I Like to Watch

The lusty ladies of "The L Word" take an early lead in our first On-the-Nose Dialogue Contest. Plus: Who's more dangerous, Jack Bauer or Jack Osbourne?

By Heather Havrilesky
Published January 14, 2007 2:00PM (EST)

Now that ugly is the new pretty, white is the new black, and black is the new pink, back fat is the new six-pack, crotch shot is the new boob flash, Eastwood is the new Spielberg, babies are the new handbag dogs, handbag dogs are the new shelter dogs, and George Clooney is the new George Clooney, I guess it's about time that midseason became the new fall season.

Personally, I'm always far more excited about midseason TV than I am about fall TV. First of all, there's no longer a glut of crappy pilots on the air, most of them having shriveled up and blown away like the autumn leaves, well before Thanksgiving. Remember all of those melodramatic serial traumedies about kidnappings, runaway families and elaborate heists? Yeah, neither do I.

When the crappy pilots go, they leave room for a sprinkling of ultra-crappy pilots, the kinds of shows that are so willfully bad, so experimentally awful, that they used to be relegated to the summer season. But now that the summer season is the new midseason, and the midseason is the new fall season ... Wait, I'm getting confused. All I know is that shows like NBC's "Grease: You're the One that I Want" (cheesy humans audition to play Sandy and Danny on Broadway), VH1's "I Love New York" (the notoriously deranged diva from "Flavor of Love" returns with her own search for a man), and CBS' "Armed & Famous" (D-list celebrities train to become cops in Muncie, Ind.) are the greasy but irresistible happy-hour beer nuts of the midseason menu. You'll sample their salty goodness out of curiosity, and wake up one hour later riding a porcelain bus to the land of queasy regrets.

On top of that, the best pilots and returning fall shows usually hit their stride right around this time of year. "Battlestar Galactica" seems to kick into high gear around midseason, the long-lost "Lost" returns with new episodes, "Extras" is back and better than ever, and most important, Jack Bauer of "24" returns to save the country from yet another terrorist menace with mean little eyes and a creepy foreign accent.

Torture becomes him
Mmmm, yes. I cannot wait for the new season of "24" (premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday) to begin. I just have a hunch that it's going to be the best season yet. Of course, you really can't lose when Jack was last seen getting beaten up on a slow boat to China. With the looming threat of touchy-feely nuclear holocaust show "Jericho" around, I'm guessing the writers of "24" will be more than happy to kick it up a notch and churn out a national security disaster that's more disturbing and outrageous and macabre than ever. As long as desperate people are getting hysterical and rioting in the streets, or better yet, packing up their SUVs full of canned goods, blankets and small firearms and setting off on an ill-fated journey in search of clean drinking water, I'm happy. Mushroom clouds are the new Portobello mushrooms, after all. I really hope that Chloe has found true love with someone who's even more irritating and angry than she is, because the best scenes on "24" are the ones where Chloe is bickering pointlessly as the world comes to an end.

Also? Despite all their talk of true love, I never really bought that Audrey and Jack made a good pair. Isn't Jack a little dirtier than that? Would a guy who's been beaten and tortured and driven half-crazy really fall for a prim little kitten-faced girly like Audrey? Why can't they find him a big, rollicking, lusty gal with a smart mouth and no intention of shyly stepping out of the way when national security demands it? Jack needs to be put in his place by a sassy, swaggering, big-boned woman. Jack needs a modern-day Katharine Hepburn, except with a little less class. And a bigger ass.

But really, let's be honest: Jack can pine for Audrey all he wants, as long as he's so jittery and traumatized by two straight years of Chinese water torture that every time anyone even leaves the sink dripping -- drip, drip, drip -- he kills someone with his bare hands.

Oh my god! As I was writing those words I heard a kerthunk on my front porch, and what do we have here? The first four hours of "24," along with a jaunty "24" travel mug for my coffee, which I could theoretically use if I ever left the house! Hello, night of delightful, nail-biting suspense! Time to fire up the chicken pot pies. (Look for a review of the two-night four-hour premiere next week.)

Cop a feel
Yes, "24" constitutes Chicken Pot Pie TV, meaning that it's the kind of TV that feels celebratory enough that you deserve to consume, oh, about 45 grams of fat while you're watching it, enough fat to keep a whole village of third-world peoples alive for two or three weeks. And thanks to the fact that no deal is the new New Deal, there's certainly not a chicken pot pie in every oven this winter, let alone a Stouffer's chicken pot pie -- my personal favorite -- which will put you back a good $5.

But I digress. We have some serious Pilsner Urquell TV to discuss, meaning the kind of TV that's bad enough to justify tossing back several cold Czech beers while you watch it. (Yes, the Czech Republic is the new Milwaukee.) Let's begin with CBS' "Armed & Famous" (8 p.m. Wednesdays), in which a gaggle of semi-sorta-celebrities become cops in Muncie, Ind.

You see, instead of naming this "I'm a Celebrity Cop, Get Me Out of Muncie, Indiana," or "Armed & Almost Famous," CBS, the Tiffany Network, chose the simpler title. Basically, the message here is: These people are famous, and we gave them real guns to shoot. Bang, bang! Now sit back and watch them arrest people.

And so, we find ourselves in the little town of Muncie with Wee Man (from "Jackass"), LaToya Jackson, Jack Osbourne, Erik Estrada and some female professional wrestler I've never heard of before. They all take becoming cops pretty seriously (even Wee Man), and it's not as if they don't each have their own talents: Jack Osbourne, who grew up rich in England with slightly reckless parents, knows how to fire a gun rather well; the pro wrestler lady has a serious tolerance for pain; Erik Estrada has a nice swagger and no trouble taking himself very seriously -- you know, just like real, live cops do!

