I Like to Watch

Oh, how beautifully "Battlestar Galactica" wallows in the hopelessness of the human plight. And let us praise "The Amazing Race" for all of its quarrelsome, enraged glory.

Published October 1, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

There's a lot going on in the world and in all of our lives right now, chickens, but let's all make sure to focus on what's really important: Television. Now is not the time to get distracted by raging wildfires or wars abroad or big events in our lives, because there is a veritable cornucopia of televised delights, fresh and ready for our idle sampling, just a few clicks of the remote away.

Take it from me, a woman who has recently told by her doctor that she could be bringing forth a child any day now: Even when major life events are looming -- especially when major life events are looming -- that's when TV matters the most. Sure, I could be pacing nervously around the house, reading up on breastfeeding techniques, putting the crib together or trying to prepare myself for the fact that my life is about to become hectic and exhausting, either in weeks or days or minutes, depending on the whims of my internal Easy-Bake Oven. But really, isn't it much healthier for me to focus on the quality of Emmitt Smith's quickstep on "Dancing With the Stars"?

And let's not forget that "Veronica Mars" returns on Tuesday (9 p.m. on the CW), "Lost" comes back this Wednesday (9 p.m. on ABC), "Battlestar Galactica" returns on Friday (9 p.m. on SciFi), and that there are all of these crazy new dramas like "Friday Night Lights" (premieres 8 p.m. Tuesday on NBC) and "Jericho" (8 p.m. Wednesdays on CBS) and "Smith" (10 p.m. Tuesdays on CBS) to watch, plus the finale of "Project Runway" is fast approaching (10 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, on Bravo). A lineup of that caliber makes the arrival of a brand-new human being into the world seem sort of silly and irrelevant by comparison, don't you think?

See, that's the really great thing about TV: It puts everything into perspective.

Human being there
I mean, can you imagine if my priorities were so mixed up that I would let the birth of my first child distract me from the upcoming premiere of the third season of "Battlestar Galactica"? The colonists are stuck on New Caprica, surrounded by Cylons, the future of humankind hanging in the balance, and all I can focus on is childbirth? Sweet Jesus, I shudder to think!

Rest assured, I haven't let foolish concerns like unassembled cribs or nonexistent infant car seats stand in the way of my watching the entire head-spinning two-hour premiere of "Battlestar," which I received in the mail yesterday and immediately slipped into my DVD player. I may not know where I'll change my little mewling raw chicken breast, but I do know that Starbuck and Adama and Roslin are so far up shit creek, they're going to need more than a paddle and a tube of diaper rash cream to get them home safely.

If, like me, you cherish the darkness and the high stakes and the ominous twists of "Battlestar" more than anything else about the show, then you're going to la-la-love the show's premiere this Friday. As you know, we left the colonists on a cold, forbidding, ugly planet with Baltar as their arrogant yet fearful, self-serving leader. And just as things were looking crappier than ever for the last remaining humans in the universe, the Cylons invaded and made Baltar their pathetic little bitch-boy. Last we saw, former President Roslin was looming in the margins like Bill Clinton before he caught a second wind and started busting heads on Fox, Admiral Adama was bumbling around on his spaceship, feeling like a relic of the past, and our one and only heroine, Starbuck, was in love and had let her hair grow long, which was clearly meant to signal that humankind was in big, big trouble indeed.

Things can't get much worse for our New Caprican friends, right? Wrong! Deliciously perilous times await all involved, with lots of invigorating references to the Biggest Mistakes of Human History to savor and enjoy, from the mind-control and finger-pointing ugliness of fascism to the senseless death and zealotry of bloody revolution. After just two hours with the old crew, you'll be shaking your head, a little smile on your face, appreciating how beautifully the writers of "Battlestar" have illustrated the terrible human condition, punctuated as it is by one instance of our screwing the pooch after another. My, we humans are a pathetic and undignified lot!

