I Like to Watch

Celebrating weirdos and outsiders for their courage, energy and inventive hairstyles, from Sundance's "Iconoclasts" to Aaron McGruder's "The Boondocks."

Published November 6, 2005 1:25PM (EST)

Free to be you and me
Here in America, we embrace the individual. We believe that it's important to be yourself, to make your own choices, to honor your spirit. We want you to be you. Unless, of course, you're a weirdo -- in which case we want you to bind and gag your spirit and act just like everybody else.

For all of our talk of loving rebels and celebrating individualism, most of us learn very quickly that those who stray even a hair off the beaten path are harassed mercilessly until they start "acting normal" again. Still, the myth of individuality lives on, because that's the American way. Even after years of being punished for behavior that's even mildly original, we each fancy ourselves as special and unique when in fact we look and sound like everyone else, and our so-called originality is defined only by our dysfunctional tics and the particular blend of mass-produced items in our closets.

Sure, we love whimsical eccentrics and outspoken activists and nutty outsiders -- in our romantic comedies and our suspense thrillers and our HBO comedy specials, not in our schools, churches and homes. Naturally you can be a total yo-yo if you're a celebrity or you're richer than God. Hell, you can even build a big playground and invite little boys to come play special, secret games with you. Otherwise? Keep it to yourself, freak.

Queer bait and switch
Of course, if you keep it to yourself too much, you might turn into one of those people of whom the neighbors say, "He keeps to himself," meaning "He didn't get my joke about the White Sox" or "Our dog seems afraid of him" or "The other day there was an odd smell, like burning hair, coming from his backyard..."

This highlights the essential lack of understanding we have of oddballs. Oddballs are threatening to us, because whenever they appear on TV, it always has something to do with lost little girls and teary-eyed parents tolerating Katie Couric's thin-lipped smiles of faux sympathy. Yet plenty of the prominent figures in our culture spent years being labeled total freaks before they hit the big time. Somehow unusual traits and offbeat interests are seen as unsavory or even dangerous in the guy next door, but they're portrayed as early signs of genius in, say, Brando or Hemingway.

Sundance's "Iconoclasts" (premieres 10 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17) celebrates eccentricity and offers a closer look at some of the stubbornly original individuals who found a way to bring the full force of their personalities and their selves into their work. The series pairs up a visionary cultural figure with a celebrity who might help to capture the essential nature and talents of the individual in question. This is how we're privy to Samuel Jackson playing golf with basketball legend Bill Russell, or designer Tom Ford watching artist Jeff Koons instruct an army of assistants on how to craft his latest sculpture.

The pace of the Samuel Jackson-Bill Russell pairing is a little slow, but after you get used to it, if you're interested enough in Russell, you sort of fall into the rhythm of this unusual format, and you slowly get a sense of what makes Russell such a formidable presence. In particular, I loved the '60s footage of reporters asking questions about race, with Russell responding with self-possessed frankness. Russell had a way of looking reporters straight in the eye and answering sincerely and directly, but with an edge that tells you he couldn't have cared less what anyone thought of him.

Although Russell today seems far less somber and far more interested in cracking jokes and teasing Jackson, his lack of concern for appearances is still obvious. Even more impressive is his nonchalant attitude about his trophies and accomplishments. He's been retired for years, but he's obviously far too active and satisfied with his life to waste it droning on about the glory days.

Jeff Koons doesn't have quite the presence that Russell does, but his segment with Tom Ford really drove home the strengths of the "Iconoclast" series, mostly because Ford does such a great job exploring Koons' work and his motivations. Those who assume the fashion industry is populated by fluffy, superficial lightweights will snap to attention in the company of Ford, who despite his stylish made-for-celebrity-mags appearance, is not only charming but very sharp and great at asking tough questions without angering Koons.

Koons is known for throwing together pop images in dizzying, sometimes awful-looking, sometimes frivolous-seeming collages and paintings and sculptures. Having once held a day job as a commodities trader so that he wouldn't sully his art by getting paid for it, Koons now basically runs an art factory, manned by assistants and artisans who help to pull together his creations. This isn't unusual for a well-known artist, but it's fascinating to see the process taking place. When you see teams of people putting the final touches on a dog-shaped blow-up float, like a kid's toy, you wonder exactly what Ford asks: How can we tell if this stuff is sincere, or if it's just bullshit?

