I Like to Watch

Pushy therapists, bickering models and corrupt cops may keep you riveted, but be honest: Has your favorite show outlived its premise?

Published March 19, 2006 11:34AM (EST)

Everything has an expiration date. Cheese, hairstyles, lovers, cars, sweaters, pet hamsters. No matter how dearly you embrace anything -- you cherish your favorite sweater, you worship your honey pie, you adore Chumpy the hamster --- you'll inevitably wake up one day and find it gone, Daddy, gone. Because eventually, your sweater will unravel, your cheese will get moldy, your car will break down, your sugar muffin will start sleeping with your best friend, and Chumpy will amble off into the walls of your house and get eaten alive by a 2-foot-long river rat.

The real mind-frack of TV is that it lasts so damn long, longer than cheese or hairstyles or pet hamsters or even most lovers. Unlike a two-hour movie or a three-hour play or a 10-hour book, TV shows take 23 hours or more to digest, and that's just one season. Once "Six Feet Under" bit the dust, I'd watched the show with three different boyfriends, while living at four different addresses, and that's not to mention the 50 or 60 blocks of cheese I consumed during that time. When the show went off the air, I'd spent 63 hours in the presence of those characters. No wonder Nate got on my nerves!

Expiry furnace

But that leads us to the question of what a show's natural expiration date should be. When you consider how most shows come into being -- the creators pull together a pilot, a one-hour-long show, and pitch it to a bunch of executives along with some loose notions about the first season's narrative arc -- it's shocking that several years' worth of material could ever arise from such paltry beginnings.

Which shows can really hold our interest for more than a few seasons? When you look at most competitive reality shows (Immunity is back up for grabs again? Really?) and the newest trend of single-scenario dramas ("Lost," "Invasion," "Prison Break"), you have to wonder how the aliens are going to stay just out of reach for another three seasons, or how the hot guy is going to try to break out of prison for the next five years, or how those crash survivors are going to manage a sustainable ecosystem to support their offspring. What will they eat? River rats?

When you take a hard look at most shows, you have to ask yourself: Was this show really meant to drag on this long, or am I just clinging to the past? Am I still interested in where these writers are leading me, or am I so fond of these characters that I can't let them out of my sight? Look closely, and you'll see a TV lineup filled with moldy cheeses, cheating honey pies, and graying Chumpy the hamsters that should've wandered off to die decades ago.

Shotgun shy

I wondered last week if the endless wait for this last season of "The Sopranos" (9 p.m. Sundays on HBO) was really worth it. (If you missed the premiere last week, you obviously shouldn't read this section.) I love Tony (James Gandolfini) and Carmela (Edie Falco) and the rest of those jerks as much as the next guy, but where was the fallout from Adriana's (Drea de Matteo) death? Why isn't Christopher (Michael Imperioli), one of my favorite characters, showing any lingering signs of either missing her, or not missing her -- something to let us know where he stands with the whole thing? Maybe he's just that shallow, but if that's the case, I'd like to be reminded of it, somehow.

Were we offered any insight into what exactly is making Tony and Carmela get along so well these days? It's cute that they're eating sushi all the time, but do you recall any really memorable exchange between them? Instead, Tony buys Carm a big gift (the Porsche Cayenne, in case you missed what appeared to be a rather obnoxious and repeated bit of product placement, but apparently wasn't), just like he always has, and she's thrilled but slightly distant, just like she's always been. After all she's been through, she's still back in the same spot, trying to strike out on her own with a real-estate project, but realizing that she needs Tony's help to see it through. It ends up feeling like a retread.

Unlike previous seasons, though, where we seemed to be joining up with the family while they were in the middle of a bunch of big changes, this season has so far given off a stagnant feel. Maybe the big point of the premiere was to demonstrate the status quo, which would soon be blown apart by Uncle Junior's little accident with his gun. It's not exactly a stretch to give David Chase the benefit of the doubt, suspend our disbelief, and look at the season as a whole after it's done. Still, my skeptical attitude gives me a rare opportunity to lash out at some of my "Sopranos" pet peeves. I'm not one to look for weaknesses in such a great show, but if I can't air a few gripes at the start of the show's very last season, when will I ever have the chance? Certainly not after the whole shebang-a-bing is lost and gone forever, and all of the characters have achieved sainthood à la Nate and the gang from "Six Feet Under." (Sniff. Man, I miss them!)

First of all, somebody, take Dr. Melfi, please.

