I Like to Watch

In a genre switcheroo, "The L Word" offers fantastical tales of pretentious little girls from outer space, while "Battlestar Galatica" tugs at our heartstrings -- and knocks our fracking socks off!

Published January 8, 2006 9:00PM (EST)

It takes a village idiot
Happy New Year, chickens, and welcome back to the comforting arms of a full lineup of televised entertainments! Or, if TV isn't your thing, welcome back to the warm embrace of workaholism, neurotic motherhood, compulsive drinking, relentless self-loathing, perfectionism, self-imposed isolation, obsessive consumption of online media, seasonal affective disorder or whatever floats your deeply flawed little boat.

The nice thing about debilitating habits is that there are always people out there with the same debilitating habits as yours. That's what's known as a community, see? And community is very important.

Now, when we're young and spend most of our time getting wasted on canned beer and driving around in circles in deep mud until our cars overheat, we don't care much about community. We don't care about community because we don't need community, chickens. All we need is an older cousin to buy the beer, and another older cousin who doesn't mind if his El Camino gets a little muddy.

As we get older, though, our needs grow. We need to borrow our neighbor's lawn mower to cut the grass. We need to borrow our neighbor's wife to get laid. We also need water, electricity, gas, food, cable TV and a wide variety of expensive insurance policies to protect us from worrying incessantly about negative circumstances beyond our control.

In order to meet these very adult needs, we're required to talk to others -- and not just to talk, but to cooperate with them. We're required to ingratiate ourselves, to engage, to barter, to compromise, to make people like us and accept us into the fold. Once we kiss enough ass to get into the fold, then we have to imitate other members of our community so that we won't stand out too much. Once we all sound and look alike, we start to look scary and repugnant to those outside our community. But that's great, because being hated by others is what bonds any community together!

L is for lazy
Now, I don't need to tell you that TV land is brimming over with communities: Cop communities, lawyer communities, middle-class family communities, aspiring-model communities, etc. When you throw in the communities of fans that rally around each TV community? Well, that's a lot of people to buy you beer and lend you their El Caminos.

Or, in the case of "The L Word" (10 p.m. EST Sundays on Showtime), that's a lot of hot gals to buy you cappuccinos, style your hair, play the latest Metric CD for you, fund your nonprofit organization, rent you an architecturally desirable house, make out with you in the Château Marmont pool when you're big and pregnant, and read you their provocative short stories about the circus. Hurray!

Ah, but let's start with the basics: This is a show about women, smart women who have a lot to say and who look good saying it. When you've spent a lifetime watching the same old macho-guy characters saying the same old things, it's nice to watch a show with nothing but women in it.

The other thing that's nice is, the women are gay, so they don't sit around talking about men the entire time. No, they talk about other women, and themselves. Have I mentioned that they look good doing it? They do. This is a nice-looking community.

On "The L Word," stories are mostly fun and soapy. Dana (Erin Daniels) the pro tennis player falls for a controlling but highly effective manager-publicist named Tonya, but she's having an affair with her old friend Alice (Leisha Hailey). Bette (Jennifer Beals) cheats on Tina (Laurel Holloman), but she's tortured when Tina finds a beautiful, ultra-rich girlfriend, Helena (Rachel Shelley), who gets hot just looking at Tina's big, pregnant belly. Shane (Katherine Moennig) is a player who continues to sleep around, but regrets having set up Jenny (Mia Kirshner) with her ex-lover Carmen (Sarah Shahi) because she's still sort of into Carmen. Kind of.

Most of the stories are fun and a little less formulaic than other soapy fare like, say, "The O.C." Once you watch a few episodes, you want to watch some more, to see how it all turns out. Some of the characters -- Dana, Bette, Shane -- feel very organic and believable. And Camryn Mannheim's turn as a bossy, self-involved movie producer who's charmed by Shane is particularly memorable. Basically, the elements of this show that work, work well.

