I Like to Watch

The dog days of summer TV are here! "30 Days" opens your mind, "Laguna Beach" poisons it, and Dr. Will of "Big Brother" leads us all unto temptation.

Published August 13, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

I know you don't want to hear this right now, but the end of the summer is fast approaching. That means we need to get real, people! We have to hunker down, get our heads together, and really focus on the task at hand: soaking up as much crappy summer TV as humanly possible before the fall season begins.

Because, no matter how indifferent you've been to TV this summer, when it comes to exquisitely debased, feeble entertainment, there's nothing quite like the pointless talent competitions and frivolous social experiments that air during the long, hot months in the middle of the year. Sure, you're probably looking forward to new seasons of "Lost" or "The Wire," but you still can't deny that there's something gripping about watching Dr. Will and Mike Boogie of "Big Brother" cackling in the Diary Room, marveling that, even though Mike keeps creating fake alliances and Will keeps announcing that he hates everyone there and wants to go home, somehow no one has put them up for eviction. Another season of "Battlestar Galactica" or "Prison Break" might keep your attention, but will it really offer the same cotton-candy thrill of seeing Janice Dickinson lose her mind and attack her business partner with her bare hands? I think not.

After a few months of really frothy, juvenile programming, I'm so hopelessly mired in the superficial, puerile charms of the worst that TV has to offer, the relatively restrained fall lineup doesn't hold much appeal for me. Even "The Amazing Race," a much higher-quality show than, say, "Rock Star," seems way too self-serious for my taste. Damn it, if I can't hear the worst version of "Don't You Forget About Me" ever performed, I'm just not interested. I mean, come on. Can a bungee-jumping Road Block really compare to "rocker" Dana thinking she's a rebel for getting a treble clef, of all ridiculous band-geek things, tattooed on her hip, or Dave Navarro telling freaky Zayra that if the show were called "Rock Star: Pluto," she would definitely win?

So snap to it, ham biscuits! For every minute that passes, you're missing another really gimpy, harebrained show that's airing right now, and if you don't take advantage of it, once that far weightier fall programming rolls in, you're going to feel like you passed up your chance to experience something bewitchingly infantile, something sublimely insubstantial. Don't cheat yourself out of a big, sugary serving of empty summer TV. You're going to pine for it when it's gone, mark my words!

An eeeevil dermatologist?
At least tune in for "Big Brother All-Stars" (9 p.m. EDT Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays on CBS) soon, before the demonic winning streak currently enjoyed by Dr. Will and Mike Boogie, aka "Chill Town," finally comes to an end.

For the record, I've always hated "Big Brother," from its monotonous set to its dippy competitions to the disingenuous brayings of Julie Chen to the repugnant imbeciles they cast on the show. Nothing could be a purer waste of time than watching these sad people plot against each other for three full hours a week.

Here's the twist: This season you've got the usual band of twerps and meatheads, sure, but two deeply disturbed sociopaths are among them, and even though they've stated their intention to foil everyone else's plans, even though they're utterly untrustworthy, even though one of them has actually won "Big Brother" before, they've still managed to manipulate their way out of danger, week after week.

These two aren't just run-of-the-mill schemers, either. Their game plan constantly changes. As the other houseguests piss each other off, or make strategic moves that are destined to come back to haunt them, Mike and Will always seem to come up with plans that don't threaten to turn the other houseguests against them. I don't even understand how they do it, but somehow they can manage to kiss ass, strategize, put bad ideas in other people's heads and remain loyal only to themselves, and yet it never seems to get them into trouble. In fact, the two are gaining favor with everyone in the house, while James and Janelle and Marcellas and Danielle are all starting to have targets on their backs for their sneaky maneuvers. Basically, Will and Mike are the puppet masters of the whole house, and no one else even realizes it.

