I Like to Watch

The apocalypse is drawing closer! Soothe those rattled nerves by peeking in on the human lab rats of "Big Brother All-Stars" and the frustrated couples of "Sexual Healing."

Published July 16, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

What a great week! North Korea tried out its long-range missiles by launching a big one into the Sea of Japan, terrorists bombed a train in India, and war broke out in the Middle East! Meanwhile in the Southland, the hills were on fire, and the dusty orange sky lent a lovely apocalyptic hue to the landscape, getting us all in the mood for Armageddon.

Mmm, nothing gets the blood flowing quite like impending world war! All those months stockpiling surgical masks and duct tape and cans of SpaghettiOs in anticipation of bird flu and earthquakes and terrorist catastrophes seem like a silly dress rehearsal for the main event now, don't they? Even the neurotics and worrywarts weren't prepared for this week's fantastical slide into worst-case scenarios. Isn't it amazing how the world can appear to be going to hell in a handbasket, and then someone douses the handbasket with gasoline, lights a match, and drop-kicks the whole flaming mess straight into a stadium filled with toddlers, adorable baby animals and flammable trash?

While those who've written TV off as yet another opiate for the masses have only their religion or their pets or their exercise routines to sustain them through these times of trouble, those of us with healthy doses of denial in the form of pop cultural distractions built into our daily lives are laughing all the way to the living room, preparing to burrow into a cocoon of comfortable numbness brought on by hours of sipping ice-cold beer and watching one televised talent competition after another. Yes, those fine, down-to-earth types who scoff at televised entertainments, choosing instead to "read books" or "spend time with their families" or "attend culturally enriching local events" now find themselves without suitably engrossing distractions, i.e., diversions soul-sucking enough to fully engage their senses even in the face of worldwide destruction.

Yes, this is a fine week, indeed! A week for the widely maligned couch potatoes among us to feel as smug as Jehovah's Witnesses on Judgment Day!

Oh Big Brother, where art thou?
Of course, if God turns out to be a giant cockroach, even the Jehovah's Witnesses are going to have to wipe that smug look off their faces. Suddenly they'll wish they'd gotten drunk and dressed up as homosexual cops at that Halloween party with the rest of us.

But as Armageddon bears down upon the land, no one is sitting prettier than fans of CBS' "Big Brother All-Stars" (8 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays). Not only do they have the comfort of three full hours of mind-numbing programming each week, but the televisual delights in question are so deeply, unrelentingly tedious that they have a clinically proven ability to lull even a hyperactive child high on three Red Bulls and a box of sour gummy worms into a catatonic state. What better palliative for the jittery neurotic facing the end times?

For the uninitiated, the "Big Brother" franchise is built on the supposition that human beings trapped in a house around the clock with absolutely nothing to do are not only worth watching, but their petty fights and strategic maneuvers and closet confessionals are downright charming and enjoyable. Summer after summer, the captives are given little more to amuse themselves than the highly repetitive and unoriginal "Head of Household" and "Power of Veto" competitions, most of which are about as fun to watch as some combination of a junior high school debate-team match and a bunch of kids knocking each other over in a jumpy castle.

But don't let the expertise and science that goes into each season of "Big Brother" elude you! A subtle psychosocial soup must be prepared for the appropriate flavors of paranoia and confusion to mingle perfectly together. Ideally, the captives involved should be simultaneously overconfident and unself-conscious, demonstrating a heady mix of arrogance, self-delusion and bluster. The less the captives understand about how the other captives in the house perceive them, the more likely they are to make mistakes, misinterpret and misjudge the entire microcosm. That leaves lots of room for resentment, feelings of betrayal and open confrontation, and makes it likely that one of the few self-aware schemers and sociopaths present will turn the rest of the house of endlessly weight-lifting, tanning, mirror-gazing refrigerator monkeys into their own personal hand puppets.

Of course, watching the whole foul puppet show play out isn't all bad, it's just a wee bit ruthless and very, very, very boring. Just the sight of those bright red and yellow and blue furnishings and that drab yard makes any reasonable man or woman long for the glistening white hallways of "Paradise Hotel," where the lighting was always soft and lovely and never, ever neon, and it made the captives, who were mostly belligerent drunks, look really sexy.

