I Like to Watch

"What About Brian" celebrates the joys of clean, pretty white people having brunch together, while a smaller show you've never heard of offers genuine laughs.


Heather Havrilesky
April 23, 2006 4:00PM (UTC)

In the springtime, it doesn't feel quite right to stay inside. It's hard to get work done, and you feel a little sick inside if you stare at a screen all day. The warm air floats in and says, "What the hell are you doing inside? Go sit in the sun for a second. Watch hummingbirds fly around the yard. Rediscover your humanity, damn it."

Something is always waiting to break my concentration. My neighbors on one side have about six or seven big old cars parked on their lot, three of which seem to work at any given time. This means that, every other afternoon or so, I'm treated to the groaning, growling sounds of an engine attempting to start, over and over and over again. I look outside and two guys are usually standing around the car, blinking in the bright sunshine, trading thoughts on what the problem might be. Sometimes they're drinking beer and listening to Patsy Cline, and sometimes the barbecue grill is smoking pungently in the background.

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I know it sounds like I'm making this up, pretending I live in rural Alabama just to paint a colorful picture, but I'm not. And if the engine sounds don't interrupt me, across the street there's a conductor who meets with various musicians and singers, so that every day there's an oboe or an opera singer rehearsing. And just this morning -- I swear to God, I'm not making this up -- I heard some screeching sounds and discovered 10 giant green parrots, eating loquats out of the tree in my front yard, their red cheeks stuffed full with fruit.

Doesn't it sometimes seem like Mother Nature wants you to turn off your computer and go outside? It's tough to get work done when you feel like you're thumbing your nose at Mother Nature and turning your back on her splendorous offerings by continuing to work. Clearly, she wants me to be sitting on my porch, listening to the conductor's rehearsal, or sipping a cold Bud in the sunshine, gazing into a big, growling engine.

Flavorless flavor of the month

But is it glorious Mother Nature who beckons, or is it smelly, obnoxious Little Brother Procrastination? Oh, crafty procrastination! Who are you, to take these many forms?

Mostly, hearing my neighbors makes me really glad that I don't live next door to clean, young, attractive, detail-oriented professionals with busy schedules who might be spotted strolling around with babies and golden retrievers, or throwing afternoon parties and passing around big pitchers of margaritas at a teak table in their manicured backyard. Now, I don't mind befriending people who happen to have careers and kids, I have a career (sort of) and I'll probably have kids at some point. I just don't want to be surrounded by people who are just like me, only a little bit wealthier, a little more stylish and a lot more on the ball. I don't want to hear the sounds of really organized, pleasant, socially fulfilling, multifaceted lives through my windows as I'm watching "Deal or No Deal" in the messy darkness of my bedroom.

I guess no matter what I happen to be doing with my own life, I feel the most comfortable in a neighborhood as scrappy as the one I grew up in, surrounded by eccentric conductors and big families in small houses and people with three or four too many old cars parked out front. I'm reminded of this disdain for clean, pretty white strangers when I watch ABC's new attempt at re-imagineering "thirtysomething," "What About Brian" (10 p.m. EDT Mondays). This show is aimed at middle-class white people my age, and populated by people who could be my friends -- only they're all way too good-looking and too cheerful and not offensive enough to be my friends. Oh yeah, and they're dull as mud.

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I've been wondering all week, why does almost any show about a bunch of shiny, happy 30-somethings inevitably end up being so irksome and empty? In addition to my natural dread of people who are a little bit like me, only more self-actualized and effective and upbeat, there's something about the blandly attractive mob, something about the "Big Chill"-inspired, warm, hair-tussling, feel-good scenes, something about the big pitchers of margaritas, the outdoor brunches, the table settings that look like they were pulled straight out of Pottery Barn, that makes my skin crawl.

Of course, the characters are utterly indistinguishable from each other, just a mob of blandly attractive professionals struggling (valiantly, adorably) with 30-something problems: infertility, career challenges, the lack of sex after you have kids, the panic of not having found the right person yet. The obstacles these characters face are always the same, and the optimistic, aw-shucks way they face them is enough to make you long for sunburned neighbors cursing at their stuttering engines.

