I Like to Watch

As middle-class Americans, we have no actual lives and are forced to nourish our zombie souls on TV shows about whiny do-gooders, slam poetry and incoherent melodramatic teenagers.

Published November 20, 2005 1:00PM (EST)

Emote control
While most living creatures' daily lives center around survival -- finding food, water and dry shelter -- in America we live like milk-fed veal in tiny pens. With all of our needs met, we're left to fret over minutiae -- a slow morning commute, our kid's third-grade curriculum, the mole on our dog's jaw, the scratchy tag on this stupid sweater. We're so thoroughly alienated from real emotions and high-stakes situations and so saturated by artifice that our numbed senses are drawn to the faux suspense of fictional and staged reality scenarios like male ducks to a fake wooden mate: Will Kyle win the modeling contract, or go back to her job at Dairy Queen? Will the nice doctors with tumultuous romantic lives find a way to save the very sincere young man with the multiple gunshot wounds to the chest? Will the federal agent be killed by the violent semi-alien lunatic? Will Amy Grant get the disfigured child plastic surgery in time for us to see her brand-new face?

Thanks to the high-definition images in our living rooms, we can laugh heartily and snort in disgust and roll our eyes and clench our teeth and scream and sigh and smile, and then return to the featureless landscape of our daily lives with the illusion of fulfillment. As we trudge through the day, grumbling at our families while loading the dishwasher, issuing orders to our underlings at work, purchasing 50 of the same gift certificates online to get our stupid Christmas shopping over with, we don't even notice that our lives are just really long to-do lists with half the stuff crossed off. If not for the manic fun and horror and poignancy that's pumped into our TVs every night, we'd all be suicidal or nihilistic or at the very least we'd write really bad poetry and shower infrequently.

Random search
On the other hand, we might just hit rock bottom and then go looking for something more meaningful to do with our lives. Apparently the creators of A&E's "Random 1" (10 p.m. Tuesdays) don't watch much TV, because their lives are basically consumed by the need to do nice things for total strangers.

Or, as John Chester and Andre Miller, the hosts of the show, explain in the opening credits, "We've known each other for over 10 years. Most of our time was spent complaining about the world, until one day we decided to do something about it." OK, already they're making me feel bad about my idle complainer lifestyle. Is that any way to treat a viewer? I thought TV was supposed to make me feel comfortable about my worthlessness as a human being.

What bothers me the most about John and Andre is that they genuinely seem to care about random strangers on the street. Not only that, but they don't just throw money at the problem -- they actually hit the road and try to make a direct difference in a few people's lives. And they don't pick the upper-middle-class people who are fun to help, either -- you know, the witty, charming ones with shiny hair and amusing anecdotes. Nor do they pick the working-class folks with glowing skin and straight teeth who have an uncanny ability to speak in the appealing lingo of family-values clichés and Bruce Springsteen lyrics.

In fact, if you took NBC's "Three Wishes" and eliminated the forced cheer and faux-poignant moments, if you scrubbed the powder blush off the children and left the piles of trash in the town square and let little Johnny ramble on about his mom's drinking problem instead of delivering a concise, heartfelt soliloquy on Dad's need for a new truck, what you'd have is "Random 1." Except, um, you'd also have to throw in Mom's controlling boyfriend, a heckler and a noisy whore on the sidewalk nearby, and a couple of bickering hosts who spend as much time debating whom to help and how to help them and whose fault it is that they're running late as they do waxing poetic about creating miracles.

These two seem to have a thing for helping exactly those people whom no sane producer would dare to put in front of a camera. In the episodes I watched, John and Andre helped 1) a homeless guy with an anger problem and a terrible makeshift fake leg, 2) a mediocre-looking ex-stripper who wants to pursue a modeling career but seems hindered by her controlling boyfriend, 3) a heroin addict with some kids in another state, 4) a guy with health problems who quits his job just so he can go pick up a free cellphone the hosts got for him, 5) a musician who lives with a verbally abusive drunk and wants a keyboard so he can play for money on the street.

If you've ever seen "Three Wishes," you'll appreciate the casual, scrappy and sometimes ambivalent approach John and Andre take to their charges. In discussing Gary, a heroin addict who's two weeks clean and wants to go back to Ohio to see his kids, John, who plays the skeptic and pragmatist to keep Andre's rampant idealism in check, throws out some potential pitfalls:

John: What if his wife or ex-wife doesn't want him back?

