I Like to Watch

The giddily dark "Heroes" soars to new heights, "Studio 60" flounders, and the wonderfully mean "Shark" devours the tiresome "Boston Legal."

Published October 15, 2006 11:35AM (EDT)

"Sometimes you just have to model through it." -- Tyra Banks

Brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, colleagues and second cousins and ex-boyfriends, take comfort in these fine words from Mother Tyra, for they shall bring you solace in times of trouble.

Now, some may say, "But dishonorable pastor of watching, how do these words apply to me? I am not a model nor even a particularly attractive human being, so how can 'modeling through it' possibly help?"

Understand, little lambs, that any time one is forced to set aside one's aches and pains and insecurities, to muster all of one's strength and face down the uncertainties of life and battle through it all, that is when one can be said to be "modeling through it." Because, as Mother Tyra knows all too well, as much as we all strive to align our minds, our bodies and our souls, to point our entire being toward all that is good and right, there are those times when the mind and the body and the soul will not cooperate. The body says, "I cannot endure!" and the mind says, "I am weak!" and the soul says, "I want one of those malted-crunch shakes from Carl's Jr.! I know it's disgusting and foul. I want one anyway!"

These are the times when Mother Tyra's words will lift us up. We need not be perfectly in step with our deepest beliefs at all times. No. There are times when we must simply model through it.

Talk the talk, catwalk the walk

Be certain of this: It is a wonderful blessing indeed be able to model through it, my friends! I was reminded of this recently when I found myself indifferent to the latest reality TV offerings. In a moment of weakness, I asked myself, "Am I not a preacher of the healing powers of reality TV? Am I not passionate in my loving embrace of the most trivial and base offerings from the most mediocre minds in television? What has become of my passion, of my faith in the worst televised entertainments known to humankind?"

But even as I deleted "Dancing With the Stars" unwatched, even as I was tempted to fast-forward through the part of "America's Next Top Model" where Anchal, the Indian beauty, hears Melrose, the snippy little anorexic perfectionist, bitching about her almost humanlike tendency to eat normal portions of actual food, I didn't lose hope. I set my teeth and continued to watch as Melrose expressed her desire that Anchal might keep eating like a normal human, because that would surely mean that she would never stand a chance of becoming the sort of emptied-out ghost of a human who deserves to totter down runways in overpriced garments. I folded my hands in my lap and watched as Anchal burst into tears and it suddenly became clear that the model house was divided between nasty soulless girls and humans with actual blood in their veins. In the past, I might've hooted and snickered and offered an elaborate analysis to my poor beleaguered husband about which of the girls were reasonably cool and which girls were gross and which girls were just really, really stupid. But instead, I was unmoved.

Still, I modeled through it. I modeled through it heroically.

Heroes are born, not made

And you know what happens when you model through it? The gods reward you with new gifts and passions to replace those that may have faded over the years. As my delight in the treasures of fluffy reality TV has faded somewhat -- OK, I'm still watching "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" and "Project Runway" without fail -- I have been blessed with a brand-new, budding passion for the drama series.

Now, this is strange indeed because, as we discussed in last week's sermon, many of the most promising new dramas have fizzled, and the scales have fallen from our eyes, and we have seen them for the empty, meandering, amateurish excuses for pulling in big TV salaries that they are. Shows like "Jericho," "Smith" and even "Brothers & Sisters" feel aimless, devoid of real meaning, wanting for interesting characters and provocative stories. These shows are much like a blind man wandering in the desert, one who is not wise nor a prophet at all, but is simply naked and lost and somewhat dehydrated.

But even as many reality staples disappoint and some of these new dramas stumble and fall on their faces, other new dramas are revealing themselves to be quite robust and full of winning parables, indeed, providing nourishment for the hungry TV lover's soul!

NBC's "Heroes" (Mondays at 9 p.m.) turns out to be the big surprise of the fall season for me. Yes, I saw the pilot, and let's just be honest, I thought it was well produced and pretty but ultimately not my kind of thing. Yes, I am not so proud that I cannot humbly admit my weakness to my loyal flock: I don't like superpowers. Now, naturally, I loved "Spider-Man" and I loved Christopher Reeve's turn as Superman -- even those long, cheesy scenes where he flew around with dumb Margot Kidder. Needless to say, I love the force, I'm happy to let it guide my actions, and I believe with all of my heart that luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

But that whole "X-Men" thing is lost on me. I don't like movies where a ragtag group of superheroes argue about what is to be done about the latest threat to planet Earth. It's just a little bit too "Hall of Justice" for me. In the most solemn "X-Men" scenes, where some superpowered hottie is about to sacrifice her life for the good of the planet? I just keep thinking Gleek is going to tumble into the scene with a banana peel on his head, and everyone's going to laugh in unison, shoulders hunching, heads thrown back. No, I don't read comic books. Yes, I know this makes me inferior. When it comes to shows about superpowered humans, I've been modeling through it. I'll admit it.