You have to trust me, it's a heady thing to watch these two in action. Take this past Tuesday. Will and Mike basically lost the veto competition, even though they were supposed to be working to help one of their fake alliances, because they traded in points for prizes -- Will got $5,000 and Mike got a plasma TV and a trip to Aruba. Since the game was set up so that no one would know who took the prizes, not only did they lie about what they took, but, recognizing that they needed to create another enemy for the group to evict, they "confided" in a few people that they both thought it must've been Marcellas who took all the prizes for himself. We see this plan occur to them, we see them giggle about it, and then, we see it actually working. For those of us who have a soft spot in our hearts for scheming sociopaths, scenes like this are just too rich to miss.

And best of all, they're as incredulous and as amazed as the viewers at home. They keep sneaking off to the Diary Room together and laughing at how completely blind everyone is to what they're doing. If they weren't so damn good at it, it might be infuriating. But seeing the other slow-moving animals of the house get duped is irresistible. Basically, "Big Brother All-Stars" is like an antidote for every terrible minute of any season of "Big Brother" you've ever watched in the past. Now if only there were such a remedy for the time you've wasted in crappy relationships...

High times
For those in search of slightly more substantive fare, the second season of "Weeds" premieres this week (10 p.m. EDT, Monday, Aug. 24, on Showtime) and damn, is it good. For more details, look for my review Monday morning on Salon. In the meantime, though, let me throw "Weeds" fans a little teaser by telling you that the theme song, Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes," will be performed by a different musician or band each week. The episodes I saw featured Elvis Costello, Death Cab for Cutie and Engelbert Humperdinck, and they were all fantastic, but I'm particularly looking forward to the versions by Ozomatli and Regina Spektor. It's official: "Weeds" is the coolest show on TV.

Mean girls
You know, if you're so uncool that you care about cool (which I am), and if "Weeds" is the coolest show, then "Laguna Beach" (premieres 10 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Aug. 16, on MTV) may be the most odious, revolting show on television. In fact, "Laguna Beach" is a program so abhorrent and vile that it can make you deeply ashamed to be a human being. Seeing these vicious little mutants milling about against a golden, glowing landscape, prattling on in their tedious native tongue about nothing in particular, driving around in their luxury cars, shopping endlessly for ridiculous, overpriced clothes, throwing wretched little parties, and stoking the fires of each other's worst impulses is like having your body hair tweezed off by an angry drunk. This show will suck the soul right out of your body and leave you rotting like lunchmeat in the sun. "Laguna Beach" makes "Big Brother" look like "Touched by an Angel." In short, it's a foul, reprehensible exercise in shallowness and spite that makes me feel angry, irritable and sick to my stomach every time I watch it. Needless to say, I can't stop watching it.

Of course, we all recognize that most teenagers are wretched little beasts with nothing of interest to say. We know very well that teenagers are designed to torture and punish everyone around them with the sound of their shrill, screechy, callow voices, squealing out their shallow, hurtful or just downright stupid thoughts. But what's truly disturbing about these creepy little freaks is that, even though they may be the most deeply uncool humans on the planet (if you're uncool enough to care about that sort of thing, which I am), they nonetheless share in the illusion that they're the coolest humans around, that the word "cool" begins and ends with them. Not only are they incredibly uncool to begin with, but they're also uncool to care so much about who's cool and who isn't, plus they think that they're the very coolest, which is the least cool thing of all! And sadly, studies have shown that no amount of belittling them, demeaning them publicly or smacking them right in the middle of their empty faces has the slightest impact on the delusional level of narcissism that flourishes in their teenage minds!

This is also why we're all a little nostalgic about our teen years. Even the shittiest teenage experience carries with it the vague glow of promise, or at least the notion that, no matter how crappy everything is, it would still look pretty good in a music video.

These delusions are part of what make teenagers so unbearable. And if you think average, everyday teenagers are scary, throw the little cads into a sunny, lustrous setting, give them big fistfuls of free cash and credit cards and shiny cars with leather interiors, and watch them evolve instantly into fiendish, self-serving demons more hideous than can be imagined.

