I Like to Watch

"Top Design" bids a mediocre farewell, while "Friday Night Lights" haunts us with dreams of a second season. Plus: "Survivor's" Yau-Man reinvents the reality hero!

Published April 15, 2007 1:00PM (EDT)

A dream is a wish your heart makes when you're fast asleep. A scream is a wish your mouth makes when you're getting punched. A paranoid hallucination is a wish your mind makes when you're not taking your lithium. A TiVo Season Pass is a wish your TiVo makes when you're neglectful and forget to delete a truly terrible show, week after week.

Thanks to laziness, I've ended up watching shows like "I Love New York" for months, despite their obvious brain-melting stupidity, because they were always at the top of my TiVo queue. Like McDonald's french fries, they sit there, stinking up the joint with their foul, foolish stench, begging me to dig into their salty deliciousness despite my best intentions.

I know it's a sin, but something rotten inside me won't let me delete "Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll" or "The Bachelor: Officer and a Gentleman" or the insipid eighth cycle of "America's Next Top Model." For some reason, the baby ho donkey festival and sea donkerella pageant are my personal El Guapo. I can't get enough of the skin-tight ass pants and the nasty little insinuations that Felicia can't dance or Jolena has an eating disorder. Sea donkey, who are you, to take these many forms?

The More You Know
Then again, sometimes reality shows are really more like public service announcements. For example, did you know that it's important to wear your "boob pads" if you want to "dance sexier"? You would if you listened to Pussycat choreographer Mikey Minden, who dropped that pearl of wisdom last episode. Or, did you know that, while rubbing shoulders with famous people at a swanky party, it's usually not a good sign if 50 Cent tells you to go away repeatedly, then throws you into the pool? To be fair, aspiring "Top Model" Jael probably figured that the kinds of "famous people" who agree to appear as "famous people" on a reality show don't deserve much more than outright harassment. (Nicole Richie appeared later and allowed the cameras to shoot her fluffing her hair in the bathroom.)

And then there was this conversation between "The Bachelor's" Andy and aspiring wife Alexis, who the other aspiring wives loudly speculated must be a virgin, since she said she was conservative and she was wearing a white dress.

Andy: So, when was the last time you had a serious relationship?

Alexis: I've been engaged before. Um, like, for me, divorce isn't even an option.

Andy: Me either! It's, literally ... it's so important that I won't even pass go if it's not there. It's that important.

Now, is Andra Dee really trying to tell us that he won't go to bed 'til he's legally wed? For more clues, you have to ignore the appropriate, agreeable sounds that are coming out of his mouth, and isolate that moment of abject horror that flashes across his face when he realizes that Alexis thinks it's reasonable for him to frolic on the beach and clink champagne glasses once or twice for the cameras, then commit to spending the rest of his life with her.

Ladies, this is what we call a Yes Man (see also: Officer, Gentleman). No matter how stupid or odd a comment one of the "lovely ladies" makes, Andy acts like she's touching the innermost reaches of his soul. If you doubt me, witness this exchange between Andy and Peyton, the sorority recruiter, about how incredible it is to be a sorority recruiter:

Peyton: We offer sooo much to our collegiate women. I want to change their lives! I have to tell myself, "OK, Peyton, you can't change everyone's life!"

Andy: That's great. To be a good, inspiring mentor to others, it's what I'm all about.

Peyton: What are you looking for in a woman?

Andy: Someone who wants a family. Someone with integrity. Someone who likes to inspire others. A lot of things that you have!

Peyton: Good, I'm so glad!

Peyton at least made it to the next round, which is more than can be said for Alexis, who found out that Andy isn't about to pass go without collecting his 200 donkerellas, if you know what I'm saying.

Yes, it's true: The Most Sincere Man in the World is the one you should warn your daughters about the most. Proving once again that a gentleman is a wish a guy makes when his penis is fast asleep, and a little white lie is a check your mouth writes that your ass can't cash.

Name that festoon
See how educational reality TV can be? Take Bravo's "Top Design." If I didn't watch this show, I'd never know that, in order to be a world-class interior decorator, all I need is a 10-foot-by-15-foot neon-lit white box and a few minutes in the overpriced shops of the Pacific Design Center.

Yes, the fine contestants on this show, who had so little to say that the producers were reduced to showing them bickering with their appointed carpenters over and over again, spent most of the season strolling around the PDC's indoor mini-mall, searching for a stodgy-looking chaise or a boring mahogany ensemble that looked like a "dinette set" straight off "The Price Is Right" Showcase Showdown.

