I Like to Watch

Give thanks for these purloined lands, and for the fact that you're not a soulless plastic surgeon, an undercover agent posing as a terrorist, or the mother of a 2-year-old.

Published November 27, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

It takes a pillage
This Thanksgiving, we took time to give thanks for all of our blessings, from pudding cups to plasma TVs. Mostly, though, we felt a deep sense of gratitude for these vast lands we unceremoniously snatched from the Indians, then zoned for commercial use. We're truly indebted to the good Lord for bestowing upon our ancestors the sense of entitlement needed to rape and pillage until prosperity was theirs.

Today, of course, we must also give thanks for corporate fraud, shady accounting practices, insider trading and the many other blessed ways that those with power and money fleece the powerless and the poor. Each day, let's vow to take pleasure in the simple joys of tax evasion and insurance fraud, to celebrate the widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and to cherish our possessions above all else, while always striving to own more, more, more and still more. Let's also remember to be thankful to the media, for sheltering us from the underfed and the disenfranchised and the unphotogenic, telling us stories, instead, about the hottest gated communities and the best 8-cylinder engines and the latest Tom and Katie baby-bump sighting.

From the Pottery Barns of the Pacific Northwest to the Cheesecake Factories of South Florida, we're united in our love of Tex-Mex egg rolls and Regis Philbin, banded together by our determination to take what's ours and what's theirs and whatever's left after that, and to wash away the guilt with a cold six-pack of imported beer. Let's pray that the good Lord will continue to bless us as we slowly destroy the earth in pursuit of needless self-indulgence, filthy excess and a vast array of distracting hand-held digital devices.

Ugly tuckling
I know what you're thinking, chicken tenders. You're thinking I have an unduly dark outlook for the holidays, and on this, the Bestest Shopping Weekend of the Year, you don't want to hear such dire talk. You're thinking I exaggerate too much for the sake of an eye-catching bit of prose.

"The world just isn't that ugly," you want to say. "Not for most of us. Not all the time, anyway." I understand, because that's exactly how I feel when I watch FX's "Nip/Tuck."

Let's cut to the chase: I've never really liked "Nip/Tuck" (10 p.m. Tuesdays). From the first season, I've found the show incredibly unrealistic and absurdly melodramatic. I dislike every single one of the main characters, from Sean to his shrill wife to that terrible son of theirs. The endless flow of plastic surgery patients with their messed-up lives and screwy perspectives depresses the hell out of me, and I usually enjoy stuff that depresses almost anyone else.

But I've recently changed my mind. I just caught up with a few episodes from this season, and now I have to say that "Nip/Tuck" isn't merely lame, it's teeth-grittingly awful. Watching this show might just be one of the most excruciating experiences available to the modern TV viewer.

First of all, there never seem to be any reigning ideas or themes behind the scenes, beyond some vague feeling that everyone is enraged and impossibly empty inside. The dialogue lacks subtlety and has no layers at all -- each conversation always seems to amount to characters saying to each other, over and over again, "Why did you do that? You're an asshole!" without ever getting closer to any semblance of wisdom or understanding of each other.

Plenty of viewers have made the same criticisms of "Six Feet Under," but the characters on that show did grow, and then regress, and then stall, and then grow some more, and more important, there was an internal logic to their growth or lack thereof. When Nate lapsed into another affair and Brenda lashed out, you could see the elements in their lives that led to that state. Plus, their ways of expressing themselves were nuanced and indirect and odd, just as real conversations are.

In contrast, Sean (Dylan Walsh) and his estranged wife Julia (Joely Richardson) always seem to be hissing at each other through clenched teeth or screaming and throwing things at each other's faces. Their son, Matt (John Hensley), has few redeeming qualities and mostly just sulks around and hurls insults. Christian (Julian McMahon), Sean's partner, is probably the most interesting character of them all, since he does a little more than just pout or steam, but his narcissist routine is a little too flat to hold your interest for very long.

All of which would at least be bearable, if it weren't for the fact that every scene, every plot point, and every conversation is taken to a flashy, deliberately torturous extreme. It's not enough that Sean and Christian have a complicated, difficult relationship as partners in a plastic surgery practice. No, let's make Julian the biological father of Sean's son, Matt. It's not enough that Matt falls in love with a woman twice his age. No, let's reveal that the woman is really a man. And it's not enough that the woman (who's really a man) skips town; let's have Matt find her dead son in her house right after she skips town. It's not enough that Matt discovers his body, either -- let's do a close-up shot of his rotting body, covered in maggots.

