I Like to Watch

From "Doctor Who" to "Veronica Mars" to "The Shield," rugged individualists subvert the dominant paradigm -- and are rewarded with angst, guilt and hard time in the big house.

Heather Havrilesky
March 26, 2006 6:00PM (UTC)

America rewards and celebrates individualism, and TV land reflects this spirit. But as the movers and shakers on TV demonstrate, you can't just come blasting out of the gate as an individual. No, first you have to conform to the dominant notions of behavior and style, winning allies and climbing the social ladder. Only by achieving conventional success within your chosen realm will you be able to recognize the limits of the current structure, which will allow you to go off the tracks and work outside the system.

It's all very exhausting. First you've got to wear the nice suits, walk the walk, talk the talk, and marry the homecoming queen. Then, after you recognize that your bosses are morons, your wife is a cheating whore, and the corporate structure you exist within is inefficient, corrupt and growth-focused to the point of idiocy, that's when you can you feed the rugged individualism eating you up inside, that devil-may-care spirit that subverts terrorist plots, nabs money from Armenian criminals, and gets to the bottom of who's been blackmailing gay students at Neptune High.


And what happens once you're living outside the system, subverting the dominant paradigm, flying without a radar? Will happiness be yours then? Of course not. You'll be a hero, sure, but you'll also have the authorities on your back, keeping you up at night. The life of a rebel is a life on the run from the rules you've broken and the rules you're going to break next. Take a good, hard look at Jack Bauer's face sometime. Does he look relaxed and satisfied?

And that's not to mention that every revolutionary, every rebellious hero, every independent thinker anxious to incite change or just make some quick cash without sucking up to The Man is labeled a freak nine times out of 10. Even as the nation applauds you for keeping nerve gas out of the shopping malls or your family thanks you for keeping a roof over their heads (oh yeah, they never do that), you'll still be written off as a nutcase, and you'll end up in prison, rehab or a loony bin, scratching your glorious achievements into the padding on your padded cell with a sharpened spoon. At least there'll be chocolate pudding for dessert.

I believe I can sigh
If you don't believe me, just take a gander at the characters who inhabit the popular dramas on TV today. Whether it's "Prison Break," "The Sopranos," "Heist," "Thief," "Hustle," "Big Love" or even "The Unit," you find characters who traded in their straight jobs or straight lives working docilely within the system for lives of excitement, adventure or polygamy. Everywhere you turn, you'll see revolutionaries who, once the glory is over, will be sharpening spoons in the dark someday.


Of course, even before he's shipped off to an institution, the life of the renegade is no wiretapped walk in the park. Sure, The Man brings the rest of us down all the time, breathing down our necks with his hot, conformist breath, paying us less than we're worth, demanding total allegiance to his crappy ideas, pinching our asses when nobody's looking. But at least The Man gives us structure, limits and someone (other than our spouses) to blame all of our problems on. Without the structure that The Man provides, the iconoclast is left to set his own limits, which, since no one else is really looking, often amounts to drawing lines in the sand and then wiping them out and redrawing them, over and over again.

The season finale of "The Shield" (stop reading if you haven't seen it) (also, stop reading if you missed last season of "The Sopranos," because there's a spoiler ahead) (God, I'm good to you) did a tidy little job of demonstrating the stomach-turning consequences of not knowing where to draw the line. What a lovely, upbeat way to end the season! You really have to applaud the writers of this show for daring to leave us lingering in such a dark and horrifying place. This finale made the "Sopranos" finale look like a picnic in the country by comparison.

In fact, I woke up in the middle of the night last night, thinking about poor Lem, munching on his little sandwich, only to be blown to smithereens by that cocksucker Shane. For those who haven't been following the show, Lem (Kenny Johnson) was under investigation for planting drugs, which is the tip of the iceberg as far as Vic Mackey's (Michael Chiklis) corrupt strike team goes, but despite the Internal Affairs Department's efforts to turn him against the other guys on the team, Lem insisted on taking the hit himself. He was prepared to go to jail and admit to a few different crimes in exchange for assurances that he might be sent to a jail on the East Coast, where he would escape the wrath of a certain gang leader determined to kill him. Lem was loyal to the end -- even when his lawyer advised him to rat on the other guys, he said he wouldn't do that to "family." But he wasn't interested in running off to Mexico as Mackey had planned for him to do. If Lem, who was on the run from the law at the time he made his decision, had the chance to tell Mackey this face to face, Mackey probably would've come up with some new plan, or trusted that Lem wouldn't rat. But Internal Affairs had cops follow the strike team to make sure they weren't meeting with Lem, and fate had it that Shane (Walton Goggins) didn't have a cop following him, so he could meet up with Lem. When he heard that Lem wasn't going to Mexico, he decided to take matters into his own hands, recognizing that Mackey wouldn't have been able to take care of the situation, given his feelings for Lem.


