I Like to Watch

From "Hell's Kitchen" to "The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency," verbally abusive, passionate divas rule the small screen. Plus: Do your bad habits deserve a lifestyle of their very own?

Published June 25, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

People often write to me and say that they're grateful, because I save them from having to watching crappy stuff on TV. That gives me the illusion that I'm providing a service of some kind, like passing out free cans of tuna to pregnant women or speaking with teenagers about the benefits of proper hydration while tripping on ecstasy.

But then I have to wonder: What are these people doing instead of watching crappy TV all the time like I do? Because I've been watching crappy TV long enough now that if I weren't watching crappy TV, I'm not sure how I would spend my time.

It's like my friend who, when I mentioned the question of whether or not to have kids, said, "I don't like going to bars anymore. I don't have the energy for parties. I fall asleep after a few pages of reading. I can only travel so much. What the hell else am I going to do but have kids, really?"

And my friends who never watch crappy TV? They remind me of myself, before I started wasting half of my time watching crappy TV: Their minds are overactive. They never seem to unwind. They have productivity fetishes. Everything they do has to have value or meaning. They make lists constantly. They don't like to "waste" their time on things that have no inherent benefits beyond being vaguely enjoyable and sort of amusingly stupid.

But for people who believe that every single minute of their lives really should be meaningful or productive -- and I used to fit into this category, incredibly enough -- finding something that has no value or meaning whatsoever is, in and of itself, quite valuable. It's called "relaxation."

In other words, bad TV for me is almost like a way of meditating. It takes me out of my head. It doesn't make me stupid any more than sleeping makes me stupid. That's why I no longer understand people who decry TV as a "total waste of time." I used to do that -- when I lived in San Francisco, I remember telling my brother, who lived in L.A. and watched maybe three hours of TV a week, that he watched way too much TV and that he should do something else instead. At the time, the only TV I watched was about five minutes of "Law and Order" while chatting with my roommate, who got high and watched that show every single night at around the same time I was coming home from being out with friends.

But what was so incredibly meaningful and special about my life back then, going out and drinking beers with friends all the time? All we did was talk about the same problems and dilemmas, over and over and over again. At least the plot of "Law and Order" actually changes every week -- or at least it seems to, if you get high enough.

The advocate
In short, I'm shifting from decrying the vast volumes of crappy TV I watch to advocating it as a lifestyle choice. But isn't that the most common trajectory for someone whose seemingly odd choices or habits or vices have become, slowly but surely, a way of life? Whether you have a soft spot for rescue dogs, Japanese anime, or trading sexual partners with your next-door neighbor Lou, if you make the same choice enough times, before you know it, you'll be marching in the streets with a T-shirt that says, "Ask me about my swing," or even more likely, "Do you screw other people's wives? Because I do, and I can't recommend it highly enough."

Sadly, this doesn't change the fact that, no matter how relaxing you find it to nurture homeless dogs or care for high-maintenance plants or bed Lou's wife, no one really wants to hear about it. No matter what demographic any person falls into, no matter how a person relaxes, whether by articulating a litany of gripes about their co-workers or collecting baseball cards or masturbating to pictures of the Olsen twins, they'll always make you feel that your particular habit is arbitrary and shallow, if not deeply unsavory.

People don't like lifestyles. People think lifestyles are for weirdos. Even as they identify with their own particular hobbies or habits at a profound level, even as they wear their own "Dentists make people smile" or "Golfers have tiny little balls" T-shirts, they'll casually label your pursuit as boring or stupid or perverted, without even trying it, without even knowing a thing about it, without ever meeting Lou's wife and recognizing what a stone cold babe she is.

And look, don't even tell me that you've tried to watch crappy TV and you still don't like it, because unless you've bit the palm of your hand like Squiggy while waiting for the judges of "So You Think You Can Dance" to decide whether to send Ryan or Jason home, you don't really know. Not really.

Man, can you believe they sent Jason home? He was a like a floodlight from heaven! That was so not fair.

