I Like to Watch

Thrill seeker Jack Bauer of "24" risks his neck to save the world from terrorism, while the comfort seekers of "Project Runway" whine about broken needles and pesky stretch fabric.

Published January 22, 2006 11:32AM (EST)

Thrills 'n' frills
There are two kinds of people in the world: thrill seekers and comfort seekers. Thrill seekers love sporting events and horror movies and fast cars. Comfort seekers love soft pants and chocolate pudding and fleece blankets. Thrill seekers enjoy it when their pulses race. Comfort seekers prefer for their heart rates to fall somewhere between "resting" and "comatose." Thrill seekers like speed, action and excitement. Comfort seekers can't move fast without thinking about wrist fractures and broken collarbones and those steel plates they put in your face when your cheekbone gets shattered. Thrill seekers watch suspenseful shows -- shows about cops and lawyers and criminals and emergency room doctors and terrorists. Comfort seekers watch shows where celebrities learn to do the rhumba or fussy urban hipsters try to outsew each other.

But even though thrill seekers and comfort seekers are very different, both factions enjoy feelings of anticipation and suspense every now and then. If we didn't enjoy feeling anxious and tense occasionally, then no one would keep a Jack Russell as a pet, weddings wouldn't exist, and Jack Bauer would be just another schlub with no life outside of the office.

Harsh beginnings
[Spoiler Alert: If you haven't caught up with the first two episodes of "24" from last week, skip to the next section.]

Ah, but we do very much enjoy feeling apprehensive and panicked on occasion, and that's why we heartily welcome the return of Jack Bauer. Jack Bauer is the Jack Russell of the counterterrorist world, a man who has single-handedly thwarted countless acts of terrorism on U.S. soil! Without Jack Bauer, we Americans would be like helpless little children wandering naked in a mine field, falling victim to one terrorist trap after another.

Or at least that's what the evil mastermind of Season 5 of "24" (9 p.m. Mondays on Fox) seems to think. Yes, the first order of business in his as-yet-unknown-but-probably-deadly plot was to frame Jack for former President Palmer's assassination. Anyone who knew that Bauer was still alive had to die, too -- all of which sounds like a lot of work just to prevent any interference from one guy, let alone one guy who everyone believes is dead and therefore one guy who shouldn't hinder your master plan in the first place. Ah, but if you're really going to enjoy "24," it's usually best to check your critical capacities at the door.

And anyway, aren't you glad that the writers dreamt up a way to kill off two major characters in the first few minutes of the first episode of the new season? It's funny how the death of major characters is a bummer at the end of a season, but at the beginning of the season, it's perversely enjoyable.

Plus, the whole mess matches these messy times: The second we lay eyes on President Palmer, the calm, reassuring Daddy presence who stepped in and saved the day last season when President Logan's head was flying off, our pulses return to their desired near-comatose state. And then -- Shwip! Thunk! -- Palmer hits the floor with a bullet in his neck. That's right, Virginia. There is no Santa Claus, Barney is a big fake, your dog never went to heaven and there's an Islamic extremist cabal brewing overseas that would like to see your privileged, lily-white, Judeo-Christian body torn limb from limb.

Palmer's death was brutal -- brutal in that unexpected, upsetting, swift and ruthless way that even a comfort seeker can appreciate. One minute Palmer is thoughtfully gazing out the window, the next minute he's a goner. It wasn't very melodramatic or touching, either, which made it all the more disturbing. And cool. It's the kind of televised event that gives you that temporary glow you might get while huddled in your basement with your dogs, surrounded by cans of kidney beans, tuning in to the Emergency Broadcast System to see whether an Aquafina truck or a taco wagon is likely to drive down your street in the next month or so. You know, it's horrible and scary, but it's kind of exciting, too -- at least until mealtime.

But that apocalyptic rush gives way to a flood of pure joy when Michelle and Tony finally get the car bomb that they've so clearly deserved for years now. How great was it to see Michelle go down? Hallelujah! And without struggling or suffering or getting on the cellphone and calling Tony "Tiny" Almeida and telling him how much she loves him, blah blah blah. No, instead it was just KABLOOEY! The funny thing is that Tony and Michelle were looking healthy and happy and rich and even vaguely sexy, for the first time ever -- so naturally they had to die.

Of course, Tiny isn't dead yet, he's going back to the hospital to suffer and die slowly for the millionth time. Scratch that, he's back at CTU's incompetent medical unit, where the motto is: Minimize comfort, maximize pain and suffering unto agonizing death.

