I Like to Watch

Are you dumb and coy enough to land a man? Are you unpleasant enough to win the lottery? Can you dance? These shows will clue you in.

Published June 18, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

After you suck down your second triple-shot 32-ounce frappuccino of the day, but before you light up your 15th American Spirit Ultra Light, I want to tell you a soothing little story: There are places, far far away from the manicured mini-mall where you're kicking up your heels and ashing your cigarette, where people can't simply stroll into the nearest Sbarro in search of pepperoni-encrusted nourishment and a respite from the sweltering heat. There are places on this planet -- thousands and thousands of miles away, fortunately -- where, instead of climate-controlled interiors pumping unobtrusive bluesy pop, you'd find little third-world peoples toiling away in the fields, places where the little peoples would gather in loud throngs, elbowing each other in the head and ribs, just to get to the melted dregs of your first triple-shot frappuccino of the day. Indeed, an angry mob might form around you, made up of international peoples jockeying for the position to sort through the butts of your first 14 American Spirit Ultra Lights.

I'm not saying you should do anything about it, mind you. After all, while your fake Gucci sunglasses may give you that air of privilege you're aiming for (Yes, I hear the statement your fashion is making loud and clear: Your coochie truly does remain in the Gucci name), that certainly doesn't mean you have the resources to haul your ass to Namibia or some such impoverished, Godforsaken foreign land where people don't have a second bathroom or adequate storage space and there are these nasty little flies everywhere that really love to land right on your lips and the corners of your eyes. Even armed with a week's supply of anti-bacterial wipes, it would be sketchy to sally forth among such people, let alone hug and embrace them and take some of them home with you, so they might finally know what a Cuisinart 7-Cup Capacity Food Processor looks like.

But once you've polished off your third triple-shot 32-ounce frappuccino of the day and snubbed out your 20th American Spirit Ultra Light, once you've cruised home in your air-conditioned vehicle blasting Kanye West all the way, walked in the door, gazed into the fridge, cranked up the air conditioning in your four-bedroom, climate-controlled, split-level palace, and sat your squishy ass down in your squishy chair and fired up the TiVo, at that moment when you find yourself staring at the sorry list of shows available for viewing and there's a pit in your stomach and you just want to die right there because there's nothing on, because summer TV sucks, pure and simple, that's when I want you to consider that mob of hungry third-world peoples, poking each other's eyes out for a sip of your melted sickly sweet coffee drool. Since your mom can't be there to tell you that you're a lazy, spoiled, worthless excuse for a human being and you take every single thing you have for granted, I'm here to do it for her.

Girls gone mild

But I'm just projecting, punkies, because the doldrums of summer have hit me prematurely. I'm restless yet sluggish, crabby yet uninspired. It reminds me of being a teenager during the summer when there's nothing to do, nothing to eat, and no car available to drive somewhere so I can do nothing elsewhere. Even the news that Britney Spears might be cheating on K. Fed with the so-called manny doesn't light my fire. What the hell is wrong with me?

It's my fault, really, for burning through the first five episodes of "Deadwood" with the reckless abandon of a little third-world person scarfing down an entire bag of Fiery Habanero Doritos. Now, what am I left with? The first idiotic quick fix of the summer that springs to mind is ABC's "How to Get the Guy" (10 p.m. Mondays) -- a show that would more accurately be called "How to Get A Guy, Any Guy" or better yet, "How to Cast a Great, Big, Wide Net Like the Soulless, Whoring Sea Donkey That You Are."

Because, in line with the rest of the shitty dating advice out there, instead of advising women to be true to themselves while making careful choices about the kinds of men who make sense for them, the show urges a handful of women to produce the right cooing sounds and sighs and weak little gestures that will drive all the little warthogs into a blind frenzy of domineering, humpy love.

The most important lesson for the four women on the show? Whatever you do, don't be yourselves, because that obviously isn't working. Forget that you live in the single worst city for single women in the entire nation, San Francisco, a city filled to the brim with smart, pretty women and smug, entitled, unemployed, unwashed dudes who are just barely willing to bed you occasionally, no strings attached. If you haven't snagged a man yet, you're a failure and you need to follow our very explicit instructions to become a completely different sort of woman overnight.

