One of the most unfortunate side effects of having a career is having to discuss that career with other human beings. Because nine times out of 10, when someone asks you, "What do you do?" they're not interested in what you have to say about your career, they're asking so that they can tell you all about what you do for a living.
Ask any doctor who's forced to hear stories about how arrogant and shoddy most doctors are or any lawyer who's treated to jokes about getting sued or suing people constantly: Strangers just love to make the same old comments about your career that you've heard 50 million times before. Part of your job is grinning and politely enduring it.
When I mention to a stranger that I'm a TV critic, I'm immediately invited to a lengthy lecture titled "Everything on TV Is Pure Crap." The examples supporting this argument are generally culled from two-minute promos for new shows that the lecturer spotted halfway through "60 Minutes." Ironically, the lecture tends to end with a digression along the lines of, "But I really do love 'Wife Swap' -- that's the one thing I watch consistently."
Most of the time, these lectures about TV segue seamlessly into wider, more expansive talks that could be titled "The World Is Going to Hell in a Handbasket." Once, as my dermatologist removed a suspicious mole from my back, she explained to me how the soulless sodomists on television were a sure sign that, like the Romans before us, our civilization would soon fall. Yes, she said sodomists. She said the word several times, so I couldn't miss it: Sodomy. Sodomizing. Sodomists.
All I could think was, what's so wrong about ass sex? And how did talk of my career lead me here, discussing sodomy with a mean little woman with a scalpel in her hand? Naturally I'm the first to agree that shows like "Paradise Island" are a sure signal of the imminent fall of Western civilization. But what does ass sex have to do with anything?
If I were a true hero, of course, I would have put this dermatologist in her place, preferably by sodomizing her, and then I would've gone home and made T-shirts with, "What's so wrong about ass sex?" written on them.
But I'm not a hero. And I can only imagine the kinds of annoying lectures you get from total strangers when you are a hero, let alone a hero for sodomy.
But the more TV I watch, the more impressed I am with the heroes fixated on making worthwhile, enlightening shows. Sure, there is a lot of crap on TV -- that goes without saying (I wish) -- but the naysayers refuse to consider the volume of intelligent, educational material that's out there.
Now, granted, most of the time I choose flashy, empty entertainments over informative ones, because most of the time I'd rather watch dumb people bicker over stupid marketing tasks than be forced to contemplate really heavy questions about global warming and civil rights, lest I sink into a "The World Is Going to Hell in a Handbasket" funk. But this week I happened to watch a bunch of stuff that's a little heavier and more worthwhile than usual, and it has me thinking about how many great programs are available every week, programs that will expose you to perspectives, places and issues that you're likely to miss when perusing the fickle news cycle.
Instead of hearing the latest in the Natalee Holloway case for the 50 millionth time, you could watch any one of a number of televised documentaries on a wide range of subjects that you won't see covered anywhere else. These are docs that maybe lack the broad appeal of, say, "Hoop Dreams," "March of the Penguins" or "Murderball," but that artfully explore topics you just wouldn't be exposed to otherwise.
Remember "The Staircase," the eight-part French documentary series about the Michael Peterson murder trial that aired on the Sundance Channel last spring? That's the kind of thing you'll never see anywhere else -- not on the news, not in theaters. "The Staircase" is exactly the sort of program that the naysayers don't consider when they write off everything on TV: It's an artfully constructed, sharp, strange close-up look at a truly bizarre murder case featuring extensive interviews with the accused murderer, his family, the victim's family, plus both teams of lawyers. Every odd, funny, bizarre exchange is left in so that the series develops just like a fictional drama series, except that it's even more dramatic and eccentric than any drama you've ever seen.
Even those of us who watch a lot of TV forget sometimes that there's plenty of worthwhile material that really belongs on TV and nowhere else. For all of the terrible shows giving TV a bad name, there's plenty of redeeming stuff out there. I'll make sure to point out as much of it as possible -- that is, when I'm not distracted by whether Flavor Flav will end up with Hoopz or New York.
