I Like to Watch

Time to give thanks for a nation of spoiled babies, gibbering publicists and miniature Gordon Gekkos! Plus: Reliving the joys of "Match Game."


Heather Havrilesky
November 26, 2006 7:30PM (UTC)

Inconvenient truthiness

This Thanksgiving weekend, we have so much to be thankful for. Yes, it is a time of great upheaval, but make no mistake, my friends: Freedom is still on the march!

In fact, as you were sleeping last night, freedom continued to march tirelessly past the day spas and Pilates studios and adorable high-end baby boutiques of Mosul, and past the cute bistros and nail salons and gourmet cheese shops of Basrah. The freedom-hating media may keep chattering about car bombs, but the well-rested, spiritually centered citizens of Baghdad are far more interested in bath bombs -- and linen bedding and cashmere socks and mango-raspberry smoothies! They know better than anyone that the free market will overcome any obstacle, whether it be crabby liberal naysayers or several dozen rounds of artillery fire outside of Baghdad's only functioning ATM machine.

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If freedom weren't sallying forth, undaunted, how else would consumer-appointed royalty like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes fly off to Italy to take part in a big, splashy explosion of designer matrimony, a carefully marketed ceremony just public enough to be well-documented and just clandestine enough to qualify as "exclusive"? But will the happy couple stop by Ethiopia or Malawi on the way home to pick up a celebratory orphan or two? After all, third-world infants have recently nudged past diamond solitaire necklaces as the honeymoon gift of choice among celebrities.

Either way, the free exchange of goods and services will never be cast asunder! Just as the Indians brought us maize and vast, fruitful lands for us to pave over, and we gave them measles, flu and small pox in return, today we bring the world's international peoples our delicious coffee drinks and our antibacterial disposable wipes, and they bring us their spicy foods, their handmade tchotchkes and their adorable orphan children for our self-important, humorless celebrities to adopt. Win-win!

In short, it's foolish to ask if freedom still marches on. Aren't virgin forests still being leveled? Aren't wide-eyed baby seals still being bludgeoned to death? Aren't we still in the same energy crisis we were in 30 years ago? The high of high capitalism never fades, and freedom will never die. In fact, it's likely to outlive most of us -- or at least those of us without the monetary resources to casually burn through untold natural resources while untold millions suffer and die.

It's a small world after all

Good times! For a little preview of the sorts of people who might be suffering and dying while you're on the phone ordering green curry chicken from the charming little international peoples down the road, tune in for "The Amazing Race" (9 p.m. Sundays on CBS). You know when the show's contestants fly off to vivacious little countries like "Madagascar" and "India"? Well, those people walking along the sides of the roads, barefooted, carrying stuff on their heads instead of, say, in their leather messenger bags or in the trunks of their SUVs? Those are the kinds of people we're talking about.

No matter. What we really care about are the self-centered, pushy Americans, dashing around insulting each other in pursuit of that million-dollar prize. This season, there have been even more teary breakdowns and angry exchanges than usual, thanks to the fact that the producers decided to make this the most torturous race ever.

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Take, for instance, the Fast Forward that bickering ugly Americans Rob and Kimberly and pretty boys Tyler and James chose to complete in order to skip ahead of the pack a few weeks ago. Instead of requiring players to shave their heads (a common Fast Forward task at the end of the season), or making teams participate in bungee jumping or some high-wire feat, the foursome were forced to eat a huge plate of cow lips. You heard that right: cow lips. They were tough and chewy, and some of them had teeth sticking out of them.

See, this is what the privileged half of the world enjoys immensely: watching the most spoiled and ungracious among us choke back foods that the less-privileged half of the world savors. In the West, we like our foods disguised as much as possible: cleaned up and diced and grilled and slathered in chipotle mayonnaise and flanked by curly fries. We want our foods to be as removed from their original context as possible. But that's not how the world's little international peoples roll! When they're not luxuriating in scented baths or shopping for quirky gifts or getting their nails done, they're eating meat a few feet away from that dead animal's resentful second cousin.

But the cow lips were the tip of the iceberg this season. Instead of larding the difficult challenges and Roadblocks with easier tasks, producers seemed to have asked themselves, "What else will make them wince and groan and whine and then turn on each other?" So, week after week, we've seen teams rowing little boats in helpless circles, making intricate works of art out of sand, herding stubborn, angry animals, climbing ladders several stories high, scaling sheer cliffs and navigating tiny cars through the chaotic streets of Chennai, India. As angry and quarrelsome as the teams normally are -- particularly teams like bickering couple Rob and Kimberly and the delightfully hateful Peter and his unlucky girlfriend Sarah, who got fed up and dumped him mid-race -- all of the teams have had big breakdowns and exchanged tearful recriminations at one point or another this season.

Nice move, guys! After all, most of us watch this show to see the wide, wide world take its toll on tender-pawed Americans who, although they may think that they're tremendously fit and have incredibly positive attitudes and a solid relationship with their partners, are, in fact, a bumpy rickshaw ride away from an emotional holocaust.

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Naturally the Cho Brothers were destined to fall, as hopelessly nice and insufficiently cutthroat as they were. I'd cheer on Lyn and Karlyn, the two African-American mothers from Alabama, but their inefficiency thus far makes a win pretty unlikely. In fact, as loath as I am to admit it, the beauty queens -- pert, perky, tireless and therefore distasteful in every way -- look like the best bet to win it all. But if former addicts Tyler and James take home the million bucks? Well, at least we can take comfort in the fact that they're likely to invest all that money in high-grade dope.

