Escape from paradise
After spending three weeks in France and Spain, you might think that landing in Los Angeles would feel a little depressing. In the taxi on the way home, driving past miles of billboards and strip malls, gazing out at that eerie brown glow on the horizon where the latest brush fires are burning out of control, you might expect your heart to sink a little. Unlocking your door and finding an avalanche of tapes and DVDs of new shows, along with a backlog of TiVoed shows, you might have a little existential crisis about your shallow American existence. You might look back on all of the lovely jamón and Rioja you consumed in some town square, as little clusters of adorably authentic Spaniards meandered nearby, and you might think: "Why do I live in a cement wasteland, when it's the cute little foreign world peoples who really know how to live? They have a sense of history, they care about food, and architecture, and community! They embrace the good things in life! Why do I live this way? What's wrong with me?"
You might think these things, if you weren't me. For me, returning to smog and traffic and palm trees and fast-food joints felt like crawling back into bed after breakfast. The blistering sun, the smell of the brush fires, the little ashes that fell on my head when I went outside, filled me with a sense that all was well in the world. The anticipation of my first In-N-Out Burger was enough to keep a smile permanently pasted on my face for the first few days. And most of all, the fact that I had over 20 hours of TV lined up on my TiVo filled my heart with joy.
I'm glad that there are quaint and beautiful places in the world, beaches where swarthy Spaniards play volleyball a few feet from the crystal blue Mediterranean, town squares where grand statues tower over cobblestone streets, delightful Parisian bars populated by hot French men with their striking noses and their whimsical man bags. But somehow, in the flawed and sketchy dystopia of Los Angeles, there's less pressure. I can settle in with a burger and fries and three hours of "America's Next Top Model" without feeling guilty about it or having to explain my total lack of ironic detachment in French to some man who's prettier and more educated and more stylish than I am.
Wheel of torture
I think what I'm trying to say is that some of us glimpse a world that's clearly superior to ours, and we spend the balance of our days either striving to emulate it or whining about how badly our world sucks, preferably with a fake French accent. The rest of us are comfortable with our own mediocrity.
I know you think that's a bad thing, chickens, but you're wrong -- sometimes embracing your mediocrity offers the shortest path to sheer brilliance. Just look at "America's Next Top Model." Along with lots of self-serious talk about the fashion industry and how important it is to be exactly like Tyra Banks in order to succeed, this show features lots of cattiness and lots of ass. Sure, the producers could look at their solid ratings and say, "We have the opportunity to create something really grand and culturally significant here!" -- and then the show would suck. Last season, in fact, the show's bloated sense of itself seemed to block out all sunlight. The producers forgot to find smart, deeply disturbed women, they forgot to come up with bizarre, engaging photo shoots, and they let Tyra's self-involved theatrics run wild.
This year, "ANTM" returns to its rich history of cattiness and lurid, ass-flashing goodness. Not only do the aspiring models present a dizzying assortment of diagnosable pathologies, but the judges haven't even tried to hide the fact that this competition is, above and beyond everything else, a popularity contest. Along with locating the girls who know just how to thrust their asses this way or that for the camera, the judges seem to be trying to single out those with the most severe personality disorders -- just so they can torment them. During the first episode, one of the aspiring models admits to the judges, giggling adorably all the while, that she and her family have what they call "a pretty gene." The judges ridicule her to her face, which is satisfying and basically goes to the heart of why we watch the show: to see beautiful people being humiliated and tortured.
For the rest of the episode, Pretty Gene steps on toes and prattles on about herself endlessly and tells her closest friend, Kim (a gay girl who I'm totally gay for), that her photo shoot sucked. At the end of the show, Pretty Gene is dumped without fanfare. Afterward, we cut to the usual "My dreams have been crushed" voice-over, but this time we're treated to shots of Pretty Gene struggling to pull her massive rolling suitcase up a sinister set of stairs at the ANTM mansion. Again, the producers aren't getting too artsy or grand; they know what we want. We want to watch the homecoming queen try to hold back her tears while lugging her 70-pound bag up a brutal flight of stairs. Sure, we know she'll never have to carry her own bags again. Maybe that's what makes it so special!
The hapless target of the second episode is Cassandra, the vapid beauty queen from Texas. Everyone in the ANTM mansion, from the Bling It On room to the Stiletto Salon, has noticed that Cassandra doesn't seem to have any blood flowing in her veins. "She's basically been a robot this entire time," Ebony says. When confronted, Cassandra responds, "You know how sociopaths don't feel emotion, and that's why they can kill people without ever, like, feeling bad about?" That's exactly the way she is. "Only I've never killed anybody," she adds.
