I Like to Watch

TV critics gather in Pasadena to eat Jimmy Kimmel's half-raw burgers and ask Chris Rock dumb white-people questions. Plus: The fur and feathers are already flying on "Project Runway."

Published July 23, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Everyone's a critic
This week, the Television Critics Association holds its summer press tour. Even though the whole thing happens about 10 minutes away from my house, even though most TV critics and entertainment journalists fly across the country and stay in a hotel for three weeks just to attend this event each year, which affords a glimpse of the new shows of the fall TV season, I've always actively avoided it.

The problem is, every time I register for the tour and plan to go, I start picturing terrible little hotel conference rooms with flocked, mauve and purple carpeting, filled with rows of uncomfortable chairs, staffed by overly enthusiastic publicists armed with stacks of xeroxed press releases about their crappy new shows for the fall season. I imagine that, after an uncomfortably bad clip of a TV pilot is projected onto a creaky roll-down screen, a gaggle of actors will swagger in, sit at the front of the room, and hold forth at length about how great these really terrible shows actually are. Inevitably we'll hear comments like "I always wanted to work with [fellow actor's name]" or "It's all about the script" or "I'm just honored to be here."

But the worst part will be the TV critics themselves, the sorts of people prone to asking TV actors asinine questions, then carefully jotting down all of their sleep-inducing anecdotes about getting that fateful call from their agent about aforementioned terrible TV show. (Obviously there's a big dollop of self-loathing in this picture.) It's not that TV critics are necessarily any more vile than other subsets of society -- it's easy to imagine that a conference inhabited by podiatrists, bank tellers or marketing executives would be just as tedious and scary. No, the bad part will be that I will be one of them! Nothing seemed more likely to incite a career identity crisis than finding myself seated in an uncomfortable chair between two human beings anxious to argue the relative assets of shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "Two and a Half Men" with the heated, self-important tones of foreign dignitaries discussing the crisis in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, this year, I decided I would grit my teeth and go, not because I expected any of it to be remotely worthwhile or rewarding, but because, after so many years of avoidance and dodging, the TCA tour, like a suspicious-looking mole or a pile of unwritten thank-you notes, had taken on mythical, beastly proportions in my mind. It was time to face the beast head-on.

Tour of booty
Yes, as you're surely expecting by now, the whole event has turned out to be far more pleasant and interesting and posh than I expected. Along with comfortable chairs and air conditioning and a wireless connection and bottles of soda and water on ice, people like Chris Rock and Ted Danson were regularly rolling out funny answers to interview questions, making the entire experience more like a trip to a comfy, climate-controlled comedy club where the drinks are on the house. After one day, I started to wish the TCA tour would last throughout the entire summer.

But most important, there's the food. Why didn't anyone tell me about the food? Apparently, after years of manipulating TV critics, publicists have figured out that we're a comfort-oriented species, likely to do anything in pursuit of a soft chair and a salty snack. Accordingly, food is the absolute highlight of the tour, used to lure pale cave dwellers out of their dim abodes in search of chocolate brownies and strawberry-basil smoothies.

Take the promotional mailing I got in the mail yesterday, which looks just like one of those breakfast menus that hang on the doors of nice hotels, where you can check off the foods you want delivered to your room the next morning. This mailing, for an event promoting something called "The Greg Behrendt Show," briefly details the location and time of the event at the top, then lists more than 30 different breakfast foods that will be available there (I'm not exaggerating), including bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese, chocolate beignets, potato pancakes topped with homemade applesauce, hickory-smoked bacon, espresso, pomegranate juice, homemade blueberry muffins and fresh fruit kabobs. Personally, I hate most talk shows and don't know who the hell Greg Behrendt is, but for chocolate beignets and pomegranate juice, I'm willing to endure just about anything.

Even my fellow TV critics aren't all that bad, since instead of debating the charms of various fall pilots, they spend most of their time discussing the food. "These cold-cut sandwiches are bullshit," a complete stranger will confide over lunch. "Last year they had Philly cheesesteaks and fries." "Fox always gives out tons of chocolate," another critic will gush. "I brought home four huge chocolate bars for my kids last year." While it's tough to take people who care deeply about the returning cast of "One Tree Hill" all that seriously, it's pretty difficult to find fault with human beings who'll earnestly discuss the relative merits of the fried chicken vs. the Caesar salad.

Unfortunately, all of this food talk whipped me into such a frenzied state that I was halfway through a hamburger that Jimmy Kimmel had personally cooked just for me over a hot grill in the 100-degree Pasadena heat when I noticed that it was practically raw. All that teriyaki and garlic salt in Kimmel's homemade recipe, paired with cheerful food-related banter among the hungry natives, colluded to distract me, and I didn't notice until the burger was half-eaten that it was red and mushy. No matter! That just leaves more room for desert -- strawberry shortcake, apple tart or berry cobbler à la mode? Ah, why not taste all three?