City of lost children
But forget Flavor Flav. If you want to watch something this week that's unlike anything else you've ever seen on TV, then tune in for "City of Men" on the Sundance Channel (premieres 9 p.m. on Tuesday, April 4). The half-hour series, which was originally a hit in Brazil in 2003, is going to require an initial investment of patience, with subtitles and a format that's very different from any you've seen before. At first, when you meet the two heroes, Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha) and Acerola (Douglas Silva), 13-year-old boys growing up in the slums of Rio, you'll think you're watching one of those slow-moving foreign films about kids in tough circumstances who just want a white balloon or a goldfish in a bowl or a trip to the seaside, with the balloon or the fish signifying "freedom" or "emancipation from poverty" or some high concept that's sure to win the filmmaker an Oscar nod.
That makes sense, since "City of Men" was created by the filmmakers who created "City of God," the 2002 Oscar-nominated feature about the slums of Rio de Janeiro, including that film's directors Fernando Meirelles ("The Constant Gardener") and Kátia Lund. And like "City of God," "City of Men" is more dynamic and interesting than the slow-moving fables you're imagining: It's smart and odd and unpredictable, and despite the ominous circumstances (rival gangs clashing, bullets flying, grandmothers dying without their medicine), its creators don't seem adamant about pounding home some high-concept message with a tragic ending. The basic messages are universal: Pride is tempting but destructive and aligning yourself with corrupt people will corrupt you without fail.
The kids themselves are amazing -- so expressive and quick-witted and genuine, seemingly able to shed big, salty tears upon command, but with none of the showy Broadway-style affectations and oversize gestures of so many American child actors, who seem to have studied at the Macaulay Culkin School of Dramatic Arts.
And don't miss the very first episode, because at the end, the fictional story melts into an odd, documentary-style scene where the kids' names and ages appear under their faces as they describe seeing bullets flying through their apartments and watching people they know get killed by gang gunfire, all in the breathless, scared but awed tone of young boys. These kids are fearful but pragmatic, and their smallest decisions, in such a murderous, random environment, amount to life and death.
Beyond the characters, though, the setting is just damn interesting if you've never been to Brazil and never seen footage of its odd, stacked ghettos, ramshackle dwellings built into majestic hillsides, with dramatic vistas framing every wide shot. Unlike other overexposed subcultures, the poor of Brazil don't exactly receive regular media coverage, let alone in such an intense, creative format.
Against the recurring landscape of cop shows and glorified soaps, "City of Men" is a truly unique, refreshing drama series that will plant you in the shoes of an earnest 13-year-old boy struggling simply to get by and live to see another day in a brutal and indifferent corner of the world.
I'm super grumpy, thanks for asking!
Of course, sometimes indifference can seem far less brutal than passionate hatred, the sort of hatred that's so often aimed at anyone who wanders off the beaten path for more than a millisecond.
Take those wicked, wicked sodomists who are occasionally blamed for the demise of the Western world when, let's face it, the blame should really rest squarely on the backs of Blink 182, Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20. With a culture war raging in this great nation of ours, it pays to get to know some of these wanton sinners you've heard about so that you have some sense of the kind of evildoings and malevolent practices that are undermining the values of good, family-minded, God-fearing Americans.
If "All Aboard: Rosie's Family Cruise" is any indication, the sodomists are much more focused on family than they are on, say, pagan rituals or perverted practices or other civilization-crumbling pastimes. HBO's 90-minute documentary (premieres 8 p.m. Thursday, April 6) focuses on the first gay and lesbian cruise in 2004, spearheaded by Rosie O'Donnell, in which hundreds of gay, lesbian and bisexual families took a weeklong trip to the Bahamas together. You know, it was sort of like Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride, except Rosie is a lot less fun than Big Gay Al.
