I Like to Watch

Veronica returns, Spanish reality TV bores, and in the disturbing new "Three Wishes," Amy Grant wants to make your rose-colored American myths come true.

Published September 25, 2005 9:41PM (EDT)

The world on a platter
¡Holà, pollos! Greetings from Spain, land of Manchego, queso of the gods! My original plan, along with consuming as much cheese as humanly possible, was to report on the finest televised entertainments available across the great countries of France and España. I expected to survey a wide range of programming from my travels. What sorts of reality shows do Parisians enjoy? What kinds of local shows might one see in Biarritz, on the Atlantic coast of France? What do they watch in Barcelona, aside from soccer matches?

But don't worry! Instead of squandering my vacation holed up in a dark hotel room watching foreign TV, I've been walking for miles on tiny little cobblestone streets until I'm thoroughly lost, and then sitting down and ordering foods I can barely pronounce. Yes, instead of wallowing in the eerie glow of the television, for once I'm out in the world, blinking into the sunshine, marveling at how very old everything is, straining to understand my map, and saying "gracias!" way too many times, just like a big, dumb American tourist should.

Je n'ai pas compris
Every time I do turn on the TV, I can't really understand what the hell is going on. First of all, instead of focusing only on what's happening in Spain or France, most of the news shows here seem to report on a wide range of happenings from around the world. This confuses me. Why would they care about the rest of the world's little foreign peoples?

Back in the States, we have an old saying: "Screw the rest of the world." This means, loosely translated, that the vast majority of the people on the globe can go fuck themselves, as far as we're concerned. You see, this phrase stems from a tradition we have in the States of ignoring the wishes of others while doing exactly whatever the hell we want to do, snagging the best stuff for ourselves, shoving old ladies out of the way to grab the last few French toast sticks at the Shoney's breakfast bar, etc.

So why do these Europeans seem to care so deeply about seemingly insignificant little elections and trifling little massacres and silly little revolutions and such? I cannot tell you. Perhaps, for Europeans, caring about the foreign world peoples is just a pose, like donning a whimsical, colorful scarf on a very hot day!

Other than news, all I've seen on TV was a show where some Spaniards sat around a table and described why they needed a big sum of money more than the other people at the table, and then they all voted on who should get the money. This was exactly as tedious as it sounds. Oh, and I also watched a show where some Spaniards sat around a table and insulted each other and everyone laughed really loudly, together, including the people who were being insulted. I didn't really pick up the details of either show because, well, no hablo español! So basically, watching these shows is, for me, about the same as sitting around at a sidewalk cafe, guessing what the people around me are talking about, except the ambience is a lot worse and no one ever comes to take my order.

I hope you like jamón, too!
Luckily, there's something more important than television here in Spain, something so much more alive and vibrant and special than TV that I can hardly wrap my small American brain around it, something that embodies the spirit of the people of this country, and breathes life into the land like the warm air that rises from the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean:

Jamón ibérico!

Or as they say back in the states: ham!

Ham, yes, but not just any ham. Jamón ibérico is cured for four or five years, sometimes while hanging from the rafters of a fine restaurant, so that guests can gaze up at the brown, cracked flanks and speculate as to the rosy, wondrous slices of meat that hide inside. Jamón ibérico, cousin to chorizo, great aunt to mortadella, close friend and former business associate of prosciutto. If prosciutto is sweet and delicate like Veronica Mars before her best friend's murder, then jamón ibérico is a little tougher, a little saltier, and yet far more resilient and intriguing, like the saucy post-tragedy Veronica Mars we've come to know and love.

Speaking of "Veronica Mars," I'm sure many of you little pollos fritos are looking forward to this season's premiere on Wednesday (Sept. 28 at 9 p.m. EDT on UPN). I'll avoid spoilers here, but if you don't want to know a single thing about the premiere including how I felt about it, skip down to the next section.

I was disappointed, pollos rellenas. I thought last year's finale was brilliant, and I couldn't wait for the new season to begin. But the new Veronica is far too unburdened, too light on her feet, too carefree and too bland. Compared to the salty, resilient post-tragedy jamón ibérico Veronica, this new Veronica is as flaccid and tasteless as vacuum-packed lunchmeat, the kind that hangs limply between the pre-shredded mozzarella and that dizzying assortment of Snackables.

But I suppose this new mystery will stir a fire inside of Veronica, and soon she'll be curing in her own seething resentment once again, like a fine flank of you-know-what. I'm just not sure that this new mystery is savory and pungent enough to cure such a huge hunk of plot-meat as is needed to feed us until next spring.

But I digress. The real point here is that while in America, jamón ibérico is as difficult to find as a plot point in Jennifer Love Hewitt's "Ghost Whisperer," in Spain, jamón ibérico is everywhere you turn: resting lovingly next to the huevos at the breakfast table, cuddling up with a tender manchego on a bocadillo, nestled softly among the olives of some delightful ensalada for dinner. You'd think it would be easy to grow tired of jamón ibérico, when you see it everywhere, but like another season of "The Amazing Race" or "America's Next Top Model," you'll find that you welcome it, time and time again.

