I Like to Watch

The dreams of aspiring Broadway stars and white rappers are crushed while a nation looks on, delighted! Plus: "24" gives shark jumping a good name!

Published February 11, 2007 2:00PM (EST)

We're all born innocent, trusting and full of joy, like little flowers, and then the world slowly but surely tramples all over us with its big, dirty hobnailed boots.

My own happy tadpole, who just arrived on this overheated blue sphere four months ago, gazes at the branches of trees and feels the cold noses of dogs and pronounces them exciting and delightful. "No," I say to her, "these things are mundane and worthless. Pay more attention to the major hassles and irritations and setbacks you're faced with. You have the mobility of a throw pillow, for God's sake. You crap in your pants every few hours. You eat the same thing every day, and what's worse, you're forced to suck it out of a big, filthy breast. How monotonous! How alarmingly inconvenient! Don't you see how utterly impoverished your existence is? And aren't you wondering whether or not I've started saving for your college education yet?"

My little friend, who doesn't seem to mind that she's chubby and illiterate and spends a great deal of time sitting in her own feces, just coos and smiles at me, apparently unconcerned about the burgeoning cost of higher education -- or global warming or North Korea, for that matter.

This is why so many parents of young kids look simultaneously giddy and heartbroken: They share in the raw happiness of little people (an intoxicating experience that's not foreshadowed at all by spending time with other people's messy little monsters) but they're also forced to recognize what blind, embittered, joyless shells they themselves have become over the years, by comparison. When my little sponge stares, rapt, at blades of grass, it makes me wish that I could scrub off 36 years of neurotic tics and self-defeating habits, that I could forget about the burgeoning population of pedophiles uncovered by Dateline's queasy "To Catch a Predator" series, that I could just appreciate the greenness of grass, not to mention the million or so other things that healthy, dry, well-fed middle-class people like myself have to feel thankful for.

But then I remember what people who haven't been beaten down by the world are like, and suddenly I'm grateful that I'm just a cynical, disillusioned, alienated shit-heap of a person after all.

Child-like blunder
In case you haven't run into a street mime or a massage therapist or a child-development specialist or Wavy Gravy lately, you can always tune in to NBC's "Grease: You're The One That I Want" (7 p.m. Sunday) for a closer look at the odd species of idealistic dreamer I'm talking about.

At first glance, this show looks like "American Idol's" unwashed second cousin, a bizarre miscalculation by a network that isn't exactly known for its reality programming. But tune in for a few minutes and you'll realize that the show taps into a scary subculture of wannabe Sandys and Dannys out there, an odd assortment of humans with big saucer eyes and disturbingly earnest looks pasted on their faces. Yes, these strange souls have somehow averted disillusionment and loss over the years, sidestepping the sorts of experiences that might give them a cynical or pessimistic edge. Miraculously, they didn't get beaten to a bloody pulp for carrying a Holly Hobby lunchbox to the eighth grade or for humming "I Feel Pretty" from "West Side Story" to themselves while skipping merrily through the halls of their high schools. They've somehow never had their hearts broken or their favorite sweaters stolen or their kneecaps busted, and therefore look like they're about to burst into song at any minute.

What's worse, they are about to burst into song at any minute. And while they might've enjoyed classics by Stephen Sondheim or Cole Porter when they were younger, they invariably grow up to be the sorts of people who threaten to bellow out the worst kinds of show tunes and pop songs, melodies from crappy musicals like "Starlight Express" or ballads from Disney animated movies like "Pocahontas," or overplayed pop hits like "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion or "Suddenly I See" by KT Tunstall. These are people who just couldn't stop singing and dancing when they were children, people who were encouraged to sing and dance as much as humanly possible, people whose parents told them they were incredibly talented every time they opened up their earnest, happy mouths and broke into song.

That's why watching their dreams getting crushed on live TV is so much fun. When you listen to these inexcusably peppy creatures talk, they patter on relentlessly about how every tap class and voice lesson, every role in their high school's version of "Little Shop of Horrors" or "Guys and Dolls," has led them to this moment, onstage, in front of millions of Americans. To the sorts of people who feel that everything they've ever done is special and perfect, this is more than just a cheesy televised talent show. This is destiny.

When they're dismissed, then, it's not just their fondest hopes that go down the tubes; their most deeply held beliefs go along with them. When you see those faces go from a pure look of awe and joy and wonder to a crumpled, sniffling, wounded visage? You're witnessing a lifetime of fear and anguish, heretofore narrowly averted, rushing into the picture without warning. Mmmm. Delicious, isn't it?