The real tragedy of this show is that, instead of the usual flock of pageant-circuit beauties with Vaseline-coated teeth and all of the spontaneity and charm of bubble wrap, the single women on "How to Get the Guy" are reasonably smart, seem to have senses of humor (gasp!), are intermittently self-deprecating, and have plenty of strong opinions beyond those that revolve around the sanctity of marriage and the importance of a good colorist. So, when the smarmy host, JD, urges Anne, a pretty nice, smart, seemingly sane woman to "drop the hanky," i.e., signal her passive, utterly vulnerable availability to every man within spitting distance, we feel like kicking him in the shins, hard. This is not the sort of woman who stuffs things that look like chicken cutlets into her bra, OK? She's not aiming to attract every third jerk on the street with a hard-on for any flirty-eyed vixen who might just blow him on the second date.

But the hosts don't get it. In describing the women, their goal of transforming each into a sweet-talking whore-kitty becomes apparent. Of Kris, a talkative lawyer, they say, "Part of her problem is that she tends to be the life of every party. And that can actually be a turn-off for guys." Yeah, guys who can't stand to be upstaged, guys who need their tiny little egos stroked in the long, tedious, exhausting fashion you'll soon be stroking their tiny little... Anyway, who needs to add repetitive motion injuries to the insult of hiding your light under a bushel? I say keep tossing back the margaritas and enjoy yourself until the right breed of spirited stallion stomps by.

But the hosts hate Michelle the most, because she doesn't instantly swoon over the roomful of shiny, gel-haired yuppie mutants they've gathered for her perusal. The hosts explain, "Michelle is so strong and confident that sometimes, men find her unapproachable." Yes, we don't doubt that men who aren't strong or confident enough to approach her find her totally unapproachable. Forget that they're men who shouldn't bother approaching her anyway, since she'd likely find their weak knees and sweaty palms and intimidated, demeaning remarks unappealing.

Back when I was single (approximately three weeks ago), my main goal when surrounded by humpy warthogs anxious to sort through my cigarette butts was to scare most of them off -- you know, either by making a really loud banging noise with some heavy pots and pans, or by mentioning that I'm bossy, demanding, complicated and unbearably long-winded. This had about the same effect as lighting something on fire and sticking it really close to their faces.

OK, I know you don't believe that I ever drew a crowd, and I didn't, except for that one time when I was 4 and I pulled my skirt up over my head. But as far as I'm concerned, if you want a decent guy who might, for whatever sick reason, be willing to put up with your particular mix of dysfunctional tics, it's really wiser to wear your true self on your sleeve, rather than hide it until the marriage license comes in the mail. On the other hand, if what you really want is to gather a horny mob of random men, pulling your skirt up over your head will work a lot better than dropping hankies or hinting or casting long glances.

Hilariously enough, at the end of the singles party, the hosts proclaim that the event was a great, big success for Anne, whom we see walking out the door holding hands with a guy she met minutes before. That's right: You have to be coy and make eye contact and not offer a guy your number, but it's perfectly OK to hold hands with him even though you met him seconds ago. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't hand-holding the kind of serious thing you do once you've slept with someone several dozen times, since it involves an awkward gait and a co-mingling of sweaty palms? I mean, how awful is it to hold hands with a total stranger? It reminds me of the time I went to a Unitarian church in Hawaii with my dad, and we all had to stand up and hold hands and sing "We Are the World" together, after which the scraggly looking lady with the clammy hands next to me told me that she was a psychic and that I really liked horses, a lot, she could just tell.

Instead of chasing Anne down and scolding her for clasping onto this guy's mitt like a needy schoolgirl, the hosts applaud her work in sealing the deal, and breathlessly await her first date, during which she is instructed not to talk too much, "overshare" (bring up food allergies or lactose intolerance), mention any exes, or basically do anything that might hint that she's a human being. So what is she supposed to talk about? "Your job, his job, hobbies and family." Excuse me for a second while I catch up on some much-needed sleep...