Plus, the pilot of "Heroes" seemed a little overwrought to me: Hot people, doing heroin, throwing themselves off the tops of buildings, painting visions of the apocalypse, rushing onto burning trains to save people, then weeping all over their cheerleading uniforms. It was all a bit much.

But I'll bet the people of Egypt thought the same when Moses parted the Red Sea. "Isn't that a bit much, Moses? Especially when you throw in 'Conversations With God,' stone-tablet edition?" But you see, some of the best miracles can seem, at first glance, to be a wee bit overdone.

With its third episode, "Heroes" has hit its stride. We've got the cheerleader with the big crush on a seemingly great guy, only to find that he's just another pushy high school horn dog. Ooof! We've got the tormented artist guy whose paintings and comics tell of a future nuclear holocaust in New York City -- think "Jericho," minus "Touched by an Angel" plus "Dark Angel" minus Jessica Alba plus "Ghost World" plus that scene in "Armageddon" where Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck make out to some rock anthem, just after Affleck saves the world from giant meteors. We've got the nutty Japanese guy who figures out how to teleport himself to New York City, then persuades his skeptical friend to come with him, and he does it all in subtitles, which seems wildly subversive, somehow, for network TV. (We'll have to downgrade our enthusiasm when this kid starts learning English at an unnatural clip, although I won't mind the misappropriated slang that's sure to come -- that seems to fit this show's giddily dark flavor perfectly.)

We've got the smoking-hot Indian seeking to solve the riddle of his dead father's mysterious work, and we've got the hapless, chubby cop who can read other people's minds. I love the mind-reading cop in particular, and nice touch to make the actress (Clea DuVall) who played the daughter of the mind reader from HBO's "Carnivale" his first subject, an FBI agent who doubts his story. Oh, and this is how you know it's a good show: When the cop first reads the FBI agent's mind, she's not thinking something like "I hope there's still pepperoni pizza left in the cafeteria by the time I get down there." She's thinking, "No one believes in me." Not only is it a psychologically interesting twist for such a ball buster to be having such vulnerable thoughts, but it fits with the overall theme of the show: Humans with special powers who are struggling to believe in themselves enough that they can get others to believe in them as well.

Until then, most of them are going to have to just model through it, of course. And no one needs to model through it more than earnest little underachiever Peter Petrelli (love that superhero-in-hiding name), whose big brother has just announced to the world that his little brother was attempting suicide (and not testing his ability to fly) when he jumped from a tall building. Poor Peter is also in love with the now ex-girlfriend of the tortured artist, and it's an oddly convincing romance, given how little we've seen of the two of them, since this is an ensemble show with more characters and stories than we can possibly keep track of.

Love at first smite

But maybe that's a blessing in disguise, when you compare the Peter-Simone romance on "Heroes" with the Matt-Harriet romance on "Studio 60" (10 p.m. Mondays on NBC). Is anyone else out there having trouble investing in whether these two end up together? Matt (Matthew Perry) keeps waxing romantic on what a mesmerizing and funny performer Harriet (Sarah Paulson) is, but why is he the only one who can see it? Shouldn't we be able to see it, too, if we're going to give him our blessing or at least look forward to watching the two of them locking lips?

Let's throw in the Meredith-Shepherd romance on "Grey's Anatomy" (9 p.m. Thursdays on ABC), shall we? A big portion of the show rides on the appeal of these two characters, and even though one of them is, technically, a cheating husband and the other is a wishy-washy Ally McBeal-esque skinny Minnie who tosses back shots of liquor with all of the conviction of wimpy Marissa from "The O.C.," the romance between them works. Meredith, however wispy and lispy, remains somewhat likable, or at least we can put ourselves in her shoes in lusting after McDreamy, who is, for all of his smugness and repetitive machismo, undeniably dreamy in every sense of the word.

