I Like to Watch

Open wide! It's time for a reality TV checkup, from the controlling, antisocial yuppies of "The Apprentice" to the tedious hippies of "Survivor."


Heather Havrilesky
April 16, 2006 3:15PM (UTC)

When you're old enough not to care what other people think (and that's pretty damn old -- don't fool yourselves, kids), it's only a matter of time before you wake up and find yourself living a life that most young people would characterize as deeply uncool.

Not coincidentally, this means you're finally old enough to have children, since everyone knows that you can't raise a kid properly until your life is unstylish and dorky enough to make your kid's skin crawl. If your kids think you're cool, that's a sure sign that you're doing something very wrong. But if your kid seems to have an unflinching commitment to pointing out to you, at every turn, that every choice you've ever made in your entire life is highly questionable, stylistically repellent, and/or just plain unsavory (all of which you might notice if you weren't so pathetically self-deluded), then you know you're doing a good job as a parent.

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When I was a teenager, I expressed these sentiments to my mother by singing "My mom's a refugee, baby!" (to the tune of "Our love's in jeopardy"), because she used to wear an oversize army surplus coat to work in the morning and refused to run a brush through her hair before she left the house. While other moms wore espadrilles and skirts with pink and green ducks on them, my mom dressed like a member of the trench coat mafia -- you know, before they wised up and traded their army fatigues in for trench coats.

These days I think my mom was actually pretty cool back then, which probably means I'm about as uncool as she once was. But come on, hot pink espadrilles? I'd sooner leave the house with a pair of tighty whities on my head.

Yuppies for sale

Still, there's a point in your life when you just can't justify your taste, your habits or the idiotic things that grab and hold your attention.

Personally, I can't justify my reality TV habit. There was a time when I could, because most shows were so new and so ridiculous that no mere mortal with a taste for the most freakish mutations of human behavior could resist them. Like a victory parade, or a trip to the World's Fair, or a nice long gossip session at the barber shop, reality TV was the dishy spectator sport of our time, a shared distraction we could delight in together without shame or fear.

But now the parade is over, the World's Fair has packed up and declared bankruptcy, and the old-timey barber shop has been replaced by a Supercuts. And sadly, I'm the freak who's still hanging out at the Supercuts, trying to dish gossip to a sullen teenager in a bright blue T-shirt who's trying desperately to cut my hair without just grabbing the nearest mixing bowl.

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Take "The Apprentice." Now let's take a quick poll, who's still watching this show? I'm guessing there are three or four of you out there. The truth is, you'd have to have a serious hatred of hot pink espadrilles to enjoy this show, since it's populated by the kinds of wannabe-preppy whippersnappers who've been talking like middle-aged middle managers since they were 12. You know, they read "Barbarians at the Gate" and "Liar's Poker" 50 million times, and they talk about eating people for breakfast in a tone that they fancy is one part De Niro in "Raging Bull," two parts Gordon Gekko of "Wall Street," but that falls squarely in the self-deluded dork category.

This season of "The Apprentice" (9 p.m. Mondays on NBC) has been solid enough -- I've watched so many seasons of this show now, I can't remember the last time one stood out as superior to the rest. I do really like Andrea, the self-made millionaire and control freak who dryly rips her team members to shreds, delivers terse orders, and has nothing but crappy ideas to back it up. Sure, she seems smart in that smartest-kid-in-the-class, memorizes-everything way, and I do like the fact that she's not the same old variety of lip-glossed tartlet that Trump and his team seem to select, year after year, despite their utter lack of skills or redeeming qualities. But come on, aren't there a bunch of no-nonsense Carolyn types out there (you know, Trump's right-hand lady, famous for her frank attacks on players in the boardroom)? Maybe those kinds of capable, tough women just don't have any interest in being on TV.

Man, just think how great reality TV would be if the people on it were the kinds of people who have no interest in being on TV! "Project Runway" gives us a sweet little glimpse of what this might look like: Smart, creative, interesting, weird people, being themselves -- sort of like college without the gang rapes.

The trouble with "The Apprentice" is that even if you had a bunch of smart, cool people on the show, they'd still be limited to inventing ways to promote Sam's Club or dreaming up jingles for Arby's new chicken sandwich. Jesus, how about last week's product, the P'EatZZa, a name so asinine even that whoring slutmonkey Donald Trump couldn't say it without choking on his own tongue? Basically, since only three of you know what I'm talking about, it was a sandwich that consisted of -- brace yourself -- two slices of cold pizza with lunchmeat in between. Just watching the yuppie ass-kissers on the show trying to choke back these awful congealed-looking things and then proclaiming them delicious was enough to make you retch. Of course, if there was any doubt that the product sucked, it was squelched by Trump's repeated and very false-sounding proclamations, "How great is the Puh-eat-zuh, guys?" "Did you just love the Peat-za? Don't you think it's going to be a huge hit for 7-Eleven?"