The winner takes it all

It kind of makes you wonder if there are taboo subjects that you shouldn't discuss while dating in those charmingly desperate third-world locations I mentioned earlier. "Don't bring up AIDS, last summer's drought, or the raw sewage that pools outside your home, and definitely don't whisk those little flies away from his face, because lots of guys find that demeaning."

But since we don't like to consider such places -- hell, we'd rather not think of the struggling peoples who live a few blocks away from us -- let's refocus on rich people instead. Or, more specifically, ordinary privileged types like ourselves, who are up to their ears in strong coffee, good cigarettes and expensive home appliances, but who, nonetheless, don't have nearly enough of anything, until one day ... they all win the lottery! Hurray!

As NBC's "Windfall" (10 p.m. Thursdays) quickly demonstrates, the problem with basing an entire drama around a group of people that win the lottery is that the most exciting moment occurs in the first episode, and if there's nothing beyond that initial bang to keep viewers around, it's all downhill from there. And sadly, on "Windfall," even the main event isn't all that thrilling, since we've already learned to hate most of the characters by the time their big payday rolls around.

Why would you make most of the characters on a show about winning the lottery unlikable? If you started with interesting, likable types, people we'd like to see feeling really thrilled, at least briefly, by a huge sum of money, and then you could show us the ways that money brings out the best and the worst in people, that would be a ride worth taking.

Instead, we're invited to spend time with some old familiar enemies: the guy who has no shame about cheating on his wife, the mysterious criminal who can't be trusted, the teenager with the mean Daddy and the head full of bad ideas that will only get him into trouble, the wife who's going through a divorce and is determined to stick it to her ex and keep him away from her lottery winnings. Boo!

All of these characters feel ill-fated in a way that vaguely -- and pretty badly, I might add -- mimics "Lost." There's an attempt at darkness here that the writers don't pull off; instead each negative turn of events just feels depressing. The cast looks like a group we've seen before -- attractive in a boring way, somewhat talented but not exceptional -- and the characters aren't original or memorable. These aren't real people, basically. They're just a gaggle of ideas that arose from a writer's room, ideas that feel as inorganic and forced as they are arbitrary.

So, when the mysterious criminal beds the hot girl or the teenager escapes with the mail-order bride of his dad's best friend, we can think, "That's not a bad idea," but it's impossible to cheer them on, since they're all only ideas. When things go wrong for each of them, it's just irritating. Instead of moving the story forward, the plot twists feel like enormous cinder blocks laid across our path, and it's hard not to foresee an entire season of "Damn it, now what?" moments. And if all we're going to get are a bunch of shallow, ill-conceived jackasses seeking happiness and failing to find it time and time again, we'd sooner watch a drama about some kindhearted, third-world peoples in search of a few discarded tablespoons of caffeinated sludge.

Dubadubaduba dance!

I, too, might be in a truly desperate situation, with very little televised fun to look forward to until the sixth episode of "Deadwood," if not for one show. Ahem. Yes, one show has saved me from utter despair and blah feelings toward the summer TV schedule, one show that's buoyant and passionate and foolish and invigorating enough to hold my attention: "So You Think You Can Dance."

You heard me right, piglets. OK, you hate the title and you don't trust that this show could possibly be worth watching. I don't blame you. But even if you never, ever tune in, please trust me that, cheesy as it is, it's one of the more dramatic and compelling reality shows you'll find on TV this summer.

The contestants, first of all, are as lovable as they are flexible. What is it with dancers? They have sweet, affectionate natures and asses the size and shape of basketballs. Forced to partner up and learn complicated, extremely difficult new styles of dance that are as unfamiliar to most of them as sweet, affectionate natures and asses the size and shape of basketballs are to the rest of us, they refuse to insult each other. Take Joy, an excellent dancer who gets stuck with Dmitry as her partner on the first routine, an athletic, impossibly aggressive hip-hop number that Dmitry, a ballroom dancer, doesn't have a chance of mastering. Instead of saying, "Trying to get this guy to shake his money maker convincingly is like asking the abominable snowman to dance on toe," Joy smiles sweetly and says, "He's doing really good. I definitely think we can work together to make each other's weak points stronger." The choreographer, Shane Sparks, is less enthusiastic: "I don't care what [Joy] thinks or what she says or how she acts right now, she's thinking, 'I wish I had a different partner.'"

