I Like to Watch

Just as "Arrested Development" kicks the bucket, here comes a slew of thoroughly zany, painfully forced imitations.

Published February 12, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

Sometimes it's important to stop and smell the roses. Similarly, sometimes it's important to stop and consider the fact that the world is filled with total idiots who only care about the bottom line.

Or, should I say, most people on this planet are disappointingly stupid, and most people on this planet are disturbingly focused on making a profit at the expense of creating things that are genuine, heartfelt, clever, moving or even mildly redeeming. Some people are smart, sure, and some people are willing to set wealth aside for the sake of quality, but smart people who care about quality are rare. You know a few of them, I'm sure -- there are billions of us here, after all. But the vast majority of us are money-grubbing, soul-sucking, pandering whore-dogs with no more dignity or soul than a particularly virulent strain of foot fungus.

And just as a fungus needs warmth, moisture and a shady place to grow, the profit-minded halfwits grow in the shady stank of American culture, a dank and fetid place where empty-headed sea donkeys and white-toothed, grinning yes men thrive and are paraded through town, while thoughtful artists and pensive smarties are left to sulk on the sidelines.

It's not snobby to say so! Why, even Jesus knew the world was filled with self-interested dummies! Remember when he cast all the money lenders and peddlers out of the temple? Think of how, in that temple scene in every movie starring Jesus, the money lenders and peddlers are always rat-faced and mean and a little slow on the uptake. Their chickens are flying all over the place, their gold coins are scattering across the ground, and their frantic faces are filled with the uncomprehending anger of big, dumb animals. Why do you think we see that scene over and over again? It's probably one of the only things you remember from the Bible that night you were trapped in a crappy motel room in New Mexico and had nothing else to read. Jesus wants you to know that the world is filled with greedy, confused dumb asses, and that navigating through this crazy, mixed-up world is not easy.

"I came to save them, and they nailed me to a board because some jerk's poll numbers were low. I can't wait to see what they'll do to you! Muhahahaha!"

After dark
It's funny how the editors of the Bible cut out the places where Jesus' evil laughter rang out across the land. "The meek shall inherit the earth -- if it's not ruined by a nuclear holocaust first! Muhahahaha!"

OK, I know I'm depressing you. I'm sorry, I can't help getting particularly dark when I'm in a great mood. "Giddy darkness" is what I call it, and it's the sort of energy that lies behind all of my favorite things: "Six Feet Under," "Arrested Development," "South Park," "The Sopranos" ... Can you frackin' believe that Tony and the gang will be back in March? It's way too exciting for words.

But before we move on to the deeply satisfying television that's in store for us in the next month, let's confront the dummies with dollar signs in their eyes. The new shows aren't terrible, on the whole, but there's something a little bit off about them, and I've had trouble putting my finger on it until now. You know how the giddy darkness of truly great shows like "South Park" and "Six Feet Under" is just infectious, even when it's sick or sad? You know how, when Nate said, "Narm!" right before he hit the floor and died, it was really mean of the writers, but it was also funny, as if to suggest that fate has the most wicked sense of humor of all? Remember how, even though it was sick and mean and terrible and sad and funny all at once, it didn't strike you as false, and it made you feel very inspired and alive, even though you were also depressed and shocked?

Well, that's what some of the new shows are trying to accomplish, and I suppose it would be a worthwhile goal, if it weren't for the fact that they're trying to accomplish it in order to create a hip, current show that's wildly popular and makes tons of money. We don't know this for sure, of course, because we're not inside the writers' heads. But that's how these shows feel. They're funny, they're not funny, they're poignant, they're flat, but most of all, they have Fake Giddy Darkness in spades, and that makes them feel forced.

My hunch is that even when a show starts out as a truly inspired creation, a work of genuine Giddy Darkness, a rousing shout-out to Narm, the TV business finds ways to suck the life out of it. "Shouldn't she be younger?" "Let's make her a horny cheerleader instead of a grumpy lesbian." "What if he's not cheating, if he's just fantasizing about cheating?" The Giddy Darkness is, slowly but surely, transformed into Zaniness.

Giddily Dark shows have mean characters who happen to do harsh things because that's who they are. Zany shows have nice characters who do sort of mean things because the character got all confused that day, or they have mean characters who are mean in spectacular, showy ways that make for good story lines. Giddily Dark shows focus on how the flaws of certain characters lead to messed-up situations. Zany shows start with messed-up situations, Zanily messed-up situations that are justified by offering up character flaws that were clearly invented after the fact.

Giddily Dark comedies have a rapid-fire pace because the people who write them and direct them are filled with a manic love of the material. Zany comedies are fast-paced because a network executive gave the writers a note to "pick up the pace," or a test audience of big, dumb animals dialed their personal happy meters down when the pace slowed down.

"Six Feet Under" is Giddily Dark. "Nip/Tuck" is Zany. "South Park" is Giddily Dark. "Drawn Together" is Zany. "Chappelle's Show" is Giddily Dark. The really bad skits from "Saturday Night Live" are Zany. "Battlestar Galactica" is Giddily Dark. "Invasion" is Zany. Ellen DeGeneres is Giddily Dark. Rosie O'Donnell is Zany.

