I Like to Watch

The lovable losers who dominate the small screen, from the sequined nobodies of "Dancing With the Stars" to the beautiful survivors of "Lost."

Published January 16, 2006 2:00AM (EST)

Here in the land of the free, we love losers, because we know that loserdom is the fertile soil from which the fragrant flower of victory emerges. Oh, sure, it takes lots of rain and many lonely nights, when the loserly little seedlings sing to the themselves in the dark, praying for the warming rays of morning sun on their tender backs. That's what we love the most. We want to see those seedlings huddling alone, dreaming of a time in late spring when they'll stand tall and have all of the toaster pastries and cashmere bathrobes and square footage of closet space that they deserve.

When people are winning and winning and winning, that's boring. Sure, we like to ogle their gigantic bathrooms and envy the wide variety of whoring sea donkeys they date, but that's about it. Narratively, there's no there there. We'd rather see people who have nothing slowly pull themselves out of the gutter. We want to see them heating up canned chili while plotting out their strategy for success. We like to romanticize their tenacity and their delusional thinking, as if that's all it takes to win, as if plenty of tenacious, delusional types haven't wallowed in obscurity their entire lives.

We also really enjoy it when people who have nothing but loserly traits somehow manage to win anyway -- you know, like Kevin Federline. And we like it when someone wins a lot -- too much, even -- then loses it all. Then we can watch them pull themselves up by their bootstraps and start dating Vince Vaughn and start winning again.

Same old story
This emergence from loserdom is at the heart of every single story that comes out of Hollywood. Pick up a copy of Robert McKee's "Story," a book that every single fracking writer and screenwriter in the Southland owns, except for Charlie Kaufman. When McKee writes that, in the first act, "The protagonist has a conscious desire," he doesn't mean "protagonist," he means "loser" and by "conscious desire" he means "conscious desire for several million square feet of closet space." You start with a complete loser, or a guy who looks like a winner but he's really a loser deep down inside, or a guy who looks like a winner but he doesn't have nearly enough room to store all of his crap, and then you turn him into a winner with lots of closet space by the end of the story. It's very simple.

But sometimes I think that we've seen this narrative so many times we don't even care if the loser wins or tries to win anymore. We can fill in that part ourselves. Introduce us to a loser, and merely by dint of being there, on our TV screens, that loser is "turning things around" or "changing his life." And losers we met back when they were winners, who somehow wriggled back into the spotlight? They're "making a comeback." We don't need proof of this -- they're on TV, aren't they?

"Dancing with the Stars" (8 p.m. EST Thursdays on ABC) emerges from this odd stew. First, you start with "stars" who aren't really stars anymore: Former child star with a troubled past Tatum O'Neal, George Hamilton, Jerry Rice. Then you throw in "stars" who are actually just people related to real stars: Drew Lachey (brother to Nick Lachey), P. Miller (father to Romeo), Lisa Rinna (wife to Harry Hamlin). Then you sprinkle in two relative nobodies: Stacy Keibler, a female wrestler, and "award-winning journalist" Giselle Fernandez, both of whom may be well-known, but certainly aren't stars.

Now that you've got your loser parade, you make all of these people look like even bigger losers by dressing them up in funny outfits and making them do really obnoxious, badly choreographed dances to songs like "Careless Whisper" by George Michael. This makes the audience feel very, very sorry for them. Perversely enough, feeling sorry for these glittery, humiliated dancing monkeys makes the audience cheer.

Naturally, George Hamilton and Jerry Rice are way too successful and too charismatic for us to think of them as losers -- until they try to dance, that is. But once they struggle with the dancing enough, we start to want George to really shine at the waltz -- you know, the way he once did in "Love at First Bite"! It's not OK for Rice to just be good -- he's one of the greatest receivers ever! We want him to be one of the greatest fox-trotters ever, too! For the lesser knowns, it's more a case of "Oh, poor guy, he's Nick Lachey's brother. But hey, that kid can really do the cha-cha, can't he?"