Koons answers with an artist's mix of sincerity and obfuscation, but the pair spend most of the program batting around ideas in ways that reflect their respect for and interest in each other. While that might sound like celebrity back-slapping, the conversation is much more evolved than it would be if Koons were being interviewed by a journalist.

Sundance's "Iconoclasts" is refreshing because it affords us a look at visionaries who are worth knowing regardless of whether they're in the news at the moment. Instead of focusing on sensational aspects of their stories, the series intelligently explores exactly those inspired, unconventional aspects of their personalities and their work that make them such fascinating subjects. Upcoming shows feature actress Renée Zellweger interviewing Christine Amanpour, Robert Redford interviewing Paul Newman, and chef Mario Batali interviewing REM frontman Michael Stipe. You heard me right: Batali interviewing Stipe. Hats off to the weirdo who dreamt up this series!

When you're strange
The rise of cable TV and the Internet has certainly done its part to threaten a world of cheery normals and professionally trained conformists with an unpredictable gaggle of freaks. And yet, the manicured professionals still dominate the airwaves. Most of the people on TV, even on strange little cable networks, have the same plastered TV hair and speak in the same irritating, sing-songy tones. Even on reality shows, yuppies, professional types and those who enunciate like newscasters are strongly preferred, set up as "regular" people, while anyone with an accent is edited down to his country boy or redneck asides. Meanwhile, the genuine oddballs are few and far between, and those who speak frankly are seen as impolite or even downright malevolent.

And then there's "Project Runway" (second season premieres 8 p.m. Dec. 7 on Bravo). I've been anxious to see it and finally caught the reunion episode from the first season last week. Having heard so many raves about this show, I worried that my expectations were too high. Not so, chicken cutlets! Not only is the show entertaining and smart and strange straight off the bat, but it's immediately obvious what makes it different from other reality shows. First of all, they cast a bunch of genuinely odd, talented designers. These aren't people who murmur clichés on cue, they're unique individuals with things to say. Furthermore, not only are the competitors encouraged to joke around, it appears from what little I've seen that the best moments aren't edited out for the sake of keeping the drama storyline of the week afloat. Not that there's no drama -- with such a reckless group of wine-swilling goofballs involved, how couldn't there be? But the footage we see of the designers feels natural, not staged, and the editing is really sly and fun. Best of all, the challenges aren't those goony manufactured "Apprentice"-style sponsored events; they're provocative design challenges that seem to have been created by thoughtful design teachers, not TV producers.

Of course, all that could change with season 2, which has lined up a handful of sponsors, thanks to the popularity of the first season. Hopefully, though, the essential spirit of "Project Runway," with its clear love of imagination, creativity, talent and oddballs who behave strangely whether or not the camera is rolling, will shine through. Just two weeks until the fur (and the silk organza) starts to fly!

Disrespect intended
Speaking of fur flying, Aaron McGruder's "The Boondocks" is finally airing on Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" (premieres at 11 p.m. on Sunday), and Huey is about as pissed off to be living with a bunch of white folks in the Chicago suburbs as you might imagine. He's also certain that Ronald Reagan is the devil, and that the government lied about 9/11.

Sounds like a reasonable enough kid to me -- and, infuriatingly enough, the locals seem to agree. Instead of being appalled at his outspoken remarks and provocative antics, the white people around him coo and compliment him on how "articulate" he is. Of course, McGruder's real-life antics didn't go over nearly as well when he goaded the crowd at an anniversary gala for the Nation last year by mentioning that he voted for Nader, to which Nation columnist Eric Alterman famously heckled "Thanks for Bush!" McGruder told the New Yorker, "These are the big, rich white leftists who are going to carry the fight to George Bush, and the best they can do is blame Nader?"

McGruder is exactly the sort of angry outsider who's custom-made to cause a stir among polite society's rabble-rousers -- you know, the sorts that prefer to effect change and engage in heated debates over roasted duck, smoothly sidestepping any hurt feelings or awkward silences. Getting angry and condescending to a crowd that paid good money to be there is just plain unseemly, forget that your main point -- that back-slapping, self-congratulatory elites make your stomach turn -- is well worth making, particularly to a crowd of back-slapping self-congratulatory elites.