And then there's the excellent addition of an insane first lady to the lineup, the perfect smart cookie having a serious Betty Friedan "I'm not crazy! No one believes me, but I'm not!" meltdown that harks back to the days when gals used to get institutionalized just for criticizing the unflattering cut of their husband's dress slacks. The poor woman demonstrates to all of those ambitious, hopeful wives out there what kind of claustrophobic hell you land in when you marry someone really important -- or, in her case, someone really ineffectual and insincere and sweaty and flinchy, but really important nonetheless. Don't do it, girls! Put down the pink diamond and back away slowly!

But most enjoyable of all was the Chloe Gets Laid story line. Geeky Chloe, nerdy, troublemaking, whiny Chloe, has always been an oddly appealing, extremely out-of-place presence at CTU. Chloe represents all of us comfort seekers at home, watching the show. She's the conduit for all of our anxieties, she represents all of our flaws, flaws that would quickly emerge in a pressure-cooker setting like CTU. Chloe embodies the best and the worst traits of regular, everyday non-heroes like you and me. And that means that when Chloe gets a piece, we all get a piece, chickens.

"I'm not doin' that!" is Chloe's bratty mantra. She's the Bartleby the Scrivener of CTU, stomping her feet and crossing her arms and pouting. While the rest of the little expert technicians dutifully type away, Chloe rolls her eyes and treats matters of national security with the disdain that most of us reserve for clearing paper jams out of the office copier.

That classic, unlikely-hero satisfaction arises when Chloe is forced into dangerous situations even though she's not a field agent. Somehow, when the shit hits the fan, she stays cool. OK, fine, she fired her gun at Palmer's killer, who could've told Jack a lot more, had he lived. But remember last season, when she had to pretend to be the bad guy's daughter, and then she helped Jack to evade the evil Chinese? (That was the plot, wienie dogs, I'm just summarizing, here.)

And who better to woo Chloe than an overconfident, slightly suspicious youngster underling? How great was it when Chloe told him that arrogance doesn't turn her on? (So there!) You could practically see her palms sweating in that scene. And then the guy just looked at her arrogantly, and well, Chloe might not have been turned on, but all of us mouth breathers at home certainly were.

To top it all off, the denizens of CTU have a new Hobbit colleague, Sean Astin aka Samwise Gamgee. Hobbits are notorious for their comfort-seeking ways, so it's tough to understand what Samwise (who's Patty Duke's son, in case you didn't know) would hope to accomplish at CTU, but I'm guessing he'll either be pesky, nefarious, tragic or all of the above.

In summary, "24" is back with a serious vengeance. But will this be a great season or will it disappoint? Like the dutiful soldiers of CTU, we don't have enough data to determine the outcome at this time. Naturally, "24" is wildly inconsistent, and even when it's firing on all pistons, it's also uneven and dorky and campy and leaden and obvious. I think that's why I love it so. As with Chloe, its weaknesses are also its charms. Welcome back, little stressed-out, sweaty-palmed buddies! We missed you!

Countering terrorism
If your regular dose of "24" doesn't provide you with enough jittery nerves and cold sweats to last you through the week, consider tuning in for the BBC program "The New Al Qaeda," airing on the Discovery Times Channel (8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28). During the first hour, "Frontline Pakistan," BBC reporter Peter Taylor focuses on President Musharraf's efforts to rid Pakistan of al-Qaida militants. Unlike some of our more reluctant allies in the fight against terrorism, Musharraf appears very genuine in his desire to rid his country of the scourge of Islamic extremists, particularly on Pakistan's forbidding mountainous border with Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden is suspected of hiding. However questionable Musharraf's rise to power may have been, he's currently fighting one of the most important fronts in the war on terrorism. And while it's tough for comfort seekers to get amped up about any war, tracking down Osama bin Laden is a goal worthy enough for even the pudding lovers and soft-pants-wearers among us.

The second hour, "Jihad.com," examines how al-Qaida has regrouped on the Internet. Taylor demonstrates how the Web is used to show footage of bombings in Iraq, sometimes shot from several different angles, and the footage is then circulated by a network of sympathetic webmasters. The Internet is also used as a recruitment tool by terrorists, and as a way of disseminating information on how to carry out terrorist attacks. While you've probably seen plenty of reports about terrorists organizing themselves online, Taylor's account includes a crazy story about an ordinary American woman who took it upon herself to locate terrorists online by pretending to be interested in helping the cause. Oddly enough, she managed to lure in a young American in the service who wanted to help al-Qaida. Once the feds got involved and set up a sting, the man offered information to an agent pretending to be a sympathizer, and he's now serving several consecutive life sentences in prison. Better watch what you say in those chat rooms, kiddies!

Unlike the quick and dirty reports churned out by the network news, "The New Al Qaeda" presents an in-depth, nuanced examination of the efforts to deal with international terrorism, one that may leave you wishing that Jack Bauer really existed.