That's the other thing: There aren't enough belligerent drunks on "Big Brother." It makes no sense, really. Go to any location on the planet where overconfident, unself-conscious, extremely tan, largely idle people hang out -- Key West, Costa Rica, Pacific Beach in San Diego -- and what do you find? Drunks, my friend, of the most outspoken and leathery sort. Why shouldn't the lounging residents of the "Big Brother" house be encouraged to drink to excess, then yammer aimlessly as their skin bakes off just like the proud denizens of any like-minded Margaritaville? What fun are arrogant imbeciles, I ask you, if they're not all boozed up, thereby twice as prone to blow out their flip-flops and step on a pop-top? (I know they don't make pop-tops anymore, but still.) In fact, why not make the "Head of Household" challenge an elaborate game of quarters?

Instead, we're treated to a tank of little white lab rats, and we're expected to giggle as they're exposed to carcinogens or skin diseases or encouraged to push their little pedals endlessly in the hopes that a pellet of cocaine -- or, in this case, half a million dollars -- will appear.

Of course, "Big Brother All-Stars" does shed some light on the sorts of lab rats we find the most entertaining, since half of the house's inhabitants were voted in by "Big Brother" fans. Apparently, we like to watch big, clueless, slightly pathetic guys (Chicken George) almost as much as vainglorious monkeys (Jase), sociopathic doctors (Will) and big, blond dolls (Janelle).

Personally, I'm rooting for Will. Not only is he manipulative, pompous and half-crazy, but he's actually been spotted curling his eyelashes. How many doctors do you know who curl their eyelashes? It's a breathtaking sight, indeed. Plus, Will is the only resident who won "Big Brother" before, so it would be totally infuriating to the world if he won again. What better way to cause tempers to flare worldwide, inciting the apocalypse faster than an errant Taepodong-2?

For whom Chappelle toils
The only thing more upsetting than the second rise of a madman or the second coming of a gigantic cockroach deity might be the paltry leftovers of "Chappelle's Show," (9 p.m. Sundays) served up for us with excessive flair by the trussed-up wait staff at Comedy Central.

Why is it so bittersweet to watch these so-called lost episodes? Naturally they're damn funny, just as funny as every other skit David Chappelle has ever created. Is any other skit show on the air even close, in terms of consistently dishing out big laughs? From "Saturday Night Live's" often unimpressive and always uneven fare to the amusing but not all that memorable skits of "The Catherine Tate Show," we're reminded constantly of how tough it is for most mortals to write funny skits week after week. How did Chappelle do it, and was the whole exercise really as painful and morally bereft as he suggests it was?

I know I sang Woody Guthrie's praises for having so much integrity last week, but ... why oh why must David Chappelle have so much integrity? Does it matter if white people don't really get it, or that some people laugh for the wrong reasons? When you create something for public consumption, something that clearly makes millions of people happy, why worry your pretty little head over the apparent misperceptions of a select few? You can't control a handful of bigots, after all, whether you're writing comedy or hiding from all of the malevolent forces in the world that want a piece of your big old famous, wealthy pie.

Who knew that Chappelle was such a sensitive flower? Unfortunately, these skits feel like a sad reminder of how much untapped talent Dave Chappelle has left to share with the world. He has no obligation to serve our needs by dishing up more comedy, of course. Gary Larson abandoned "The Far Side" to work on his paintings, John Lennon quit the Beatles to hasten the apocalypse, and no one is to blame. (Except Nicole Richie.)

But here's hoping that Chappelle finds a new project that doesn't feel quite so sullied or compromised. In the meantime, we'll be eating SpaghettiOs out of the can and clinging to the latest words to fall from Cat Deeley's golden tongue.

Whipped into a frenzy
OK, while we're talking about unprovoked attacks, I have to add that Musa Cooper got robbed by the judges on "So You Think You Can Dance" last Thursday night. What's in those odd green tumblers the judges drink from every week, anyway, and did it cause them to hallucinate Dmitry as some sort of fiery Russian demigod, instead of the fast-stepping bundle of blech that he is? After admitting that Musa's electrifying solo performance may have been the best ever on the show, judge Nigel Lythgoe dismissed him, saying his other performances have been so-so.

I agree with these judges almost across the board, except when it comes to Dmitry and Musa. While Dmitry performed worse and worse each week, flailing manically through one terrible routine after another, Musa not only mastered every new dance, but showed off the flashiest, most physical stunts of any contestant. Are the judges really such stuffy little snobs that they'd deny us Musa's spectacular stunts in favor of yet another pirouetting pretty boy?

