I Like to Watch

Would you rather be a depressed thief, a polygamist or a drunk slacker? The TV gods explore strange new microcosms in search of the next "Sopranos" -- or the next "Jackass."

Published March 5, 2006 12:02PM (EST)

When I was little, I had a book by Richard Scarry called "What Do People Do All Day," which was sort of an Econ 101 textbook for young kids. It introduced us to Busytown, where all kinds of different animals had different jobs: There were little dog cops and cat businessmen and pig firemen and goat farmers and rabbit tailors and a fox blacksmith, and all of the little animals really seemed to enjoy their careers. When you read the book, you felt like the world was filled with satisfied little workers, savoring their jobs, contributing to the good of the community, and bringing home lots of silver coins to spend on eggbeater earrings for their wives, or toy tractors for their kids.

Of course, as we get older, we learn that reality is a far cry from Busytown. Whether we grow up and move away to Lazytown or Grumpytown or Sleazytown, instead of happy little dog cabbies and polite piggy butchers, we encounter sullen bankers and angry waitresses and depressed customer service representatives, doing their tedious jobs with all of the raw enthusiasm and thoughtful effort of root vegetables. And even when the radish project manager and the turnip marketing associate at the office exchange terse words about the upcoming presentation, and the rutabaga accounts manager takes the afternoon off to place illegal bets, life in Dumpytown isn't nearly as interesting as life in Busytown once seemed.

Nonetheless, lately the TV camera has been scanning the Lumpytowns and Chumpytowns of the U.S. for characters the audience at home hasn't encountered before. While just five or six years ago, the Busytown of TV dramas featured only dog cops, cat lawyers, and murdering goats, these days, TV producers and writers are branching out, trying to dig up newer, stranger, more interesting lives that are less predictable to viewers. Whether it's bail bondsmen, plastic surgeons, fashion designers, undertakers or the mob, our interest in life outside of the police departments and courthouses has become more apparent than ever. But can it ever be as interesting as goat farmers' wives wearing eggbeater earrings?

Marry two, get one free

If HBO's "Big Love" is any indication, it can be. In fact, there are elements of this new series that have a quirkiness that might seem deliberate or overly clever against a different backdrop, but that feels natural in its own gracefully odd environment.

From the first scene, strangely enough, it's these little things that grab our attention: Our eyes are drawn to the terrible bedroom set, the flocked pattern on the comforter, the odd hairstyle that Chloë Sevigny is wearing, the shabby dirt backyard scattered with plastic toys. Immediately we know that this is a world we've never seen on TV before, a world we may have glimpsed when visiting our friend's house as a kid, or that we might have spotted in the background on an episode of "Wife Swap." It's not the generic Pottery Barn interior of every home on TV, it's not the shiny suburban world of "Desperate Housewives." It's not even a direct replica of what the show's set designer found when she drove out to Salt Lake City to look around a few of the locals' houses. Matching every element would look too clever, too obvious.

The casual oddness of the environment throws us off just enough to give these characters a clean slate. These are people we've never met before -- not Hollywood versions of people we've never met before, but actual human beings that are unfamiliar from head to toe. Although most are well-known actors -- Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny -- they share the same empty, bland good looks. No one looks gorgeous or -- worse yet -- like a gorgeous Hollywood version of a Mormon wife with an odd hairstyle. And that's good, because a gorgeous Hollywood version of a polygamist family is about as believable as a pig in a tutu and ballet slippers. This isn't a Richard Scarry book, after all, and a cute cartoon version of polygamy would never hold our interest.

Instead, the creators of "Big Love" (premieres 10 p.m. Sunday, March 12) tread a delicate line between inviting us to point and gawk at the weirdo with his three wives, and providing that weirdo with just enough dignity, humor and humility to win us over. It's not as easy as it sounds, arguably an even more onerous task than making an audience love mob boss Tony of "The Sopranos" or corrupt cop Vic Mackey of "The Shield." Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton) isn't entrenched in a livelihood that requires him to maintain three wives in three different houses, all sharing an adjoining backyard; that's just how he chooses to live. The three wives aren't pushovers, but they all treat their situation as the most natural thing in the world, even when they get jealous or annoyed with the other wives.