But most important, "Arrested Development" is "Giddily Dark." The new midseason comedies are Zany.

No zany, no gainy
Yes, Mitch Hurwitz, creator of "Arrested Development," is the Jesus of this season's TV schedule. He came to save us from terrible comedies, and we thanked him by nailing him to a board because his show's numbers were low. Long after his show is hauled off for dead, its remains thrown into a tomb blocked by a huge stone (if you don't know by now, the four remaining episodes of "Arrested Development" were "burned off" this past Friday on the same night as the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics), we'll all be worshiping him as the man whose show died for our sins -- our sins being stupidity and greed, of course.

And that's what "Arrested Development" is all about, stupidity and greed -- stupid, greedy characters with terrible habits, bad taste and no respect for each other. Like the foot fungi of American culture, they want money and cool stuff and fun times, but they don't have any ideas or guiding principles or values or insights. Like "South Park," "Arrested Development" takes a cheerful look at depressing, soulless human beings, and turns them into pure, delicious Giddy Darkness.

Our Lord Mitch Hurwitz and the other creators of truly good shows know what's truly disturbing about human beings. Without that knowledge, they could never make shows that are convincingly dark and manic and giddy and bizarre.

The terrible irony is that, just as Jesus himself was soon overshadowed by an unruly mob of imitators, seconds after the assassination of "Arrested Development," network executives are anxious to throw their best imitations of that show in our faces. When I feel this angry, I ask myself, "What would Jesus do?" and I realize that the only answer is to bust into Fox headquarters, topple some desks and throw some executive BlackBerrys out the window.

The first mild insult from Fox is "The Loop" (premieres at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 15). When you watch this show, you can almost hear some big, dumb executive animal saying, "We want a single-camera comedy that's weird and dark and fun, you know, like 'Arrested Development,' except with a young, sexy cast!"

Sam (Bret Harrison) is an airline executive, but he's maybe 23 and lives with a bunch of partying hotties. Sam goes to work and is harassed by his grumpy boss (played by Philip Baker Hall) and sexually harassed by a middle-aged co-worker (played by Mimi Rogers), but then he comes home and gets drunk with his crazy, fun-loving roommates. He blows off the presentation he's supposed to give, or the big idea he's supposed to come up with for work, but then he shows up at the office and, after freaking everyone out with the bald spot shaved into his head by his roommate or the bikini painted onto his chest by a sneaky hottie with a magic marker (believe it or not, these two pranks happened in different episodes), he impresses the boss by thinking of an idea that's so crazy, it just might work!

As terrible as that sounds, "The Loop" is not without its charms. The writing isn't terrible, and the jokes aren't as painful as the jokes on most comedies. The show effectively takes aim at stupid, greedy people who just want to have fun. While Sam is flaky and silly, Sam's secretary went to MIT and is much smarter than he is. There are recurring frat-boy characters who stare at girls' boobies and speak in clichés (Just in case you start to think Sam's partying-executive status means that he's a frat boy, he's not! He's a swell guy!); there's the lust interest who quit a good job to take a gig handing out free tequila shots at bars because her life is way more fun now that all she does is get drunk.

But ultimately, "The Loop" would be a great show, a Giddily Dark show, if Sam were just a shallow, scary frat boy. Or, even if he weren't a frat boy, maybe his roommate could be one. And maybe Piper, his roommate and love interest, could be sort of a shallow jerk instead of a lovable, beautiful med student. Or maybe his brother, in addition to being a stereotypical goofy, fun-loving slacker, could be a recognizably odd stoner. But, no. Sam's brother is like Spicoli from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" but without the A) ethnic name, B) interesting face, C) bong, D) laughs.

I'm not saying that a show has to be dark in order to be good. But "The Loop" lands firmly in the realm of Zany specifically because it sets out to be Giddily Dark, but fails. No matter how smart and fun the writing is, the whole thing just doesn't feel genuine. These characters aren't twisted, exaggerated reflections of real people, like the ones you'll find in "South Park" or "Arrested Development" or "Seinfeld." No, these characters are just long lists of funky traits that a bunch of very pragmatic writers and TV executives thought would add up to the sorts of sweet little hotties that might populate a palatable, wildly popular single-camera comedy.

Boy meets world
Adding mild insult to minor injury is Fox's other midseason sitcom, "Free Ride" (premieres at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 1). Like "The Loop," "Free Ride" is a show that has its definite charms, but the big picture just doesn't feel right. Our hero, Nate, is an adorable young guy, exactly the same bland, WASPy flavor of adorable as Sam, but without the ambition. (Again, traits, not real people.) Nate just graduated from college in California, and now he's returning home to live with his parents and romance the hometown girl of his dreams only -- oops! -- she's engaged! Has anyone at Fox ever seen "Ed" -- you know, that old single-camera comedy where Tom Cavanaugh plays a guy who goes back to his hometown and romances the hometown girl of his dreams only --- oops! -- she's engaged? Apparently not.