The sick thing is -- and this is how the current, speedy loser-to-winner process works -- we almost immediately stop seeing these losers as losers. We're so accustomed to the basic storyline -- loser does something so crazy it just might work, then saves the day -- that we're willing to graft a happy ending onto every single loser's story. Show us a loser, and we'll show you a smug, talentless jerk with a six-bedroom McMansion in Laguna Beach with 15 square miles of closet space. "Dancing With the Stars" is all about watching the little loser seedlings take shape under the eerie candescent glow of pop culture's grow lights. Sure, they'll probably turn into diva beasts straight out of "Little Shop of Horrors," but then we'll get to tsk-tsk their demise and watch it all when their E! True Hollywood Stories come out.

And look, don't tell me this celebrity pap isn't taken seriously by the vast majority of people in this country, because I was recently trapped on a cross-country flight that featured a 30-minute-long segment on the lives of Brad Pitt, Jennifer Anniston and Angelina Jolie that was, essentially, a handful of watered-down headlines paired with a bunch of those terrible press junket interviews stars do for "Access Hollywood" -- you know, where there's a movie poster in the background, and the actors talk about how intense it was to run away from imaginary CGI dinosaurs? There wasn't half a second of new information in the entire segment, it featured terrible snippets of magazine-writer jackasses like myself making idiotic guesses about the feelings of these people they don't remotely know, and it lasted for 30 frackin' minutes! And half of the people on the plane were watching it! OK, this was on a plane to Los Angeles. But still.

Just to be clear, I'll happily guess about the feelings of people I don't remotely know when there are no cameras around -- hell, I think plenty of people enjoy this sport, or "Dancing With the Stars" wouldn't be so popular. We can't be there when Jennifer Anniston reads, in the tabloids, that her ex-husband of three months is having a baby with The Other Woman, but we can watch as Jerry Rice messes up and looks visibly agitated in the middle of his quick-step routine. We can't be sure what it's been like to walk in Tatum O'Neal's shoes all these years, but we can welcome her back into the fold -- in fact, one of the judges actually said to her, after her first routine, something like, "Welcome back to Hollywood royalty!"

Yes, "Dancing With the Stars" heralds O'Neal's return to Hollywood royalty. Preposterous, except that it's true. Being embraced by the cheesiest of shows is all it takes to make a major, lucrative comeback these days. That's how dearly the American public loves its losers, and its shows about losers.

I know I do. But I still have to draw the line at "Skating With Celebrities," which I probably don't need to tell you is awful. Imagine Todd Bridges of "Diff'rent Strokes" moving stiffly across the ice, trying not to fall. This is the modern equivalent of the bearded lady -- totally uninspired non-entertainment, fueled entirely by the curiosity of rubberneckers. "Todd Bridges, on skates? How? Why?" Trust me, just wait for the lowlights to show up on Video Dog. And this summer, look for "Celebrity Marching Band!", "Tax Preparation With the Stars" and "Creating Festive Macramé Christmas Ornaments -- With Celebrities"!

Lost and found and lost again
Of course, if anything proves my "We heart losers!" thesis, it's "Lost" (9 p.m. EST Wednesdays on ABC), a show that focuses entirely on the lives of a gaggle of losers stranded on an island in the middle of nowhere without any enormous closets or stuff to buy in sight. "Lost" is a huge hit, the fourth-ranked show among total viewers, even though it's about a bunch of people who will never, ever become winners, because if they ever actually won -- succeeded at getting off the island -- then the show would be over. Not only that, but most of the survivors on the island were serious losers -- unhappy, desperate, lost, if you will -- before the plane went down. And, when the survivors do experience some small success, after the strummy indie-rock montage is over, we're back to abject misery, conflict and desperation.

Look, I've really been enjoying "Lost" this season, but let's examine the Rose and Bernard story, just for example. Rose is a character that everyone on the island considered to be in denial up until a handful of episodes ago. She was absolutely sure that her husband was still alive, even though he was in the back of the plane when it went down, and no one from that part of the plane made it onto the beach with the group. Well, it turns out that there was another group of survivors on a different part of the island, and Bernard did survive! When Bernard appears on the beach where Rose is, though, he does it with the rest of the survivors, while the strummy music is playing, so we don't even get to hear their first exchange in any kind of dramatic way. I think Rose says something like "I knew you were alive!" and that's it. That's all we get, after worrying about poor Rose's sanity and hoping for the best for an entire season.