Even the scenes that don't focus on the main characters are pointlessly provocative. Christian and Sean do a consult with a guy who has AIDS who wants to get his cheeks filled in so he'll look healthier. When the sick man says his partner died of AIDS, Dylan says, "I'm very sorry." The man's response? "I'm not. Asshole. He was screwing around on me, almost from the beginning."

Taken alone, such a scene would be just a little bit unnerving. But every single scene in each episode seems to end with at least one idiotically sensationalist trick. This gives "Nip/Tuck" a heartless, sinister flavor, the kind that makes you feel ill and then leaves a crappy taste in your mouth for hours afterward.

How does Matt respond to the discovery that he's been in love with a man, for example? Well, he goes out and fools around with a transvestite, then beats the crap out of him, of course. Later in the show, the transvestite and a gang of his friends return the favor by beating the crap out of Matt. Unfortunately, he survives.

Or take the scene where Christian meets his birth mother for the first time, thanks to a detective who's investigating him to see if he's a serial murderer known as "The Carver." First Christian's mother makes it clear that she thinks he's a killer, then she tells him his biological father is a man who raped her when she was a teenager. She tells him, tearily, that she wishes he were never born. Christian responds by telling her that he used to fantasize that she was an angel in heaven. When did he indulge such fantasies? Why, when he was being beaten and molested by his foster father, of course. Now, on the other hand, he just wishes she was dead. Hey, you both said that! You guys really do have a lot in common!

Whether or not the malicious characters on "Nip/Tuck" are an exaggeration or a reflection of our morally bereft nation, the whole thing is so over the top and ridiculous that it really plays best as farce. Unfortunately, it's not all that clever or funny. Ultimately, "Nip/Tuck" is much more manipulative and superficial than the industry it so demonically portrays.

Grass-roots terror activists
Showtime's "Sleeper Cell" (10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday starting on Dec. 4) captures the intricacies of a disturbing microcosm with far more patience and subtlety. Given the inflammatory subject matter, creators Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris could have raced through a series of flashy, disturbing scenes and milked the most fearsome scenarios for every ounce of melodrama. Instead, the pace is far more deliberate and pensive, the palette more subdued.

We're introduced to Darwyn (Michael Ealy) as he's leaving prison, and follow his indoctrination into a terrorist cell led by Farik (Oded Fehr). The guys in the cell are presented as relatively normal citizens at first, then we slowly discover they're disturbingly off-kilter, from the blond son of hippies to the former skinhead Frenchman. Farik makes his total allegiance to the cause and the tactics he's willing to employ for it apparent by the end of the first episode in a disturbing yet oddly realistic twist. Soon, it becomes very clear how much is on the line for Darwyn, who's actually an FBI agent trying to get enough information to prevent the next 9/11.

It would be easy enough for the writers to overplay their hand here. Any fictional exploration of terrorism runs the danger of falling into "Die Hard"-style stereotypes or so carefully avoiding those types that the overall scenario is hard to believe. "Sleeper Cell" probably veers toward the latter -- it's a little tough to picture a terrorist cell allowing a blue-eyed blond son of liberal professors into its ranks -- but given the absurd portrayals of Middle Easterners in Hollywood, it's about time for payback on this front.

Still, the series requires a suspension of disbelief in more ways than one. Why, for example, would a group of terrorists be seen in public together regularly? The show can't very well revolve around a bunch of guys e-mailing each other, but why would they walk through a mall they might infect with Anthrax one day, carrying the same big plastic cups in their hands? They looked about as subtle as the gang of criminals striding around in the opening credits of "Reservoir Dogs."

I also find myself wishing that the terrorists didn't come across as such bad guys in the first few episodes. Naturally, most terrorists are bad guys, but why not mess with us, "Sopranos"-style, by making a few of them a little more appealing and sympathetic? Hollywood is unfamiliar with the notion that charismatic, friendly people can also have very bad intentions and black, cold hearts. Aside from the last-minute twist -- our hero is actually the murderer! -- we're not forced to spend time with likable people who are willing to do incredibly terrible things for the sake of their beliefs. But think of how lovable and cuddly the pilgrims seem to us, even though they spent their free time slaughtering an entire race. By making the bad guys more ambiguous regardless of their despicable goals, "Sleeper Cell" could do a little more to undermine the "us good, them bad" immaturity of the American perspective on terrorism.