Nate digs Amber. She works at the bank. Amber is engaged to the same sort of aggressive frat boy who's also targeted in "The Loop." Nate goes to work at an Australian-themed chain restaurant like Outback, inhabited by a bunch of cheerful mutants with fake Australian accents. All very amusing and enjoyable and deeply Zany, but somehow not all that interesting.

And look, for those of you who are thinking, "It's a new sitcom on Fox. Why are you taking it so seriously?" the answer is, because it's not that bad, which leads me to believe that it could actually be good, if it weren't so neutered and lovable. For one thing, I really like Nate's parents, who are prone to telling Nate the latest development in their couple's therapy sessions or the latest techniques they're using to spice up their sex life. I also like the "aunt," Nate's mom's best friend, who constantly talks about how great it is not to be married. She and Nate's mom love spending time together, and hate it when Nate's dad insists on tagging along. These are reflections of real people, because they don't bear the burden of being cute and likable.

As much as this kind of character is overplayed, I also really like Nate's loser friend Dove, the guy with the monster truck and the crazy long hair who's always up for anything. On his first night back in town, Nate goes with Dove to a "party" that consists of four guys stuffed into a kitchen together, drinking beer, occasionally tackling and beating the crap out of each other. After that, they play video games. Totally bizarre and yet, hauntingly familiar!

Sadly, all of the familiar, original scenes are overpowerd by a cloying sweetness, the ugly side effect of a profit-minded need for the show to be loved by everyone, everywhere. But remember how the networks once tried to make kinder, gentler versions of "Seinfeld"? That didn't work out so well, either.

Brawl in the family
Finally, one last casualty of the pursuit of Giddy Darkness: ABC's "Sons & Daughters" (premieres at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 7).

Everything about this show should make it look promising: It's dark, it's kind of mean, it's about family, it's a hybrid of improvised and scripted dialogue, it's produced by Lorne Michaels, who's successful enough not to get involved with a show that's bad. There are jokes about being Jewish and jokes about never having sex with your husband and jokes about having a freakishly weird teenage son. There's a big, sprawling extended family with major problems, played by a worthwhile, reasonably talented cast.

But this show isn't great. The improvised dialogue is sometimes smart, but it often leads to scenes where the main characters repeat their intentions over and over again -- you know, like in a really bad improv class. The reason it's tough to write good dialogue is that good dialogue doesn't consist of people saying exactly what they want and need at all times. A fighting couple doesn't say, "I want you to stop meddling in other people's lives!" or "I just want to have sex more often!" A fighting couple says, "You overcooked the spaghetti, damn it!"

Plus, as usual, our lovable hero, Cameron (Fred Goss), is too lovable and heroic and underdoggy. Cameron is always trying to pull the family together, and always failing. He's plucky and spunky and all those bad things, and aside from wandering around trying to fix everything, it's tough to say what's going on with him. He's not a real person.

Well, at least he's not 23 and floppy-haired and adorable to boot. And there are moments of admirable ambiguity in "Sons & Daughters," like when Cameron's stepdad tells him very earnestly that he loves Cameron's mom, but he might leave her, or when Cameron reacts to his pensive, smart, aggressive teenage son. Sometimes the improvised dialogue is very impressive and fun. But overall, this show is a big, clumsy attempt at Giddy Darkness that once again falls into the Zany category.

It all boils down to the issue of whether you're aiming to create a show that's almost farcically odd (like "Arrested Development" or "Seinfeld") or a show that's poignant and sometimes kind of mean, but very real (like "Everybody Loves Raymond"). Trying to have it both ways, aiming for something unrealistic but poignant, bizarre but real, dark but lovable, rarely works. When Cameron's son says, after peeing in the bed, "I peed, do I have to spell it out for you?" and Cameron's preteen niece tells Cameron that her mom "hasn't had sex with my father for years!" that's the kind of forced Zaniness that makes you want to change the channel.

In summary
You have to admit, the world is a surprisingly beautiful place, considering it's filled with pandering, money-grubbing morons. And as tragic as it is that a slew of well-meaning but ultimately disappointing single-camera comedies are headed your way just as the unspeakably brilliant "Arrested Development" goes down the tubes, we have to try to focus on the good things in life: Starbuck of "Battlestar Galactica," the aggressive female frat boy of outer space. The hope that David Chappelle might bring back "Chappelle's Show." The consistent joys of "Project Runway." For all of the foot fungi out there, flourishing in the moist, smelly pit of modern culture, there are a surprising number of genuine, heartfelt, clever and moving novels and movies and plays and, yes, even TV shows. Let's hold onto hope that every now and then, some pensive smarty will wander out of his or her hidey hole and truly shine. Just make sure to enjoy the work of these thoughtful artists who aren't concerned with popularity as much as you can, because you never know when the soulless whore-dogs are going to drag them off and bury them because sales numbers are down.

Next week: FX's "Black. White." digs up the racism of high-minded liberals who think they're the "good ones."

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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