A heaping dose of sugar was all those aspiring armies of E. coli needed to wage their battle, and Jimmy Kimmel's Revenge hit at around midnight. For once, I'll spare you the gruesome details, but suffice it to say it wasn't the most auspicious branding moment for Kimmel's late-night empire.

The bald and the beautiful
Oh yeah, and some people said some stuff, too. Most of the chatter was along the lines I'd expected -- "It's all about the script." "The cast is really amazing; we're like one big, happy family." "I was just about to start a job at the Gap when my agent called..." -- but some of the writers and stars gathered were surprisingly entertaining. Salma Hayek, who's the executive producer of an ABC comedy (based on a Colombian telenovela) called "Ugly Betty," looked much better in person than she does on-screen, like some busty Latina version of Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz."

Hayek, who got her own start in telenovelas, charmed the audience with her witty remarks. When asked whether some people might find the title of her show, which focuses on an awkward but plucky girl with no fashion sense who lands a job at a hot fashion magazine, a little offensive, Hayek responded, "[I]t's sarcastic. I don't think Betty is really ugly, but what do we call ugly now? I mean, anybody that is not super skinny and really tall, some people think they're ugly. I personally have seen a lot of really skinny, tall models that I think are ugly, and they need to eat a little to look healthy." Too true! How long until the next snack break?

Ted Danson was also surprisingly funny and self-deprecating. Starring as a therapist on ABC's single-camera comedy "Help Me Help You," Danson spent several minutes outlining the evolution of his closeted hair loss:

I had a bald spot about this big when I started "Cheers," and I'd surreptitiously put my little brown thing on it and comb my hair over it. And then the tabloids said that I'm wearing a huge hairpiece. And I couldn't go, "No, no. I'm just ... I just color it in."

Then about five years later, I indeed did have to wear a little divot hairpiece for Sam Malone. So I put that in, and then one of the tabloids airbrushed my entire head and said that I'm one of the people who is totally bald. And I, once again, couldn't say, "No, no, I just wear this little..."

So (now) I'm out of the closet.

Later, when Danson was asked how he chooses between the many scripts he's offered each year, he responded with similar honesty: "This is not false humility, and it's a little sad. But I do take what I'm offered."

But naturally, Chris Rock's appearance was the highlight of the tour so far. Rock appeared with Jada Pinkett Smith and two other comedy producers from the CW (UPN and WB have merged to form a new network, for those comfortably removed from the TV landscape) to promote the second season of his show, "Everybody Hates Chris." Sadly, though, the second you get four black people in front of a roomful of white people to answer questions, all the white people want to do is ask the black people about black-people stuff.

After the second or third time a critic raised his or her hand to ask, in a new way, why there aren't more black people on TV, Chris Rock joked back, "I'd say you gotta ask the white people that. I mean, that's like asking the bat boy, 'How come the Yankees can't get a better pitcher?'"

The critic responded by pointing out that the four producers onstage were hardly bat boys. Even so, a few minutes later, another reporter seemed to have forgotten that fact, asking if Rock or the others felt any "twinges of nerves" when they found out that their networks were dissolving.

Rock, one of the wealthiest comedians of our time, quipped, "I thought I might have to drive a cab."

Minutes later, yet another critic asked how incredibly difficult it must be for these black crusaders, who surely take representing their race as Job 1, to see how few shows about black people are on TV. Again, tired of the question, Rock answered, "Well, you're a black guy ... I think. Do you ever think your life is going to be as good as white people['s lives are]? I don't. Have you given that one up yet?"

Not seeing the humor, the reporter stuttered, "I, I don't quite understand that."

Rock continued, undaunted, "It's a tough road. Hey, have fun on the way. You're going to die in about 28 years. Jimmy Fallon is going to live longer than me, man. That's life. "

Rock's fellow executive producer, Ali LeRoi, stepped in at that point and offered his thoughts on the subject: "Hey, if you don't like dealing with network executives, then write a book. Nobody has the right to be in show business. Nobody has the right to be on a TV show. We all argue about, you know, I'd like to see more representation about this and more representation about that. But at the end of the day, dude, you got to sell some soap. And if you are not selling soap, they got no interest in you. So black drama, smack drama. Man, I don't care. It's about making a good show for the audience that's buying the product. Find your audience and sell them what you can sell them."

Delivered to an audience that was mostly preoccupied with the cookies and Frappuccinos lined up for the next snack break, this pragmatic approach really hit home.

Back to our regularly scheduled program
Aside from a few chuckles and a healthy dose of E. coli, I did gather some key facts about the fall season, but that will have to wait until Salon's third annual (and much-ballyhooed!) TV Week, which will run the fourth week of August, right before the Emmys. In the meantime, we'll have to concern ourselves with summer fare, the highlight of which is currently the return of "Project Runway" for a third season.