Ah, but the Astrodome wasn't built in a day -- it was just destroyed that quickly. "Sleeper Cell" gives us a dramatic, compelling peek into a world that we inadvertently imagine but have a lot of trouble understanding.

Children of the worn
While we're exploring such lighthearted topics as terrorism, serial killers and maggot-covered corpses, it seems natural that we should address the various horrors of ABC's "Supernanny" (8 p.m. Fridays).

My sister's son just turned terrible 2, so sometimes she tells me about his meltdowns and worries that she might be doing something wrong. I'm pretty sure she isn't doing anything wrong, but since I don't know anything about children, my opinion doesn't hold much water. So the last time we talked, instead of reassuring her, I just told her to watch "Supernanny." "Just do it," I said. "It'll make you feel a lot better."

Casting aside just how sad it is that I communicate about complicated emotions by recommending TV shows, I'm convinced that "Supernanny" serves three purposes in the world: 1) to make current parents feel really great about their parenting skills compared to the skills of the parents on the show, 2) to make current parents feel really good about their kids compared to the kids on the show, and 3) to prevent people who don't have kids from ever having them.

When you see some of the scary, squealing, kicking, swearing demons on the show, and then you watch as their soft-spoken, insecure, needy parents struggle with simply using a firm voice and creating some boundaries? Well, you'll go from feeling like a slightly dysfunctional mess of a parent to feeling like some kind of well-adjusted, confident superhero. The parents on the show are so passive and avoidant and sad, you start to want to kick and squeal and swear at them, too. Plus, they completely miss the fact that they're not just creating a problem that's a drag for them, they're creating miserable human beings. Don't we all know people who have no clear boundaries, who feel like the world owes them something, who want to blame others the second things go wrong for them? The self-centered, me-first American spirit, which sprang forth among those plucky pilgrims, is perpetuated by these ineffectual, weak-kneed parenting styles.

OK, fine, I'm not a parent, which means I'm just guessing. But it doesn't take a Ph.D. in developmental psychology to see that these kids are miserable, and they're miserable because their parents not only don't know how to set boundaries, but also aren't really there at all. Of course, once the big trouble starts and the toys start flying, who would want to be there? You can make your bed and absolutely refuse to lie in it, after all. Isn't that written in the Bill of Rights somewhere?

But the best part of "Supernanny" is Supernanny herself, Jo Frost. The show wouldn't be nearly as smart if Frost weren't so sharp and sensible and confident in following her instincts. Frost reads the parents and the children really well, and she quickly deconstructs family dynamics that look like a muddled mess to the untrained eye. "Sssssnah esseptable," she tells the 2-year-old when he kicks Mommy in the shins. "Sssssnah esseptable," she explains to the mom who throws her kid in his room, locks the door and listens as he rips the room apart. If we're entering the darkest days of a self-indulgent culture of excess, then "Ssssnah esseptable!" could be the most befitting rally cry for our times.

Concluding remarks
But then, if we said "Sssnah esseptable!" to the corporate thieves and tax evaders and corrupt accountants of the world, so many companies would get tied up in pricey litigation that the stock market would take a major hit. If the stock market took a major hit, our 401Ks and savings accounts would shrink, and that would decrease our net worths. If our net worths decreased, we'd have less access to easy credit and big mortgages, which means that we'd be less able to live the sort of lavish, overpriced lifestyles to which we've become accustomed, the sort of lifestyles that ensure that we'll remain slaves to our debts forever. If we weren't slaves to our debts, what motivation would we have to get up in the morning and go to our shitty jobs? And if we stopped going to our shitty jobs, we'd probably let our hair grow long and we'd lose all perspective and we'd start drinking heavily, and inevitably we'd turn to a life of drugs and crime. So basically, unless we want to become criminals ourselves, we'd better just let the higher-level criminals of the world do their thing as we turn a blind eye to their nefarious dealings.

Remember, the American spirit has always been a spirit of thieving, deception and greed. When we encourage plundering and looting and taking what's ours and what's theirs and whatever's left after that, we're actually ensuring that the American spirit lives on in all of us. On this fine holiday weekend, let's give thanks for the survival of that spirit, and pray for enough carelessness and gluttony to secure our prosperity for generations to come!

Next week: Why sssnah esseptable to miss the premiere of "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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