My suspicion is that, since the judges (or "joodges" in Deeley-speak) no longer have any say over who wins the competition starting this Wednesday, they're anxious to get the hottest, most athletic, most lovable guy out of the mix, knowing that he's likely to win it all without first mastering the Quickstep. Because obviously America doesn't give a flying Taepodong about the Quickstep. No. We care about big, sexy black men with incredible bodies who can do standing back-flips into swimming pools filled with whipped cream. OK, that was just a daydream. But still.

And anyway, why don't these talent shows focus less on technical details and more on the details that we Americans care about, namely, how good the contestant looks sinking into a delicious vat of creamy dairy product? As long as they want us to call their stupid little 1-800 numbers to vote, why can't they strip the little jazz-hands-flashing puppets down to their G-strings and give us something that's truly worth voting for?

Tantrics with smoke and mirrors
That said, we don't want just anyone to derobe for our amusement, as we quickly learned by watching Showtime's "Sexual Healing" (premieres at 10 p.m. on Friday, July 21). This "documentary series" (see also: reality TV show) features real couples experiencing sexual problems who've been chosen to spend an intense week of couples therapy with Dr. Laura Berman.

Now, based on the title and the opening credits, you might think this show is just a horny voyeur's paradise of couples rubbing oils on each other or testing out the latest acrylic Taepodong-2. And yes, there are certainly some shocking moments where we see the couples, with the aid of a night-vision camera, caressing each other's naked bodies, naughty bits hidden from sight by tiny little hand towels. Given the overall hotness of the participants involved, such glimpses are enough to cause many viewers to swear off "Sexual Healing" forever and ever, amen.

But steel yourself against such moments and sally forth, my little buttered biscuits, because this is a show well worth watching until the end, particularly if you're the Taepodong who enjoys parsing complicated relationship dynamics whenever humanly possible. Being that Taepodong myself, I find the therapy and the "assignments" and the heated discussions between these couples absolutely mesmerizing.

Take the couple who've been together for over 20 years, have two mentally and physically handicapped kids, rarely have sex, and resent each other for years of lies and cheating, but who still manage to hold hands and cry and dedicate themselves to patching up their marriage. We meet them and immediately think two thoughts: 1) She should dump him immediately, and 2) Please don't show us these two people naked. We don't end up seeing them naked (some couples seem fine with stripping down while the camera rolls while others stay clothed or hidden under the sheets), and by the end of the episode, we're not only sympathetic with both the sometimes-jilted wife and the cheating husband, but we desperately want them to stay together. Even though we can see that she's controlling and distant and doesn't express herself and he's got an addict's tendency to behave selfishly and then apologize after the fact, their ability to express their hurt, accept each other's flaws and rededicate themselves to finding a way to move forward together is genuinely inspiring. When you see them caring for their handicapped teenagers -- how well they work as a team, how calm they are, how they support each other along the way -- you start to feel how tragic it would be if two people who've come this far together were to abandon each other after all this time.

That probably sounds idiotically romantic, but watch and see if you don't feel the same way. It's crazy, really, how my attitude was transformed over the course of all three episodes I watched. At first, the couples just seem annoying and nasty, and you feel certain that you can't hear the guy with the bad hair say the word "ejaculate" again without losing your lunch. Cut to the end, where you're cheering on his tantric exercises while feeling real sympathy for his partner's sexually abusive past.

"Sexual Healing" is -- honestly, truly -- the best kind of reality TV there is, the kind that can make us open our hearts to the people on-screen, with all of their faults and mistakes and blind spots. Instead of inspiring us to point and jeer at the little lab rats like we do watching "Big Brother," this is a show that encourages acceptance and understanding, not only toward the strangers on our screens but also toward that stranger who appears at the breakfast table every morning despite our best efforts to scare him or her off. As skeptical as we're tempted to be about the exploitative nature of a show about sex therapy, "Sexual Healing" is all heart, exploring these couples' difficult stories with patience, understanding and humor.

I really believe you can get a sense of how cynical or how genuine producers of any given show are, based on the editing and the choices they make. While it's obvious some shows are meant to transform human beings into silly puppets, "Sexual Healing" is that rare show that takes strangers with big problems and shows them to be real human beings with big hearts.

This is the end
And that's a pretty nice thing to see, given that the world is ending soon. Let's just hope that the giant cockroaches accept our offerings of canned SpaghettiOs and duct tape and let us into the kingdom of cockroach heaven, which we imagine is sort of like a big jumpy castle in the sky. Hopefully there are laminated cups of chocolate pudding and cheesy televised talent shows there, though, or eternity might really suck.

Next week: We'll finally get to the return of "Project Runway" -- that is, if the world doesn't end before then!

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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