I Like to Watch

There's no accounting for taste, people, so cast your vote for those violent perverts of "Rome," "Survivor" host Jeff Probst or the manic mutants of "Drawn Together."

Published November 13, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

The genealogy of poor taste
We don't know ourselves, we tasteless people -- we are personally ignorant about how much or how little taste we have. And there's good reason for that. We never try to find out whether we have any taste or not. Instead we define the things we like as "tasteful" and the things we don't like as "tasteless." Britney Spears, for example, has always been a deeply trashy trollop, but not long ago she was widely embraced and admired in spite of her propensity for writhing around half-dressed, moaning about how much she enjoys being our dirty little slave girl. Then Britney fell out of favor and suddenly we noticed that she wore T-shirts with slogans on them and ate Doritos straight out of the bag for breakfast while tongue-kissing her chain-smoking thug of a husband.

Under what conditions did men invent for themselves these value judgments "tasteful" and "tasteless"? And when did the women step in, chuckling at their foolish choices, and set them straight? What inherent value do such judgments have? Just because "South Park" makes tasteless look, well, tasteful, does that mean "American Dad" and "Drawn Together" should try to follow suit? Is "Rome" tasteful in spite of its violent and perverse content because it's loosely based on historical events and everyone speaks with a lovely British accent? Is it tasteful or tasteless for the Weaver family of "The Amazing Race" to point out that the other families lack "class," and do the Weaver girls' unsavory short-shorts undercut their argument at all? Do the French have taste simply because they sound like they do, and because they'll make fun of our shoes if we disagree?

Surviving Probst
Before we make up answers to these big questions (and more), let's ponder everyone's favorite style icon, "Survivor" host Jeff Probst. After all, who knows more about what's tasteful and what isn't than Probst, who set the fashion world ablaze by popularizing the Urban Safari look worldwide?

As the years go by and "Survivor" (8 p.m. Thursdays on CBS) solidifies its status as the gold standard of reality fare, one thing remains clear: Jeff Probst is the puppetmaster, and the "Survivor" contestants are merely puppets, as helpless to his demands and tribal council prodding as, well, helpless little puppets. When Probst asks if the tribe cares, say, about the value of one or another tribe member's contribution around camp, you can see the confusion on their faces. Do they care? Should they care? If Probst thinks they should care, maybe they should. Worlds hinge on the wrinkle of Probst's brow.

Remember last year when Probst suggested that it was unfair to get rid of Stephenie, the most competitive yet most defeated "Survivor" contestant ever? Remember how everyone listened to him and didn't vote her off, even though they were obviously planning to do so? And who do you think was responsible for bringing her back this fall? I'm betting Mark Burnett is so busy appeasing The Donald and The Martha that he signs off on pretty much anything Probst wants.

See, that's the way it works with the tastemakers of the world: They can do whatever they like. Tom Ford, Sofia Coppola, David LaChapelle, Donatella Versace, Spike Jonze, the French ... They all get to prance around and thumb their noses at convention, while the rest of us slog around the malls trying to parse the trickle-down detritus of their every whim. Tastemakers get to signal to the rest of the world who's worthy and who's not, who's fascinating and who's utterly over, who's exquisitely special, and who's just big and dumb and sad.

Speaking of big and dumb and sad, how big and dumb and sad is Judd? Has there ever been a bigger buffoon on "Survivor"? After getting drunk and vomiting in the shelter, Judd finds out the immunity idol is probably in the trees somewhere. Then he lies and tells everyone it's on the ground. Then he goes off and looks for it in the trees. Gary the former second-string NFL quarterback is crafty enough to follow him and sees him looking in the trees. Gary quickly finds the idol, thereby saving himself from certain elimination. Probst asks Judd about lying. Has he lied yet? Judd's eyes get really big and dumb and sad, and he says, "No, sir. Not yet. You know, it might happen, but as of this point in the game, no, I haven't lied about anything yet." He's like a kid caught with his entire head in the cookie jar.

Probst wants to remind everyone that Judd is a moron and a liar. This is true because Probst takes it very personally when it looks like the wrong guy might win. He gets all disapproving and after tribal council is over, he says stuff like, "One thing is clear. You guys can't trust each other, and at least three of you are total morons with no self-respect who deserve to be hung up by your toes and flogged."