A friend in greed is a friend indeed

Speaking of living the good life, you really must check out INHD's "Wall Street Warriors" (9 p.m. Wednesdays) -- that is, if you can figure out what INHD is. According to the press release I received, it's "the most widely distributed suite of HD networks on cable," one that features "high profile professional and college sports, movies, music and big events" and also original programming, which the people at INHD refer to as "MOJO." Confused? You shouldn't be, since the press release plainly states that "MOJO" is "a new genre especially geared to the multi-faceted lives of the affluent and discerning 'MOJO Man' who comprises most of the upscale hi-def audience."

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Ah, of course. It's so simple! MOJO is a new genre custom-made for MOJO men, and INHD is a really sweet suite. What would we do without publicists to explain everything to us in simple language?

Clearly there's no need to describe the actual product you're creating, when all that's important is describing the rich people who you can imagine buying your product -- not just buying it, of course, but identifying themselves with it. Wall Street works the same way. Instead of hearing about products and services and their usefulness to the general public, analysts and traders stare at numbers and charts all day long and try to predict how the numbers will react to other people's reactions to random data like the weather and the terror alert level and the type of pasta served at TomKat's Italian castle wedding extravaganza.

Recognizing that those little charts and graphs aren't all that interesting, the producers behind "Wall Street Warriors" treat us to a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of a bunch of traders and deal makers. Sadly, though, their lives are about as interesting as their jobs. A tall, blond investment exec named Sandra Navidi attends parties, learns to play polo and walks on the beach in the Hamptons, all of which looks relaxing enough, but we don't meet any of her close friends or get a sense of what her life is really like. Next, we spend an afternoon golfing with 25-year-old Tim Sykes, a day trader who turned $13,000 in bar mitzvah money into $1.65 million while he was in college. After watching Sykes and his buddy get drunk and wade through water hazards to fetch their golf balls, we're treated to a night out with Sykes and his pals. As they scarf down expensive appetizers and drinks, the mini Gordon Gekkos discuss "Fuck You Money," which basically means the amount of money they'll need in order to retire. Some of the guys say $20 million, others claim that $100 million or $200 million is necessary.

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Young Trader No. 1: Say you have $10 million, you invest it in 5 percent treasuries. You're bringing in $500,000 a year. That's enough to send your kid to college, buy braces, go on a nice vacation, you can have a boat, you can have a summer house ... I think that's F.U. money because you can do whatever you want.

Young Trader No. 2: You can't have a private jet, though.

Young Trader No. 1: You can't have a private jet, but you can live the ultimate upper-middle-class lifestyle that everybody dreams about.

Sykes: But you can't waste $20,000 on some stripper!

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Sykes then writes off Young Trader No. 1 for having "cheap tastes," as if spending half a million a year on summer homes and boats and vacations is tantamount to crouching in some muddy alley in the Third World, munching on a big plate of cow lips.

It's always nice to see just how little perspective the "affluent and discerning" have on their lives. But you really have to wonder how, exactly, one manages to waste $20,000 on a stripper. By buying her a Honda Civic? I don't get it.

Blanking over the blank

Speaking of naive, did anyone else out there watch "Match Game" every day after school back in the '70s without having any idea what was going on? I remember rushing home to sit down in front of the TV set by 4 p.m. so that I wouldn't miss a single word out of Richard Dawson's mouth. Richard Dawson, the George Clooney of the '70s! I was just 6 years old at the time, but I loved the man, in all of his drunken, surly glory. I loved him and I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

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In fact, the whole "Match Game" phenomenon confuses me completely now. Why did I love that show? I didn't understand any of the dirty jokes (though I remember understanding that they must be dirty, based on Gene Rayburn's nudge-nudge, wink-wink delivery and the audience's reaction), and I didn't know who any of the stars were. Maybe it was the extremely simple fill-in-the-blanks format that captured my interest. Maybe it was the challenge of trying to figure out the adult jokes that kept me watching (they did use the word "boobs" regularly). Maybe I would watch anything that came on at that hour, whether it was "Gilligan's Island," "Laverne & Shirley" or "Three's Company."

If you've also wondered about your childhood affection for this bizarre show, you won't want to miss "The Real Match Game Story: Behind the Blank" (8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 26, on GSN). Although this hour-long special isn't nearly as revealing or detailed as it could be, given the personalities involved -- Dawson's difficult behavior is hinted at, but never really discussed directly -- reliving the odd rise and fall of this cult classic is certainly worth the time. For example, I never knew that the show was about to be canceled due to low ratings, so the writers decided to replace their straightforward clues with suggestive, outrageous ones. Also, the cast shot an entire week's worth of episodes in one day, so they'd shoot two episodes, go out to dinner and have some drinks, then return and shoot the last three. If you watch old episodes of the show (they play on GSN regularly), it's not too hard to observe the effects of this ritual in Dawson's slurred speech or Raeburn's slightly oily asides.

So the next time you're puzzling over who decided that the next big hit of a game show would feature William Shatner and a phalanx of sequin-covered dancing girls? Well, clearly it's the product of a bunch of former "Match Game" and "Star Trek" fans hellbent on creating shows dumb enough to be adored by small children.

The beauty of the free market, of course, is that it caters to the tastes of small children. If your product or service can capture the imagination of little kids and like-minded halfwits, you'll be sure to make your piece of the pie -- all $200 million of it! March on, freedom!

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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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