After what appear to be a few milliseconds of training, the demi-celebrities are pronounced cops, awarded badges and uniforms and guns (Bang, bang!) and they head out onto the streets to "fight crime." Strangely enough, they all seem reasonably capable except for -- you guessed it! -- LaToya Jackson. LaToya seems nice enough, but she has a very high voice and a face that looks, oddly enough, just like her famous little brother's face circa 1986. It's tough to take her seriously, not a very good trait for a cop to have. It doesn't help that, during a traffic stop drill, she ends up gunning down an unarmed man. Oops! Tee hee hee!

All of which makes us wonder: Is it responsible for the city of Muncie, Ind., to allow these Hollywood weirdos to become cops overnight? I mean, is it really in the best interest of the people of Muncie?

Ha ha ha! Just kidding. All that matters is that this show is delectably stupid, and since stupid is the new fun, you've really got to watch at least one episode of "Armed & Famous," pronto. OK, you could probably watch 10 minutes of it and that would be enough -- it really depends on how much beer you have in the fridge.

Bawdy on tap
But the midseason show that I look forward to drinking cold beer and watching the most is "The L Word" (10 p.m. Sundays on Showtime), because it's a show that has me laughing out loud at least four or five times per episode -- that's twice as many laughs as most sitcoms.

We've already discussed the teeth-grittingly awful theme song, which I keep thinking they'll change, but they never do. It's so jarring to hear those first terrible strummy chords, then the opening bars, which resemble an angry teenager's rendition of "My Favorite Things." Next come the best lyrics of all time:

Talking! Laughing! Loving! Breathing! Fighting! Fucking! Crying! Drinking! Writing! Winning! Losing! Cheating! Kissing! Thinking! Dreaming! This is the way, it's the way that we live, It's the way that we live... and looooove!

Finally, it's time for the main event, the fourth season of "The L Word"! Basically, there are three categories of scenes featured on this show:

1) The important women's issue, charmlessly translated into dramatic action. (Sort of like a "The More You Know" PSA, but a little bit less sophisticated.)

2) The titillating soft-porn romp. (Just pick two of the following and pair them together: pool table, preacher's daughter, back seat, pregnant lady, prison cell, rich housewife, tub of butter, innocent coed, cocaine-fueled beach party, fresh peach pie, naughty French waif, etc.)

3)The pointlessly pretentious digression, in which two characters one-up each other with their knowledge of architecture, art history, literature, art film, alternative music, etc. (Jenny and Bette speak primarily in pretentious clichés, with Tina and Alice sharing a close second.)

4) The "straight people are hopelessly lame" scene, in which the ladies are forced to interact with straight people who have no style, no taste, no cultural awareness outside of sporting events, and a bad habit of blurting out ignorant things about gay people. (The women wear pearls and giggle; the men say "Dude!" a lot.)

Just to be clear: Important women's issues are certainly important, there's nothing wrong with throwing together a preacher's daughter, a pregnant lady and a fresh peach pie, and straight people are, nine times out of 10, hopelessly lame. (Instead of discussing fine architecture and art films over red wine, they eat chicken pot pies in bed while watching "24.") But "The L Word" brings us its very passionate perspective with such excruciatingly awkward scenes and such graceless, clunky dialogue that it's pretty hard to take. I love that there's a soap about gay women on TV; I just wish it weren't so humorless, self-serious and dorkily smug.

Then again, its flaws are part of what makes it so addictive. And look, the writers of "The L Word" must be doing something right, because I hate missing this show. I mean, if Bette (Jennifer Beals) is going to screw her wide-eyed T.A. (Jessica Capshaw) and Jenny (Mia Kirshner) is going to have a comical temper tantrum over a writer who gave her book a bad review and Kit (Pam Grier) is going to wander, unawares, into a pro-life Family Center for an abortion and then threaten the people inside with violence when she figures out her mistake and Shane (Katherine Moennig) is going to go on a cocaine-fueled downward spiral, well, I for one don't want to miss one minute of it. And if I were gay, I would be even more addicted to this ridiculous show the way my gay lady friends are, and I would trade snorts of derision over Alice's (Leisha Hailey) dumb search for Papi or Cybill Shepherd's starchy turn as a closeted married woman.

Still, it's the dialogue that really keeps me coming back for more -- which brings us to...

The First Annual ILTW On-the-Nose Dialogue Contest
There's a lot of really bad dialogue out there, folks, and I want to capture the very worst of it right here. So put a pen and a little pad of paper by your TV set right now, and then e-mail me the worst, most obvious, on-the-nose lines from your favorite bad TV shows. I'll publish the most egregious offenders here, and then I'll select one winner, who will receive a grab bag of TV swag, the contents of which will depend largely on what I get in the mail over the next month or so. (I can tell you that most of the stuff you win will be from Fox, because they give out the best swag by far.)

Clearly FX's "Dirt" and ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" are already in the running to win this thing, but I'm really looking forward to finding out about all of the undiscovered gems out there in TV land, the little nooks and crannies of the cable universe where truly terrible dialogue flourishes like head lice.

Here are a few choice examples to get us started, culled from the new season of "The L Word":

"I've never had an abortion. It must be really hard."

"Have you ever had the conviction you've been living a lie your whole life? I think I'm a lesbian, Bette."

"It's kind of freaking me out, she is the boss's daughter. I'm not even out at work!"

OK, you get the picture. Now run with it, chickens! Run with it like your little heads were just cut off!

Next week: The rest of the new, stupid, fun midseason shows that will have you talking, laughing, loving, crying, fighting, hoping, drinking, dreaming, heating up chicken pot pies, winning, losing, cheating and reheating.

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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