Sew what?
After such a hearty dose of Armageddon, you're definitely going to want to retreat into the warm, floaty-turqouise-chiffon-covered arms of Bravo's "Project Runway" (10 p.m. Wednesdays). Now, I know I've written about this show before, but chickens, this is one of those programs -- like the famed Drunk Asshole Hotel," if you will -- that's worth discussing often.

Here's why: "Project Runway" is the only show that I can think of that's all about the challenge of being an artist in a world that gobbles up artists and digests them and then craps them out as shiny, watered-down, soulless products. As much as we enjoy purchasing these shiny, bland objects to shove into our walk-in closets and forget about forever, the soul of the artist dies a slow, agonizing, CTU-hospital-unit-style death for the sake of each one. (That's what the soul of the artist does, anyway. The bank account of the artist goes "cha-ching" and the living room of the artist has a brand new shag rug in it.)

You rarely see true artists on TV, because true artists are people who are apt to do and say wildly unpopular things. Not only that, but many of them are compelled to behave in sociopathic ways -- not for attention, mind you, since these confrontational twitches are usually just a side effect of their overall artistic vision, which occasionally involves hurling objects at other people's heads to see the looks of horror and hatred on those people's faces.

OK, fine, I have a soft spot for dangerously overconfident lunatics. Who doesn't? Just look at Santino of "Project Runway." He's not exactly likable, but it's beyond obvious that this guy is a true artist -- he's charismatic, he's hateful, he's smart, he's incapable of taking other people's feelings into account, he creates imaginative, odd, fantastic outfits, and he ignores the judges' feedback entirely. A few weeks ago, when the designers were asked to create an outfit for Banana Republic, Santino responded to judge Michael Kors' criticism by snapping that Kors' clients were "older" than Banana Republic's, and that more people have heard of Banana Republic than have heard of Michael Kors. Kors didn't address this directly, but simply grimaced and blinked in that way that says, "I will personally ensure that you will never win this competition." And last week, when the designers were challenged to make an outfit for figure skater Sasha Cohen, Daddy figure Tim Gunn saw Santino's nutty feather and chiffon outfit and advised Santino to show a little restraint. Santino proceeded to cover the back of the outfit in 300,000 little slips of red and pink chiffon. Kors said, "To me, unless she was opening a Thanksgiving pageant and the Indians were chasing the turkey, I can't even imagine."

Plenty would say that Santino was being antagonistic simply for the sake of being antagonistic. But Santino's refusal to take any advice isn't just the superficial choice of your typical reality rube. He seems to believe that it's only possible to create something pure and beautiful and special in a vacuum. Maybe he suspects, like many artists do, that sooner or later, the marketing Marys and the controlling-interest Carls and the publicist Peggys and the other whoring sea donkeys of the commercial world are going to step in and take his precious, inspired lump of clay and turn it into a Little Mermaid figurine.

Seeing this process in motion is what makes "Project Runway" so damn compelling. Santino may be insane, and he may spend the balance of his days without a shag rug in his living room, but he'll never become the CEO of another figurine factory. Now of course plenty of great stuff comes from the intersection of art and commerce, but how often do you see someone who's completely unwilling to compromise his ideals on television of all places? It's refreshing, even if it's a ticket to an early "auf Wiedersehen."

And Santino isn't the only talented, smart, entertaining idealist on this show. (Jesus, how many reality shows have more than one, let alone a whole roomful of them?) There's Chloe, Nick, Daniel ... Hell, even Andrae the Giant Emotional Wreck has shown a lot of pluck and originality since his first terrible design and subsequent weepy breakdown. This show is filthy with talented, interesting, petulant artists, smart, ruthless judges, and inventive, fun challenges -- a thrilling combination for any comfort seeker.

The only way I'd like "Project Runway" more is if it were two hours long instead of one. After all, shouldn't we be able to toss back strong drinks and gossip with these tweakers once all the sewing is done? Compare the way they casually attack each other around the apartment with the usual leaden, toothless "I know you are but what am I?" clashes between morons we're offered on other reality shows, and the benefits of casting confident, smart human beings with functioning brains in their heads becomes all too obvious. Reality show producers, take note! Let's begin a new era of reality casts capable of engaging in clever, snappy reparté, because the old era of blunt-weapon-toting dullards is definitely drawing to a close.

In summary
Thrill seekers save the world from terrorism. Comfort seekers save the world from scratchy pants. Santino saves the world from camera-friendly reality TV blockheads. Chloe saves the world from blandly effective heroes. Michael Kors saves the world from Paula Abdul. Then we all go shopping for shiny, soul-sucking products, share a big banana split with extra whipped cream on top, and thank our lucky stars that we're not hiding out in the treacherous mountains of Pakistan. Not that it wouldn't be sort of exciting and fun, at least until the lentils ran out and the mortar fire began...

Next week: Will Vic of "The Shield" finally get his comeuppance for all of his thrill-seeking ways?

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 Project Runway