I Like to Watch

Why TV not only keeps you happy, but also binds the galaxy together. Plus: The predictable charms of "The O.C."

By Heather Havrilesky

Published December 18, 2005 2:17PM (EST)

On purpose
As the year draws to a close, many of us find ourselves wondering what purpose TV serves in our lives. Maybe it's those disappointing reality finales, maybe it's just pre-holiday angst, but either way, we want some answers. Thankfully, after several hours of soul-searching, meditation and chanting, I came up with the following list.

What Purpose Does TV Serve in Our Lives?

1) TV distracts us from the drudgery of our jobs. If we came home every night after working all day, and we didn't have something flashy and stupid on TV to distract us, we might sit and think about our dumb jobs all night, and then we wouldn't sleep well, and then the next morning we'd go to work all grumpy and tired, and within a few weeks, we'd probably quit our jobs. Eventually, we might look for more meaningful work in another field, work that might actually matter to us, that might be a little less tedious and unbearable. But in order to look for more meaningful work, first we'd have to update our résumés. Think about it. Do you really want to update your résumé? Of course you don't.

2) TV keeps us from focusing on our spouse's shortcomings. Marriage isn't easy. You choose someone, someone who looks good to you, sounds good to you, smells good to you -- you know, someone you might not mind sharing a bed, table, couch and toilet with for the balance of your days on earth. You know how it works: Every morning, you roll over and smell that person, and maybe they don't stink, so you don't file for divorce that day. Now, if you didn't have that box of televised entertainments in the living room, you would probably expect the person who shares your bed at night to entertain you. And that's just crazy! That person may not smell all that bad, but that doesn't mean that he or she can do what a table full of professional comedians and dramatists are paid millions of dollars each year to do! Remember, your spouse is just a mortal, someone whose existence you can almost tolerate if you squint your eyes and plug your ears and hum to yourself most of the time. You need TV to make your marriage work. If it weren't for "America's Next Top Model," you two would have nothing to talk about, and you'd probably be meeting with your lawyer right now instead of reading this.

3) TV keeps us from spoiling our children with too much attention. Children think that they're the center of the universe already. You give them some attention, and that little myopia problem is only going to get worse. Trust me, the more you talk to your children, the more they think it's all about them. The more they think it's all about them, the less likely they are to do their chores without whining about going to see "King Kong." The more they whine about wanting to see "King Kong," the more likely you are to yell at them, which will make them cry, since it's all about them. Then you'll feel all guilty and you'll spend the next few days thinking about what a crappy parent you are. Paying attention to your kids always ends up being really traumatic for you and them. Don't your kids deserve better? Instead of disappointing them constantly, you should really let someone far more capable like Dr. Phil or Oprah or SpongeBob parent them for you. Just turn on the TV and hand them a bag of those delicious little powdered doughnuts. They'll love you much more this way, I guarantee it.

4) TV keeps us from wanting more from our lives. You know how this fall was going to be a big time of growth and renewal for you? You were going to start going to Pilates classes and writing poetry and rethinking your priorities, and then the new season of "Veronica Mars" started and it was clear that her quest to solve the school bus mystery was far more important than the strength of your core muscles. If "Veronica Mars" hadn't bailed you out, you might be on a path to aggressive self-improvement right now, instead of half-assing everything like you've always done. There's a reason you half-ass everything, though, don't you see? Because if you turned the lens of your obsessive, unsatisfied personality onto your life, not only would you be utterly disgusted with yourself, but you'd never get a minute's rest. You'd get all toned and spiritually centered and organized, and your friends and family wouldn't even recognize you. Everyone would say, "Wow, you've really gotten your shit together!" but you wouldn't have time to chat, because you'd have an organic berry pie in the oven, two loads of laundry to fold in the bedroom, and a yoga class in 10 minutes. Come on! That isn't you! That kind of person doesn't even order a chocolate shake with her hamburger and fries. What kind of a life is that?

5. TV makes our lives seem relatively happy. Sad, stressful, upsetting stuff happens on TV all the time. People get murdered or sent to jail or eaten by sharks. People get divorced and cheat on their wives and lose their jobs. Even on reality TV, everyone loses except for one person, and that one person is usually pretty unlikable. When your life is lame in a bunch of small ways -- your wife is bossy, your credit card debt is piling up, your dog has a farting problem -- it feels pretty soothing to watch lives that are falling apart in lots of big ways. Sure, you're not sleeping well and your car needs new brakes, but at least you're not an undercover agent infiltrating a terrorist sleeper cell!

In short, TV is the superglue that's holding our fractured lives together. There, now, don't you feel a lot better about all the TV you watch?

Reality wrap-up
I know, I know. You don't even watch TV. Just keep playing along nice like I taught you, and I'll buy you something soft and pretty.