But then there's Jenny, perhaps the most pretentious character ever created. Jenny is a writer, see? That means she's really tortured and she thinks about really deep stuff all the time. Jenny daydreams about carnivals! Oooo! With clowns and boys and girls and, of course, Jenny herself, in a little white dress, getting shot in the heart! Blood on white cotton! Very cinematic! In fact, most of Jenny's dreams will remind you of the short films of a first-year film student. But don't be fooled -- Jenny writes brilliant short stories about these dreams, and her teacher, played by Sandra Bernhardt, tells her they're not good. Boo! That meanie! Luckily, you can tell Sandra's going to change her mind and proclaim Jenny the most talented girl in the world soon enough -- and she does! Yay!

Of course, we have no idea what's going on inside Jenny's head, beyond the sophomoric parade of carnival scenes and haunting trance music, but we're supposed to just trust that it's all very important, reflecting lots of big ideas and dark emotions that are, conveniently enough, never shared with us. Instead, Jenny gets a haircut! Or, Jenny sheds big, salty tears, then runs off to an S/M club! Just watch the shots of Jenny in the opening credits -- she's the one with the long, dark hair doing the interpretive dance in the yellow dress -- and you'll get the picture.

Next, we have the idiotic frat boy who moves in with Jenny and Shane and installs hidden cameras throughout the house so he can film all the hot lesbian action going down. This guy speaks entirely in clichés, he has a nimrod sidekick who never says anything but "dude!" and "hot!" -- and the entire thing is so unbelievable and so wretched, it's tough to bear. Keep in mind, aside from Bette's dad and Bette's male co-workers, which are minor roles, this voyeur roommate is the only major male character on the show. The only other one, during the first season, was Jenny's chumpy husband, who stomped his feet while she ran off and screwed around with women.

I know, I know: This is a show about women, damn it, and plenty of movies feature a bunch of guys and one idiotic bimbo with nothing to say. I hear you. But "The L Word" is a moderately good show. You could make the male roommate vaguely interesting. He could be a human being, instead of just a dude. The only human streak he's given is his interest in/possible crush on Shane. Yes, a frat boy with a crush on a very boyish, husky-voiced lesbian. It might be believable if we were given some reason to believe it or understand it. We're not. In love with his nimrod sidekick? Sure. In love with Shane? No frackin' way.

One more thing: Dana and Tonya are engaged to be married. They have a bachelorette party. Dana's mom finally accepts Dana's homosexuality, thanks to Tonya's efforts on that front. Meanwhile, Dana starts cheating on Tonya. This relationship has been going on for half a season, and eventually we know that Dana will have to tell Tonya that she can't marry her. Episode after episode, we're wondering how crazy, controlling Tonya will react. Instead of giving us Tonya's reaction, though, Tonya tells Dana that she's in love with Melissa Rivers. Yes, that Melissa Rivers. So a half-season storyline is ruined for the sake of a cameo. I guess it's supposed to be funny. Guess what? Like Midas, Melissa Rivers makes everything she touches un-funny. The whole thing is just awful.

So that's my problem with "The L Word": You're watching it, it's fun, it's easy, you're into it, you're on board, you're ready to lend Tina your lawn mower and let Helena decorate a room for your baby, and then every fourth or fifth scene is so annoying or so pretentious or so moronic or so unbelievably lazy that you want to rip your eyes out of your skull.

Frack that daggit!
After a full week of saucer-eyed Jenny and her jaunts to never-never land, I wanted to crawl into the warm embrace of something old and familiar, like a pint of cookie dough ice cream and the two-hour premiere of "Dancing With the Stars." But did I do that?

Well, yes, I did do that, but first I caught up with the second season of "Battlestar Galactica," and frack, it was good!

Like many others before me, I assumed that "Battlestar Galactica" (10 p.m. EST Fridays on the SciFi Channel) was just another space show meant for science fiction buffs and people who loved the '70s version of the show. Like many others, when I was a kid, I considered "Battlestar Galactica" a cheap knockoff of "Star Wars," which I loved. I felt very strongly that Lorne Greene belonged on a ranch with Little Joe, not in outer space. I didn't like the kid, Boxy, and his stupid robotic dog, Muffit. I liked the Cylons, but they were too big and dumb and slow to be all that scary.