Ultimately, Probst's taste and preferences are just as significant to "Survivor" as The Donald's are to "The Apprentice." And remember, chickens, it's the dictator who pretends to be part of a democratic system that we should fear the most. If you doubt me, just ask Probst's main squeeze, Julie Berry from "Survivor: Vanuatu." Hmm, let's see. The first time they met, Probst mercilessly interrogated Julie, doubted her sincerity, and she left in tears? Sounds like a match made in puppeteering heaven to me!

History was made to seem unfair
For more dictators who like to make believe they're part of a representative government, look no further than Julius Caesar, founding father of the Orange Julius, for those unfamiliar with history. Caesar's gradual corruption and evolution into a full-fledged tyrant has been one of the strong suits of HBO's "Rome" (finale airs at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 13), which started out at an achingly slow pace but found its stride by about the seventh episode. In fact, I couldn't believe it when I checked in with the show after several weeks and found that what was once a ponderous retread had been transformed into a dizzying blur of shipwrecks, sneaky plots, arrogant little Egyptian kings, seductions and traitorous heads on stakes.

I particularly love Cleopatra, the irrational, compassionless female character you daydream about after too big a serving of Geena Davis' level-headed idealism. But a lot of the characters on "Rome" have developed from two-dimensional cartoons into richer, more intriguing subjects. Titus Pullo's softer side, at odds with his basic nature as a killing machine, might seem a little trite to explore, but it was still impossible not to feel horribly sorry for him after he impulsively beat his true love's boyfriend to a bloody pulp, then regretted it seconds later. Even Lucius Vorenus is hard not to empathize with, caught as he is in an impossible position as one of Caesar's demi-puppeteers.

The only character that hasn't developed at all is Atia. Her conniving evil mommy role doesn't get any more interesting no matter how much screen time she spends manipulating her children. What does she care about? What's her weakness? What is remotely human about her? We should know more about this woman and understand a tiny shred of her motivation, if we're going to spend this much time with her.

In contrast, Caesar becomes easier and easier to understand as his power corrupts him and everything and everyone around him. Like many in his position, Caesar lost his taste when he gained his absolute power. That's the downside of bestriding the narrow world like a colossus, see. Have you ever known a giant to dress well?

Like J.Lo accessorizing with furs, diamonds and Ben Affleck during her "Jenny From the Block" phase, Caesar is all caught up in choosing his outfit and won't even tolerate the usual snide remarks from Mark Antony. Does J.Lo tolerate snide remarks from Marc Anthony? Methinks not, since your sense of humor is the second thing you lose when you gain power, right after your sense of taste and right before your sense of scale.

We know Caesar's omnipotence has debased him completely when he parades into the square with blood on his face. Is this a long-standing tradition, or was Octavian trying to make him look bad by smearing the blood in such a ridiculous way? It was just like when J.Lo's stylist ushered her into that awful beret-wearing period.

But like J.Lo, even while Caesar makes one tactical error after another, even while his demise begins to seem inevitable, our empathy for him reaches new heights. Why? Why not let Caesar be slaughtered? Why not let J.Lo fall from her pedestal, forcing her to spend less on pink diamonds and skin creams made from pig fetuses? Because we are tasteless people, and even as our leaders become increasingly tacky and self-indulgent, there's some little bit of the dream of excess and decadence that fades if they fade. Whether it's Donald Trump or Madonna, we want certain people to oppress us with their crappy taste until kingdom come, if that's what it takes to make sure they're never struck down by highly suggestible whiners with crooked teeth.

Turning water into whine
Speaking of whiners, let's award a big, fat "Boooo!" to the Weaver family of CBS's "Amazing Race" (9 p.m. Tuesdays) for shamelessly whining to host Phil about how very hard the race is for them, since none of the other families like them. None of the other families like them because they're about as socially inept as 17-year-old boys (for a refresher course on what they're like, tune in for the next "Laguna Beach" marathon on MTV). The Weavers have proudly stated that they didn't intend to make friends, but they've been showing the progressive effects of this bad decision every week, as they become increasingly alienated from the other families. Remaining aloof was a big mistake, and it probably explains why Mommy Weaver appears to be losing her mind.