Pride goeth before the fall TV season
Interesting, isn't it? How I casually mock myself for expressing enthusiasm over the details of my lifestyle! Well, I'm done with that! From now on, I'm going to be proud of my way of life! The shackles of shame will no longer bind me! I'm honored, thrilled to live this way! No matter what they take from me, they can't take away my dignity! Unless, of course, I develop a drug habit and then they give me my own reality show...

Which leads us to the fascinating fact that, despite our general lack of interest and enthusiasm for other people's little pursuits and interests, half of the reality shows on TV these days focus on those very things. Whether we're standing by as Chef Gordon Ramsay has another spitty outburst over an undercooked Beef Wellington or witnessing Janice Dickinson losing her creme-filled crullers over some ingrate who refuses to starve herself in order to achieve an ass worthy of inspection under the bright lights, we're constantly treated to other people's idiosyncratic specialties.

As weary as I am of the diva-on-a-quest formula, I have a little weakness for "Hell's Kitchen" (9 p.m. Mondays on Fox), mostly because Chef Ramsay throws lots of temper tantrums, and because there's food involved. In fact, when it comes to other people's lifestyles, most of us are accepting as long as one or more of the following are in the mix: a) food, b) fame, c) hot people, d) extreme wealth, e) charity or f) an infant. This is why Brangelina can do no wrong: They look good, they're loaded, and they've always got a baby tucked under one arm while they write a personal check to the starving peoples of the world with the other one. The only way they could increase their popularity is by toting a big Gucci bag filled with Spaghetti Bolognese around with them.

As showy and staged as "Hell's Kitchen" can sometimes seem, and as mild-mannered and pleasant as Ramsay appears when he's relaxing with the winning team over a pretty plate of food (we're never far from pretty food on this show, which is somehow reassuring), his temper tantrums do seem completely genuine. Anyone who's known a true hothead knows that, whether the cameras are rolling or not, there just might be an angry explosion, replete with sneering faces and deeply personal insults. So far, Ramsay has accused one aspiring chef, Giacomo, of "poncing around" with "girl's hair," while admonishing another guy, Tom, to stop "sweating into the food," calling him, basically, a fat slob.

All of which sounds absolutely horrifying to those of us who didn't grow up around parents who knew how to use words effectively to injure and maim others. Yes, for those of us whose grandparents were hot-blooded working-class immigrants with few other outlets for their frustrations beyond creatively battering their families and friends with words, who raised their kids to let loose a flood of invective whenever the mood struck, such explosions are both amusing and downright impressive. We see creatively insulting others as one form of charisma -- a skill set, if not a legitimate lifestyle choice.

Chef Ramsay, to us, seems a perfectly reasonable human being with a deliciously unpredictable mean streak -- a mean streak that doesn't make him any less likable. He doesn't really hate Giacomo just because of his bad hair, he hates Giacomo because he's incompetent in the kitchen. Yes, it all comes back to food. Fine food is Chef Ramsay's one true Lord, and when you besmirch food, degrade it, demean it, belittle it, or worst of all, waste it, Chef Ramsay feels personally hurt by your actions. He's sort of the Brangelina of fine food, an advocate for all the little overcooked center-cut filets of the world, a spokesman for those soggy, stringy green beans and that limp, lifeless linguine that would otherwise have no voice at all!

You see, Chef Ramsay is a very sensitive and emotional soul, but he doesn't know how to express his vulnerability to Giacomo, to open up his heart and show Giacomo just how sad and small he feels when he sees another poorly cooked salmon filet land in the trash bin. A beautiful piece of fresh fish, carefully selected among a bounty from the cold Pacific seas for its superior color and firm texture -- gone, vanished, dead, in the wink of an eye! Such tender expressions of his true feelings of existential dread and the fleeting nature of our time here on earth are not so easily put into words, so instead he implies that Giacomo is ugly, foolish, has bad taste, and that his dumb hair makes him look like a big girl.

Yes, to the average onlooker the whole scene appears debased, unhealthy, just plain wrong. Even those who enjoy the show might enjoy it in part because they think that Chef Ramsay is a "psycho." The producers and the promoters at Fox clearly do, with their high-decibel promos bellowing over and over again to tune in for the nutty chef's latest antics, believing that such tirades are at the heart of the show's Springer-esque appeal to a drooling mob amped up for a public lynching.