There's nothing quite like wallowing in the hopelessness of the human plight when you're about to welcome another human into the world. My child's first lesson will surely focus on the spectacular failure of most sociopolitical paradigms...

Reevaluating your reality
Ah, but I don't want to offer you too sweet a taste of nihilistic dread before "Battlestar's" premiere, lest I spoil your appetite for the most satisfying gloom and doom around. Plus, I'll have a longer, more detailed piece on the "Battlestar" premiere this Friday, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, let's celebrate the return of "The Amazing Race" (8 p.m. Sundays on CBS) in all of its quarrelsome, enraged glory. Apparently having grown just as tired of the easy challenges and the hand-holding of the past few seasons as their audience, the producers have amped things up considerably, throwing in harsh locations like Mongolia, and delighting in challenges that involve building complicated structures and herding stubborn, temperamental animals across punishing terrain.

Because without impossibly unpleasant Roadblocks and Detours, the show's contestants are far less likely to bicker and snap at each other at every turn, and what fun is that? Thankfully, this year's cast is peppered with confrontational types, from Lyn and Karlyn, who boldly criticized the one-legged woman, Sarah, for pre-boarding due to her disability, to entertainingly pissy, teary-breakdown-prone couple Rob and Kimberly.

Still, Peter and Sarah represent the most amusing kind of "Amazing Race" team, thanks to their confusing, passive-aggressive dynamics. The two are Ironman competitors who've known each other for years but only recently began dating. They're trying to be polite and supportive to each other, but they're also both brutally competitive, which leads to lots of tense exchanges, hissed through gritted teeth. From the start, Sarah has been gamely hopping along even though her prosthetic leg is leaking hydraulic fluid and barely works, while Peter makes odd, controlling statements cleverly disguised as encouragement or helpful direction. Peter clearly expects to have the final word on every decision and has a way of "soothing" Sarah that feels more like trying to get her to shut the hell up and do what he says. Best of all, Sarah dryly tells the camera that she's discovering sides of Peter that she hasn't seen before and it remains to be seen how that will play out once the race is done. Ahem. Sounds like Peter is already getting filed under "Difficult Ex-boyfriends" -- and deservedly so.

If only "The Bachelor: Rome" (9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 2, on ABC) were focused on teary, accusation-filled break-ups instead of bland small talk and empty courting rituals, we might watch it. When you consider that herd of former bachelors and their ladies who were so sure they'd live happily ever after, with so few of them following in the footsteps of Ryan and Trista and their televised bubblegum-pink wedding/fiasco, why not spend a whole season on "The Bachelor Break-Ups" instead of dragging us through another interminable Rose Ceremony?

Instead of relying on rumors and third-hand reports, ABC could thrust all of those camera-hungry has-beens back into the spotlight, interviewing them about what went wrong or, better yet, who's fault it was that things didn't work out. Since the last few episodes of "The Bachelor" are always spent predicting what will tear the two supposed lovebirds asunder in a matter of weeks, wouldn't it be far more compelling to actually watch them misunderstand each other, pick each other to pieces, and begin, slowly but surely, to spike their conversations with resentful asides and thinly veiled insults? Finding true love on TV is so five years ago. But losing true love on TV? That's utterly now.

Look no further than "Breaking Up With Shannen Doherty" (10 p.m. Tuesdays on Oxygen) for more proof of this trend. Recognizing Doherty's one true talent -- namely, being a ruthless bitch to uncomfortable strangers while the cameras roll -- Oxygen gave Doherty her own show, with a fail-proof premise: Women with deadbeat or commitment-phobic boyfriends turn to a mercilessly direct celebrity to pressure their bad boyfriends into either stepping up to the plate or hitting the road.