The lady-focused soft porn of "Grey's Anatomy" consistently impresses me, most of all, because creator Shonda Rhimes clearly knows what women want, what we're confounded by, what we struggle with. Most of the female characters are interesting or smart in their own way, but more important, we understand the appeal of their men, from Dr. Burke to the smarmy hot guy Shepherd's wife cheated with. Hell, even Chris O'Donnell, who strikes me as a dull preppy in any other setting, seems appealing on this show.

And we care about these romances because they're just the right mix of flirtatious and angry and annoying and eternally not-quite-perfect. So why are they so right, or at least so consistently entertaining, when that thing between Matt and Harriett of "Studio 60" is so very wrong?

Harriett seems too bratty and coy to give a crap about, for one thing. But the main problem is that "Studio 60" feels so aimless that it's tough to tell if this one romance is going to be one of the main events or not. And if it is the main event? Snore. If it isn't, then why do we have to spend so much time with these two people and their dumb, predictably hostile workplace romance? How many times can we rewarm that old love/hate Cybill Shepherd/Bruce Willis thing from "Moonlighting"?

The answer? Endlessly, really. We just have to care about the characters first. I'm on board with Matthew Perry's character, and I'm liking Amanda Peet's character more, now that she has been revealed as a former reckless drunk, so why not pair those two up instead? Or better yet, maybe we can wait a few weeks and see some other stories go down that don't feel like much ado about nothing.

Is Aaron Sorkin modeling through it already?

Shark week

James Woods certainly isn't. His show, "Shark" (10 p.m. Thursdays on CBS), somehow manages to take the old curmudgeonly, self-serving lawyer formula and make it feel fresh and interesting.

At first glance, "Shark" is just a drier, less cutesy, less soapy version of ABC's "Boston Legal." That's not all bad, of course -- you can't argue with David E. Kelley's casting choices, which include James Spader, William Shatner and Candice Bergen. Still, Kelley certainly has a knack for creating outrageously harsh, odd characters and then, slowly but surely, making them bore the living hell out of us. If I hear the words "Denny Crane!" one more time ... Well, it's like the pet frog on "Ally McBeal." The cute, repeated joke eventually turns into a torture device.

"Shark" could wind its way down the same ill-fated path, but so far, the show bounces along with mean-spirited conviction. Giving Sebastian Stark (Woods) a team of hot young lawyers to boss around makes lots of sense. The hot young lawyers themselves aren't particularly interesting, but they're really a sideshow attraction to the main event, which is Woods being a general-purpose jerk and bending the law to get the verdict he wants.

So why is that any different from "Boston Legal"? Well, "Boston Legal" is filthy with tiresome flirtations, for one thing. Who wants to see Alan Shore (Spader) greasily come on to yet another co-worker? Who but Kelley could make James Spader excruciatingly dull?

Fresh out of the gate, "Shark" is smart and has a nice kick to it. The cases are interesting and unpredictable (although they have featured a few too many easy confession scenes so far), and each scene is fast-paced, concise and dynamic. Whether it will hold our interest depends largely on the writers' ability to get us to enjoy and empathize with Stark in ways that Kelley fails to do with his irritatingly repetitive characters.

Closing remarks

Let us join hands, now, and close our eyes and focus on all that we've learned here today. As Mother Tyra once showed us, sometimes, when we have limited resources and can't quite find our inspiration, it's important to model through it. But remember, fair flock, modeling through it should be used only as a temporary, stopgap measure, to be employed until inspiration returns.

Sadly for us, many television producers and writers will continue to get massive amounts of cash deposited automatically into their accounts regardless of whether they're continuing to tell vibrant stories. It is up to these people to set the bar high, and to keep our televised entertainments fresh and exciting, but so many of them choose, instead, to model through it. They surround themselves with highly paid stooges and yes men, and they see their expensive lifestyles as a sign that they're talented and wonderful and they need not ask themselves, occasionally, "Does my TV show, once heralded far and wide, now suck?" or "Have I been writing the same episode over and over and over again so that I can continue to cover my mortgage? Worse yet, have I hired stooges to write that same episode over and over while I fly off to Cabo for cocktails and cocaine and high-priced whores?"

Little lambs, go forward, love one another, and continue to set the bar high for yourselves, even if it doesn't bring you extravagant, drug-fueled jaunts to Mexico. And no matter what you do or where you go, remember that the catwalk to hell is paved with good intentions.

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