But not everyone feels that way. To a select few who were raised by temperamental provocateurs (or, alternately, wolves), Chef Ramsay is a delight to behold, the sort of guy whose exacting standards lead him, quite naturally, to rip the tender little psyches of his weak-minded, insecure victims limb from limb, then unwind afterward with a nice crème caramel and the best cup of cappuccino you've ever tasted in your life. "This man appreciates the finer things in life," we say to ourselves. "Fine food, fine wine, and shredding the egos of undeserving, self-deluded pig-dogs into tiny bits."

Of course, when you survey some of the contestants on the show, it's clear that someone in casting understands perfectly well that we'd prefer to hate each aspiring chef so that Chef Ramsay's ire, when it comes, will bring us pure satisfaction. Whether it's the former inmate, Garrett, who tells the women's team to get in the kitchen and cook the men some dinner the way womenfolk are meant to or the chirpy dummy, Sara, who smiles not-so-discreetly every time her rival on the team screws up, most of the current contestants are just begging Chef Ramsay to serve them a fresh plate of lingual whoop-ass with a nasty verbal beat-down for dessert.

I'm your Janice, I'm your fire, your desire
As much as I savor a nice dish of verbal whoop-ass and love/hate Janice Dickinson, I find her show "The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency" (10 p.m. Tuesdays on Oxygen) only mildly amusing. Either there's not a lot of interesting stuff going on, or the editing isn't all that good, because we don't have any clear stories to sink our teeth into, beyond the usual Sturm und Drang und Swagger und Relentless Self-involved Prattle of Janice herself.

That said, Janice can be counted on for a hearty laugh at least once per episode. The filtered, Vaseline-smeared camera lens they use every time they go in for a close-up of the woman is enough reason to tune in, let's face it, not to mention the ridiculous "Barbie Goes to Work" outfits they dreamed up for her, the sort of office-flavored bimbosity that could only be custom-made for a TV set. Sure, it's fun to see Janice in full costume, bossing all the little models around, telling them to take off their clothes, then drooling over their asses while the cameras roll. Janice doesn't mince words, has no shame, doesn't care if we know every single thing about her private life, and is either babbling maniacally or yelling at her underlings or weeping piteously at any given time. In other words, she's camera-ready.

Do we really believe that she'd pick that chumpy guy as her partner, though, the one who appears to have the refinements and taste of a common gutter slug? She's talking high fashion and couture and he's selecting eyebrow-less, bottle-blond babes with hot asses for the back pages of Maxim? Sounds like a match made in executive-producer-created heaven.

Plus, why did Janice select Michelle from "America's Next Top Model" -- you know, the wrestler from Indiana whose hair was dyed white-blond -- and not even point her out to us? Doesn't she know that most of the people watching are doing so thanks to Tyra Banks' show? Is she so hesitant to mention Tyra that she'd refuse to tout the one model on the show we might be a little interested in?

Plus, business aside, there are too many models being signed. Maybe that's how you run an agency, but let's not forget that this is also a TV show, and we can't keep the hot people straight from each other. Each episode, Janice recruits more and more models, argues with her stupid partner about how hot they are or aren't, then rages and weeps to her son that she can't find the next Naomi (Campbell) or Kate (Moss). Luckily, her son is accustomed to such outbursts and sees them as the trappings of a woman whose exacting standards lead her, quite naturally, to rip the tender little psyches of her weak-minded, insecure victims limb from limb, then unwind afterward with a Botox treatment and a nice decaf nonfat latte.

Get on the Boateng
Janice feels proud of her lifestyle of high-strung, high-profile maneuvering punctuated by expensive plastic-surgery procedures, and why shouldn't she? She's spent years of pain and agony just to become hot, famous, wealthy and uncharitable, armed with a face as pure and tight as a baby's ass. Someone hand her a few infants and an elaborate seafood lasagna so she can rule the world as she's so clearly meant to.

