soup for the rocker soul
I was in a deep, dark hole and I might never have climbed out if not for the simple pleasures of -- you guessed it -- "Rock Star: INXS."

This show is like heroin. I can't stop watching, and it makes me feel really, really good and really at peace with the world every time I do. Almost everything about it is deeply wrong: Brooke Burke in her terrible outfits, the unseemly fist-shaking fraudience, Dave Navarro's absurd proclamations, the repeated assertion that INXS is or ever was a "supergroup." Plus, having a rock 'n' roll contest, in which "rockers" compete against each other to see who can "rock" the hardest? It just goes without saying how absurdly wrong-headed that is.

But then I got to thinking about how absurd the whole notion is that rock 'n' roll is somehow sacred, like it hasn't already been desecrated by decade after decade of bands like Blink 182 and Third Eye Blind, marching around in full rocker regalia but conveniently skipping the violent outbursts and the droolly, unphotogenic overdoses and the gutted hotel rooms. Why must we remind ourselves that, just like everything else in the world that's pure and special -- or at least just raw and intriguingly self-destructive -- rock 'n' roll has been subsumed by the simultaneously dulling and exaggerative influence of consumer culture. In other words, we can just assume that all the little rockers out there are total fakes until proven otherwise.

Which basically puts the jackass contestants on "Rock Star" on par with pretty much every other rock 'n' roller on the planet. Just because it's rock 'n' roll, that doesn't mean it's any good, and just because these fools are on a Mark Burnett-produced show, that doesn't mean they're talentless hacks. It's up to us -- the fist-shaking audience at home -- to sort through this odd collection and find the contestants with the most authenticity, talent and passion. You know, so they have a shot at leading one of the world's worst bands.


But of course, what could be more subjective than a judgment of an artist's authenticity or passion? I remember thinking the White Stripes were pretty good but sort of phony. And then I went to go see them perform, only to discover that Jack White is the genuine article. What more is there to say? How can I possibly use words to describe the feeling a great performer evokes in an audience? He's committed, he's convincing, and watching him play is just electrifying. Even if Brooke Burke were standing a few feet away in one of her terrible outfits, even if a fist-shaking, tube-top-wearing fraudience were present, even if Dave Navarro cut into the applause by saying, "Jack. I really dig your whole vibe, man," that wouldn't change the fact that Jack White has it. He's the real thing.

Which brings us to the remaining six "rockers," quite a few of whom have proven that they can, in fact, "rock," albeit in ways that seem to demand the requisite minimum of striding confidently across the stage, making those passionate Bono-style fists and shimmying to the end of the rocker plank, then kneeling and reaching out to the squealing sea of, well, sea donkeys. Mostly, I'm amazed at how everyone is setting the bar high, rising above the mediocrity of their surroundings, and turning in some seriously great performances. Mig, Ty, Suzie and Marty are my current favorites, and although Jordis has been on a downward slide, she's still got the talent to make a comeback. In other words, five out of the last six "rockers" kick ass, which means that things are going to be pretty interesting moving forward.

And then there's J.D., who's such a jackass it's impossible to keep your eyes off him. He may be the most self-deluded human being on TV right now, with his little vocal flourishes, accentuated with those odd hand flourishes, just in case you missed it the subtleties of his vocal stylings. The guy is pure comedy, deserves his own comedy show, in fact. They should rename the show "Rock Star: INXS/Comedy Central." Please, if you haven't seen this man perform, TiVo the show and check him out. It's priceless stuff -- you won't regret it.

In summary
What does it all mean? Sadly, in the late summer, when half of the office is on vacation and the other half is pacing around with an empty look in their eyes or sifting through the half-eaten doughnuts from the morning staff meeting, guiding principles and overriding themes are hard to find. Keith is dead and HBO is offering up a deeply unoriginal, far from groundbreaking drama series instead of its usual savory fare. All we can really do is drink to excess, encourage talented "rockers" to join a crappy band, and count the days until we hear Martha Stewart's brand new "Apprentice" catchphrase.


Next week: What will become of Aunt Sassy?

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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