The really awful, great thing about this scene was that we could tell, by the panicked, pained look on Shane's face, that he was about to kill Lem, even though this intention was never announced. Clearly, Shane is the bad seed of the group, by far the least crippled by conscience -- or brain power, for that matter. The shock came when Shane didn't simply shoot Lem in the head, but dropped a grenade lifted from a raid on some Salvadoran drug dealers into Lem's car, right after fetching him a sandwich. Savvy as it may have been to try to link the murder to the Salvadorans, it was a pretty heartless way to kill your good buddy. So Lem dies this gruesome death in the front seat of his car, staring at Shane the whole time, and Shane starts crying and apologizing and saying that it had to happen, there was no other way. The whole thing was pitiful and heart-wrenching and disturbing and maybe a little too graphic for tender paws like me.

It made me think of the coldly calculated murders of Adriana (Drea de Matteo) or Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi) or Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore) on "The Sopranos." Even though Tony Soprano had bad dreams about Big Pussy and felt incredibly guilty about Blundetto and conflicted about Adriana, the murders themselves were performed with quiet resignation. Gunshots, and the victims were dead within seconds. Sure, Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano) was strangled and then dismembered, but he wasn't exactly a beloved friend by that point.


In contrast, Lem's murder was an excruciating blood bath, replete with dying gazes and weeping murderers. Unlike Blundetto or Adriana, Lem didn't make any tactical mistakes or betray anyone, and if Mackey were there, he wouldn't have been killed at all. Even though it makes sense that the entire dark season would end in devastation, it was still tough to digest the death of the most loyal, honest, good, uh ... corrupt cop around.

Now it's only a matter of time until Shane's act is discovered and punished, which will leave a strike team of two. Vic had better start recruiting rugged individualists at the local high school, or soon he's not going to have the manpower to do his dirty deeds.

Teen and herd
Vic might want to start recruiting at Neptune High, where agitators and dissenters roam freely among wealthy, conformist teens. Survey this season's lineup of misfits and rebels on "Veronica Mars" (9 p.m. EST Wednesdays on UPN) and you'll find a gaggle of strong-willed teenagers screwing with the system well before their time.


Veronica (Kristen Bell) breaks the law more often than Tony Soprano, mostly to help teens in peril, including those who perished in the terrible bus crash at the start of the season (a crash that Veronica herself narrowly escaped). But Veronica isn't the only rebel in the bunch. Of Veronica's ex-boyfriends, one (Duncan) kidnapped a baby and escaped to Mexico, the other (Logan) is being investigated for murder and is currently tangled up in manipulating a potential witness by sleeping with his daughter. Yes, Logan (Jason Dohring) is probably innocent, he probably does like the little blonde Veronica doppelgänger ... Or maybe he doesn't. I think with high school boys, it's safe to use the word "like" rather loosely to indicate "would like to get into the pants of." Those poor girls!

But if any show isn't a "Those poor girls!" kind of show, "Veronica Mars" is it. My favorite recent twist involved a pretty cheerleader (played by Kristen from "Laguna Beach"! Eww!) declaring that she was gay during one of those televised school announcements broadcast to each classroom. (Can public high schools really afford a plasma screen in every room? Maybe they should give a few underpaid teachers a raise first.) If I had a dime for every cheerleader I knew in high school who turned out to be gay, I'd have ... a few dimes.

Anyway, who can't get behind a snarky blonde champion of the outsiders like Veronica? She demonstrates exactly how exciting and sexy working outside the system can be, particularly when you're still young and cute and the worst thing any of your high jinks can bring you is an uncomfortably awkward conversation with the geeky high school principal. Yes, it'll be years before Veronica becomes a lawyer, gets married, has a few kids, gets divorced and then goes off the rails again, only this time she won't be as cute and spunky, and people will just shrug and point and she'll feel like a nutcase, which will drive her to drink, which will drive her to cut corners, which will drive her to move that line in the sand, which will land her in jail.


Nah, that's not what'll happen to Veronica! She'll quit her high-ranking FBI job to focus on her kids and her herb garden and her jewelry-making hobby, and her life will be totally happy and wonderful! Yay! At least until she gets bored and starts acting out at PTA meetings and drinking, which will drive her to cut corners, which will drive her to move that line in the sand, which will land her in jail.

See how the renegade's story always ends the same way? Let that be a lesson to you, aspiring rebels!

The doctor isn't in
But despite appearances, some agitators and provocateurs don't end up in jail or in the nuthouse or choking people left and right like Jack Bauer. One really good way to avoid the common pitfalls of subverting the dominant paradigm is by subverting some other dominant paradigms -- namely, time and space.