And then there's Michael and his even-more-screwed son, Walt. The first season ended when Walt was taken straight out of Michael's hands by pirates. As Walt screamed to his dad for help, the pirates blew up Michael's boat and he and the other castaways flailed helplessly in the water. Sounds pretty damn heartbreaking and horrifying, eh? Well, the beginning of the second season gave Michael little hope concerning Walt, but then right before the show went on hiatus in December, Michael is sitting at the keyboard, IM'ing with someone who says he's Walt!

Nice cliffhanger, except that, in last week's episode, there's no substantial follow-up to the story and no insight into Michael's crazed state of mind over the whole thing, just another brief IM session, and vague talk of Michael marching off in search of Walt eventually. Huh?

Can the "Lost" writers really allow these losers to lose and lose and lose indefinitely, and then when they encounter a small victory, the writers don't even let us see it? Bernard finding Rose, Michael contacting Walt -- these are major plot points with an enviable heft of emotional weight to them. But we don't get any payoff? Come on. That's like E.T. phoning home, but getting a busy signal. "Oh well, E.T., I guess we can enroll you in kindergarten in the fall..."

"Lost" executive producer Carlton Cuse told Zap2it.com: "Basically, 'Lost' is one of those things where you have to appreciate the journey and try not to worry about the endpoint. We're not in control of the endpoint."

Here's the thing, Carlton. If the journey is nothing but misery and suffering, that makes it a little bit hard to appreciate. We love these frackin' losers, and we'd really like to see them win every now and then. Even if they don't end up sipping mai tais on a cruise ship back to the States anytime soon, it would be nice to see them carve out a little bit of happiness on the island. Surely we can sprinkle in a few genuine payoffs for them, can't we? All scary obedience experiments and tortured children and violent outbursts make Jack a dull survivor.

Oh, and was I the only one who thought the Virgin Mary statuettes filled with heroin subplot was just a little bit heavy-handed? Basically, we're expected to believe that an airplane filled with heroin crashed on the island, but the only person that has any interest in the heroin is the recovering heroin addict, Charlie. Um, exsqueeze? These frackers are stuck on an island for chrissakes! Life is not good! They will mostly likely die there, on the beach, in the rain, with nothing good to eat but charred fish! In real life, sure, the sane among us would steer clear of scary, terrible heroin, but when you're just going to die anyway? That's like E.T. refusing a bicycle ride under the light of a full moon.

And speaking of moonlight, this is not "Moonlighting" -- we're not going to wait 15 seasons, or whatever, just to see stupid Kate kiss stupid Jack again. Those two should be making sweet love, "Blue Lagoon"-style, around the clock real soon, or else there's just nothing to keep greedy, impatient viewers like myself around. And don't go saying that "Lost" will sidestep any and all cheap thrills, don't get all high and mighty on us now. This is a show about a plane crash, OK? All of the survivors, except for the big guy, are extremely hot, and they landed on the prettiest island in the universe. Setting the bar high is great, but don't start thinking you're writing literature just because there are religious undertones and insights into societal norms and references to "Lord of the Flies" in the mix.

In summary
All of the finest stories that Hollywood has to offer teach us the same simple but important lesson: When you're a loser, you have nowhere to go but up. That's why we can all rest assured that, even when we max out our credit cards, take on massive car loans, save zero cash, and insist on moving into bigger and bigger houses that we can't remotely afford so that we have more room for the new stuff we can't remotely afford, it's all going to work out swell in the end! Having a massive debt load is just part of the American dream, isn't it? We've seen the same story a million times, and thanks to it, we know that being a loser now practically guarantees that you'll be a winner tomorrow! All you need is the proper combination of delusional thinking, willingness to humiliate yourself, press attention, expensive hair products and ill-considered lending habits and we're well on our way to miles and miles and miles of carpeted interior space! Yummy.

Next week: Is Jack of "24" a loser in hero's clothing?

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