I Like to Watch

Sarah Silverman fans, cheesy housewives and goo-covered clairvoyants agree: Disappointment awaits the already disappointed among us!

By Heather Havrilesky
Published February 4, 2007 1:00PM (EST)

When you smile, the world smiles back at you. Likewise, when you frown or grimace or roll your eyes, the world gives you the finger and tells you to go frack yourself.

And when you use the word "frack" too often in your column, the world shoves your own geeky reference in your face by putting it into Summer's dialogue on "The OC." And when you insult "The OC," the world makes "The OC" more interesting by getting rid of Mischa Barton and giving neurotic overachiever Taylor a leading role. Then, just when you're beginning to like the new "OC," with its fake French lovers and fake French talk shows (Je Pense!) and its careless, pregnant middle-aged moms, the world cancels "The OC" and blames it all on you for not championing it through the hard times (i.e., the last three seasons).

What I'm trying to tell you, honey lambs, is that when you're feeling disappointed in general, the boob tube offers you specific disappointments on which to project your feelings of generic malaise, from the glacial, soapy pace of "Battlestar Galactica" to the harebrained behavior of Orange County's so-called "Real Housewives" to the disgusting digressions of overly self-indulgent comediennes.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's savor each and every fresh disappointment like the crestfallen connoisseurs of dissatisfaction that we are.

Programmed for love
First things first: Why in the world did "Battlestar Galactica" (10 p.m. Sundays on SciFi) switch to Sunday nights, when it was the one show that I actually watched when it aired (instead of on TiVo) on Friday nights? "Battlestar" is the perfect Friday night show for deadbeats like me who want to rationalize their crusty, shut-in existence. What goes better with Thai delivery and weekend geekery than glowering robots and hot space pilots in love? And why oh why does everyone crowd onto the Sunday night schedule? Somebody hop on over to Monday or Friday already!

Onward. I love "Battlestar Galactica," I do. But Lordy me do I grow weary of Gaius Baltar! First there were those repetitive and increasingly grating scenes last season where Number Six circled Baltar seductively, endlessly whispering about what his next move should be, as the same staccato, suspense-building piano chords were pounded -- brutally, mercilessly -- over and over and over again. Each time another Gaius-and-Six scene aired, it elicited a jittery, violence-prone feeling in me, the kind that could only arise from watching a bad Farrah-seduces-the-criminal scene from "Charlie's Angels" while a caffeine-addled child plays Chopsticks on the piano in the next room.

And this season, Baltar's narrative arc has absolutely flat-lined. After a promising start as the self-serving president of the colonists on New Caprica, Baltar escaped certain death at the hands of his people by fleeing with the Cylons, a move that robbed the eerie machines of at least half of their imposing creepiness. After all, if Baltar can hang with them for a few weeks, they can't be all bad, right? Certainly nothing like the gun-wielding, Nazi-inspired toasters marching through the streets of New Caprica, the ones that sent chills down our spines at the end of last season. Yes, yes, I know that's the point: Who's worse, wishy-washy man or God-fearing machine? But there was still a certain thrill to having the colonists up against a shiny, merciless, mysterious enemy.

I knew things were getting a little sloppy when the writers ripped off that Seer-in-a-tub-of-goo thing from "Minority Report." Yes, having the skin jobs awaken in the goo made some sense, but when they threw the clairvoyant lady into the goo, and had her speaking in catchy, disturbing haikus? It was certainly visually stunning and poetic and memorable on the big screen when Spielberg did it -- a little bit too memorable, in fact, to swipe whole-hog.

But those bad Battlestarians couldn't leave well enough alone! They had to send poor Baltar, with his bloodshot eyes and his veins popping out of his forehead, into the thick of the goo-covered Cylon fantasy. Next comes the plinky, rambling piano music and the long, lighted tunnels; the glowing floors and the big beds in the middle of empty rooms; the dreamlike dialogue and the abrupt jump cuts; and before you know it, every episode of the show is interrupted by 10 or 15 minutes of this aimless French New Wave film fantasy, starring a buggy-eyed, panicked Baltar.

Speaking of which, are you as tired of that look on Baltar's face as I am? You know, his one look: The frantic, darting eyes, bulging out of his head? The scrunched, veiny forehead? How does the man survive, in a perpetual state of panic? And why in the world is he panicked, anyway, when all he seems to do is wander around lighted hallways and lounge about in bed with two hot women?

"Battlestar Galactica" has been fairly uneven this season -- the winter finale, with its never-gonna-happen nuclear standoff, was lackluster at best, and the soapy Apollo-and-Starbuck story line has "Who the hell cares?" written all over it -- but for the most part, it's still a compelling show. So why do we have to sit through this endless Cylon-ship wanking, particularly when it never seems to drive the story forward, and only lessens the sense of mystery and foreboding and fear surrounding the Cylons?

When Baltar almost died last week, I was more than ready to see him go. Kill the guy and let's restore those nasty Cylons to their imposing, fearsome robot selves. They can still have faith in God, and be purer and more deeply ethical than humans are, as long as they have one scary red eye and two gigantic shiny silver man-titties. They can even be skin jobs -- we've still got to meet the "final five" remaining human-look-alike Cylons, don't we? Just keep them away from avant-garde composers and big fluffy beds once and for all.

A bubblin' crude
If there's one thing more formidable than dirty-minded female robots, it's dirty-minded female comedians. Sarah Silverman has always taken great pleasure in this fact, peppering her routines with jokes that are sure to make even the heartiest, most resilient, most outrageously un-p.c. jerk among us cringe ever so slightly:

"I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl."

"I don't care if you think I'm a racist, I just want you to think that I'm thin."

"A couple nights ago, I was licking jelly off my boyfriend's penis. And I thought, 'Oh, my God. I'm turning into my mother.'"