The real drawback of Janice's show is that it's built around the fact (or illusion) that she's starting a business. Jesus, how sick are we of watching people start businesses? We're treated to the ins and outs of nascent businesses every few seconds, from "Blow Out" with Jonathan Antin to "The Restaurant" with Rocco DiSpirito.

Even unspeakably good taste, movie-star good looks and an exotic overseas flavor can't help the latest addition to the genre, "House of Boateng" (Sundance, check listings). In case you aren't an international jet-setter with a vast knowledge of overseas fashion (most of the readers here are), Oswald Boateng is a fashion designer who creates high-end, handmade, colorful, beautifully fitting suits for the wealthy, hot people of London.

"House of Boateng" follows the designer in his quest to open a flagship store in Los Angeles. Thus do we find ourselves in Boateng's car, driving around Melrose looking for the proper spot from which to peddle hot-pink luxury suits. As nice as it is that people say that Boateng has a lot of flair and personality and is a big, beautiful black man, we've searched for retail space with other hot famous people before and, quite frankly, this time we'd rather stay home and watch "Guiding Light." We'll be happy to hear all about it when Boateng gets home, though -- as long as he brings a stuffed chicken breast and some orzo and black olive salad home with him.

Who ever thought that we cared a whit about the nagging little details of starting a business? Why in the world would we give a flying frack about marketing strategies and profit margins and plans for world domination? It's all very well and good if Boateng relaxes by sorting through color swatches and fretting about his brand's viability in the States, but frankly, we'd thank him to keep his little pursuits away from our precious television screens. We'd just as soon tune in to find out more about baseball card collectors or Olsen twins fetishists.

And Boateng isn't even delightfully temperamental! He may have exacting standards, but they're all focused on minuscule adjustments to clothing, hair and makeup, adjustments that slobs like us can't quite understand unless they're accompanied by a tirade of creative and deeply personal insults.

Quite honestly, Boateng could be subtle in his high standards, he could have grace and wit and be worthy of so much screen time without having a nasty temper. He could. But "House of Boateng" doesn't capture said grace, wit and charms, or really much of anything, beyond somewhat polite, extremely dull discussions with friends, real estate agents and potential business partners. If you're going to sit in on this sort of drudgery, you might as well go to business school and get paid for it.

Reviewing what we've learned!

1. In order to capture the public's imagination today, it's important to:

a) be hot
b) be hot and have lots of money
c) be hot, rich and pregnant or toting around an adorable infant or, if possible, all of the above
d) know how to use words to injure or maim people
e) be whipping up a delicious beef stroganoff for one of several photogenic infants
f) believe the children are our future

2. If your grandparents were verbally abusive, that most likely means that you:

a) don't believe the children are our future
b) enjoy a stiff drink
c) know how to use words to injure or maim people
d) know how to simultaneously whip up a delicious beef stroganoff while sipping on a nice Scotch and injuring or maiming people using words
e) enjoy programs featuring charismatic yet temperamental types with exacting standards
f) think "Treasure Hunters" is a flaccid imitation of the far-superior "Amazing Race"
g) wouldn't mind sleeping with your neighbor's wife h) all of the above

3. If you want to start a business, we'd thank you to:

a) keep it to yourself
b) refrain from dragging any infants or third-world nations into it
c) keep the TV cameras far from your laborious business lunches and detailed contract negotiations
d) involve food or naked hot people by any means necessary
e) be hot, rich, naked and covered in hollandaise sauce
f) let the children's laughter remind you how you used to be

4. Having pride in your lifestyle entails:

a) self-delusion
b) excessive drinking
c) poncing around in T-shirts with clever slogans on them
d) building an identity around your bad habits
e) boring the hell out of everyone within earshot

Answer Key: 1. e, 2. h, 3. a, 4. e

Next week: The Playboy Channel picks four strangers to live in a house and find out what happens when sea donkeys stop being polite, and start licking melted chocolate off each other's naked bodies. Plus: The fighting Irish of Showtime's "Brotherhood" demonstrate the managerial effectiveness of intricately crafted verbal insults.

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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