I Like to Watch

Partly funny skies ahead, from the potty-mouthed cranks of HBO's "Lucky Louie" to the opportunistic losers of FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

Published July 30, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

July is almost over, and once again I don't feel as if I've fully exploited its July-ness the way I should've. Isn't July supposed to be filled with fireworks and picnics and watermelon and trips to the beach? Shouldn't everyone be tanned and well rested, with a frozen daiquiri or a chilled glass of sangria with a delightful fruit garnish in their hands at all times? I always have the feeling during July that there should be cookouts to attend constantly, and not the kind with messy bean salads and plates of burned sausages and bags of crumbly Doritos, either. No, we're talking festive, camera-ready cookouts, where everyone is wearing shades of dark red and purple that look good together, like in the pages of Martha Stewart Living, and the intelligent-looking yet stylish hosts serve huge, colorful fruit salads and big platters of beef, cooked to medium-rare perfection. All of the children are adorable but never shriek or pull the dog's ears, and at night there are sparklers and martinis and tiki torches and maybe a live violin quartet or a jazz band. People tell great jokes, no one talks about their dumb jobs, and there are no bugs, anywhere.

In other words, ideally, July is a cross between a Nestea plunge commercial and a spread in the summer issue of the Pottery Barn catalog. Sadly, though, that kind of art-directed July remains limited to magazines, fluffy summer TV shows and calendar photography, because the fact is -- and this is the part you forget when you're daydreaming about July in the middle of some particularly shivery, dreary day in January -- July is very, very hot. July is hot enough that no one has the energy to shower or comb their hair or even speak, let alone assemble delightful fruit garnishes. All anyone really does is slump on the couch in their underwear, sweating buckets.

Maybe in New England, in some small Norman Rockwell-style town, they achieve the sorts of idyllic July days that the rest of us dream about while we're tossing and turning at night, soaking the sheets. Maybe while we plant ourselves in front of the one, tiny air-conditioning unit in the house and refuse to budge, those adorable folks up in Maine are pickling beets and attending quaint little small-town parades. While the rest of us are driving to a crappy mall just to get out of the heat, those assholes are playing croquet while sampling a fresh batch of prosciutto-and-melon skewers.

But July is almost over, which is a big relief, since the month of August is clearly meant to be spent slumping on the couch in your underwear, sweating buckets. See, I imagine that I love the overachieving months the best, but really, I prefer the months with the lowest expectations attached to them: rainy February, sullen November, and soiled, stanky August.

Couch-free potatoes
In fact, overachievers in general, those Norman Rockwell types with their carefully restored California bungalows and their heirloom tomatoes and their ironed white linen shirts, really screw things up for the rest of us. We'd all be fine with big, lukewarm pitchers of lime Kool-Aid and a grass-covered Slippery Slide in the backyard, if not for all of their impeccable taste, which naturally trickles down to the shiny catalogs that arrive at our doors, catalogs we make the mistake of flipping through, impatiently, from the damp discomfort of our sweat-soaked couches.

This suspicion with the overachiever lifestyle is at the heart of HBO's summer sitcom "Lucky Louie" (10:30 p.m. Sundays on HBO), an alarmingly spare and brutal affair starring the comedian Louis C.K. and a gaggle of cranky types you don't normally see on TV.

Imagine if you were to take the Pottery Barn catalog and strip it of everything fake and impractical -- the enormous margarita glasses without a single spot on them, the hot pink napkins folded just so, the crystal-blue pool without leaves or dead bees floating in it, the slivers of watermelon so finely sliced that only a deeply troubled obsessive-compulsive could be responsible for them -- you'd be left with something resembling your actual life, except with shiny, new furniture where the old, beat-up furniture should go. "Lucky Louie" does the same thing for the modern sitcom. Not only did the creators of this show take out the average sitcom's bright purple walls and the bright orange couch with its rainbow of throw pillows, not only did they get rid of all adorable knickknacks and cool prints and subtract the cheerful open-plan kitchen and the big windows and the staircase that leads to the many bedrooms upstairs, but they had the audacity to stuff the main characters into a shabby-looking one-bedroom apartment.

