I Like to Watch

"Deadwood" turns melancholy, "Brotherhood" hits its stride, and a "Project Runway" designer breaks the rules and gets the boot.

Published August 6, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

You know I love you, lumpy, but you expect way too much of me. Every week, I'm supposed to watch a wide variety of TV shows and then report back to you about them. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it's not that simple, because I can't watch TV the way you watch TV. You can tune in for this and that, then just check out and spend two weeks watching the first two seasons of "The Wire" on DVD.

What? I'm not throwing it in your face, I know you told me that in confidence. I'm just saying, am I afforded that luxury? No, I'm not. I don't have time, because I have to keep up with the second season of "Flavor of Love." Yes, there is going to be a second season. See, you wouldn't know this stuff if I didn't tell you.

Oh my god, there you go again, with the "But it's your job!" thing. I don't need you to remind me what my job is, OK? I don't tell you what your job is, do I? What is your job, anyway?

Oh, right, you're on the job right now. Like that's so hard! What, I'm jealous? Give me a break. It just bugs me that you don't get it. You don't realize how much stuff I have to watch, and I'm always behind! Between the huge stack of DVDs of fall shows I need to watch immediately and the huge list of DVDs of great shows you've strongly recommended that I watch immediately, there's just too much to watch immediately. Plus, I'm halfway through the first season of "Battlestar Galactica," I just got the entire fourth season of "The Wire" in the mail (That's right, the brand newseason! Eat your heart out!) and to top it all off, Fox sent me the entire first season of "Prison Break," which I want to watch before the next season begins later this month. How am I supposed to keep up with all of it?

Of course! There you go, bringing film critics into this! Sugar dumpling, I'm sorry, but you're out of your league on this one. Film critics have the free time to become eccentric. Movies only last two hours, three hours tops! They can sit around reading back issues of "Film Threat" and cataloging Kurosawa's greatest works and studying documentaries on Werner Herzog. They have time to sip strong coffee and argue the merits of the French New Wave movement. I know, they don't change their sweaters or wash their hair all that often, but they can afford to look greasy and distracted, because they're experts in Godard or Hitchcock or God knows who. If a TV critic smelled that bad, people would just feel sorry for her. Hell, they do anyway.

Deadwooda, coulda, shoulda
OK, maybe I am a little jealous. It's just that (sniff) when you went into detail about that weekend that you spent curled up with the first two seasons of "Deadwood," not only did I wish that I hadn't watched the first two seasons of "Deadwood" as they aired so I could watch them all in one weekend like you did, but I wished I had the time to go back and experience the thrill of meeting that cocksucker Al Swearengen all over again.

There are only four more episodes of "Deadwood" (9 p.m. Sundays on HBO) left, you know, and then it's all over. And look where the characters are -- in the middle of a great big mess, and we'll never know how it all turns out, thanks to those filthy bean counters at HBO! What is wrong with them? What kind of a sick world do we live in, that a show this good has to go out like that?

Things are getting awfully melancholy in Deadwood lately, too. Alma Garrett is sliding into a junkie haze, Bullock is stomping around with smoke coming out of his ears, Doc is ailing, and even poor Merrick is getting strong-armed by Hearst. Swearengen is the only one with a cool enough head to try to navigate such roiling waters with some semblance of sense, but you still get the feeling that he half-expects the ship to be crushed against a rocky shore at any minute. That's the beauty of Swearengen: He has that mournful look in his eyes that makes it clear he's seen far worse troubles than this, and in fact, he'll be damn surprised if the whole thing doesn't end badly.

Hell, even seeing that crazed asshole Steve get what was coming to him turned out to be hopelessly sad. After weeks of listening to his angry racist diatribes, he tries to take the shoes off the General's horse and ends up getting kicked in the head so hard that he's brain-damaged to the point of being unable to talk or move. The General halfheartedly delays his trip to San Francisco in order to keep an eye on Steve and settle things with the bank, and he ends up making an uneasy peace with the whole ugly situation: In one of my favorite scenes of the season, the General chucks grits in Steve's face out of frustration and hatred for all the nasty man has put everyone, including the now-dead Hostetler, through. Steve just sits there, his face completely covered in grits, until it's almost unbearable to watch. Finally, the General himself can't take it, and pulls out a cloth and gently wipes the grits off Steve's face.

David Milch and the writers of "Deadwood" sure have a way of playing with our sympathies, turning us firmly against that stubborn ass Steve, then lending him a little humanity when he drinks himself into a stupor in apparent guilt over Hostetler's suicide, then forcing us to pity him completely after his pointless and avoidable accident with the horse. Of course, Steve's rage started with another accident with a horse, the one that killed Bullock's son, so it makes sense that he would be done in by the same random event that he blamed so squarely on Hostetler.