Needless to say, Doherty relishes her job so much, it feels dirty to watch her in action. First, she interviews the women in question about their stupid boyfriends. Many of the women are just sleeping with their guys, hoping that it magically turns into marriage, and they could really benefit from a thorough, cover-to-cover reading of "He's Just Not That Into You" or its much-needed but unwritten sequel, "He Never Will Be Into You, Either, and He's Trying to Get Into Your Best Friend's Pants in the Meantime." Doherty just barely has the patience to endure these women, with their spineless maneuvers and their false hopes and their misdirected bitterness, but she does a good job of pretending to empathize and to have blood flowing through her veins nonetheless.

After Mr. Flinchy is invited in for an interview or an FBI investigation or for some equally unbelievable excuse and is interrogated by bad actors, Doherty busts into the room and informs him that his girl (or the woman he's sleeping with, in case he needs clarification) is going to quit him if he doesn't straighten up and fly right. Doherty has a way of saying this that implies that the guy is pathetic and, from her objective perspective, his girl can do way, way better (even though it's not always clear that she can, sadly). Typically, Mr. Flinchy saves face by chuckling and blowing his lady off for good, but Doherty doesn't let him escape without informing him just how unsavory and repellent she finds him. Now that's some good TV.

Too bad the couples on "Dancing with the Stars" (8 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC) don't attack each other ruthlessly instead of learning to dance. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the show last season, this season it bores me to tears. Nothing about it seems interesting or even mildly amusing, and I find myself fast-forwarding through the entire show just to watch former Dallas running back Emmitt Smith, who is, unlike most of the other contestants this fall, quite charming and a very good dancer, to boot.

"America's Next Top Model" (8 p.m. Wednesdays) is also putting me to sleep this season, for now-familiar reasons: They cast unintelligent, dull girls (yes, the girls were smart and interesting during the first three or four seasons), there's way too much squealing and fawning over Tyra Banks, there aren't nearly enough impossibly difficult photo shoots, and finally, the judges are hopelessly dull without Janice Dickinson (who has her own boring, self-aggrandizing show now).

Worst of all, though, they changed the best thing about ANTM, its ridiculously catchy theme song, apparently in order to make it more subtle and sophisticated. Instead, the new theme song is muted and lame and features a final, massive glamour shot of Tyra's big head with the words "Created by Tyra Banks" in enormous words across the screen. Honestly, there is no limit to this tedious demon's monstrous ego, it's like watching the rise of a malevolent dictator in some tiny, godforsaken tropical country. Why oh why can't the little villagers rise up and kick that big, nasty woman and her evil gay army to the curb? I mean, who else in the known universe could make cackling, mean-spirited gay men seem like anything else but lovable heroes? How can the two Jays, once our favorite TV personalities by far, come across as so repetitive and lame? Have the original smart producers of this show been replaced by Banks' fawning Yes Men? Someone give me the scoop already.

Birth of a TV nation
So many TV shows to cover, so little time, and yet my friends and family keep "checking in" to ask strange questions about how I "feel" and "when the big event" is going to happen. "How I feel about the premiere of 'Lost'?" I ask them. "Naturally I'm on the edge of my seat! And it's this Wednesday, of course. Don't you have it TiVo'd already?"

Honestly, I don't understand people. And then they want to change the subject and talk about petty stuff like newborns and children in general and the night their little monkey was born, and I just want to say, "Come on! Life is short, let's make sure to stay focused on the really important stuff and not get so distracted by trivialities like reproduction!" I mean, it's fine to talk about this kind of passing fancy occasionally, but the way they romanticize it and put it at the center of their lives, you'd think they were describing a brand-new sitcom pilot that's actually funny, or a copy of the script for David Milch's new drama for HBO, or some other earth-shattering, life-changing emotional experience.

Anyway, there's a lot more TV to discuss, so let's hope I'm not inconvenienced by the arrival of my first child or anything like that, at least not before we can take another look at "Jericho" and "Project Runway" and "Smith."

This week: On Tuesday, Allen Barra tackles the guts and glory of NBC's "Friday Night Lights," and on Friday, I navigate the succulent sociopolitical darkness of the "Battlestar Galactica" premiere.

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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I Like To Watch Television