And get this: There's no couch at all! The couch, that sitcom staple since "I Love Lucy," is gone. All Louie and his curmudgeonly wife and bratty 4-year-old daughter have is a small kitchen table, and a bed covered in the kind of tacky coverlet your grandmother used to knit for you out of lime green, sale-priced polyester-blend yarn.

The mood and tone of "Lucky Louie" also constitutes a notable departure from the manic gaiety of the mainstream sitcom. Instead of chiding each other adorably, overreacting cutely, shouting at each other in a stagey way, and then chuckling good-naturedly at the whole mess, Louie and his wife, Kim (Pamela Adlon), get into fights over stupid stuff, pout, call each other terrible names, and then make up, but just barely. In a recent episode, Louie brings home red roses for Kim to kick off a romantic weekend at home together. Kim politely tells Louie that she doesn't really like red roses. Louie cautiously mentions that this rubs him the wrong way, that she should say "Thank you" first. Kim responds, with studied calmness, that she would thank him, only she told him before that she doesn't really like red roses, but he didn't remember. His purchase of red roses, therefore, indicates to her that when she talks, he's just barely listening and doesn't care what the hell she's saying. This makes Louie defensive, which makes Kim angry, which makes Louie even angrier, which is why he calls her the C-word. And there you go. The whole weekend is ruined.

Which is sort of enjoyable, somehow, because one of the traits common among most families is their uncanny knack for Ruining Everything. Truly talented families don't need really important, heavy problems to Ruin Everything, either. No. A person need not be in debt or cheating on his wife in order to cause a stupid fight and wreak havoc on a long-awaited vacation or a family holiday. All he really needs is to buy dark chocolate for his wife when she, in fact, specifically told him several times that she likes milk chocolate, and cannot stand dark chocolate under any circumstances.

In fact, Louie and Kim's fight reminds me of the golden days of "All in the Family," when Archie and Meathead would rip each other to tiny pieces and cause total chaos in the house, all over the tiniest squabble, like whether a person typically gets dressed by putting on both socks and then both shoes, or whether it's far more normal and acceptable to go "sock, shoe, sock, shoe." Instead of recognizing the idiotic nature of their debate, Archie would scream "Don't you know the whole world puts on a sock and a sock and a shoe and a shoe?" while Meathead would grumble, "I like to take care of one foot at a time!" with all of the fervor and rage of two people clashing over the Vietnam War. (Click here to listen to Norman Lear and Rob Reiner reminisce on that classic scene.) Eventually, Gloria and Edith would throw their respective whiny, screechy voices into the din, and before you know it, Everything would be Ruined.

"Lucky Louie" combines this love of trivial squabbles, now linked most commonly to "Seinfeld," with the dark side of marriage and child rearing. In one episode, Louie concludes that his daughter Lucy is a "total fucking asshole" after she refuses to clean up her toys, opens a friend's birthday present when he specifically tells her not to and acts like a huge brat at a neighbor's birthday party. At first, Kim is shocked at Louie's harsh words, but by the end of the episode, she agrees that maybe the two of them somehow got stuck with "a shitty kid."

"At least she'll do all right," Louie says. "I mean, assholes rule the world. She'll probably grow up rich."

"She'd better buy us a big fucking house," Kim responds.

Whether or not any of this is mildly amusing to you depends, as usual, on your upbringing. If your family game nights tended to end with someone upturning the Monopoly board, then running to their room in tears, and your family trips hit their low point at a national monument in the middle of nowhere when someone abruptly got out of the car and refused to get back in, you're likely to find "Lucky Louie" fairly entertaining. On the other hand, if you spent the morning cutting watermelon into tiny slivers for your elaborate cookout this afternoon, I'm guessing you won't be amused by this show at all.