The best part, though, was when the little Weaver claimed that what was really, truly breaking her heart was the fact that the other families have "no class" and that her mom and siblings are the only ones trying to be good Christians. What the hell is she talking about? Apparently all it takes to be a good Christian these days is to ask Jesus for favors every few minutes. Sorry, honey, no moral high ground for you until you tuck your big ass back into those skin-tight shorts.

Who would've thought I'd start hating the Weavers and loving the recently eliminated Paolos, those temperamental yet cuddly Italians? And how awful are the Godlewski sisters? Just listen to the sounds they make every time they're on-screen -- it's not unlike a flock of geese migrating south for the winter. It's truly a testament to the lameness of this year's challenges that the Godlewskis are in the lead. Also, the Linz siblings just might be the most repellent gaggle of tasteless, humorless frat boys ever shown on TV. Three terrible, meaty morons and their hapless, abused sister. Basically, that leaves Wally and his daughters as the only acceptable option to win it all, and somehow I just don't see Wally going home with the million-dollar prize.

Either way, let's reserve a great big "Boooo!" for CBS, for having the bad taste to send the stupid families back to America after a few measly episodes in Central America. Are you kidding me? If they were hardly going to leave the country, we should've been warned of that at the start of the race. In the words of the immortal Mrs. Paolo, "I want to go to New Zealand!"

Drawn and quartered
But when it comes to the most tasteless fare of all, naturally we have to turn to the puppetmasters at Comedy Central. Not content with churning out enough "South Park" to insult everyone in America and their pets several times over, Comedy Central turns to "Drawn Together" (10:30 p.m. Wednesdays), a parody of reality shows that places recognizable cartoon stereotypes into a familiar reality format. Mostly, though, this is a show that stoops as low as it possibly can without pulling something.

Take, for example, a recent episode in which Wooldoor discovers that the new housemate, Strawberry Sweetcake, is bent on destroying his entire species. Sweetcake giggles, "You can't spell 'slaughter' without 'laughter'!" Ha ha heh ... Eww. To prove Sweetcake is evil, housemate Foxxy Love shows the housemates a vending machine filled with cakes made from the bodies of Wooldoor's family. The vending machine also has some soiled panties in it, which the little Pokemon-alike, Ling-Ling, immediately purchases and drapes over his face. Yes, you got that right: jokes about the Holocaust and soiled panties, together at last.

If that doesn't make any sense to you, well, "Drawn Together" doesn't really make any sense at all. It's just one strange, sick, dirty joke after another. Sometimes this means it's pretty funny. Other times, not so much. What "Drawn Together" is, more than anything else, is a deliberate attempt to be as offensive as possible. Sometimes, like in the case of "Jackass," this kind of thing works and you find yourself laughing in spite of yourself. In the case of "Drawn Together," it's tough not to picture two grown-up versions of Beavis and Butthead, doing bong hits and dreaming up new jokes involving sodomy, whipped cream and paraplegics.

Tasting menu
There's no accounting for taste, and even if there were, the Taste CPAs would charge way too much for us to afford it. When you survey the last 40 years of fashion and design and culture, the evanescent nature of taste becomes obvious: Taste is a weightless, purposeless property, an empty term used to sell us on the notion that there's something inherently wrong with wearing the same crappy clothes for decades. Similarly, tastelessness isn't worthwhile in and of itself unless you're a 9-year-old boy or you're high on very good drugs -- or both.

Sure, we all have our aesthetic preferences, but commenting on those preferences or comparing those preferences to other people's preferences is downright tacky and judgmental and also sometimes very fun. Even if we subscribe to the notion that we can objectively judge the tastes of others, our only criteria for judging are inherited from the tastemakers, that is, those with enough power to make their preferences into law. Taste, then, like everything else, is about power, and those who would empower the concept of taste are merely taste peddlers with something to sell. Remember Mark Antony -- and Marc Anthony -- who learned not to question their master's taste. Do you really want to be like them, and empower another taste-making tyrant?

Yeah, so do I. Just three more weeks until "Project Runway"!

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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