Now, after last season's disappointing finale, which crowned the mediocre Chloe Dao the winner despite the fact that she mostly seemed interested in designing satiny pink jackets that would look more at home on the set of "Dynasty" than on a contemporary fashion runway, you'd think we'd find it tough to get worked up about another season of the show. But with "Project Runway," the winner is really beside the point. It's the bumpy road to fashion week -- and the bitchy divas at the back of the bus -- that we love the most.

True to their fine reputation, the same casting geniuses that brought us Jay McCarroll and Santino Rice have offered up a whole new lineup of self-aggrandizing miscreants for our scrutiny this summer. Despite the initial feeling of letdown that no obvious sociopaths or divas on the scale of Rice or Austin Scarlett are present, by the second episode the dysfunctional tics and diagnosable personality disorders began to rear their adorable heads as promised. Here's a quick rundown of a few of the most likely designers to throw hissy fits, pick away at one another's sanity, or design dresses that look like "a baboon's ass," as Rice so nicely put it last season.

Keith: Keith is showing breathtaking narcissistic streaks even at this early date, along with great potential as a fire-starter. Anxious to pour gasoline on the flames of the raging conflict between partners Angela and Vincent, he asks Angela, "You guys aren't getting along in there?" and when she lies and says the two partners are "relating well," he snips, "Really? I don't think so at all." Keith already seems certain that he'll outperform the group, and appears visibly dejected when he doesn't win. Welcome, Santino II! You had us at "I don't expect to win every challenge; I just expect to win in the end."

Angela: A classic Bad News Jane, unable to play nicely with others, Angela is the kind of girl who tags around you on the playground, asking dumb questions, and then pushes you into a mud puddle and tells the whole class you peed in your pants. She spent the second episode whining that her partner, Vincent, was creating a dress that looked like "something I made in college." But for more clues on Angela, feast on this blurb from her bio: "Angela handcrafts each product in her solar-powered studio to reflect the quality of her work and lifestyle, which is unique, vibrant, visionary." Forget fashion, this woman belongs in publicity.

Laura: Sophisticated in a Cruella de Ville sort of way, Laura appears to have lots of style, lots of money, and lots of opinions that she's unafraid to share with others. While it's unclear how original her work is, her first two designs were eye-catching and well crafted. With plenty of backbone and a smug demeanor, it's only a matter of time before Laura starts to clash with the other designers.

Vincent: Childish, stubborn and full of anger, Vincent had a flourishing fashion business in the '80s, but the business didn't survive. What exactly happened? A quick peek at the man's social skills and it's not too hard to imagine a few of the possibilities. Despite the fact that, in his bio, Vincent claims to "enjoy truth," according to Tim Gunn's blog, Vincent wouldn't take any feedback or input from partner Angela throughout the creative process, and ended up creating a boring dress with "preposterous epaulets." Very '80s of him, don't you think?

Kayne: Kayne brings some of the much-beloved flourishes and gushing enthusiasm of Austin Scarlett to the picture, but with the addition of a subtle country flavor we can all enjoy. Having gushed to Miss America that he loooves the whole pageant thing, according to his bio, Kayne runs a business that creates "custom ballroom dance costumes, eveningwear and wardrobe for the country music industry." Sounds like he might have some flashy, splashy designs in store for us, with a flashy, splashy personality to match.

Those are just a few of the outsize personalities on "Project Runway" so far this season, and I'm looking forward to meeting the rest. Their bizarre quirks and mean streaks are, to me, like a buffet table covered in delightful breakfast surprises.

But now I'm getting hungry, which means it's about time to head back to the Ritz-Carlton for more sustenance ... oh yeah, and to learn something about NBC's fall shows.

In conclusion
When it came to the TCA tour, I had it all wrong. But then, those of us with a weakness for the familiar tend to discover, again and again, that our fears of the unknown are overblown. In fact, the more adaptable couch potatoes among us eventually develop a policy of forcing themselves to do all kinds of new things they don't want to do, recognizing that they're likely to find these activities much more rewarding than they can possibly imagine they'll be from the comfort of their squishy couches.

In fact, whether we fear becoming the sort of person who can have a long conversation about a crappy sitcom pilot or shudder to think that Jimmy Fallon might outlive us, it's not those long-standing, deep-seated fears that typically do us in, it's the little, unpredictable threats -- like an army of E. coli, or a phalanx of preposterous epaulets.

But don't let Jimmy Kimmel make you afraid to leave the house, my friend! Don't sit at home fearing the worst. And when you do venture out, don't ask the bat boy why the Yankees can't get a better pitcher. Whether you ride a porcelain bus all night or suddenly regret cashing in your 401K to bring your scary '80s fashions back to life, you still have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and make it to the Greg Behrendt breakfast buffet before the chocolate beignets are all gone. Remember, no one has a right to free potato pancakes, and not everyone can look like a hot Latina version of Dorothy. Or, as a wise man once put it, "At the end of the day, dude, you got to sell some soap."

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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