We get the same confused feelings of sympathy and anguish when Jack Langrishe adjusts Hearst's back: For all of Hearst's swagger and ruthlessness, he may be the loneliest man in the camp, and when you glance past his immediate business, he can seem downright desperate for a friend. Langrishe, who's accustomed to reading people, has no trouble recognizing this, and reports back to Swearengen that he may have found a way to manipulate Hearst in the future.

As dark as the town of Deadwood can feel, it's unlikely friendships like the one between Langrishe and Swearengen that make the show so moving and unforgettable. That's the mark of a great dramatic work: when the smallest, most insignificant moments grab at your heart. Whether it's the General clearing away the grits from Steve's face or Jewel asking Swearengen if there should be canned peaches at the upcoming meeting, the creators of this show know how to give us a taste of hope and sweetness at the oddest times. There may always be dark clouds on the horizon, but even as the storm moves in, there are these moments of grace between relative strangers. Aunt Lou and the General, Jane and Joanie, Al and Jack, Bullock and his wife -- somehow the mood of the show, and the richness of its characters, allow us to revel in the simplest exchange of confidences or the tiniest hints of humor.

Damn it, I love this show almost as much as I love you, my little bovine dumpling. I still can't believe there are only four more episodes left!

Lost weekend
Naturally, "Deadwood" fell on top of most people's lists as one of the best shows to watch in rapid succession, along with "The Wire," "24," "Lost," "Battlestar Galactica," "Veronica Mars" and "The Shield." All of these are great shows with strong season-long arcs, but here's another question: Which of these shows is hindered, at least a little bit, if you know the outcome? In other words, if you've watched the second season of "Battlestar Galactica" (like I have) but missed the miniseries and the first season (like I did), how satisfying will it be to go back and catch up with the lost episodes?

My personal experience is that it was absolutely gratifying to watch the "Battlestar Galactica" miniseries, since so much of what you see in the first two seasons is based on what happens when the Cylons attack the colonies. But I'm about halfway through the first season now, and I have to say that my enthusiasm is waning ever so slightly. As solid as each episode is, I feel like I want to skim through the remaining episodes and get right to the end of the second season. The extremely high stakes in each episode make me feel like I'm killing the golden goose by watching them backward, because I already know that they must have found Starbuck when she got shot down on that planet or she wouldn't be around during the second season, or they must have succeeded in attacking the Cylon base, or they wouldn't currently have the fuel to continue their search for Earth.

Also, I'm really tired of Baltar and his one-note Cylon girlfriend, Number Six. We keep seeing the same scene between them, over and over again: Number Six whispers like a seductive demon in Baltar's ear, he mumbles something back, and bystanders look at Baltar like he's crazy. Did anyone else get tired of this when they watched it the first time, or is this the unfortunate side effect of watching the seasons out of order?

I would imagine that some of the same problems might arise for viewers who watched Season 2 of "Lost" and wanted to go back and watch Season 1. But is "Lost" quite as repetitive? I guess that depends on whether you have the patience to wade through those flashbacks, background information you might have already gleaned from the second season.

The various seasons of "The Wire," "The Shield," "Veronica Mars" and "24" probably stand on their own enough that the order of viewing is less important. Whether or not you've seen the more recent seasons of "24" and "The Shield," it's probably safe to assume that Los Angeles isn't going to be annihilated by a nuclear bomb and Vic Mackey isn't going to jail for the rest of his life. Then again, most viewers probably assumed the same thing about Starbuck, that she wouldn't be left to die on some dusty red planet. Nonetheless, some stories beg to be viewed in order, others are even better when sampled backward, because your curiosity builds based on what you know from the later seasons.

A few other reader suggestions of shows to watch on DVD: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," "Sports Night," "Arrested Development," "Strangers With Candy" and "Northern Exposure." I'd like to throw "Mr. Show" into the mix, and of course, if you haven't seen every episode of "Da Ali G Show" or "Chappelle's Show," well, you're missing an important part of your cultural heritage and you need to remedy the situation before some Allan Bloom clone calls you culturally illiterate.

Anyway, all this talk of weekends immersed in rapid-fire marathon TV-viewing has made me green with envy, because I have to watch a pile of crappy pilots before I hunker down to the nurturing goodness of "The Wire."