Silverman may not have shiny silver man-titties, but she does have enormous balls. She's fearless, cranky and merciless, with a taste for the absurd. What's not to like? That girl should get herself a comedy show!

Unfortunately, Comedy Central's "The Sarah Silverman Program" (10:30 p.m. Thursdays) has all of the charms of a joke with an audible fart as the punch line. In fact, in one scene, Silverman and her friends are out to brunch, and each friend takes a turn farting audibly. When it's Silverman's turn, she soils herself instead of farting, then breaks into a melancholy ballad about pooping instead of farting, and we cut to a music video starring Silverman in a flowing white dress, gesturing dramatically on the beach like a lovelorn Alanis Morissette.

Sounds great, right? And it should be, but it's not. This confuses me. After all, I applaud almost everything that Silverman stands for: I like that, instead of accepting her fate playing benign, kinda-funny kinda-hot roles on sitcoms, she insists on writing comedy that's absurd and offensive and seriously crude. That's not the sort of thing that women in Hollywood attempt to do very often.

Nonetheless, it's not funny enough. Furthermore, I find Silverman's character on the show grating and unlikable. Even though her character is supposed to be lazy and self-involved and pathetic, even though I quite obviously relate to this lazy, self-involved, pathetic character, I still find her unbearably cutesy and grating. You know how Chris Elliott of "Get a Life" had a certain flair that told you that, even though he was a total loser, he secretly thought he was a little bit adorable anyway? Well, Silverman has that same coy smile, but in her case, it seems to detract from the laughs instead of adding to them. She's a little too happy with herself, too peppy, too chirpily harsh.

Silverman's character could take a few pointers from Tina Fey on "30 Rock" (You're watching it now, right?): an awkward, vaguely pathetic character who manages not to be unbearably smug and cloying in a way that makes you want to punch her in the face. With all of the potential here -- the fantasy sequences, the extreme weirdness, the desire to offend -- Silverman should manage to make us laugh more often. I'm going to give this one a 3 on the Bad Sitcom Pain Scale.

Plant me in your penthouse

So there. I just assigned a number to someone else's creation, something that another human being put lots of time and energy into, and that makes me far lazier and more pathetic than any character Silverman could dream up.

But at least I'm not as lame as any of those "Real Housewives of Orange County" (10 p.m. Tuesdays on Bravo), which is why I watch the show in the first place. People who need bad people are the loneliest people in the world, you see.

"Real Housewives" is the purest example of the Bad People genre of reality TV that I can think of. It's all about rubbernecking the worst sorts of behaviors and traits: Laziness, vanity, greed, egocentrism, teaching your children that money is the most important thing in the world, teaching your horse that it's perfectly normal, and not incredibly embarrassing, for a horse to wear hot-pink leg warmers.

Of course it makes sense that when Hollywood went hunting for obnoxious yet telegenic freaks, they didn't have to search very far. Orange County is home to mutants of all stripes, from a rich array of surgically modified, neurotic housewives to a vast and colorful range of fine examples from the whoring sea donkey species. As it turns out, Orange County is the natural habitat for a thrillingly demonstrative variety of freaks who are more than willing to strut and swagger and show off their brightly colored plumage and their repetitive mating cries for the camera's benefit.

Since it would be an injustice if our impressions of Orange County remained represented mainly by the fickle teens of MTV's "Laguna Beach," Bravo's reality narrative allows us to look beyond the enormous fake tits and the botox injections and the ugly clothes that these housewives embrace, in order to see what these very real human beings are like on the inside: Namely, they're obsessed with spending money or contemplating the money they have to spend or showing off the stuff that they've bought with their money or imagining how much money other people have and are currently spending.

In this way "The Real Housewives of Orange County" is something of a paean to consumer culture. It's also a sweet little love letter to motherhood -- crappy motherhood, more specifically. When real estate agent Jeana isn't talking about how much commission she'll make when she sells a $15 million mansion, she's informing her daughter that she'd really like to sell one of the family dogs on eBay. The daughter is horrified and disgusted, but Jeana doesn't mind. In fact, she seems to move about her life in a constant state of distraction, while her kids alternately roughhouse, act out and try to comfort each other, since their mom can't seem to manage it.

When Lauri, a tall blonde who looks like she's been surgically altered to resemble Heather Locklear, talks about her divorce and how it affected her three kids, all she mentions is how devastating it must've been for them to live in a small apartment. Thank god those days are over, because Lauri just met another rich guy, and he's so very successful and he's such a good guy, and did she mention how rich he was? It seems that the males of the Orange County species are more than happy to pay for their wives' extravagant lifestyles as long as they look as much like a Barbie as humanly possible. Lauri's life is going great again! Well, except for the small matter of her son having assaulted a teacher at school (the boy is currently living in a state-run boarding school), which Lauri glosses over in conversations on the beach with her friends.

And then there's Jo, the whoring sea donkey of the group. Jo doesn't seem to have a career or a life of any kind, but she does have a chumpy boyfriend who pays for everything while she dresses up in lingerie and goes to parties at the Playboy mansion without him. These days, Jo is so, like, over her boyfriend, but then she kinda wonders who's going to buy her, like, food if she breaks up with him.

Yes, "Real Housewives" is full of soulless, distasteful people who will disappoint and disgust you and most important, make you feel much better about your own disturbingly shallow existence. Which is nice, because when you smile at how shallow and focused on quick fixes and immediate gratification other people are, the world smiles back at you, then reminds you that there's blueberry pie in the fridge with your name on it.

Next week: What do white rappers, Broadway hopefuls and interior designers have in common?

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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Battlestar Galactica I Like To Watch Sarah Silverman Television The Real Housewives