You want to know a secret? I'll tell you this, because you're my "friend": No matter how much I look forward to them, reality TV finales almost always leave me cold. For some reason, the second the winner is announced, I don't care anymore. I don't care who won. I don't care who lost. I don't care about any of the other contestants or about any other aspect of any of it. All I can think is: Why did this matter to me a week ago? I look back on the days when I speculated energetically about who would win, and I think: God, I was so young and naive back then! So full of curiosity and joie de vivre! And yet, now, it all seems like a big waste of time.

Take the "America's Next Top Model" finale. By the time Nicole won it all, all I could think about was what a big dork she was. Suddenly, I didn't care that Lisa was one of the best "ANTM" contestants yet; I didn't care what would happen to Kim or Bre or any of them. By the time Tyra Banks' "ANTM" reunion show rolled around, the whole thing made me cringe. Why does Tyra always seem like she's doing a manic impression of Oprah? Why is she so bossy and defensive every time any of the girls tries to tell the world how crazy-making and unbearable being on the show was? Remember a year ago, when it seemed like Tyra's ego had reached its natural bloated maximum weight? God, we were so young and naive back then!

Then there was the finale of "The Amazing Race: Family Edition," which turned out to be a bigger disappointment than anyone thought possible, even the naysayers who hated it from the first episode. Can you believe the teams never even left the continent? If it's not going to be a race around the world at all, if it's only going to be a race around America in an R.V., you'd think someone could clue us in at the start of the season. Not only that, but the challenges were so incredibly boring and easy. They weren't all that bad at first -- the rowboat across the river was hard; so was the Amish carriage -- but they went downhill fast. Ride a bicycle, build a teepee, log on to AOL? Please. And then it all boils down to a big puzzle of North America, basically a third-grader's homework assignment. Naturally, the Linzes, who are operating at about a third-grade level, won the million dollars.

Ooo, those Linzes, with their bad jokes and their constant high-fiving! Has a more repellent team ever won "The Amazing Race"? Those awful brothers, three of them indistinguishable from each other, beyond the fact that the medium-size one never shuts up. Meredith, that pathetic sad-sack sister who was always lagging behind and begging for approval from the three oafs. And what were the words of wisdom they imparted when they won? Some kind of a chant in which they refer to themselves as "dem Linzes"? Who let these charmless miscreants onto our television screens in the first place?

Let's move on to the "Survivor" finale so I can push those Linz monsters out of my mind. "Survivor" wasn't so bad this season, really -- at least some worthy players made it to the end. Country boys Jamie and Bobby Jon provided plenty of entertainment, and when you throw in crazy dumb lunk Judd, you've got yourself a nice three-ring circus of unfocused testosterone. In the end, though, the women (plus Rafe) found a way to get rid of all three of them, and that was satisfying.

The big disappointment for me was that Rafe didn't win. Rafe was the mastermind behind the game this time -- without him, Stephenie and Danni really didn't stand a chance. So why did he tell Danni that she didn't have to honor her promise to take him to the final two? He basically did it because he cared about Stephenie and felt bad when she was clearly going to be eliminated after screwing up the final immunity challenge. Bad, bad Rafe! Forget Stephenie -- think of yourself for a second!

Naturally, that was all Danni needed to do the wrong thing. Forget that she was dragged to the end by Rafe -- she repaid him by voting him off. As idiotic as it is to expect anything but selfishness on these shows, I still hate it when players don't do the honorable thing, and they still win in the end. It doesn't matter along the way if people screw each other over -- that's just part of the game. But at the end, when the last person takes someone unlikable to the final two instead of bringing the person who got them there? It seems wrong.

But then, as evidenced by the finale of "The Apprentice," as a viewer, you really only care about whether someone does the "right thing" if you agree with the outcome. Soon after the eminently likable yet vaguely absent-minded Randal was hired by Trump, Trump asked him if he thought Trump should hire Rebecca as well. Randal's response? "Hell, no! Tonight is my night to shine, motherf---ers!" Just seeing the stiff smile on Rebecca's robot face made it all worthwhile.

But that's because I didn't want anything to steal Randal's thunder. Of course Trump should hire Rebecca (although, as far as I can tell, she's some kind of management robot manufactured in Japan that Trump is insidiously promoting for some serious under-the-table payola), but he shouldn't do it on prime-time television just because it makes him look like a good guy, and attracts attention to the finale.

Actually, you have to hand it to Trump. Even when his show is quickly fading from the spotlight, he knows how to pump up his press with an unexpected twist. And really, the survival of all of these shows depends on their ability to add new twists -- the next season of "Survivor" now includes some kind of solitary banishment to a scary island for each player. Hopefully, they won't learn the hard way, "Amazing Race"-style, that their new twist sucks rotten eggs.