And that's one of the undeniable charms of this show: You take masters of Latin dance, ballerinas, hip-hop dancers, swing dancers, etc., and you ask them to throw themselves into different styles each week. Most of them have never even danced with a partner. Some of them are street dancers and have never, ever learned choreography before. Learning a dance is like learning a foreign language -- you can be a genius, but if you've never done it before, you're going to struggle like hell at first. People who have taken class after class are used to memorizing movement, but those who freestyle? Sadly, half of the really amazing street dancers were sent packing in the first few weeks of the contest.

But that also means that the contestants who are left are incredibly talented, far more skilled than the dancers chosen for the first season. This past week, Benji, the peppy little swing dancer that could, absolutely kicked ass in hip-hop. And Jason, a hip-hop dancer, wowed the judges with a fluid, breathtaking contemporary routine that one judge said was like "a floodlight from heaven." Honestly, that wasn't an exaggeration -- some of these performances are so heartfelt and inspired, I have to watch them a second time to see the parts I missed.

I know I sound utterly possessed, so I personally challenge you to sit through a full, two-hour episode (9 p.m. Wednesdays on Fox) to see if you don't end up chatting amiably about who did better than expected, or smiling broadly in spite of yourself over some absurd gymnastics or some graceful, moving routine by a dancer you didn't think had it in him. I swear, whether it's the unabashed squeals of goofy judge Mary Murphy or the teary-eyed pride of another dancer who rose to the occasion, "So You Think You Can Dance" has me thoroughly engaged for two solid hours every week (I speed through Thursday's results show, with its tedious "American Idol"-style suspense-building, in about 10 minutes). This show always puts me in a great mood. How many things can you say that about?

Let's review!

1. What's more exciting?

a. The melted dregs of a triple-shot frappuccino that's been simmering in the summer sun for a full hour
b. Watching young, half-naked men in ass pants dance on TV
c. A woman who winks, stares incessantly, invades your personal space, hints that you should ask for her number instead of offering it up, and grabs your hand with one of her clammy mitts and won't let go of it, in a way that growls, "You're my brand new boyfriend and I'll cry really hard and then stalk you if you don't marry me soon."
d. The prospect of hiring a "manny" and making dirty, clandestine laundry-room love to him while your skanky white rapper husband is on tour in foreign lands

2. What, if anything, spoils the mood?

a. The thought of the germs that could accumulate in a sweet, warm substance over the course of an hour. Why, it's a veritable petri dish of bacterial threats!
b. The fact that the nubile young bucks on "So You Think You Can Dance" never get completely naked
c. The thought of having to hold hands with the same person for the rest of your life when their hands seem to have a habit of sweating profusely
d. The fact that Britney Spears is something like seven months pregnant with that skanky white rapper's child -- that makes her laundry-room lovemaking with a hired hand even sexier, of course, but the fact that it does makes you feel all guilty and dirty inside

3. When will the little third-world peoples get the pricey designer cigarettes and modern appliances that they deserve?

a. First they need to get some storage space, then there'll be room for those modern appliances.
b. When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie move to a two-room bungalow in Venice, Calif., demonstrating that they're just as happy living like your average absurdly privileged Americans, freeing up their millions to keep flies off the faces of children everywhere.
c. When they learn to create really cool-looking PowerPoint presentations the way you can. That's right, you deserve your five walk-in closets packed to the gills with stuff!
d. When Britney Spears has her baby in Namibia, officially signaling the emergence of the Third World as the ultimate birthing spa.

Answer Key: 1. d, 2. a, 3. c

Next week: How many Jimi Hendrix songs can TNT pack into one episode of "Saved"? Plus: How did the not-so-amazing race of "Treasure Hunters" get the green light?

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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