Now, to be clear, the dream crushing of "American Idol" actually disturbs me. When a kid has managed to avoid learning that he has no talent at all for years and years, and then Simon tells him, on national TV, that not only is he utterly deluded, but he's incredibly annoying and pathetic to boot? I mean, it's a crime, because those really bad singers on "American Idol" do have talent -- they have a special talent for avoiding any feedback that might indicate that they have no talent. Like a dog that thinks it's a human or a dictator of a small country who dreams of someday meeting Tom Cruise, such delusional types are better left undisturbed. Only a very cruel sort of a person would dare to burst such a bubble!

Aspiring Broadway singers, on the other hand, are like child beauty pageant contestants or members of ironic rockabilly bands: You gaze into their sickly sweet faces and their big, glassy saucer eyes and you want to hurt their feelings and crush their dreams and make them feel 3 inches tall. They have some talent, sure, and years of vocal training and a few dance lessons and lots of experience flashing the most energetic of jazz hands, but they're using their talents for evil, not for good. Plus, they love themselves way, way too much. Remember, it's not the greatest love of all if it's hurtful to other people.

Take Ashley. She looked like a blow-up sex doll for pedophiles and sang with so much emotion, she had a perpetual lump in her throat, one that, sadly, also made it difficult for her to hit the high notes. No one liked her voice all that much, but she was just so deliciously perky and childlike, plus there was so much raw hurt in her eyes, like a hungry kitten. Ashley was begging to be rejected, so the judges and producers kept dragging her through to the next round despite her lack of a good voice, knowing that when she cried big salty tears, it would make for some excellent television.

Like Ashley, the other aspiring Dannys and Sandys seem to have no idea that the audience at home finds them ever-so-slightly creepy. You can see it in their eyes, when they step up to the stage, the women in their bad SuperStar Barbie dresses and their silver stilettos, the men in their dorky man-blouses and pleather ass-pants. To them, this is not a sick cross between talent show and freak show, but a date with destiny! So, like figures at a Broadway Hits wax museum come to life, the little Dannys and Sandys jump, jive and wail their big, open, romantic hearts out while we at home roll our eyes and criticize their tone quality and then change the channel.

And yes, we do change the channel. "Grease: YTOTIW" was a tiny bit amusing back when all the kids were enrolled in "Grease Academy" (oof) trying to learn how to sing in bubble-gum Broadway voices and dance with empty smiles plastered on their faces. We got to see several dreams crushed per episode. But now that there are only a handful of finalists performing on a cheesy stage, the show is unbearable. Instead of belting out your favorite hits from "Grease," the finalists sing alarmingly dorky renditions of pop songs (Remember when your junior high school band played "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and changed all the eighth notes to quarter notes?) and the arrangements suck and the choreography is pure Disneyfied hell and, basically, the whole thing makes "American Idol" look like great art.

Plus, the judges' comments are toothless and benign and insipid. Imagine replacing Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson with two more Paula Abduls. Here are some of the creepiest little dreamers on the planet, ready to have their little ducks blasted out of the water, their bubbles burst, their apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes shot to smithereens, and all they get from the judges are some smiles and supportive remarks about how good their "energy" was. Come on, guys! You know what we want. We want to see these adorable little bunnies gasp and collapse into a heap, right there onstage, hugging their knees and rocking back and forth mumbling, "This isn't happening, this isn't happening!" until some men in white suits have to inject them with horse tranquilizers and drag them off by their ankles, weeping all the way. "Sorry, Jimmy, but you're not the one that we want to play Danny on Broadway. You're the one that we want to fall to pieces and turn to a life of booze and meth and wayward women."

A bad rap
Yes, there are those dreamers we'd like to witness becoming disillusioned and hopeless before our very eyes. But there are also those dreamers we'd like to see basking in their chosen illusions for a long, long time, ideally humiliating themselves as much as possible along the way: VH1's "The White Rapper Show" (check here for show times) is all about pumping false hopes into aspiring Caucasian rappers -- an utterly honorable endeavor, if you ask me.

