I Like to Watch

Fiendish fun for the whole family, from "The Amazing Race" to "Arrested Development" to "Everybody Hates Chris."

Published October 16, 2005 7:54PM (EDT)

Family matters
Here in America, nothing's more important to us than family. We spend the first 30 years of our lives trying to shake off the twisted dynamics and toxic undercurrents of the families we were born into, and we spend the second 30 years of our lives building families with twisted dynamics and toxic undercurrents of their own. (The third 30 years, if we're lucky enough to have them, are spent eating roasted nuts and taking comfort in the fact that most of our mistakes and messes are somebody else's problem now.)

This process not only perpetuates the status quo, it keeps the American economy afloat. For the first 30 years, we buy stuff to set ourselves apart from our families: baggy pants, tattoos, Chingy CDs, psychotropic drugs, etc. The second 30 years is when we get our lawn mowers, our sectional couches, our deluxe baby strollers and our spa treatments. During the third 30 years, we become demographically undesirable, this because we spend most of our time flipping through 10-year-old copies of Time magazine and watching "Touched by an Angel" reruns.

When you look at our lives through this very simple yet informative lens, through which we're revealed to be either fleeing from our family members in horror or horrifying our offspring, you have to wonder why we continue down this ill-fated path. Why can't we stop the madness? Wouldn't we all feel better if we could just ignore our families and stop making new ones?

Maybe. But then, how would we spend all of our time? I mean, it's fine for George Clooney, who can just fly a new shipment of whoring sea donkeys to his Italian villa once every few months. But for the rest of us, or at least the unimaginative majority of the rest of us, giving up on the divine tortures of family would mean that we'd be left to our roasted nuts and our old copies of Time and our "Touched by an Angel" reruns 30 years ahead of schedule, all without the satisfaction of knowing that, somewhere out there, a little grandchild is being raised in a manner that's a direct and equally wrongheaded reaction to our own misguided notions of parenting. I mean, really, where's the fun of retiring without having created countless messes for somebody else to clean up?

Whiny, snappy people holding hands
And so, the cycle of life continues! Recognizing the barbarity of family life, the producers of "The Amazing Race" (9 p.m. Tuesdays on CBS) created a "Family Edition" of the show this season, and the results have been downright breathtaking. Instead of the usual bickering couples and bickering friends, they invited 10 teams of bickering families to race around the world in pursuit of that million-dollar prize.

Can't you just hear the naysayers over at "Amazing Race" headquarters that fateful day when the family edition of the show was pitched? "It'll get too ugly," one of the girls from marketing said. "We can't get kids involved in this competition -- it'll stunt them for life, plus it's unsafe," a development executive added. "Will people really want to watch stressed-out families, taking it out on each other?" a publicist chimed in.

I'm willing to bet that all of those naysayers were still in the first-30-years Flee From Family stage. Thankfully, though, the other executives in the room that day were old enough and wise enough to treasure the notion of being able to laugh at other people's tweaked family dynamics. After all, what better way to shake off the stresses of creating an unhappy family of your own, than by watching someone else's unhappy family imploding as the cameras roll?

Still, even the procreators in the room couldn't have imagined just how rich and sublimely entertaining the emotional meltdowns of "The Amazing Race: Family Edition" would be.

Naturally, they handpicked an Italian family to be the first fall guys for family dysfunction. Following in the rich tradition of hotheaded Italians on TV, the Paolos seemed happy to pick up where the Barones and the Sopranos left off. The two sons are impatient and downright mean to their mom and each other, the mom is whiny and meddlesome and has no clue how to back off and give her kids the space they need, and the dad is disconcertingly passive and quiet. Delightfully enough, every single week the Paolos explode into hysterics and name-calling and teary recriminations. It gets so ugly that it'll have you rethinking your assumption that it's healthy for families to express their emotions openly.

On the other hand, the Godlewski family, consisting of four sisters from Illinois, do a nice job of embodying the drawbacks of killing each other softly. All smiles and squeals and sickening sweetness for the first few episodes, the Godlewski sisters had me wondering if they really were sisters or if it was all a sham. But next week, we're promised that the gloves will come off -- in the preview, the sisters are shown screaming at each other mercilessly. "Thanks for making me cry, you guys!" one of them bellows, and another snaps back, "You did it to yourself!" Awww, they really are sisters after all!