Of course, the wives get jealous and annoyed with each other all the damn time, and that's a big part of what makes the show so entertaining. (That sounds absurd, of course, and it's a testament to the show's creators that it works so well.) In order to maintain any kind of peace and harmony, a lot of structure and rules are required, so Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) holds meetings with the other two wives to discuss problems and organize their schedules. Bill spends time with each wife based on the schedule, and when any of the wives violates the schedule, the trouble starts. Basically, even when everyone is smart, kind and sensitive to each other's feelings, the possibilities for jealousy are endless. Those are the moments that draw us in: Barb repeats to the younger girls that she and Bill were so happy to have found them and that they make the family complete, but when Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) gets a little extra attention or a special gift from Bill, Barb smiles sweetly, then sulks behind closed doors. Similarly, Bill seems alternately thrilled and exhausted by his duties in the bedroom -- trying to please three wives looks like serious fun or like utter purgatory, depending on the day.

Throw in a quietly disapproving teenage daughter, a reckless teenage son, and a throng of very young kids, and you've got a recipe for total chaos -- and that's before you factor in Bill's chain of home improvement supply stores and his stern, backward-ass family, living on a compound under the watchful eye of the manipulative patriarch, Roman (played by Harry Dean Stanton). The simplistic truisms spewed by old-school polygamists in Bill's midst make him look like the only healthy guy in the picture. Go watch the trailer (click on "Watch Preview" here) to get a taste of what I'm talking about. Don't let the plucky, upbeat soundtrack make you think this is just a fluffy dramedy, either -- while it may be a little bit lighter overall than "The Sopranos," you'll still find the same dark moments and glowering enemies, waiting to strike.

Which, of course, leads us to the question of whether every drama that comes our way these days will be an imitation of "The Sopranos" in one way or another, featuring the same troubled yet sympathetic leading man with the world on his shoulders, just trying to make it from day to day. The look of the show, the pace, the characters all fit into that style of HBO drama that viewers are becoming accustomed to. But hey, why argue with a good thing? The deliciously odd situations and sympathetic yet stubborn characters of "Big Love" have kept me riveted for the first four episodes, and I can't wait to watch more.

Burgle, burgle

Sympathetic characters in unsympathetic circumstances are certainly the flavor of the moment. FX's "Thief" (premieres in March, check listings) offers us another troubled leading man with the world on his shoulders, only with a lot less of the lightness and comic elements you'll find in "Big Love" or even "The Sopranos."

At the start of the pilot episode, though, a palatable mix of high stakes, spirited exchanges, and trouble at home are in play. Nick (André Braugher) leads an expert team of burglars through a complicated heist with the bored sophistication of a true professional. He's so on top of his game, he answers his cellphone and speaks with his wife about his stepdaughter, who's in trouble with the cops for some monkey business with her friends.

But soon after the lively opening scenes, everything in Nick's life goes to hell and there's no real end in sight. Where "Big Love" starts out with an upbeat feeling like "Maybe polygamy is more fun than a barrel of monkeys!" and then evolves into a more realistic and fraught mix of high and low moments, in "Thief," the life of the high-stakes burglar goes from looking extremely challenging to damn near impossible, and the bright spots are so few and far between, you really have to wonder what the payoff for watching this show will be. It's as if the most dire moments of the first season are slapped onto the very beginning, and instead of getting accustomed to the ins and outs of Nick's daily life, as we usually do during the first act of movies and the pilots of most shows, we're unceremoniously led straight to hell.