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As usual, the real problem with most network shows is that they're trying to swallow a massive demographic whole, aiming to be a smash hit instead of simply trying to attract a reasonable following. The important thing is not to be original or odd or memorable, the goal is to avoid alienating anyone with characters that are less than likable. But how can you depict a bunch of married people without showing harsh fights, scorn, resentment, tears? How can you introduce us to an average, amiable single guy and give him not even one distinguishing characteristic that might set him apart from every other 34-year-old guy on the street?

This is what we know about Brian (Barry Watson): He started a computer-game business with his friend and he's got a huge crush on his best friend's girlfriend. You know, he looks in the mirror all the ti-yime, wonderin' what she don't see in him. He's been funny, he's been cool with the li-yines. Ain't that the way love's supposed to be? Ahem. So far, sounds like every other movie, television show and crappy Rick Springfield song ever written.

Oh, except Brian loves "Spinal Tap"! That'll set him apart from every other aging single guy in the universe.

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On the ABC Web site, we learn that "Brian is the guy everyone wants as a best friend. He's the guy who'll stand by you at your wedding, drive you to the hospital, cheer your kids on at their little league game ... the guy who every wife dotes on and every husband wants to either grab a beer with or live vicariously through him. [sic]" Oh yeah, that guy. I don't think I've ever met him, thank God.

And then there are Brian's friends: One couple (played by Rosanna Arquette and Raoul Bova) is struggling to get pregnant, so we get the requisite "How will I possibly put my sperm into this cup while the doctor waits for me?" scene, which we've only seen 50 or 60 times before. Another couple (played by Rick Gomez and Amanda Detmer) is considering the possibility of having an open marriage to spice things up, but you know, they're still really in love and crazy about each other, so the whole thing is really just good for some sexy laughs -- that is to say, it's not good at all, it's hollow and impossible to believe. The final engaged couple consists of Brian's jerky friend (Matthew Davis) and his spunky, adorable, perfect girlfriend (Sarah Lancaster) -- you know, the one Brian loves from afar.

I have to say, the spunky, adorable, perfect girlfriend is one of my biggest pet peeves. We've met her so many times before in so many crappy romantic comedies, whether she's played by Meg Ryan or Jennifer Aniston or Cameron Diaz. She's sweet and she really, really listens and she just loves guy stuff (like "Spinal Tap" and "Sportscenter"!) and she's a wee bit klutzy or confused or flustered (Aw!) but she'd never, ever cheat on her dumb ox of a boyfriend, no way! She's way too pure and good for that. In other words, she screams Best Mommy Ever. She's a modern-day Madonna -- you know, to contrast with the masses of crabby, demanding, ordinary-looking whores out there.

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Take Brian's ex-girlfriend (played by Amy Jo Johnson from "Felicity"). She yells, she cries, she stomps her feet, she kicks him out of his apartment. She's bad news, man! So why are the moments we spend in her company the most interesting of the entire show?

But cast aside the blandly attractive but flat leading man, cast aside the Perfect Girlfriend, cast aside the sweet, loving married couples with their solvable little troubles and their cute offspring. The problem with these sorts of ensemble shows is that, basically, we get couples bickering cutely, we get our leading man longing and swooning and then doing something stupid or bedding some unstable babe, and the next thing you know, everyone's having brunch together, and they're all gently ribbing the flavorless leading man and passing big, beautiful plates of food around, but no one's getting too drunk or telling long, unbearable stories, or getting sulky and storming off. Everyone is so regular, and they look like they're shooting a spread for J. Crew.

Where, I ask you, is the scorn? The networks won't touch scorn and infidelity and selfishness or even minor personality flaws with a 10-foot pole, which is why their dramas that don't concern cops or lawyers or plane crashes suck. Meanwhile, on shows like "Nip/Tuck" and "Huff" and "The L Word" and "Weeds," scorn and anger are their bread and butter. In fact, Showtime could aptly be renamed The Scorn Channel. But why is there no middle ground between upbeat tedium and melodramatic, seething purgatory?

Hey ladies!