The show affords a priceless opportunity to observe families in their natural stressed-out, angry, annoyed states, and therefore I'd have to recommend it as mandatory viewing for the whole family. In particular, kids ages 9 to 14 who think that their families are "totally weird" while everyone else at school is growing up in some shiny, happy "Leave It to Beaver" home can benefit from seeing, firsthand, how irrational and melodramatic and ineffective most families become at the first hint of stress or disagreement. See, Johnny? You don't have to be a hotheaded Italian to have a mother who screams at the top of her lungs, "None of you ever listen to me, ever!"

On the other hand, the Gaghan family, which includes Carissa, 9, and Billy, 12, will make you feel like A) a terrible parent or B) a terrible son or daughter or C) both. They're in good shape, they're relentlessly positive, they support each other, they stay focused under pressure. Sounds scary, right? But the kids do make fun of each other, and the whole family has a good sense of humor. They're basically impossible not to like. Plus, they're the only family left with small kids. There was the sole African-American family, with two young boys, but they were eliminated during the first episode. It's just as well -- their last name was Black, and there was something a little bit disconcerting about watching them chant, "One, two, three -- Black family!" every week.

In addition to the joys of watching families ripped apart at the seams, "The Amazing Race: Family Edition" also highlights the massive differences between different cultures and classes in America. At one point, the Weaver family, a widow and her three teenagers who lost their dad when he was struck by a car at the racetrack where he worked, start to lose their minds on a long bus ride to the next destination. They handle it by complaining loudly about the race to everyone on the bus. Afterward, even the Paolos are in shock, as one of the sons confides to the cameras that the Weavers "broke down, snapped, like, lost it! They just went nuts!"

The Weavers had no apologies for the other families. "This is us. There's nobody perfect out there, and this is us. If you like us, great. If you don't like us, we're not going to change for you."

Despite the countless delights of such family antics, some viewers have said that they find this season boring because the families haven't even left the states yet, and the tasks aren't challenging enough. But what was so easy about driving through that thick mud? Didn't it take the Aiellos 14 tries to do it successfully? And what about the heavy carriage that almost ran over Mommy Weaver?

Of course I agree that it would be nicer to see the Paolos having one of their spitty outbursts on, say, a train through India, but the logistical challenges of following several teams of four abroad are tough to fathom. Just because the "Amazing Race" production team seems to have an unearthly ability to shoot challenging, high-speed scenes without catching any other camera crews in the shot, that doesn't mean that they are actually superhuman. Why don't you cut them some slack?

Ah, right. Of course. Because your mom never cut you any slack, so you don't cut yourself any slack, and therefore won't cut anyone else any slack. Better double up on therapy, buddy, because your children are going to be serious slackers.

Doo-doo head and associates
But I know you, chickens. You're not looking for psychological mumbo jumbo and the same old warped reality-show interpretations of American life. You have a probing intellectual mind, and all this talk of family has you craving an in-depth, factual exploration of the state of the American family today.

Look no further! Fox's "Arrested Development" (9 p.m. Mondays) offers exactly the thoughtful, realistic examination of the psychosocial dynamics of family that you crave. The Bluths, like any average American family, hate each other's guts. They view each other as complete lunatics -- and they're correct in their views. Like most families, every last member of the Bluth family has some diagnosable personality or mood disorder. And, like all families, they don't know how to communicate without shouting, making threats, issuing commands, throwing large objects at each other's heads or jumping around and squawking like chickens. When they're in each other's company, they're either whining, rolling their eyes, or plotting against each other. In other words, "Arrested Development" is easily the most realistic depiction of family life ever to grace the small screen.

Mitch Hurwitz and the manic geniuses behind this show obviously recognize that, when it comes to family, no amount of exaggeration goes too far. They know that you've got to dial the comedy meter up past "amp up the conflict," past "stretch the truth," straight to "total farce" just to get people out there to relate to their creation. If they only dialed it up to "subtle prodding," then they'd have just another sleep-inducing sitcom that might as well take place on Jupiter. Stick with farce, though, and audiences say, "Wow, all that hysteria and reactionary anger and violent acting-out sort of reminds me of my own family. Hey, I should really call Mom..."