Which brings us to the third season of "Laguna Beach," where we meet our brand-new heroine, Tessa, and her friend Raquel, or "Rocky" for short. Tessa was once friends with Kyndra, a catty wildebeest with triple-processed blond hair and big, dumb, bovine eyes, but their friendship fell apart when Kyndra began to surround herself with other mean-spirited cows and left the more mild-mannered, thoughtful Tessa in the dust. Those familiar with the first two seasons of "Laguna Beach" will immediately wonder why Tessa is the lead character, here, instead of Kyndra. After all, Kyndra, like Kristen and L.C. before her, is the vaguely glamorous ringleader of a big group and appears to have many of the inarticulate Neanderthal guys in the school at her beck and call. Or, as she so gracelessly puts it, "I'm glad that we have our boys. I love that we own them, basically."

Kyndra obviously belongs on top of the wildebeest food chain, as evidenced by her ability to conveniently ignore the fact that her crush, Cameron, the beefy dim-bulb who everyone has declared the hottest guy around, is hanging out with Jessica. (You might remember Jessica as the slightly irritating pushover who followed Jason around like a lost puppy last season.) Why Jessica, who has graduated from high school, is content not only to demean herself with a high school junior, but to compete for the guy with other high school girls, is anyone's guess. Oh yeah, it's all being broadcast on national television! I almost forgot.

Cameron's motivations are a little easier to parse. Apparently having spent the summer months alone with his Abdominizer, his brand-new six-pack abs are on full display, and it seems he's going to have a lot of success leveraging his overdeveloped man-titties for some grade-A booty and a lot of air time. The first order of business? Take Jessica on a romantic date to a restaurant, sit at the bar, and then watch the basketball game the entire time she's talking. Next? Go to a party at Kyndra's and spend the night with her. Dude! Way to pin the tail on the whoring sea donkey!

Keep in mind, Cameron the two-timing skeezer has already been referred to as "a good guy" by half of the women on the show, while all of the same women simultaneously lament that "Girls are so mean" and "Girls are sketchy" and so on. There's a double standard at play, to be sure, but there's also something else: The real drama here is between women, not men. Ultimately, men just aren't formidable enough or interesting enough to the girls to constitute worthwhile jousting opponents. Even the cameras seem bored with Cameron and the other chumpy high school dudes, limiting coverage to the same "So what's up?" conversations between two guys, as they limply throw the basketball around or play a few sloppy holes of golf together.

Meanwhile, though, what the ladies of "Laguna Beach" truly savor is not the booty or the conquest itself, but the notion of having "won out" over the other ladies. Naturally, then, the three-headed hydra of doom herself, Kyndra, hardly feels remorseful after a night with someone else's guy. "Are him and Jessica still together?" she asks her too-cool-for-school friend, Cami. "It doesn't matter," Cami responds, affecting that air of indifference that, however transparent, seems pretty effective on her tribe. "Does she like him?" Kyndra persists. "Because if she does, that makes it more fun!" Ah, the breathtaking sight of a Bad News Jane, taking her first shaky steps in a quest to become a ruthless, backstabbing slut muffin!

Are these girls really that sketchy, though, or are they much smarter than they look, smart enough to know that the producers and the audiences at home want a catfight more than anything else, perpetuating that age-old story about how women are nasty and merciless to each other? Or is the main narrative here about how rich teenagers are malignant predators? What's worse, an obvious double standard, a bunch of truly nasty girls, or the idea that some normal teenagers of average nastiness are willing to play up their basest urges in order to please the sick, aging voyeurs (like me) at home on the couch?

Regardless of the true nature of its subject, one thing is for certain: "Laguna Beach" is so repugnant and contemptible, watching it is just like sticking your head into a bucket of lukewarm split-pea soup and then wandering, blind, over the nearest cliff.