Now, it's true that, just as Elle Decor editor in chief Margaret Russell appeared tanner and more youthful as the show went on, presumably to match her costar Kelly Wearstler (who looked like she got mowed down by the Stupid Fashion Trend Bus on more than one occasion), "Top Design" got better as the season progressed. By Wednesday night's finale, I barely even noticed Jonathan Adler's cartoonishly strange facial expressions, or the fact that Todd Oldham was painted bright orange.

And even though the contestants were pretty dull, the show did have its moments, like when aspiring designer Goil blurted, practically through tears, that he didn't want to be "a Jan Brady" (meaning wishy-washy, emotional or envious?) or when Carissa narrowly avoided allowing her reckless carpenter, Carl, to inadvertently smash to little bits the rustic dinette set on loan from the PDC.

The final challenge was at least new and ambitious: Design a loft that you'd like to live in. While Carissa's black, white and red-all-over loft looked like a funky, reasonably skilled imitation of a room you'd find in Jonathan Adler's design book, minus the chartreuse glazed dildo-shaped vase and the 3-foot-tall Dalmatian statuette, Matt's loft was the usual subdued, somnambulant showroom. Yes, the judges praised the pink girly bedroom for his daughter and the eggplant-colored walls and the whimsical hanging lamp in the bathroom. But other than those two rooms, all we saw from Matt was decent taste and nice furniture placement. At least Carissa designed a sunken platform bed (covered in Adler-esque pillows, of course) and some shelving (straight out of West Elm catalog, but still). If the whole point was merely to shop for dumb furniture, why not just call it "Top Consumer"?

Even worse, the pickings were so slim at the PDC that producers expected us not to notice that Carissa chose the same dinette set for her loft that Andrea had chosen as the main feature of her dining room design a few weeks earlier. In short,"Top Design" often felt cheap, lazy and unimaginative, as if the producers only had a few days to create and staff a show that they were told should be "just like 'Top Chef' or 'Project Runway,' except it's about design!"

Here's a cool idea for a show, guys: "Top Reality Show Producer"! We'll get a bunch of lazy wannabe producers to throw together sloppy, uninspired reality shows overnight. After all, a reality competition is just a pitch your broke buddy makes when his brain is fast asleep.

Yow, man!
OK. Time to get to today's challenge. Say what you like about the repetitiveness of the "Survivor" series, at least the show found a winning formula and stuck with it. After experimenting with a muddy, claustrophobic corner of the outback in Australia and a dusty, featureless expanse on the plains of Africa, Mark Burnett and Co. decided that "Survivor" really belonged in a photogenic tropical island setting. Instead of digging for grubs or crouching in the mud, neither of which were particularly pleasing to watch, we should be able to see the survivors climbing for coconuts or frolicking, half-naked, in crystal-blue shark-infested waters.

Why change the theme song significantly or cast aside the "eat this disgusting thing" challenge or the "stand on a platform" challenge, or even offer Jeff Probst something other than his Safari Ken Doll outfits to wear? Last season's Battle-of-the-Races "Survivor" aside, the producers know better than to mess with a good thing. After all, in the world of television, immunity is always up for grabs!

"Survivor: Fiji" (8 p.m. EDT Thursdays on CBS) has been solid but unremarkable so far, with a few exceptions: Rocky, the confrontational dummy, brought a few laughs to the picture, as does Boo, the nonconfrontational dummy, and Dreamz, the Man Who Cannot Tell a Lie (who, incidentally, you should never align yourself with if you want to win this game). But my favorite by far is Yau-Man, the strange little old guy who not only found the immunity idol (after digging for it ineffectually on a few different occasions), but who's suddenly figuring out ways to win challenges, either by scurrying as fast as his feeble little legs will carry him, or by choosing "the straightest possible arrow" and shooting it near the bull's eye to secure a win for his team.

Yau-Man, in fact, represents the one element of "Survivor" that its producers have continued to finesse: casting. For the first few seasons, producers looked for irritating overconfident freaks and angry sociopaths likely to hurl spitty insults like Richard Hatch and Susan Hawk did during the first season. That approach soon fell apart because there were so many annoying jerks that audiences had no one to root for. (Remember "Survivor: Thailand," when Brian the car salesman won? I didn't think so.) Next, producers focused on trying to stock their island with mostly outrageous hotties ("Survivor: Palau," anyone?). Again, audiences enjoyed the meat Chiclets and the fake boobs, but no one did much but stir the rice and blather on about their yoga routines.

"Survivor: Cook Islands" (aka Race Survivor) demonstrated that a diverse group of interesting people makes for much better television, and "Survivor: Fiji" turns out to be a major experiment in casting out the token black or token old guy for whatever mix of people happens to be interesting. What other season of "Survivor" has featured not one but three black men? And would the producers have cast two hot Asian girls, Michelle and Stacy, before this season?