I'm not sure whether Cassandra is an idiot or an evil genius, but by the time the girls' makeovers roll around, I definitely want them to give her a bright green mohawk, then elminate her later that day. After giving several girls long, flowing hair, Tyra announces that Cassandra, who has long, flowing hair, will be in for a dramatic change. "Have you ever seen that movie 'Rosemary's Baby' starring Mia Farrow?" Cassandra shakes her head; no, she hasn't. Then we cut to Kim, the plucky lesbian, doing a silent, fist-pumping "Yes!"
"Let me explain what her hair looked like in that movie," Tyra says sweetly. "It was a little bit lighter than yours, and it was this short," she taunts, holding her fingers about an inch apart. Cassandra promptly bursts into tears. Half of the girls look really nervous and upset for Cassandra, the other half are laughing, and Kim grins from ear to ear, and says, "Oh yeah!" It's delicious. Think about it: When have you ever had the pleasure of seeing a Texas beauty queen get her hair chopped off while a hot lesbian cackles and jeers on the sidelines? It's demonically good.
Of course, for Kim, this isn't just a competition. No, Kim is living in some kind of crazy fantasy world, surrounded by incredibly beautiful, slightly insecure women who spend most of their time changing clothes. Instead of playing it cool so as not to make anyone uncomfortable, Kim makes it clear that she's thrilled. Cut to Sarah, a blonde with massive lips, lurching for Kim and making out with her in a limo. Is Sarah gay or is she just confused by the fact that Kim is dressed like a prep school boy? Who cares? "One down, 11 to go!" Kim shouts and all the girls squeal like confused preteens at an Elvis concert.
The only bad thing about this season is that they've replaced the dependably obnoxious Janice Dickinson with a very polite and upbeat Twiggy. That, and Tyra, whose adorable diva act started wearing thin two seasons ago, but for some reason no one has clued her in about how grating she's become.
The talking cure
Of course, that's the downside of embracing mediocrity. When you celebrate mediocrity a little too enthusiastically, mediocrity sometimes gets the impression that it's not mediocre at all. Thanks to the scores of professional sycophants who populate Hollywood, there are hundreds upon thousands of deeply mediocre humans prancing around, fancying themselves incredibly talented, making terrible TV shows and crappy movies and, in Tyra Banks' case, a really bad talk show.
Yes, bad enough that we should have to feel all awkward and exhausted in the face of Tyra's cutesy shtick on "ANTM," but now there's "The Tyra Banks Show" (syndicated, check local listings), so Tyra can bore and irritate us on a daily basis. When I watched her show, all I could do was imagine all those professional fawners who told Tyra that she's soooo good at counseling young women and she should have her own show -- you know, like a cross between "Dr. Phil" and "Oprah"! Not a bad formula, as far as derivative copycat pap goes, but somehow, with Tyra at the wheel, it stalls and then sputters and dies.
It's not that she always comes out and goofs around in her usual chafing way -- no, she's often very straightforward and serious, and somehow that's even worse. Sure, she's wearing some kind of insane frilly bustier, but she's clearly conjuring "Oprah," putting the audience's feelings into words and being that "No you didn't!" voice in the crowd. She's also conjuring "Dr. Phil," giving tough love and staring down her guests and telling the couple that's been torn apart by cheating to look into each other's eyes and talk. "Don't talk to me, talk to each other!" she says, and it's what Dr. Phil always says, but Tyra doesn't mind, she doesn't even notice. She's that fierce!
She may be fierce, but unfortunately Tyra isn't as smart or as dynamic or as quick or as sensible as Oprah and she's not as insightful or as instructive or as commanding a presence as Dr. Phil. In the end, when she's interviewing a young woman about cheating or asking another woman how she feels about commitment, it just sounds vapid and rambling and you feel like you're overhearing two teenage girls gossiping aimlessly on the bus.
Strange forms of life on Mars
Speaking of teenagers on the bus, what did you think of the "Veronica Mars" premiere? Isn't it a little over the top to send a busload of teenagers over a cliff? And why did we have to go through that terrible fast-forward relationship with creepy Logan? Why should we care about the holier-than-thou tramp who had the audacity to date Veronica's ex, Duncan, then act all surprised when Veronica and Duncan got back together? I wish that whoring tartlet had plunged off a rocky cliff months ago. And does it really make sense to investigate anyone evil enough to send a busload of kids hurtling to their premature deaths? Last season Veronica investigated a murder; this season she hunts down criminal masterminds or taps into the psychology of domestic teenage terrorism? And are we supposed to get excited about the fact that a mayoral candidate and some baseball players and some disgruntled parents might be involved? Mediocrity is fine for those who can't do any better, but the premiere of "Veronica Mars" constitutes classic "What were they smoking?" television.