There once was a time when I could almost tolerate the wildly unrealistic, wooden scenes between Tony and Melfi, but that was long, long ago in a galaxy far away. Somebody show me one therapist who spits out spiteful, insulting analyses while her patient snaps back with insults of his own. Yes, it's TV, it's fiction, but that doesn't help the fact that these scenes ring about as true as an amateur dramatic writing exercise on "Conflict." Wouldn't these scenes be far more interesting if Melfi had to limit herself to sanctioned, faux-supportive therapy-speak? Anyone who's been through therapy knows just how passive-aggressive the disapproval and thinly veiled insults can be, and the layers and layers of supportive jargon are what give the whole disconcerting experience its pungent flavor. Why can't we be trusted to decode what Melfi is really saying? Instead, she and Tony spell it all out for us until the whole thing just feels way too obvious and dorky.

Dr. Melfi: You tried to smother your mother with a pillow.

Tony: What?

Dr. Melfi: In the hospital, after her stroke.

Tony: The fuck I did! I grabbed a pillow, but just to keep my hands occupied!

Do we need a reminder that Tony might still be in denial about the fact that his mom tried to have him killed, and he almost smothered her with a pillow? Honestly, who wouldn't be in denial about this, and what kind of a therapist would push something this sensitive in her session? Or this:

Dr. Melfi: You still, after all this time, cannot accept you had a mother who didn't love you. In pitying your uncle, the man she conspired with, you're turning the blame for what she did back on yourself, again, after all this time.

Tony: What was your mother like? Did she ever let you down, hurt your feelings?

Dr. Melfi: Of course she did. She was controlling and manipulative at times. She also never tried to kill me.

Ah yes, the therapist who reminds her client that his mother didn't love him and tried to kill him. And why does Bracco recite her lines like she's reading off a teleprompter? It's all so incredibly literal and clunky, it doesn't remotely fit with the more subtle dialogue of the other scenes.

Like the therapy scenes, some of the stories this season feel repetitive. The guy who kills himself at the end of the first episode, for example -- it was clear he didn't matter, so why was his story so prominent, and why did it play out so quickly? Clearly, the standard cold treatment given to him by Tony could be a setup for big changes ahead, but it still didn't seem all that new, or that believable. (Land $2 million in cash, kill yourself not long after? Maybe you would a few years later, but a few weeks?)

Then there were the regulars: A.J. (Robert Iler), who may be the most irritating character on television, continues to disappoint, and Meadow (Jamie-Lyn Sigler) hasn't had an interesting story line in a few seasons. Janice (Aida Turturro) is one of my favorite characters on the show, but she seems resigned to domestic whining -- although there's got to be some crazy stuff in store now that she has a baby. But throw in a babbling, complaining Uncle Junior, plus the usual bickering among Silvio and Paulie Walnuts, and frankly, it's same-old, same-old, all the way around.

You can only assume that this means that everything will shift by the end of the season, and this stagnant state is the natural starting point to a flood of unexpected changes. Let's just hope one of them includes Dr. Melfi getting run over by a bus.

Model airhead

Of course, compared to the favorite-sweater brilliance of "The Sopranos," my once-beloved "America's Next Top Model" (8 p.m. Wednesdays on UPN) now looks about as fresh and exciting as a stanky old slab of Limburger.

What happened to my love? I remember when all of this show's little oddities and quirks struck me as incredibly charming and special. When the models were made to keep their eyes open and their faces relaxed while swimming in a huge fish tank or Miss Jay told a girl her walk made her look like a crack whore, I giggled and swooned like a drunk schoolgirl. I turned a blind eye to the endless makeup promotions, tolerated Tyra's self-involved outbursts, and counted the minutes until the show was on each week, so I could hear the judges urge the girls to be "fierce" once again, whatever that meant. What did it mean? I didn't care, I was in love, damn it! The world was filled with flowers and sunshine and happy little puppy dogs and delightful back-stabbing amateur models.

But now, with this sixth "cycle," my love has shriveled up and died, and the exact same cute little traits that once made me grin and coo now make my toes curl. Once I would've fawned over an episode where the girls have to put on bathing suits and high heels, walk into a giant freezer, climb on top of a massive ice sculpture and stick their asses in the air, with Jay Manuel yelling at them, "Stop looking like you're cold!" the whole time. Instead, I just wonder who could possibly care whether or not the sea donkeys can pour on a smoldering fuck-me face while the cameras roll. I'm allergic to the word "fierce," and like a lover's annoying little tic, I won't let it slide. "What do you mean by fierce, exactly? Why does everything have to be fierce, anyway?" Every time I see one of those absurd Glamour Shots of Tyra at the end, I think, "There she goes again, trying to look fierce." Is that all there is, Tyra? Then let's not keep dancing.

No, no, but Tyra has sooo many different, complicated layers to her! She has a long rivalry with Naomi Campbell that she was big enough to expose on her teeth-grittlingly awful talk show, and -- surprise! -- she's incredibly afraid of dolphins. I mean, come on, where else but in Los Angeles could a woman go on TV and express, with no sense of humor and no apologies, her fear of dolphins, like we're supposed to feel sympathy for this debilitating state of being? How often do dolphins stand in the way of her ability to function, exactly? Hell, I'm a little bit creeped out by flying squirrels, but the fuckers live in Africa, so who cares? (Wait, it looks like some still live in North Carolina! Oh my god! Where's my valium?)