I don't know if "Arrested Development" just keeps getting better, or if it's just growing on me each week, but I can't believe how many great jokes are packed into one episode. Maybe part of the challenge is adjusting to the fast pace of the show, which at first seemed too fast, but now seems to make sense, given how many odd digressions and cut-aways and flashbacks occur in each episode. Although I stopped watching "The Simpsons" when Homer dropped his inarticulate, beer-guzzling nature and started scheming and conniving, the brilliance of "Arrested Development's" many digressions reminds me of the bizarre and delirious digressions that were once featured on "The Simpsons" (circa 1992). Remember the episode where Bart discovers that the trap door in Mr. Burns' office drops you onto a table, where a bunch of foreign third-world peoples clap and shout, "Dance! Dance! Dance!"? Now think of Michael (Jason Bateman) getting knocked down by that Mary Poppins doll in Wee Britain. (Wee Britain is an odd little town created mostly to afford the writers more chances to make fun of the British.)

But the best joke this season has to be the introduction of Scott Baio as the Bluths' new lawyer. His name? Bob Loblaw. His television commercial, a parody of those cheesy "Been in an accident?" lawyer ads, is what can only be described as an instant classic. "Why should you go to jail for a crime someone else noticed?" Baio asks. "You don't need double-talk, you need Bob Loblaw!" A voice-over finishes, "Bob Loblaw. No hablo espagñol."

When I'm watching TV this good, I really have to pinch myself and thank those fickle gods -- more specifically, the executives at Fox -- for keeping "Arrested Development" on the schedule despite its mediocre ratings. Keep it around for another season, and I'm prepared to forget that "The Swan" ever existed.

Haters always win
Even with the funniest man alive behind it, you can't really expect "Everybody Hates Chris" to match the indescribable genius of "Arrested Development," can you? Well then, cut Chris Rock some slack already. The kid is funny, the mom is funny, the dad is funny, the stories are funny, and Rock's voice-over is fantastic.

Voice-over: My mother didn't make a lot of friends, because she's what I like to call a ghetto snob.

Mom: Look at that woman out here with rollers in her hair!

Daughter: Mama, you have rollers on.

Mom: Yeah, but I'm wearing a scarf! No class!

Still, there's this feeling that every scene could be this funny, once the show hits its stride. My advice to Rock? Get a little crazier with the stories, make the dad more glowering and mean like he was in the pilot, and talk more about the differences between white people and black people. In other words, be yourself, and don't let the crowd pleasers at UPN bleed all of the really good, harsh material out of your show.

You see, when we watch a show about a family, it's very important that we see a truly demented, enraged group of people ruthlessly attacking each other, or else we'll get confused and we won't be able to relate to what's happening on the screen. We'll just think we're watching the black version of "Eight Simple Rules."

Confession time
I was raised by wolves. Therefore, I don't really understand anything about family life in America. Still, my wolf Mommy did bolster my ego enough that I grew up to be a writer, not only a writer but the sort of overconfident writer who has the audacity to give Chris Rock advice. I would thank my wolf Mommy for giving me this confidence, but I'm way too busy blaming her for teaching me to hold in my negative emotions and to eat dead animals off the pavement.

In other words, mommies and daddies of the world, you just can't win: You think you're finding your kid a nourishing meal, she thinks you're screwing her up for life. Those of you considering starting crappy families of your own should remember this lesson, and instead of gazing at darling little outfits for babies and test-driving high-end baby strollers, you should watch how that little bitch of a teenage daughter on "Commander in Chief" treats her mommy. And her mommy is the president! You'd think you could cut Mommy a little slack when she's the leader of the free world, but no. Parenting is a thankless task that we only take on because we're bored and we lack imagination and we're not that into roasted nuts. So, the next time you want to blame your parents for being bored and unimaginative, bite your tongue, fiendish swine, and watch "The Amazing Race" with them instead.

Next week: When is that blond mommy on "Invasion" going to start sprouting scales and screeching like a pterodactyl already?

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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