The show is just confusing enough to be interesting: Half the time it seems like an earnest attempt to locate the next great white rapper, the other half of the time it looks like an elaborate excuse to humiliate a bunch of seriously strange human beings. The producers certainly have a good time making fun of the rappers -- as if white rappers don't have a tough enough row to hoe, yo! They live in "The White House" and when they're dismissed they're referred to as being "impeached." Instead of getting "Tyra Mail" ("America's Next Top Model") or "Tree Mail" ("Survivor") the white rappers get "Mayo," a play on their lily-whiteness. Every now and then, we catch a glimpse of a man in a roach outfit lingering around "The White House" -- no explanation offered, but it's clear enough this isn't a show that takes itself all that seriously.

The deceptions and harassment can be pretty amusing. In one episode, we're told that the rappers are going to "the studio" to work with legendary producer Prince Paul. Instead, they arrive at a TV studio, where they're quizzed, "Family Feud"-style, on black culture in front of a rowdy black audience. Prince Paul plays the part of host Richard Dawson, peppering the rappers with questions like, "Name a black stereotype that black people secretly think is true" (top two answers: Big packages, better athletes). When the rappers are asked to "Name a word used to describe O.J.," one kid responds immediately, "Innocent!" The audience jumps up and applauds, laughing, even though that's not the answer (we never see the answers to that one, sadly).

Basically, the show is as sadistic and as clever as you'd want a show about white rappers to be. Unfortunately, the white rappers themselves aren't nearly clever enough. One guy named John Brown speaks repeatedly of the importance of a "ghetto revival," but he can't articulate what that means. Another rapper, Jus Rhyme, nitpicks every lyric in group projects because he feels that every single word out of his mouth should be positive and utterly p.c. (Good luck out there in the hip-hop world, buddy!) And some of the now-dismissed rappers like G. Child (who idolizes Vanilla Ice, of all people) were odd to the point of appearing slightly touched as they say in the South, making the whole project feel a little bit pathetic.

Sometimes pathetic is fun, though, like during the rap-off at the end of each show. Host MC Serch assigns topics, and the rappers are asked to come up with a new rhyme and memorize it in a matter of minutes, which is no small feat.

Sadly, very few of the rappers are truly impressive. My personal favorite is the last remaining female rapper, Persia. She's smart, she's odd and she's got a good singing voice. Could we have a white Missy Elliott on our hands? Now there's a dream that's worth humiliating yourself for.

Brotherly shove
Of course, sometimes the world's big, dirty hobnailed boots don't simply trample on your hopes and dreams and turn you into a blind, embittered, joyless shell of a human being. Sometimes those nasty boots also kick in your confidence and crush your spirit and destroy your sense of self, in which case you end up just like Jack Bauer's evil brother.

You know I can't let last week's episode of "24" (9 p.m. Mondays on Fox) fade into the distance without expressing my sheer awe at the insanity therein. Let's just review the facts on the ground, shall we? Jack's brother is the demonic overlord behind everything evil that happened last year: He ordered the assassination of President Palmer (see also: the most levelheaded, sharp yet lovable president ever! We miss you, David!) and he was the puppet master holding the strings on President Logan (see also: the most confused, dimwitted, repellent president ever!), making him do all those bad, bad things like giving weapons to terrorists and trying to kill innocent humans and heads of state and whoever stood in his way, "Scooby-Doo"-style.

So Jack meets up with his brother, who's much uglier and less charismatic than Jack is (you can sort of see why the guy was driven to the Dark Side), and Jack almost immediately starts torturing him. It's as if the Bauer family spent their quality time together burning each other with lit cigarettes and ripping each other's fingernails off with tweezers. Jack's brother (Paul McCrane, best known as Dr. Romano on "E.R." Remember, he was crushed by a falling helicopter and no one missed him?) doesn't even seem surprised when Jack puts a plastic bag over his head (That bag is not a toy, Jack!). I mean, sure, he can hardly breathe, that's a little upsetting for him, but does he ever say, "Jesus Christ, Jack, are you serious? I'm your brother!" OK, maybe he does say that, but you can kind of tell that he believes that he deserves to be tortured, and that, in the Bauer family, it's suffocate or be suffocated.

Next, things get even more rich and delectable: Jack discovers that his brother may know about McCarthy's whereabouts. Remember, McCarthy is the guy who's going to help Fayed and get the rest of the bombs programmed, or launched, or he knows someone who can do ... something. Honestly, the whole McCarthy thing is confusing and feels a little tangential to the action. In fact, what is Fayed doing all this time? Running out for a latte? Having a late breakfast with his growly terrorist pals?