"America's Next Top Model" may just be one of those shows that feels fresh and juicy for four seasons, and then it falls right off the vine, rotten through and through. If there were more smart girls like last season's Kim, then maybe. But the producers are just looking for little Tyras -- self-centered, empty-headed, overdramatic troublemakers who throw idiotic, one-note hissy fits over and over again. As long as you're going to trot out another gaggle of girls who, frankly, aren't exotically beautiful enough to make it in the high-fashion world, then you might as well find a few who have something to say.

Even so, let's face it: There's only so long you can stay interested in watching a bunch of insecure anorexics bicker over who gets to use the phone next. I wish a herd of demon dolphins would flop onto the set and eat Tyra and her sallow minions alive. Now that's groundbreaking television.

Bald lies

How long do the TV gods expect us to savor their 5-year-old inventions, anyway? After a serious round of innovations in the reality realm and a flock of solid "Sopranos" imitations, we're left with season after season of the same old thing. Yes, it's true, "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl" point to promising new paths for sitcoms, and "Lost" and "Invasion" and "The Unit" prove that talented writers are working hard to invent new genres of dramas to replace the tired cops-and-gang-members pony we've been riding since "Hill Street Blues" hit the air, but doesn't it seem like another round of reality innovation is warranted by now? Aside from FX's "Black. White." it seems like no one is trying anything new. Come on, people! You've got us where you want us, junkies helpless to the whims of the pusher man. Don't fail us now!

Strangely enough, I find myself totally riveted by a creaky old cops-and-gang-members pony that just wants to ride and ride until it dies on its wobbly old legs: "The Shield" (season finale is 9 p.m. Tuesday March 21 on FX). I just can't help it, the fifth season has been so damn good.

Forest Whitaker has been mesmerizing as the noble psycho and perfect nemesis for Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), to the extent that it's impossible to imagine getting quite so into this season without him. Whitaker plays Tom Kavanaugh, an investigator from IAD (the Internal Affairs Department) who's leading the charge against Mackey's strike team. From the start, Kavanaugh made the whole investigation intensely personal, seducing and manipulating everyone he came across, from charming Mackey's wife by convincing her that he also had an autistic kid to luring Lem (Kenny Johnson) into wearing a wire. (Of course Lem, the faithful soldier, took his first opportunity to show Mackey the wire and warn him that IAD was watching his every move.)

The chess match between Kavanaugh and Mackey has been riveting so far, with the writers throwing Mackey just enough little victories in battle to make it tolerable that Kavanaugh will probably win the war. Kavanaugh backs Lem into a corner, Mackey stages a seemingly illegal handoff that makes IAD look like a meddlesome, dangerous intruder. Kavanaugh uses Mackey's affair with another cop to get Mackey's ex-wife to admit that she got a big sum of cash from Mackey; Mackey discovers that Kavanaugh's ex-wife is emotionally unstable, so he goes to her house and has sex with her. It's all just over-the-top enough to be entertaining, but well acted and frenetic and unpredictable enough to remain believable.

Last week's episode worked all of the insanity of this season into an excellent pre-finale lather. Not only did Claudette (CCH Pounder) unexpectedly find herself back in the captain's office (it's about time they put her front and center again), but just as Lem looked ready to take the fall and go to prison in order to avoid keeping the team out of jail by squealing on them, Mackey found out that drug kingpin Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson) wasn't going to protect Lem like he originally thought, which meant that a prison sentence would add up to certain death for Lem. So instead, Mackey convinced Lem to take off to Mexico (maybe he can shack up with Duncan from "Veronica Mars," who's also hiding out south of the border), which set the whole team up for hellfire and damnation in the final episode. Hurray!

But you had to know that Kavanaugh wouldn't be defeated quite so easily. When everyone starts saying, "It's over," that's when you know the fun is just beginning. But most of all, you really have to give this hamster props for making its fifth run on the hamster wheel so exciting.

Closing remarks

To every TV show (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn) and a time for every purpose under FCC guidelines. A time to be bored, a time to cheer, a time to make snacks, a time to jeer, a time to scoff, a time to complain, a time to mourn that your favorite show just ain't the same!

Because as sure as your sweater will unravel and your honey ham will leave you for an independently wealthy, gorgeous upgrade, so too will you learn to say goodbye to the good old days and welcome in a whole new era of disappointment and regret, ushered in by a great nation in decline. But even when you're snacking on Cheez Whiz and listening to your 2-foot-long river rat ambling along on its massive rat wheel, you can take comfort in your memories, clinging to nostalgic glimpses of the past to get you through a mediocre present and a dim, uncertain future.

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