"O.C." = Love x friendship + great hair
You know how to avoid the pitfalls of untested new twists? By never trying anything new. To see how well this works, swing on over to Fox for a heaping helping of "The O.C." (8 p.m. Thursdays).

Watching "The O.C." is sort of like listening to a pop song or reading Jane Austen: You know what's coming next, and that's what makes it so relaxing. Will Jeri Ryan, the woman trying to mess with Kirsten, succeed in toppling her world, or at least ripping off a big chunk of her cash? Will Ryan sail away on a fishing boat? Will Seth and Summer end up 3,000 miles apart in college next year? Will Marissa skip college to hang out with the dull surfer boys she met at public school?

The answers are no, no, no and no. Because if anything really big and ugly happened, then we couldn't begin the episode with Sandy, Kirsten, Seth and Ryan engaging in witty banter in the kitchen as they eat cereal and bagels and prepare for the day. If bad things really stuck, then Seth and Summer couldn't sip coffee in the high school cafe, and Marissa, Ryan, Summer and Seth couldn't sum everything up, Scooby-style, at the local diner. No, everything will work out just fine, and Death Cab for Cutie will be playing when it does.

In fact, it's easy to break "The O.C." down into a limited number of types of scenes.

A: Sandy, Kirsten, Seth, Ryan banter wittily while spreading shmear on bagels in Cohen kitchen

B: Seth, Summer sit in coffee joint at high school, exchanging snotty remarks

C: Seth, Summer, Ryan and Marissa discuss big troubles at local diner

D: Sandy and Kirsten have a tense talk in the bedroom about Ryan, Seth or the Newport Group

E: Marissa swigs from bottle, throws something to the floor, breaks down crying, wakes up from a terrible dream, etc.

F: Outsider or thug-type charms/threatens Ryan or Marissa

G: Ryan punches someone out on the beach, at the school carnival, at that club where Seth used to work or at the big charity ball, while Marissa stands by, horrified

Put the letters together, and you can make an episode of your very own! How about ABDBAEG? That's a good one! Or why not one of my favorites, AFBFDEFG. That third F scene really chilled me to the bone, how about you?

Based on current and former prime-time soaps, it's clear that it's really hard to write a soap that's unpredictable, clever and fun to watch. As absurd and as fun as "Melrose Place" was, it wasn't surprising very often, "Dynasty" doesn't exactly stand the test of time, and have you tried to sit through an episode of "Dallas" lately? Except for those scenes where Charlene is grabbing for the prescription pills in her handbag, "Dallas" is essentially unwatchable. "Desperate Housewives" is going nowhere, slowly, and watching "Nip/Tuck" is like swallowing broken glass.

The producers of "The O.C." are obviously focused on making sure that in most scenes 1) the dialogue is clever and lively, and 2) the hair and makeup and outfits look great. Plot? Not so important.

Take Seven of Nine -- er, Jeri Ryan. She comes into Kirsten's life at rehab, and is obviously up to no good, which we know because every time Kirsten turns away or leaves, we see Jeri's sneaky, evil face, plotting away. That alien lady is up to no good, I tell ya! Then we see her at the local shitty motel, discussing her evil non-plans with her nondescript boyfriend. "Kirsten has money, and I'm going to figure out a way to get some of it!" Next, she gets Julie Cooper a condo -- Huh? How? -- and forces Julie to help her throw a fake charity event so they can keep all the money for themselves. So now Jeri's story has been building for half a season, right? So how does it end? Julie changes her mind, tells the people at the charity event to make their checks out to a real charity, has a brief confrontation with Jeri in which she scares her out of town, comes clean to Kirsten, and by the next episode Kirsten is over it.

The twist on "The O.C." is actually a deeply embedded part of the formula. Someone menacing or a little pathetic or both enters the picture -- Oliver, surfer boy, Ryan's pregnant ex, Julie's sleazy ex, Ryan's idiot brother, Seven of Nine -- they hang out for a while, making everyone nervous, and then they leave. The end.

And yet ... "The O.C." is still mildly relaxing and enjoyable. Is it the shiny hair, or the strummy indie soft rock?

Why ask why? TV is good for you, whether it's a shitty reality show or an empty teen drama with no redeeming qualities beyond some witty banter set to a relaxing soundtrack. TV doesn't just distract you from your pathetic life, as experts once thought; TV makes your pathetic life better. Whether TV is raising your kids or keeping your marriage alive, you have a lot to thank it for this holiday season. And remember, like heavy drinking, long naps and the occasional swig of DayQuil, hearty doses of TV will make your holiday visits with family go a lot more smoothly. So Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, joyous whatever the hell else, chickens. Here's wishing you and yours lots of warm hours swigging spiked nog and gazing at the boob tube.

Next week: Look for our mid-season report card, which will help you rearrange your messy TiVo's priorities for the new year!

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