But then, as with all mysteries, the season-long arc of "Veronica Mars" will have much more to do with the little discoveries along the way than it will the actual crime. I mean, would we have been nearly as engrossed in the extended Clue game of the first season, had we known that the answers were: Harry Hamlin, by the pool, with the ashtray?
Speaking of smoking, "Weeds" (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 10 p.m. on Showtime) has really developed into a great show, the kind of dramedy that's not only entertaining and light and funny, but that you actually look forward to watching each week. It goes without saying that Mary-Louise Parker is fantastic as Nancy, but I'm really starting to love Justin Kirk, who plays Nancy's brother-in-law Andy. And Celia's (Elizabeth Perkins) transformation from flatly evil neighbor to edgy yet nuanced born-again human has been riveting.
Half-hour dramedies aren't exactly easy to pull off -- think of "Entourage," which never makes it past the most shallow scenarios and jokes, without being all that funny or all that interesting, story-wise. Or what about "Arrested Development," which is incredibly fun and hilarious, but it's not like you really care deeply about the characters. That's fine -- it's not the kind of show where that matters at all; you'd rather be entertained by the rapid fire of jokes and references and parodies and diversions.
But "Weeds" falls into that difficult territory where it's not about the jokes or the characters or the stories, exactly, but all three have to be good enough to keep us interested. Miraculously, they are, and in the last few episodes, "Weeds" has taken a turn that separates it very clearly from "Entourage" and other lesser half-hour comedies. The episode where Nancy has a sexual crisis but realizes that she isn't ready to get involved with anyone has a particular edge to it, ending with the emotionally devastating scene where she watches a sex tape she made with her husband. That one scene wrenches Nancy out of her half-fake comedy backdrop and throws her into our living rooms, a real, living, breathing, struggling human being. After that, I was all in, completely invested, buckled up for whatever ride might come next.
I also loved the affair between Celia and Conrad, Nancy's dealer, whom Nancy tells Celia is her carpenter. "Is it true what they say about carpenters?" Celia asks flirtatiously, and Conrad replies, without skipping a beat, "When I nail something, it stays nailed."
And, most impressive of all, the rambling pothead idiocy depicted in "Weeds" isn't quite of the same dim-bulb, "I'm seeing stars!" Afterschool Special variety seen in most movies and TV shows. After Andy and Doug (Kevin Nealon) find a rat hole in the box where Nancy keeps her pot, Andy asks Doug, "Do you think there's rat spit in here, like plague rat spit? Are we smoking plague?" Doug responds with utter seriousness, "No, no. Fire beats plague. As soon as we lit it up, it was safe, it's sterilized."
See, that's the stoner brand of mediocrity: Stoners enjoy thinking big thoughts, mulling over various historical facts and scientific notions, only they don't have enough attention to detail to know exactly what the hell they're talking about, so it all amounts to a collaborative guessing game. Throw in a little strong weed, and collaborative guessing games look a lot like a bunch of second graders discussing where babies come from.
The nice thing about "Weeds" is that, even though it's built around a fun but somewhat unrealistic scenario (marijuana-peddling housewife), it covers a wide range of familiar life challenges: The confusion and chaos of parenting, the walking death of a bad marriage, the devastation of living in the wake of your spouse's death, the awkwardness of trying to date someone new when you're a widow. And all of these experiences are approached with a withering skepticism, a sense of playfulness, and most of all, a whiff of hope.
Or is just that really good bud I smell? Sometimes it's tough to tell the difference.
I've embraced my own mediocrity today, which is why this column is so long and yet covers so little of the fall TV season when there's so much more to discuss. But you are watching "Threshold," right, chickens? And I know you didn't miss the devilish child-labor thrills of "The Amazing Race." All of these joyously mediocre entertainments will be explored, in time. For now, though, let's all go get a greasy hamburger and some freedom fries salted within an inch of their short lives, and let's take a little time out to celebrate the deeply satisfying shallowness and depravity of our culture. From hot lesbians with wicked streaks to sociopathic beauty queens to stoned slackers guessing about rare infectious diseases, we are a nation of outlandish freaks and oddballs. Or at least on TV we are. Sometimes it's tough to tell the difference.
The real beauty is that, as Americans, we don't have to! All we have to do is shake some more salt on top and take another bite.
Next week: All of those other shows, and more!