In particular, Nick's stepdaughter (played by Mae Whitman, who also played the awful girlfriend Ann on "Arrested Development") is tough to appreciate or enjoy. For the first two episodes, it's easy to expect her to provide a little comic relief, the way the kids so often do on "The Sopranos." Maybe that's a foolish expectation that has nothing to do with this story or this girl's circumstances, but it points to the fact that, after the first hour, we're pretty thirsty for a little human kindness, a little forgiveness, a little moment of levity, and we're coming up short. There's one notable moment when she and Nick acknowledge each other, under extreme duress, but that moment is gone seconds later. It wouldn't matter, necessarily, if there were other sources of light in Nick's life, but as the show progresses, each source of hope and redemption seems to get snuffed out.

That said, André Braugher knows just how to embody a really nice blend of tough guy and softie, so that Nick's essential inner conflict is constantly reflected in his expressions. His face wavers between sadness, resignation and a resolute commitment to taking care of his team of criminals while cleaning up the messes they leave behind. As everything takes a turn for the worse, Nick struggles visibly with what his role should be and often comes up short, making snap decisions that lead him down one harrowing path after another.

As a character study of one man, "Thief" works, but it's going to take a lot more than that to pull us into this very dark, very unforgiving story. Some return to those opening dangerous-but-funny moments at the start of the pilot would go far toward keeping us engaged, because Weepytown is no damn fun without a little action, some wisecracking, and someone somewhere who cares whether or not the sad little thief makes it out alive.

Dirty Sanchez

For all of the very busy unlikely American heroes with their hands full in TV land, rest assured that there are still those who seem to do nothing at all. You wouldn't find them in Busytown, since they're never busy, but you will find them on MTV2's "Team Sanchez" (9:30 p.m. Fridays on MTV2). Like most of the stuff on MTV2, "Team Sanchez" is a seriously weird show. It features four grown adult males who don't seem to have jobs and look like they smell really bad. Three of the guys are Welsh and one is from London, and apparently they have lots and lots of time on their hands, time to fill messing with each other. Like a stranger, more aimless version of "Jackass" (if you can imagine anything more aimless than that), "Team Sanchez" wanders through a landscape of pointless pranks at such a strange, slow pace, it's tough to imagine anyone but Beavis and Butthead enjoying it.

That said, your inner Beavis and Butthead (if you have them) will find it impossible to change the channel. On the episode I saw, two of the guys tried to do really lame tricks on their skateboards without a lot of success, but each time they came close to doing anything at all, they'd scream like mad, then high-five each other.

In the next segment, one of the guys, the one with long, scraggly hair, passed out drunk on a bed, so another guy shaved a huge Caesar-like circle in the back of his head. The drunk guy woke up, still drunk, and it took him a very long time to discover the bald spot. He was furious when he found it, slurred something about how long it had taken him to grow his hair long into the camera, then stormed off to the bathroom to sulk. After that, we cut to two of the guys, swatting each other with switches and screaming like girls.

I know that the Morontown of "Team Sanchez" sounds absolutely terrible, and honestly, it is -- so terrible that you can't change the channel, so terrible that after just a few minutes, you start to like it in spite of yourself. This is Idiot Boy TV at its worse; it's what every show would look like if you let teenagers high on airplane glue program an entire channel.

In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that MTV2 isn't run by glue-sniffing teenagers...

In summary

Sadly, it probably is. Instead of diligent, happy little pigs and cats, doing their jobs effectively and enthusiastically, the world is filled with disenchanted dim bulbs intent on half-assing their way to a salary. That's why all of our heroes of the small screen are beleaguered men, weighed down by the weight of their circumstances: Even though their high-stakes wife-juggling or burglarizing ways don't match our sedentary, safe lives, they embody the way we experience the tiny little dramas littering our pathetic landscapes. Their ambivalence and exhaustion mirrors our own, even as we have very little excuse for being either ambivalent or exhausted -- since we're relatively pampered and frankly, quite lazy. But if we could only manage to foster a remotely enlightened perspective on how short our time on earth is, we'd be smiling and happy like the farmer goats and plumber pigs of Busytown, treasuring the small things in life, like fresh ears of corn and eggbeater earrings.

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.

MORE FROM Heather Havrilesky

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Big Love I Like To Watch