Yau-Man, though, is the crowning glory of this new era, the polar opposite of the protoypical "Survivor" hottie. He's a tiny man with a weird little shrill voice and huge Coke-bottle glasses, prone to saying geeky things about how crazy it is that he has an alliance with "a big black man" (Earl). Far from an outcast, Yau-Man was an accepted member of his tribe, and since he has the immunity idol and his tribe is in the majority since the two tribes merged, he's sitting in the catbird seat right now.

If Yau-Man wins the million-dollar prize, it would be a huge victory for diminutive dorks everywhere. Like voting for Sanjaya on "American Idol," rooting for Yau-Man is a subversive act that buoys the little guy against a rising tide of meaty-chested refrigerator monkeys (see also: Officer, Gentleman).

And just so you know, a subversive act of television viewing is a wish your heart makes when you can't be bothered to vote in general elections, let alone participate in legitimate acts of subversion.

This is the end
Speaking of legitimate subversive acts, did you tune in for the finale of NBC's "Friday Night Lights" like I specifically instructed you to do? And if so, what did you think? (If you didn't watch, naturally you shouldn't read this.)

Personally, I enjoyed the episode, but a few aspects of it bothered me. First of all, I thought the state championship game was rushed. Now, normally, I like the fact that this show rushes through the football games. Most of us don't really want to see how these games go down, play by play, because they interrupt the dramatic action too much. We just want the general idea: Smash is kicking ass, Saracen is feeling jittery, etc.

But in this case, the rough outline of the game that we were offered was pretty stupid. Oh no, the Panthers are down by 26 points! Coach is sure going to give them quite a talking-to at halftime! Coach rolls out just the right mix of tough love and inspiration and ... Oh my God, the Panther offense is coming back! Can they do it? Can they really make up such a huge deficit? It all comes down to one final play! "Hey, Coach? Let's run this nifty trick play me and the boys dreamt up when we were fast asleep!" "Kid, that plan sounds so crazy, it just might work!" The crowd goes hush ("What kind of a crazy-ass play is that?" they seem to be thinking) but then ... Touchdown! The Panthers win the state championship!

And didn't the post-game celebration feel a little hollow to you? Was it just that Coach was leaving to work at TMU? I don't think so. Something in the mix there didn't work. It felt cursory -- there was nothing original in the celebration, beyond the part where the team gave Coach a standing ovation even though he was ditching them. This show takes really basic stories (teen girl considering sex with boyfriend, hot girl tutored by geek) and makes them feel fresh and unique, so the fact that there was nothing all that unique about the game or the victory was a little bit jarring. Yes, yes, the trick play was tricky, of course -- but for anyone who's watched pretty much any other drama about sports, the trick play is beyond cliché. I just expected the whole game and aftermath to feel new and different.

Naturally, you have to love Daniel Johnston's "Devil Town" playing over the victory parade, and the scenes with Tami telling Coach she's pregnant made me teary-eyed, but from the victory on, I was feeling too worried to enjoy it. I mean, I can't say that I would've been happier if they had lost, but doesn't the fact that they won sort of make you think that the show's not going to come back for another season? I know that the producers probably have no idea, at this point, and they wanted to wrap up the show without a major cliffhanger so that no one would feel ripped off if it didn't come back.

But look, if this show isn't renewed, we're going to feel ripped off regardless. I just wanted the last few minutes of this incredible season to feel a little bit more satisfying.

Which brings me to my final gripe. In the final seconds of what might be the last episode of "Friday Night Lights" ever, the players are clapping and Coach Taylor looks like he's going to cry, the screen goes dark for a millisecond, and then ... Thursday! "ER" returns!

As Snoop Dogg once said, can we get a motherfucking moment of silence? NBC has a terrible habit of stepping on the last minute of a show with its promos. Do they honestly think we care about the return of "ER"? I mean, the injustice of that! "ER" returns for the 50 millionth melodramatic crisis in which a dirty bomb goes off in the O.R. or a Greyhound bus full of gorillas crashes into the hospital or somebody's head explodes all over the lunchroom, and yet we might not even find out how Tami and Coach handle the new baby, or how college football treats him, or whether he ever comes back to Dillon!

Choose your conclusion
My heart is making a wish, chickens. In my heart-wish, "Friday Night Lights" returns next fall along with "30 Rock," while "ER" finally goes gently into that good night. Yau-Man wins "Survivor: Fiji," feisty drunk Jael wins "Top Model," the Pussycat Dolls change their name to the Whoring Sea Donkeys, and Wednesday night's TV lineup features the double threat of "The Bachelorette: Sea Donkerella and a Sorority Recruiter" right after Bravo's "Top Reality Show Producer." Remember, chickens, no matter how your heart is grieving the loss of "FNL," if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true!

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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