In fact, I have to say it: There's something really creepy about Rosie O'Donnell. It's not that I mind her off-camera personality, which is dry and no-nonsense and sort of grumpy. Some of my favorite people are perpetually grouchy and don't mince words. But Rosie O'Donnell had this hideously cheerful on-screen persona that's utterly at odds with her real personality. Remember? Oh my god, Tom Cruise is so hot? Oh my god, you are too wonderful, I just can't stop squealing at everything you say? Who was that woman, and where did she go? I mean, how does a sane human being whose actual, real manner is sullen and frank and sort of bored transform into a gushing, squawking, gasping, hollering, giggling jumble of overenthusiastic freakdom as soon as the cameras start to roll?
And once the insanity is over, once Rosie is freed from what I imagine was an absolutely unbearable burden of pretending to be high, high, high on life, once her show was over and her fans had gone home to weep into their soup, what was left? Angry, grumpy, go-screw-yourself Rosie. It's like stumbling on Barney the dinosaur, chain-smoking Pall Malls and cursing up a storm in back of the craft services wagon.
Strangely, in this film, Rosie is either sitting around grumpily or singing terrible show tunes in the terrible Las Vegas theater on the boat (What is it with Rosie and terrible songs? Remember her singing that "Gilligan's Island" theme song the year she single-handedly ruined the "Survivor" finale?). In fact, we return to the bad Vegasy show tunes every few minutes, even when Rosie is long gone and all we've got are amateurs bellowing truly sucky Broadway songs like "Dreamgirls" at the tops of their lungs.
When Rosie and her seemingly possessed gang of sorry entertainers are out of the picture, we're left with families looking to adopt or conceive through a sperm donor, families who've had children for years and talk about the challenges of being a gay family in a straight world, and well, just families having fun being families. It's a pretty repetitive film for those of us who already know that gay people are, um, you know, people exactly the same as us, only sometimes a little cooler.
The main thing that struck me about "All Aboard" was how relieved and relaxed all of the families were to be among friends, to be free from the judgments they face, day after day, when they're just trying to live their lives like anyone else. The families say, over and over, how relaxing it is to be free from that disapproval for once. It made me sad to imagine how deeply exhausting it must be, to face all those dismissive, angry, ignorant people like my dumb dermatologist every day. So, for that insight, the film was worth all those grating show tunes.
Worthier than thou
A few more documentaries to consider: Marc Levin's "Protocols of Zion" (airs at 7 p.m. April 11 on Cinemax) chronicles the rise of anti-Semitism worldwide and the preposterous rumor that no Jews died on Sept. 11, 2001. Levin explores hatred toward Jews with a mix of outrage, patience, curiosity and a sense of humor, and the comments of those interviewed, from white supremacists to Palestinian Americans, are pretty tough to forget.
You might also want to check out "Almost Home," a PBS Independent Lens documentary about nursing home residents (airs Tuesday, April 4, check listings) that might remind you to get off your ass and go visit your grandmother like you promised.
What have you learned about surviving in this crazy, mixed-up world? Take this quiz and find out!
1) A true hero is someone who:
a) Isn't afraid to stand up for what's right.
b) Isn't afraid to talk back to a woman with a scalpel in her hand.
c) Creates TV shows that don't suck.
d) Makes T-shirts with catchy phrases on them.
2) Sometimes when you're feeling sorry for yourself, it's good to remember how challenging it would be to:
a) Grow up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro dodging street gangs' bullets
b) Be gay and try to start a family
c) Watch crappy TV shows for a living
d) End up an angry, homophobic dermatologist who removes suspicious moles all day long.
3) When someone asks you what you do for a living, then tells you all about what they think of your chosen profession, what's the best response?
a) "Oh my god! You know more about my career than I do!"
b) "That's interesting. But you know what I've been wondering lately: Just what is so wrong about ass sex?"
c) Who cares how you respond? People make lame small talk, people are boring. Is it really so bad? Would you rather be dodging bullets in the slums of Rio right now?
d) Smile politely, then ask them about their chosen profession. Then excuse yourself to go get another drink.
Answer Key: 1) d, 2) a, 3) d.
Next week: Back to all of the thrillingly empty entertainments you're missing because you think that everything on TV is pure crap!