Andre: Why are you worried about it?

John: Because I don't want to be the guys who bring the delinquent dad back, and he's like a frickin' zombie.

Andre: Let the love flow, let the harmony, let the energy flow!

As entertaining as this duo can be, the show's charms are also its weaknesses: Many of the people they meet are hard to love or even root for. Andre sometimes rambles on in an irritating way, and John can be extremely whiny. They spend an awful lot of time driving to places, overhearing people's cellphone conversations, and quarreling about random stuff. The problem is not so much that the show isn't odd and valuable on its own merits, but that most of us are accustomed to the concise, to-the-point pace of news shows, documentaries and reality shows, and the meandering pace of this show feels a little tedious in comparison.

Furthermore, their help often doesn't seem to change much in people's lives -- the follow-up captions at the end range from underwhelming to downright upsetting. The aspiring model doesn't even make her appointment with a modeling agency, and soon moves back in with her bad boyfriend. The unemployed guy with the cellphone only keeps his new job for three weeks. Even when they get a company to donate a brand-new leg worth $20K for the homeless guy so he can find work, it just says that he's "pursuing" construction jobs. While the promotional materials for the show brag that it doesn't feature "pat endings," the disappointment in reading these captions really gets you in touch with just how attached to pat endings a lifetime of watching "Love Boat" can make you.

Still, "Random 1" does offer a more inspiring aftertaste than the saccharine "Scooby-Doo" endings of "Three Wishes." Spending an hour with real people who are down on their luck can be inspiring in and of itself, particularly for those of us who sometimes forget that, say, our dogs have better healthcare plans than most people.

Green eggs and slam
Some people change the world by hitting the streets and giving others a boost. Others change the world by putting money in little envelopes. Still others change the world by sporting bumper stickers that say things like, "My other car is a free-range chicken."

And then there are the people who write slam poetry.

OK, get ready to kick my ass, but it's really tough to live in San Francisco for any length of time and emerge as a lover of slam poetry. I understand how slam poetry might be acceptable to those who've never been burned in the holy hellfire of terrible slam poetry everywhere, all the time, but I shudder when I hear it. Hell, I shudder when someone says something in a really adamant voice and it just happens to rhyme.

Needless to say I'm just a lame honky who lacks the imagination and vision to understand street art. That's a given. But in San Francisco, slam poetry and really terrible paintings and coffee so strong that the smell of it makes your intestines flinch from several yards away are such a part of the fabric of everyday life that for years afterward, when you encounter just one of these things, suddenly there's a damp chill in the air and your hair feels greasy and you have a slight hangover and you want to scream, "Anyone can paint haunted-looking women with lime green faces and rhyme 'civilization' with 'alienation,' and if God didn't want us to eat animals, then why are they made of meat?"

So I had to skip the parts of PBS's documentary "Race Is the Place" (this week, check local listings) that featured slam poetry and folk songs and the word "rant." Even Kate Rigg's "Rice, Rice Baby," a parody of Vanilla Ice's hit that unpacks Asian stereotypes, felt like something of a retread.

Still, the comedians and the found footage and the commentary were worth the price of admission. Of course racism is a huge problem in America, one that's not acknowledged nearly enough, and this film does a nice job of reminding each of us of our prejudices, and of how intolerant and ignorant we are in the face of difference.

Still, when it comes to presenting interesting, new perspectives on race, VH1's "Race-O-Rama" is faster, more fun, more surprising, and has a more consistent tone. Although the highlights of "Race Is the Place" are memorable -- I loved comedian Ahmed Ahmed's reenactment of being stopped by a flight attendant and given a painfully polite third degree -- the quality of the material is fairly uneven.

Head for the hills
But enough about race and other pressing issues, let's get back to the important work of anesthetizing ourselves against reality with more empty footage of really dumb white teenagers making weak attempts to communicate with each other. The finale of MTV's "Laguna Beach" was about as mesmerizingly awful as you might imagine, with all of the little hotties like-like-like-liking their way through the complicated emotions that accompany graduation. If you don't agree that we, as Americans, lead impoverished emotional lives, "Laguna Beach" goes far in proving that thesis. Let's just peruse a random assortment of quotes from those fine teens, straining to capture the weight of their impending departures from their hometown.