One wish, two wish
What's truly unexpected, though, is the glorious zumos de naranja that you can drink here. Or, as they say in the states: orange juice! You go to an otherwise mediocre restaurant, and maybe the bread isn't fresh and the coffee isn't so great, but the zumos de naranja is inexplicably sweet and delicious! It's as if the proprietor of the restaurant walked outside, picked a few of the juiciest, ripest oranges, and then squeezed them there at your table, right in front of your dopey American eyes!

And speaking of sweet and dopey and American, I hope you caught the premiere of "Three Wishes" (Fridays at 9 p.m. EDT on NBC), a new reality-ish show hosted by Amy Grant that's intended to warm our hearts and prove that Americans aren't selfish and grabby after all. No sirree, we're all good ol'-fashioned folks who hang out in sunny town squares and talk about what a swell guy our pa is, while an American flag flaps patriotically in the background.

You see, on "Three Wishes," Amy Grant -- yes, that Amy Grant who sang feel-good Christian hits back in the '80s -- travels from town to town looking for people who are really good at crying on camera while they tell their sad stories. Once Grant and her team of lackeys identify the town's most cinematically worthy citizens, they set about making their dreams come true, mostly by throwing money at their problems. But instead of, say, calling the show "Big Money Fixes Everything," they get the townsfolk to "chip in" and "help out" -- you know, by swinging hammers, or standing around in stiff-looking semicircles, clapping or getting teary-eyed.

The most disturbing of the three sob stories has to be the little girl who was disfigured in a horrible car accident. She looks very different than she did before the accident -- we're reminded of this constantly because they repeatedly flash a snapshot of her pretty pre-accident face on the screen -- but she seems relatively well-adjusted, and mostly just says she wants to play sports again, which is tough for her because she has a soft spot on her head and must wear a helmet all the time.

Her parents, however, spend most of the show sobbing and telling us how beautiful she once was. Completely understandable, of course, but still slightly unsettling. Naturally, the first thing Grant and her wish-granters do is get the girl to a plastic surgeon. Of course, they quickly realize that the series of operations required to make her camera-ready doesn't fit with their production schedule, so they get the townspeople to "chip in" and build her a swell playhouse with a pool to swim in and lots of cool stuff that's obviously intended to ensure that the little girl will still be very popular among her peers. Again: Big Money Fixes Everything.

The show's manipulations work about as well as you'd expect, of course. With all the sad stories and the sweet little gestures and the good folks chipping in to help, I found myself crying approximately once every two minutes, and wasted about half a box of tissue on the whole premiere. Are all the themes coming together enough for you yet? Americans suffer, Americans chip in and throw Big Money at the problem, Big Money Fixes Everything, and then millions of Americans at home sob and wastefully plow through a forest of tissue paper while feeling way, way better about themselves than they have since, like, before that hurricane hit New Orleans.

"Three Wishes" is a sweet, sweet show, indeed -- sweet in the same way that zumos de naranja is sweet, except when this zumos de naranja hits your estomach, it makes you feel a little estrange, and then you realize: It is espoiled!

Supergroup goes with supercreep
And speaking of espoiled, I had planned to catch up on the four or five hours of "Rock Star: INXS" as soon as I got back home, but a tender pollo sent me an e-mail with the winner's name in the subject line. Just as I predicted so many weeks ago, the ever-greasy and slightly disturbing J.D. Fortune ended up being the only rocker who was mediocre enough for our band, INXS.

I would feel really, really disappointed over having missed all the suspense leading up to that terrible moment when J.D. won, but you see, traveling can really put things into perspective. And you know what's far more crucial and life-changing than greasy, mediocre J.D. Fortune? Calamares fritos! Or, as we say in the states: fried squid! In Biarritz, France, they call it "beignet de calamars," and although "squid doughnuts" aren't exactly what you think of when you're longing for international cuisine, let me just tell you that unlike the greasy and mediocre fried calamari you find in the states, the squid doughnuts in España are muy delicioso! Tender like the gentle sands of the Mediterranean that have been ground from stone, yet crunchy like the little stones of the Mediterranean that have not yet been ground into sand, calamares fritos are indeed a treat, the sort of treat you desire the most after a long day of marching from plaza to playa and back, espying the esights and wiping the esweat from your dopey American brow.

Alas, pollos asado, like a typical American, right now I can think only of myself. I have nothing but food on the mind and I refuse to stay indoors when there are quesos y gambas y sopas to eat and waiters to annoy and then overtip. Until next week, I bid you adieu. May you always be rich in ham, orange juice and squid doughnuts!

Next week: "Threshhold," "ANTM," "Survivor" and everything else that hasn't been espoiled for me yet!

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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