Of course, the fate of the free world is on hold, since Jack's about to get medieval on Dr. Romano's ass yet again. We know this because Jack tells one of his stooges, "Get him ready for interrogation." What's really funny, though, is that after Jack asks Ugly Brother a few questions, and Ugly Brother doesn't cooperate, Jack has to say to the stooge, "Go get the silver suitcase filled with torture devices and stuff."

Now, why didn't the stooge grab the silver suitcase when he was preparing Ugly Brother for interrogation? Because if he did, then he couldn't walk out to his black SUV and pull that silver suitcase out of the back, then walk by Jack's dad, who -- bonus! -- is played by James Cromwell! James Cromwell is so good at looking disappointed and upset and crushed by the weight of the world when he sees that silver suitcase being carried inside. He knows that Jack is going to use it on his own brother, and this makes him feel -- I'm just guessing -- that he might've made a mistake or two as a father.

So Jack injects his brother with something that makes him feel a lot of pain (from my personal experience, I'm guessing it's Pitocin), and his brother is moaning and screaming, and instead of keeping his brother focused on his breathing, Jack is bellowing into his ear, "Tell me where McCarthy is! Tell me what you know!" and Ugly Brother is weeping and sweating and I'm thinking he's got to be at least 4 centimeters dilated by this point, and just when Jack is about to tell him that it's time to push, Ugly Brother tells him that he was the evil voice on the phone last season, pulling all the strings and screwing with Jack and shooting the Best President Ever in the neck.

Jack is shocked -- he falls into a chair! (This moment is so awkward and badly done, they really should've tried a few more takes of it.) His whole world comes crushing down around him -- you know, the way it does seven or eight times on any given day?

Jack needs to regroup. Ugly Brother has told him everything. Jack must return to CTU now. James Cromwell stays behind. He wants to talk to Ugly Brother about why he was about to have his own brother and father killed. He wants to give him that old speech that starts out, "I'm very disappointed in you, son. I expected more from you." He might've thought to give him that speech about 30 years ago, you know, around the time he was tying small animals to firecrackers or drowning the family cat?

But instead of a lecture, Cromwell tells Ugly Brother he did a good job not telling Jack everything. Oh, noooo! Cromwell is the Emperor to Ugly Brother's Darth Vader! Ugly Brother assures the Emperor that, even though CTU will probably torture him with stuff that's even worse than Pitocin (the mind reels!) he'll hold strong, he won't say a word! Cromwell says something like, "Sure you will, you'll hold strong," and then calmly fills his IV with something deadly and holds his mouth shut so he can't scream.

Can you believe it? To think, just a few weeks ago, we didn't even know that Jack had an Ugly Brother, let alone that his father was James Cromwell, let alone that Jack was willing to kill Ugly Brother for the sake of his country, let alone that Cromwell was willing to kill his own Ugly Son to save his own satanic ass from prosecution!

Ah, but isn't that the theme of "24"? Who would you be willing to torture and kill for A) the sake of your country or B) several million unmarked bills? Why, that's a nifty new version of "Deal or No Deal" just waiting to happen.

Anyway, people have written to me and told me that they're disappointed with this season of "24," that "24" has jumped the shark. But no. "24" arguably jumped the shark in its third season -- you know, when there was a biological weapons scare, and the mother of that rebellious teenager flushed a big bag of the deadly virus down the toilet, thereby potentially causing the population of Greater Los Angeles to begin bleeding from its orifices, posthaste? But "24" is the sort of show that can only thrive post-shark jump. "24' doesn't need careful plot devices, it needs people... people who need to torture people.

Concluding remarks
People who need to torture people are definitely the loneliest people in the world. But don't forget, even sadists like Jack Bauer and the producers of "Grease: You're the One That I Want" and masochists like G. Child and Jus Rhyme and even Lindsay Lohan were once innocent little babies, full of joy and wonder and faith in the parents and friends and society that would eventually teach them to be suspicious and pessimistic and angry, and turn them into fearful, self-doubting obsessive-compulsives who need to crush other people's hopes and dreams just to make themselves feel more alive. We could wish that they might feel love, enough love that they might once again be giddy and openhearted and vulnerable, that they might once again gaze at the branches of trees and feel the cold noses of dogs and pronounce it all exciting and delightful. But then there would be no one to torture the terrorists, and our towns and cities would be teeming with street mimes and ironic rockabilly bands and child psychologists. No thank you, sir!

Next week: A closer look at "Top Design's" animatronic host "Todd Oldham"!

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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