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For all of the times Daddy Warbucks throws his ankles behind his head for the corporate sponsor du jour, he remains the best thing about "The Apprentice" by far. The Donald is just an odd bird, glad-handing and grandstanding and making egocentric declarations and patting himself on the back and talking about how alluring his daughter is in the most inappropriate terms. But through it all, Trump just gets more and more likable. There's just something fallible about the man, something soft and squishy down deep inside, so that even when he's being a pudwhacker, he's still just a nice dad and a surprisingly good guy, given his dumb buildings and his vainglorious displays. One suspects that he's sort of a softie of a boss, too, at least to his favorite employees. And despite the yes men he parades in front of us during the "business tip" portion of the show, if he were really dumb enough to surround himself with empty yes men, would he ever have hired Carolyn and George, two of the crabbiest, most outspoken, grumpiest know-it-alls ever to grace the small screen?

I'm just going to come out and admit it: Even though the finale is inevitably awful and makes me wish I had the 13 hours I wasted watching the show back, I can't resist "The Apprentice." Bickering yuppies running late to meetings, brainstorming bad ideas, and then failing miserably, with Trump waiting in the wings to call them idiots? What's not to like? Watching this show brings me all the delicious backstabbing evils of the dysfunctional workplace without the bad coffee and the tedious staff meetings.

Won't you take me to drunky town?

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I don't expect to convince you to watch the show or anything. In fact, the shows that people consistently tell me I turned them on to are "Battlestar Galactica," "Veronica Mars," and, believe it or not, "Paradise Hotel" -- and naturally I take the most satisfaction in knowing that I convinced otherwise sane humans to watch "Paradise Hotel."

God, why can't Drunk Asshole Hotel come back already? Just because they tried to revisit the show and got every single little detail wrong (What was the bad imitation show called?), that doesn't mean that they couldn't get it right once again. Here's the really important thing: They need to rent that exact hotel again, the crazy white palace that made everyone, even the ugly people, look sexy.

There was just something about that show, something that gave its fans serious beer goggles over it. Watching those aggressive frat boys and pretty boys getting all boozed up and attacking each other by calling on the resources of their few functioning brain cells ... My lord, it was so deliciously good. And then throwing Dave, the big nerdy guy, right into the middle of the aggro meathead soup! It was so heartless: one smart guy among a bunch of drunk morons! They hated him, sure, but they were his unwilling puppets, and even so, he emerged with not a cent, thanks to the secretly evil doll-face Charla, who rode to the top on his back, then kept all of her winnings for herself instead of sharing it. I wonder if Keith and Tara are still together.

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Please, Fox, bring back Drunk Asshole Hotel! VH1, you're fit for the job -- hire the same producers that created the first series, find that damn hotel, rent it, cast it with a bunch of greased-up slut monkeys, and bring us two hours a week of pure drunken idiocy! No, "Big Brother" is not enough -- I hate watching average-looking dummies languishing in an ugly house on a studio lot! I want drunk, hot idiots at a resort that looks a lot like the Taj Mahal, damn it!

Love hurts so good

OK, let's return to the present day. Some of the most reliable TV watchers among you have suggested to me that this season of "The Amazing Race" (8 p.m., Wednesday) has been disappointing so far, maybe because there aren't physically violent couples or wrestlers or angry Christians involved.

As much as I enjoyed the Christian crybabies though, I prefer it when "The Amazing Race" isn't a complete freakshow. I like it when regular folks call each other "bitch" and "whore" just because the car won't start or someone read the map wrong. Take Lake and Michelle, the ideal "Amazing Race" couple, as far as I'm concerned. During the first episode, we learn that Lake considers himself the boss of Michelle. The fun comes, of course, when this is proven, time after time, not to be the case. Michelle isn't exactly a shrinking violet, after all, as much as Lake would like her to be.