You have to admire McGruder's courage, particularly given the immense pressure to smile and act humble in such a setting. To honor McGruder for what he does, which is write a provocative cartoon about racism and one black kid's anger at white people, and then balk when he makes provocative, angry remarks, is hilariously petty. But then, just as we love our nutty outsiders as long as they're in romantic comedies and not in our living rooms, so too do we love our angry black men, as long as they don't say anything that will make the vichyssoise go down the wrong way.

The first episode of "The Boondocks," in which Huey, his little brother, and his grandfather are invited to an all-white garden party, seems to mirror McGruder's memorable night on the podium. Of course, Huey's angry outbursts to the guests would never even appear on TV, except that Huey is a kid and this is a cartoon and all of this is just for laughs, right? Except that there aren't really a lot of jokes here, just characters with strong ideas and stubborn notions facing off against each other. In truth, the show feels like an odd fit for "Adult Swim," which traffics in irony-laced goofiness and pop cultural non sequiturs and carefully avoids anything heavy or even slightly dramatic or remotely linear.

But what makes "The Boondocks" really odd and unusual to watch also makes it hard not to watch -- you want to know what McGruder's going to try to address, and how much leeway he'll get from the powers that be at Cartoon Network. After two episodes, "The Boondocks" shows promise, defies categorization and, basically, could either evolve into a great show or become repetitive really fast. It's way too soon to tell, but given the daunting topics McGruder wants to tackle, it's tough not to cheer him on.

Dream on, white girls
And then there's "Desperate Housewives," a show that's tough not to hate despite its strengths. The problem is that the essential theme of the show, the stultifying conformity of the upper-middle-class suburbs and the slow death afforded to the women in a traditional family structure, is undercut by skin-deep plots, giggling, gun play, and Danny Elfman's endlessly plinking soundtrack. "See folks, it's all a joke!" his tedious little twinkly keys remind us, like an ice cream truck that keeps circling the block over and over but never stops long enough for us to gorge ourselves on Nutty Buddies.

Felicity Huffman remains the highlight of the show -- which isn't saying much, given Teri Hatcher's cornball tittering and stumbling, and Eva Longoria's pouting. To be fair, Huffman and Marcia Cross are given more interesting stories because their circumstances are closer to the real problems of real women. Still, how many times can chaos erupt while Lynette is rushing out the door?

The trouble is that no matter how clearly we recognize the ills of the suburbs, they're incredibly difficult to portray. The soccer moms and control freaks and neighborhood gossips are never captured accurately enough -- they're reduced to mean remarks and hard stares at some badly staged PTA meeting. Even on a really smart show like "Weeds," the horrors of suburbanites' passive-aggressive, cheery manipulations are painted in far too broad strokes to express their exquisitely awful subtleties. Even shows like "Veronica Mars," "My So-Called Life," "Freaks and Geeks," and "Buffy" never quite nail the complexities and the deeply disturbing habits of middle-class Americans. You can get a laugh from the cleverness and the zombie-like moms and absent dads, but there's something about the limiting structure of an hour-long drama that renders it all a little too neat and cute and superficial. We need something with depth that's still scathing and funny, maybe a collaboration between Alan Ball, Winnie Holzman and Joss Whedon...

Weirdo is as weirdo does
Ah, but sadly, we can't change the world, chickens. All we can do is program our TiVos and cut our lawns to match the length of our neighbors' lawns. True originality and purity of self-expression are afforded only to those with the time and energy to make a clear, loud, unmistakable point in their words and deeds, plus it typically involves styling one's hair in a manner that doesn't complement the shape of one's face. Who has the time and energy to be an outsider these days? Who has the constant drive to deliver a message about themselves and their views everywhere they go? Most of us can't even work up the energy to put a "Our President Is A Moron" sticker on our luxury SUVs. I'm not saying we should feel satisfied just with voting, filling our journals with bad poetry, and wearing a really weird pair of shoes occasionally. I'm just saying most of us have to be satisfied with keeping our outsider status on the inside -- not because we're chicken, chickens, but because we're friggin' old.

You hear that, kids? Better fuck shit up while you can, because before you know it, you're going to be far too tired and lame to even make a run for gasoline and matches at the local Wal-Mart. Anyway, I'd say more, but it's already way past my naptime.

Next week: Like Caesar himself, HBO's "Rome" rises triumphantly from its uncertain beginnings, buoyed by the cheering sight of outsiders' heads on stakes.

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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