Open up your eyes
In other words, it's a very special show for the masochists among us. Strangely enough, though, renowned masochist Morgan Spurlock, who directed the Oscar-nominated documentary "Super Size Me," has created a show that's the polar opposite of MTV's teen-reality purgatory: "30 Days" (9 p.m. EDT Wednesdays on FX). Unlike "Laguna Beach," a reality show that gives you the temporary illusion that most people are really stupid and sick and rotten to the core, "30 Days" is a reality show that broadens your horizons while reviving your hope in humanity. In fact, watching "30 Days" is sort of like lying at the bottom of a cliff, covered in split-pea soup, when a good Samaritan wanders by, wipes off your face, gives you a ride to the nearest diner, and buys you a cup of coffee and a big slice of hot cherry pie. Mmm, pie!

Now in its second season, "30 Days" takes average people and places them in situations that are likely to open their minds or at least change their perspectives. During the first season, host Spurlock and his girlfriend tried to live on minimum-wage salaries for a month, and the results were terrifyingly bleak: They couldn't afford to pay their rent or feed themselves, and their jobs were so tiring and awful that they came home grumpy and mean, with serious back pain, to boot. Last season, the show also sent a Christian to live with a Muslim family, sent a straight man to live with a gay man in the Castro, and put the concerned mom of a drinking teenager on a monthlong alcohol binge.

This season the show is tackling even weightier fare. The premiere episode focused on Frank George, an anti-immigration activist who was sent to live with a family of illegal immigrants. Although George remained staunchly opposed to illegal immigration, he grew close to the family over the course of the month. After visiting the ramshackle homes and awful conditions that the family left behind in Mexico, he recognized that the family didn't have much choice but to seek out another life -- it was a matter of survival for them.

In upcoming episodes, atheists clash with Christians and pro-lifers take on pro-choice activists. One of my favorite episodes, though, (airing 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 16) introduces Tom, a former football player with stress- and anger-management issues, to some New Age methods for relaxing and expressing his emotions. At first, the producers thrust Tom into some seriously alienating situations, including an awkward ritual featuring middle-aged women chanting, "We all come from the goddess, and to her we shall return!" while Tom looks ready to crawl out of his skin. Tom's girlfriend, Misti, is less than pleased with the whole thing, clearly equating the word "spiritual" with some kind of voodoo that will steal Tom's soul and bring God's wrath down upon them. (That's "Laguna Beach" that does that, Misti, not New Age religion.) Misti also seems a little bit jealous of Tom's female life coach, who spends all this time talking to Tom about his emotions and giving him advice about letting go of his anger -- the same advice Misti has been trying to give him for years, only now, suddenly, Tom is listening.

But when Misti finally meets Tom's life coach, she really likes her and changes her mind about the whole thing. And you really have to hand it to the producers for finding Tom in the first place -- he, and most of the other guinea pigs willing to engage in this elaborate social experiment, are really open-hearted, lovable people. Even though they might seem reticent and closed-minded at first, their eyes are usually opened by their exposure to other people's lives and perspectives. "It's just been wonderful for us," Misti tells the life coach. "I mean, we're so much happier, and he is so much happier." Aww.

If you miss the whole season of "30 Days" -- and you really shouldn't -- don't you dare miss the sixth episode, in which Spurlock gets sent to prison for almost a month. If you're lucky enough not to have any sense of what life in prison is like, brace yourself -- it's not nearly as relaxing or as interesting as it looks on "Prison Break."

In conclusion
While the last sweltering days of summer wear on as slowly as this very long column does, don't be fooled: You only have a few short weeks left to savor the most ludicrous and vacuous TV programs of the year. Even as you anxiously await a whole new slate of shows, eager to see Michael C. Hall playing a murderous forensics expert (Showtime's "Dexter") or to catch Aaron Sorkin's "Sports Night"-like drama about a "Saturday Night Live"-style skit show (NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"), I want to urge you to live in the moment. The sweet nectar of summer TV is still yours for the taking! Don't let the cool winds of autumn blow through before you indulge in your share of foolish summer fare.

Next: "Weeds" screws with suburbia! Then: Don't miss Salon TV Week (Aug. 21-25) featuring our fall preview, our third annual Emmy poll, the shows we'd most like to cancel, and much, much more!

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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