My only major beef with "Lucky Louie" is that the frank sexual talk between Kim and Louie is a little bit off-putting. Call me a prude, but when Louie asks Kim why she stuck her finger up his ass during sex? It makes me cringe, not chuckle -- and that's the joke that starts off the whole episode. No matter how bold or groundbreaking it might be that the characters get to use the word "fuck" and talk about "fucking" all the time, when on the network sitcoms, we're left with "Three's Company"-style double takes and Kelly Ripa getting frosting on her cute little button nose, there are still some conversations that you don't really want to see on TV.

Naked lunch
There are also some conversations you don't want to have about TV, which I learned at yet another week of the Television Critics Association press tour. But even after a never-ending flow of trivial information about shows that aren't likely to last beyond a couple of episodes this fall, the week had its share of highlights, including a "Hell's Kitchen"-themed lunch (Yes!) and the live via-satellite appearance, from northern Israel, of Fox News anchor Shep Smith, whose macho-military demeanor felt extremely out of place after a day of listening to sitcom actors crack wise. "I think part of the challenge is that you just never know when calm is going to turn to hell on Earth," he told us, glaring unflinchingly into the camera. "But the truth is, to cover this story, you have to occasionally put yourself in danger. We knew that when we signed up for this job, and that's a risk we're willing to take." Cue the trumpets, boys!

The cast of "So You Think You Can Dance" (9 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays on Fox) showed a similar steely-jawed courage in the face of adversity when they took the stage to answer questions about their hit show. After Heidi and Benji performed their award-winning swing routine (which you can see here), the finalists and judges gathered to answer pressing and important questions such as "What exactly is krumping?" (The answer: Rent David LaChappelle's "Rize") and "How much time did you have to master the Cuban rumba?" (The answer: Two to three days).

As a big fan of the show since the beginning of its first season, I had to throw a similarly grave and meaningful question into the mix: Was anyone heartbroken over any of the departures? For example, the premature exit of the incredibly talented and unbelievably hot Musa? Did that affect anyone, like, say, just for example, his sultry girlfriend Natalie?

Natalie said she was sad but (gasp!) made it clear that there was nothing between her and Musa! What?! How could they waste all those fine God-given resources, right at their fingertips? If you can't do it for yourselves, guys, do it for the crusty old folks back home!

At that point producer and judge Nigel Lythgoe looked over at Natalie and asked, "Dmitry?" as if Natalie and Dmitry had a romance going, but Natalie insisted they, too, were just friends. Zzzz.

"Are there other romances we don't know about?"

Lythgoe nodded his head, but Ryan (who has made his crush on Natalie well known) cut in to ramble on about how everyone loved each other just like a family does. Snore. Why must these whippersnappers be so polite and safe? Why can't they be reckless and stupid like the rest of us?

Luckily, Lythgoe was happy to get a little reckless to make up for those well-mannered kids, and went so far as to demean the show's prizes: "This season we're giving [away] an SUV, a hundred thousand dollars, and a year's contract, should the dancer want it, with the Celine Dion show ... We're not sure if that's a prize or a punishment."

Even though dancing to Celine Dion's music night after night is obviously a hellish fate of Sisyphean proportions, it was tragic to see Allison, arguably the best dancer on the show, eliminated on Thursday night, thanks to the consistently shitty taste of voters nationwide. You see, unfortunately enough, America is going to choose the ultimate winner, and not the judges, despite the fact that America clearly doesn't know a thing about dancing and isn't remotely qualified to vote for a president, let alone the best Cuban rumba. In fact, America is like the aggressive little brother who overturns the Risk board in a temperamental rage when he loses an important battle in Kamchatka, and then runs to his room in tears. America shouldn't really be trusted with any big responsibilities at all, whether it's negotiating a cease-fire in the Middle East or dictating which dancer on "So You Think You Can Dance" is cursed with gyrating to the strains of "My Heart Will Go On" for months on end.