"Oh, wow, you're, um, really leaving."

"It's really weird. It, like, hasn't hit me that I'm, like, actually going to drive out of here and, like, not be coming right back."

"Oh, my god, I, like, don't even believe I'm, like, saying goodbye to you, J!"

But what was really shocking was that the teenagers in the live studio audience at MTV, assembled to mourn the season's passing, were all tearing up. "I feel like I got to know them, so it was [breaking down] kind of emotional!" I don't know who I feel more sorry for, the emotionally impoverished teens of "Laguna Beach" or their emotionally impoverished fans.

Maybe John and Andre of "Random 1" should consider driving their truck down to Laguna and saving some of those empty-headed teens from themselves. They'd better act fast, before "Laguna" star LC launches her spinoff "The Hills," in which she moves to Hollywood and befriends a brand-new gaggle of pretty, pampered half-wits but acts like it's a huge departure from her life so far.

Smells like teen something or other
Do I sound bitter? Maybe I've been watching too much "Veronica Mars." Veronica makes bitter look really alluring. But keep in mind, she lives in a town not unlike Laguna Beach -- only it's fictional, inhabited by tasty, clever faux teens that are far more tempting to the palate than real teenagers, who are disturbing and repugnant.

Speaking of real teenagers, though, how great is this season of "America's Next Top Model" so far? It's not just because I'm gay for the gay girl, Kim. It's the fact that Tyra is way too busy with her talk show to be bouncing around, acting perky and then encouraging everyone to weep openly to her. On top of that, there's been more wanton boozing, backbiting and general-purpose drama this season than there was even in the season of the Great Italian Hot Tub Orgy.

First of all, there's Lisa, the googly-eyed drunk, whose outspoken, bizarro antics have given "ANTM" a much-needed shot in the arm. Who needs Tyra, when you've got a wacky freak job tossing back bottles of red wine, dancing spontaneously in the middle of challenges, and putting on a diaper and then peeing in it just to impress the guys from MTV's "Wildboyz"? Sadly, Lisa was eliminated last week, but she jump-started the drama just enough that it seems like the others are poised and ready to bare their claws at the slightest provocation.

My favorite girl to hate right now is Jayla, one of the most melodramatic little monkeys ever to worm her way into a confession room. She reminds me of that girl who always seems to sit behind you on the school bus, the one who talks three notches too loud, smacks her gum, and adds a little indignant "uh" after every phrase, as in "I'm soooo over her-uh." She's more entertaining than the bitchiest drag queen on earth.

By the way, how great is it when teenagers or young people lament all the conflict and gossip and foolishness in their lives by saying, "Ugh, it's so high school!" or "All this stupid drama totally reminds me of high school!" (as Jayla did a few weeks ago)? I feel like saying, "Hey, chumpy, enjoy it while you can, because you're not going to have nearly enough drama in your lives soon enough -- and then you'll have to sit around watching teenagers on TV like the rest of us."

In summary
One of my favorite things about teenagers is that they have no idea how empty and tedious their lives are going to be eventually. That's part of why we can't stop watching them fumble about, and why MTV is the rubbernecking headquarters for world-weary adults fixated on seeing little hopeful idealists and romantics get fed to the hungry wolves.

Will they turn to charity, slam poetry or drugs? Will they face the world head-on, or cringe and whine like we did, and then sink into a bag of powdered doughnuts and several back-to-back episodes of "Veronica Mars"?

Let's hope they take the soft, wussy path so that we don't have to feel quite so bad about ourselves. Maybe we can convince them that a life of laziness and indulgence and delusion is all that it's cracked up to be (no pun intended). In fact, recent studies indicate that we're more suggestible than we ever imagined. After watching three full episodes of "Commander in Chief," four out of five viewers began to hallucinate that Geena Davis actually was the president, and that they, the viewers, were her plucky press secretary who got to fire that sexist bastard who worked under her and got to rub it in by informing him that she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton, the ultimate Capitol Hill nanny-nanny boo-boo! Who wants to settle for the mediocre accomplishments and minuscule gains of average, everyday life, when you can score this big in a world of fantasy?

Next week: We join a terrorist cell but we can't tell our hot girlfriend about it, then we have to fashion a couture design using only the clothes off our backs!

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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I Like To Watch Television