Cheating by design
"I always kind of break the rules, just like a tiny bit sometimes, because I think I'm right." -- Keith of "Project Runway"

Ah, the breathtaking logic of a pathological liar! Of course, I'm not a licensed psychologist and therefore can't officially diagnose Keith based on his weaselly actions on the show. All I can tell you is that people who combine the words "always," "sometimes," "kind of" and "just like a tiny bit" into one sentence are more than a little confused, and should be avoided like a week-old egg salad sandwich.

Even if Keith didn't bring in pattern books when the rules of "Project Runway" (10 p.m. Wednesdays on Bravo) expressly forbid it, even if he didn't (allegedly) take off during production to look up stuff on the Internet, even if he didn't insist that he was right all the time and that everyone else in the world was wrong, he probably wasn't going to win -- although he might've remained on the show for a while, since the producers really seem to love contestants who appear to have diagnosable personality disorders.

Remember, kids, breaking the rules will never get you anywhere, because cheaters never win -- except when they do. Bending the rules, on the other hand, is the American way, from Ken Lay to those intrepid heroes in the White House.

So how did Tim Gunn, the intrepid hero of "Project Runway," inspire his troops -- especially Keith's team -- to sally forth once Keith was summarily dismissed from the show? By reading from Tim Gunn's Familiar Quotations, of course: "Jeffrey and Allison are going to have to carry on, and frankly, make it work."

Family ties
For a closer look at some good, old-fashioned, rule-bending Americans, tune in for Showtime's "Brotherhood" (10 p.m. Sundays). The show finally hit its stride with last Sunday's episode, which featured the same thug antics and underhanded dealings we've seen so far, but also veered into uncharted territory, revealing new dimensions to each of the main characters that enrich the story and draw us, as viewers, deeper into the series.

After demonstrating nothing but loyalty for prodigal son Michael, Rose Caffee (Fionnula Flanagan) finally broke down and let a little anger seep through her supportive facade when FBI agents tore her home apart in search of a stash of Michael's counterfeit cash. Rose gamely cleans up the house with Michael (Jason Isaacs) after the agents leave, brushing off the whole affair with the wave of a hand until she discovers one of her mother's old albums, broken in half during the search. Upon informing Michael that her mother had purchased the album right after moving to America, she glared fiercely at him as she held up the two pieces of the record, then threw it on the floor and stormed out. There's nothing like that moment when a character finds herself giving in to an emotion that she's painstakingly kept at bay for so long.

While Tommy Caffee (Jason Clarke) continues his struggle to remain unsullied by the dirtiness of politics and to stay out from under anyone else's thumb, somehow we're starting to understand how disgraced he feels over having to cater to powerful men in order to honor his ideals and serve his constituency. Still, the writers do a great job of toying with our understanding of Tommy's moral fiber. When he starts to purchase real estate in an area that's about to be bulldozed to create a waste management site, and urges his brother-in-law, acting as his lawyer, not to mention his name or use it on any of the documents, we think Tommy is trying to make a quick profit with his inside knowledge. Later, he tries to convince the speaker of the house to pay the other residents of the neighborhood 10 percent over the purchase price of the last five houses sold -- houses that he attempted to buy for more than they were worth. In other words, he bent the rules strictly to ensure that his constituents would make a fair amount on the sale of their houses.

That sort of Robin Hood behavior seems to be Tommy's strength and his weakness. As he's finding out, it's impossible to remain uncorrupted by the system when every single transaction depends on compromises and setting aside your ideals for the greater good.

Later, at a chummy gathering of drunk politicians, the speaker asks Tommy to recite the Kipling poem from Tommy's office, clearly intent on making light of his stubbornly idealistic stance. Recognizing that he's being messed with but not seeing any clear way out of the situation, Tommy sits for several minutes as the group chuckles, then begins, shakily, reciting the poem, his voice gaining in strength as he starts to express its meaning in spite of the atmosphere.

"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too..."

The room grows quiet as Tommy finishes the poem, which gracefully sums up the compromises he's being forced to make in order to make his way in the dirty world of politics.

More than anything, "Brotherhood" focuses on these compromises and sacrifices we make for our families and for those we serve. Tommy is crippled politically by his brother Michael's illegal dealings, Rose's house is torn apart by it, Eileen (Annabeth Gish), Tommy's wife, is lonely to the point of desperation thanks to Tommy's preoccupation with his role as a politician, but they all put on their best faces and continue to stand by each other. The cracks are starting to show, though, which is why this series is just starting to shine. I'm sure you'll enjoy it very much when you watch the whole thing on some hot summer weekend next year.

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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