Sunny day, everything's A-OK!
I suppose I should've kept my expectations of my favorite summer show a little bit lower, since it would've cushioned the blow of Allison's tragic departure Thursday night. At least that flat-ironing, mandanna-wearing asshole Jase got kicked off "Big Brother All Stars" last week. And how great was Will's speech, telling the houseguests that he hated each and every one of them equally? Aww. Will and I have so much in common!

But if keeping your expectations low is a highly adaptive way of life, no one embodies that lifestyle better than the characters on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" (10 p.m. Thursdays on FX). Like George on "Seinfeld," these semi-lovable losers, who share ownership of a bar in Philly, have turned underachieving into an extreme sport, from relying on underage drinkers to keep their bar in business to developing an appreciation for the privileges afforded to the handicapped (remember when George pretended to be disabled so he could use an extra-large bathroom at work and ride around in a motorized cart all day?). In a recent episode, Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and his sister Dee (Kaitlin Olson) decide that they're sick of working with their dad (Danny DeVito), who's taken part ownership of the bar, so they go on unemployment. Once their unemployment runs out, they try to figure out a way to go on welfare, then set out to smoke crack in order to prove that they're in need of public assistance. Instead, they get addicted to crack, and stumble around on the street looking like zombies and mumbling, "Crack! Crack!" -- all the while insisting that they've been emancipated from the drudgery of a workaday existence.

During its first season, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" was lively but not all that easy to get into. The situations seemed a little bit arbitrary and forced, and even after a handful of episodes I couldn't tell the characters apart. In its second season, even though the addition of Danny DeVito to the cast sometimes feels a little bit goofy and out of place, the writers have hit their stride, and the characters have become slightly more distinct from each other. Somehow the absurdity of each situation is clearer and played for more laughs than it was before.

What the show lacks, though, is some grounding in relatable material. Charlie (Charlie Kelly) likes the same girl at the coffee shop, episode after episode, even though she hates his guts. Dee is sometimes the only sensible one in the group, and at other times she's a complete moron. Given the over-the-top, farcical nature of the show, this makes sense, but still, a complete lack of any trace of realism can diminish a viewer's motivation to tune in. Even on a farce like "Arrested Development," the characters remain somewhat consistent: Gob, Michael or Buster would react completely differently to any given situation. In contrast, it's not always easy to separate the flatly selfish behavior of Dennis from the flatly selfish behavior of Mac (Rob McElhenney) or Charlie. And as cheesy as those "Will Ross and Rachel ever be together?" scenes were on "Friends," without the slightest narrative thread to pull us in, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is liable to stagnate at the level of a sketch comedy show that recycles the same sketch repeatedly. The writers of this clever show definitely seem capable of biting off something a little meatier than that.

Partly funny skies ahead
The sad truth is, most TV comedies aren't quite funny enough. Most shows require that you set your expectations very low just to milk what limited chuckles you can out of them. Obviously it's incredibly tough to bring together all of the elements you need to make a show funny: Solid characters, situations that are bizarre and funny but still grounded in familiar territory, relationships between characters that remind viewers of their own flawed relationships, stories that don't run over the same ground repeatedly. It's amazing that any show could pull it all off, let alone offer up consistently funny material week after week like "Arrested Development" or "Seinfeld" or "All in the Family" once did.

But luckily for all of the mediocre comedy writers out there, America can hardly tell the difference, ensuring the continued popularity of pure crap while "Arrested Development" goes off the air. Still, as we set our sights lower and lower to make it through the doldrums of soiled, stanky August, at least we have lukewarm lime Kool-Aid, burned sausages and Will's sociopathic antics to give us sustenance.

Next week: Showtime's "Weeds" saves us from the late-summer slump. Plus: Which TV shows are the most enjoyable to watch in rapid succession on DVD? Send me your suggestions, pronto.

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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