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But the really great thing about these two is that every time one of them has an emotional reaction to something, the other one overreacts to that reaction, and then the first one overreacts to the overreaction, until they're screaming at each other. This is my favorite dynamic to see among couples on TV, because it makes for the most indignant outbursts and total breakdowns in communication. Michelle announces that the fact that they're lost means that they're in serious trouble and they're going to lose. Lake screams at Michelle not to be so negative. Michelle screams at Lake not to scream at her. And so on, until they're yelling so much that they get even more lost, Lake throws the map and calls Michelle a bitch, etc.

Maybe you have to have taken a few too many terrible car trips with your family to enjoy such a spectacle. My parents were famous for their ability to fight nonstop while on the open road, and yet, they continued to sign us up for extended family vacations in the car each year. It defied logic as only those plans generated by complicated family dynamics can. I'll never forget the time my mom got out of the car in Kansas and refused to get back in. I was only about 6 and was pretty sure that we would leave her at a rest stop in Kansas and that would be the last we'd see of her.

Man, those were good times! And I get to relive them every time the seemingly healthy couples on "The Amazing Race" fall apart and weep openly, then throw their wedding bands out the bus window, into the crowded streets of Bombay. Lately, Lake and Michelle aren't the only couple showing us their worst. After weeks of relative peace, dating couple Joseph and Monica have been at each other's throats, and their good behavior is dissolving along classic gender lines: She cries at the drop of a hat, and he can't handle it, so he yells at her. Last week on the bus, Monica started crying over the fact that the couple was going to lose (they didn't). Joseph's supportive response? "Lift up your spirit before I get pissed." Ah yes! The classic male "Act happy before I dump you" maneuver, which of course is about as effective as the closely related "Pretend you still love me right now or I'll throw a fit that will make you hate me even more" and that timeless classic, "If you keep behaving jealously, I'm likely to cheat on you."

Mmm, the dysfunctional chaos of long-term relationships! I savor its sweet discord like a nasty sewer rat chowing down on soggy Cheez-its!

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Shane on you

Of the classic reality shows, "Survivor" (8 p.m. Thursdays on CBS) is probably having the best season so far. You've got Shane, the weaselly troublemaker who brilliantly decided to quit his heavy smoking habit while the cameras roll. You've got Courtney, the ornery hippie who's made nothing but enemies along the way, but still insists on demonstrating her drum circle dancing skills, which involve flaming balls on strings and is about as boring to watch as an extremely unskilled game of Hacky Sack. You've got Aras, a dimwitted yoga instructor who keeps announcing that he's probably the next to go, but instead of switching sides while he still can, just sits on his ass and stares blankly into the middle distance. Basically, they're all pretty unlikable, except for Cirie, who's got a good sense of humor and seems pretty down-to-earth, but who hasn't really made a stand and is currently aligned with two women, Danielle and Courtney, who should be making their move against Shane now, but aren't.

As usual, the most capable athletes and most likable players are being picked off one by one. That would make this another crappy season, if not for Terry, who not only wins immunity week after week, but has a backup immunity idol that he found on Exile Island weeks ago. This means that even if he's voted out, he can use the idol and stay on, and the player with the highest number of votes besides him will have to go home. It's a good twist, and it may eventually cause the wiser players to align with Terry, guaranteeing his spot in the final two or three.

Shane will probably be the one to make the move. Aside from Cirie, he's the only one who's smart enough to know that he should switch sides and align with Terry if he wants to ensure that he makes it to the end. And Cirie would rather keep a low profile, whereas Shane seems completely comfortable with other people disliking him. It's an important part of the game -- the confidence to withstand disapproval, within reason.

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I really thought I was done with this show, but here I am, wrapped up in another season. I can't really justify it. "Survivor" is like a big old army coat that looks idiotic to everyone else, but feels just right to me -- Lord help me.

Concluding remarks

Whether you're leaving the house with tighty whities on your head, or continuing to program Shark Week into your TiVo every year, we all have those deeply uncool habits we can't quite shake. So why bother? The older I get, the happier I am, and the happier I am, the more I follow my own instincts wherever they lead. Whether that means doing a terrible dance to the "America's Next Top Model" theme song, talking to my dogs in full sentences, or spending the most productive hours of my day making absurdly stupid puppet movies, I find that following my own faulty compass makes me the happiest, even when I end up lost and hungry, surrounded by jeering strangers.

And besides, what are the benefits of being cool? I guess when you're younger, you can't really get laid unless you're cool. And I guess if you're trying to get a job working for Trump or some other conservative corporate entity, you have to conform a little and not let your freak flag fly. But I think that for the rest of us, the old and the crusty, happiness lies in embracing our most ridiculous, questionable, stylistically repellent urges. Our kids will thank us for it someday.

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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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