What's strange is that, even when people told me, very directly, that the new "Battlestar Galactica" was a really smart, character-driven drama that just happened to be set in space, I didn't believe them. That's how insidious the layers and layers of crappy space-show buildup can be. Even though I heard "dark" and "smart" and "unpredictable," all I could picture was Captain Kirk in a toga.

It's all been said before, but I'll say it again: "Battlestar Galactica" is much, much better than you can possibly imagine. The battle scenes are claustrophobic and paranoia-inducing, with the enemy always hidden from view but omnipresent in the imagination, thanks to closely framed, hand-held shots. The power struggles are complicated and nuanced like the ones you find on "The Sopranos." The soundtrack is odd and moody and completely unique as far as TV soundtracks go. The stakes are always high, and there's an incredible amount of action in each episode -- you never feel like the characters are just spinning their wheels, or the situations are repeating themselves, as you do with so many other dramas. The show takes a deeply ambivalent approach to religion: The Cylons attack in the name of their god, which makes them a little bit like fundamentalist Christians or Islamic extremists, but the president of the humans also embraces some pretty odd beliefs and so-called ancient prophecies.

What's most remarkable about "Battlestar Galactica" is that it's populated by distraught, fallible characters who fumble around in the dark and make big mistakes, but never lose our sympathies. Many of them aren't likable or even easy to understand, but we're offered some way of seeing the world through their eyes. For example, Col. Tigh (Michael Hogan), Commander Adama's (Edward James Olmos) right-hand man, may be the least likable character of all, but his indiscretions are balanced by his confusion and uncertainty about his decisions. During the second season, he kept going back to the bedside of an unconscious and ailing Adama, telling the captain over and over again how badly he was screwing up. As soon as Adama was conscious, Tigh told him he wouldn't believe the mess he left for him. When do you see a captain of any kind, let alone a captain on a show about outer space, behave this way? You think you're watching for the tough-girl hero Starbuck or for the battle scenes, and suddenly you're heartbroken over the plight of this poor old jackass.

Friday night, the breathtaking return of the series certainly didn't disappoint. (Spoiler alert: If you missed Friday's episode, "Resurrection Ship," skip the next two paragraphs.) Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) and Commander Adama continued their bone-chilling stand-off, with Cain sharp-tongued and scary enough to make you stand up and boo loudly - while secretly cheering on the best frackin' female villain in recent memory. Of course, this show has so many strong female characters in it, where do you begin? Roslin, Starbuck, Number Six, Boomer... And unlike network TV's lead females, who so often veer into the realm of fragility and Teri Garr "Forget your job and come to bed, honey" moments, these characters - particularly Roslin and Starbuck - are presented as just as confident and as flawed in interesting ways (Take note, "Commander in Chief") as their male counterparts.

There are plenty of chances for those flaws to come to the surface, too, with so much on the line for the colonial fleet. I mean, sweet Jesus, how many jolting scenes were there in this episode? Adama personally apologizing to Boomer for the horrifying rape attempt by Lt. Thorne, President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) telling Adama that Cain needs to go, Number Six (Tricia Helfer) of Pegasus telling Baltar (James Callis) she wants to die? This show is so fracking intense it makes me want to take a Raptor out for a spin through an asteroid belt - or at least drive that El Camino through the mud until it overheats. Frackin' A! With such insanely high stakes and so many fast-moving storylines, "Battlestar Galactica" may just be the anti-"Lost."

Hilariously enough, "Battlestar Galactica" has in spades what "The L Word" is missing. While "The L Word" advertises itself as a character-driven drama packed with strong female leads and big ideas ("This is the way that we live and love!" the credits so memorably screech), "Battlestar" offers far more complex and satisfying characters, and more situations in which the true nature of these characters -- their internal conflicts, their worldviews, their hopes and doubts -- is revealed.


1. The main point of this column is that:

a) You can't judge a community by its debilitating habits.
b) You can't judge a TV show by its genre.
c) You can't judge a remake of a lame '70s-era show by the alienated, angry fans of that lame '70s-era show.
d) You can't borrow your cousin's El Camino if you brought it back muddy the last time.
e) All of the above.

Answer Key: 1. b

Next week: Would you rather dance or ice skate with the stars?

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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