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The only way to scrape the chipper yuppies of "What About Brian" out of your brain is to turn straight to "Campus Ladies" on -- that's right -- Oxygen, the soft 'n' pretty Lady Channel. The second you lay your eyes on the stars of "Campus Ladies" (8:30 p.m. EDT Fridays), you'll breathe a deep sigh of relief, for these are two of the most awkward, goofy-looking humans you've seen on TV in years, and it feels good.

Basically, Joan (Carrie Aizley) and Barri (Christen Sussin) are middle-aged women who leave their lives as unhappy housewives to go back to college. That sounds absolutely terrible, of course, particularly since it's on Oxygen. The crazy thing is that it's a pretty entertaining show. On the first episode I saw, Joan and Barri decide to go on spring break with their friends from school, and end up getting sunburned as they cheerfully chug fruity mixed drinks and enthusiastically join in a banana-eating contest (while the other girls get very demonstrative with their bananas, Joan and Barri shove as many bananas into their mouths as possible). It's tough to say what, exactly, is so funny about that, but trust me, it's funny. Aizley and Sussin developed these characters while performing with The Groundlings, and somehow they managed to create a show that doesn't sap the life out of them.

The stories and scenes are odd, fantastical and unlikely enough to work. In one episode, Joan gets wasted and gets married on a whim to a freshman kid named Drew. The next morning Drew is thrilled to have a wife, but Joan wants an immediate divorce. In another episode, Joan and Barri discover Drew in a basement, being hazed by a fraternity he's pledging, but the women misunderstand and think he's being forced to join some kind of satanic cult.

No matter how much a little voice inside your head tells you, "This show is incredibly stupid," each scene will make you laugh, and the spirit of the show is so naive and silly and fun, you can't help but get caught up in it.

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Slow down, you move too fast

It's nice to discover a little show (thanks to a reader's suggestion) that's weird and low-budget and still works. Sometimes I think that's one of the big problems with today's shows, particularly on the networks: They're all too slick and polished and trimmed down to this very spare, concise format. Scenes last for a minute or so, and have one basic point: Brian gets teased, gets Lisa's number. Brian tells Marjorie about his feelings.

If you look back at series like "M.A.S.H." and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," though, the pace is so much more patient and natural. Sure, there's a rambling quality to some scenes -- Hawkeye and Hunnicut talk about one thing, change the subject, someone interrupts them, they go back to the first subject -- but you get a sense of real characters that exist in a time and place. (The only recent show that I can think of that approaches this kind of patient, nuanced pace is "Everybody Loves Raymond.") Just look at this scene from "The Andy Griffith Show." Don Knotts goes on and on about how dogs stick together, dogs are short, dogs can survive in bad weather, and without that extended setup, the scene wouldn't be nearly as charming.

Of course, you have to have talented actors to pull it off. It's a little bit tough to picture anyone from the cast of "What About Brian" managing the level of comic timing that Knotts has in that scene. Then again, the actors on "Brian" don't exactly have the material -- or the time -- to show us if they do have anything approaching comedic talent.

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Compared to older shows, today's shows are more like magazine photo shoots than dramatic narratives. They need more digressions, more springtime distractions, more long gazes into a growling engine, more quiet moments on the porch listening to a soprano hit a high note across the street. Maybe the problem is that so much TV is created by clean, pretty, efficient professionals who know how to hit all the right marks before the first-act break -- highly paid, talented people who know how to crack jokes and write rapid, witty lines, but who don't take the time to read or think and who basically have nothing worthwhile to say or express. As long as everyone's hair looks pretty and that shiny, happy yuppie feeling is telegraphed, they're satisfied.

But we don't care about the one-size-fits-all guy who has a crush on his best friend's sickly sweet, supermodel girlfriend and loves "Spinal Tap." We want scrappy, distracted, odd-looking people who fix cars or grow tomatoes or chase herds of parrots around Los Angeles. And if no one can give us that, then we'd rather ignore our work and our TVs and just sit in the sun for a second, watching the hummingbirds race around the yard.

Next week: Before "The Sopranos" takes its final bow, will Tony lose his authority, rediscover his humanity, or do a little of both?


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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