By defying the laws of time and space, the good doctor of "Doctor Who" (9 p.m. EST Fridays on SciFi) finds himself free from the consequences of both The Man as he exists on earth, and the more universal "man" who rules the remotest reaches of space. Sounds like a carefree life, doesn't it? Well, it's actually not much fun, thanks to the constant encroachment of malevolent forces, from huge plastic blobs to evil robotic insects to ancient human skin, pressed into glass, hell-bent on destruction.


The story of this transplanted BBC hit begins when The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) arrives in London just in time to save Rose (Billie Piper), a young woman who works in a department store. She's being chased by the mannequins when The Doctor shows up and ushers her out of harm's way, speaking in quips and snarky asides all the while. Later, he explains that all of the plastic in the world is being controlled by an evil plastic demigod who's about to send out a signal and rally the plastic to take over the world. Soon, mannequins are attacking citizens in the streets, and Rose and The Doctor have to overcome the evil plastic blob, which looks like a strange face molded into some Silly Putty, then filmed with a stop-motion camera. They stop the blob, of course, and The Doctor persuades Rose to come along with him on his travels, even though she'll have to leave her mom and boyfriend behind forever, even though she has no real proof that The Doctor isn't just a intergalactic sex offender twice her age.

Are you beginning to sense that I'm not loving this show? Honestly, I was alarmed at how hokey "Doctor Who" turned out to be, given the many e-mails I received from readers urging me to watch it. Now, granted, if you adored the hokey "Doctor Who" TV series of the '60s, you might feel that this modern update does the classic justice. (And look! In keeping with our theme today, the IMDb entry for the '60s-era "Doctor Who" describes it as "The adventures of an eccentric renegade time-traveling alien and his companions.")

I can barely remember the old "Doctor Who." In fact, when I look at the list of actors who played The Doctor over the years, I can't even recall which one I watched. I think he looked a little bit like Kramer from "Seinfeld," but much shorter and with darker hair. And then he changed, and I didn't like the new guy as much because he was nerdier and less odd.

I know what you "Doctor Who" fans are thinking: "What?!! Who didn't love and embrace and remember every single thing about the old 'Doctor Who'?!" Look, back then I watched "Love Boat" and "Dynasty" and made ashtrays out of clay and painted "I (heart) Harrison Ford" on them. Cut me some frackin' slack.


Plus, I have to say, this new series feels to me about as sophisticated and smart as an episode of "Love Boat." The tone is vaguely tongue-in-cheek so that the serious drama, when it does arrive, feels overblown and melodramatic. The main characters aren't all that compelling or likable. The world is always about to end at the hands of some poorly costumed aliens. I don't see the appeal. When I first heard the raves about this show, I thought it might serve as a tolerable substitute for "Battlestar Galactica" in my weekly lineup. Imagine, swapping out menacing Cylons for actors in bright blue makeup! Honestly, someone explain what's so good about this show before I lose all faith in humanity and start to secretly hope that the Silly Putty agitator returns to rule the earth henceforth.

We can't be heroes
There's no clear path for the aspiring renegade, or even for the rugged conformist, staunchly determined to color within the lines. Sometimes taking whatever The Man dishes out is good for you, affords you some structure, sets limits on your ego and your dirty urges, and keeps you from blowing your good buddy to smithereens just to avoid doing hard time. Obeying The Man's orders just might bring you all of the martini glasses and overstuffed couches and plastic baby equipment that you so richly deserve. Or, it could give you an ulcer.

But working outside the system might also do you in: You could end up like Vic Mackey, eternally seething and clenching your jaw and fearing a life in the slammer, or like The Doctor, reduced to luring girls half your age into your spaceship. In the end, it comes down to what you prefer: a) conforming to the rules and standards of corporate America by living a life of silent, stifled stress and trying to appear docile and polite when deep inside, you're enraged, or b) blowing your buddy's face off just to save your own sorry, guilt-ridden ass.

OK, fine. You can also choose to be a poorly paid outsider with a mediocre non-corporate job, and that way, you can fancy yourself as untouched by The Man when, in truth, he touches you all the time. He's touching you right now, in fact. See? Yeah. That's where those deep feelings of shame and self-loathing come from.


The point is, kids, that whether you follow the rules or break them, you'll probably land in the same place. Even the hero is only a hero for about half a second. Ask any hero: Set foot on the moon, save some strangers from a burning skyscraper, and all you'll end up with is a few dusty medals, a shoddy pension and cirrhosis of the liver.

Next week: A bunch of brand-new shows to take your mind off your liver transplant!

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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