I Like to Watch

The feckless yuppies of NBC's "Apprentice" milk big laughs from the stench of the homeless. Plus: The 10 best new prison getaways!

Published April 22, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

I swear, just a few weeks ago, I marveled at how many great shows awaited me each time I turned on my TV, but now? Ugh! Nothing!

Of course there's "The Sopranos," but what else, damn it? What else?! I feel like a kid trapped in the house all summer with nothing to do and no one fun to hang out with -- bored, bored, bored! But now, when I throw myself over the nearest armchair like a damp rag and stare at the floor, groaning, rolling my eyes, picking at the carpet, my mom isn't there to hand me a broom or to tell me to shut up and go outside until dinner. There's just my husband, who's lying on the floor like a heap of dirty laundry -- you know, right next to that heap of dirty laundry.

"What do you want to do for dinner?" he groans. "There's nothing in the fridge!"

"I don't know. Do we have any chicken pot pies in the freezer?"

"No! I don't want to go to the store! What's on tonight?"

"Nothing! There's nothing on TV! Literally nothing! Not one thing!"

We whip each other into a state of panic over our lack of viable options, and spend the hour or so it would take to run to the store and make dinner listing tedious shows we don't want to watch and meals we don't feel like preparing and crappy restaurants we don't want to order takeout from. Eventually, in our desperation, we turn to the Lord, asking Him why He would forsake us like this, neglecting to provide us with the wildly exciting televised entertainments and delicious, easily prepared meals that we so richly deserve.

"Why do you test us like this, oh Lord?" we ask, our wild eyes full of pain. "Why, why, why, why, why?!!"

When our cries of helplessness and despair reach a fevered pitch, it wakes up the baby, who tells us to shut up and go outside until dinner. Then she vacuums, makes the beds, cleans the bathroom, and whips up some grilled salmon and a quinoa-eggplant salad. I swear, having a kid was the smartest thing we ever did!

It's all bad
But not all of you have an infant to bail you out of your lowest moments, and to you I ask, how do you do it? When you want the Lord to work it out, but instead He hangs up His feather boa and gives up on becoming the next Doll, what then? When there's only one rose left, and you know the Lord's totally digging the wall-eyed Barbie from Louisiana, what do you do? When there are two lovely young girlies standing before the Lord, but the Lord only has one photo in His hands, what next?

All that was once fresh and new now seems gray and dead. "The Tudors," which should delight us with its pretty costumes and hot, humpy transvestite/model king, does not. It bores us. "Andy Barker P.I." was canceled just as we were starting to warm up to its odd charms. "Shark" underwhelms. We don't even watch "Veronica Mars" anymore. Ditto "The Gilmore Girls." "Reno 911" is supposed to be great, so why doesn't it make us laugh that often, oh Lord?

Do we still care about Meredith on "Grey's Anatomy"? No, we do not. Can we remember what was happening on "Heroes" the last time it aired? Something about the world ending, the rest is hazy. What if someone on "Lost" dies? Please, Lord, please make it so, before I give up and lock myself in one of those Dharma Initiative hatches, hopefully one that's stocked with plenty of Dharma Initiative Mallo Cups.

No sooner had we pronounced this the Golden Age of Television than all of our favorites took a nose-dive or left the air or both: "Battlestar," "Lost," "24"... To think how the mighty have fallen, it brings tears to a little girl's eyes. That, and the fact that she has to vacuum the bedroom instead of relaxing and enjoying her first six months of life.

A hard "Raines" gonna fall
Yes, I know. Next week I'll go back to thinking there are untold treasures on the small screen, thanks to an influx of sugar or a hormonal sea change.

In the meantime, though, why is Jeff Goldblum still working? He isn't just phoning it in at this point -- he's dictating it to someone else, who's texting it to someone who then phones it in. Didn't anyone notice that he mumbled every single line in "Jurassic Park"? What made anyone think he'd do better as a half-crazy private eye with voices in his head? Yes, there are those who like "Raines" (8 p.m. Fridays on NBC), and say it's fascinating to watch Goldblum imagine the victims of the crimes he investigates. But personally, I hate the recycled premise and Goldblum's muttering really grates.

To young people, Goldblum must seem like one of those stars who did cameos on "The Love Boat." As kids, we knew that Carol Channing and Mickey Rooney and Zsa Zsa Gabor must've done something at some point, but to us, they were just cheesy, seemingly talentless old people who fell in love on a cruise ship, and slipped their old bones into "something more comfortable," all of which grossed us out and made us count the seconds until "Fantasy Island."

I sure could use a prison break!
At least Mr. Rourke had lots of dry ice to keep things exciting. Sometimes when I'm lying around on the floor, in some existential funk over the fact that, no matter how many times I make the bed, it always gets unmade again in the end, I wonder how other oppressed white people like myself make it through the day. I mean, sure, if you live in some mud-covered shantytown built into a Brazilian hillside, I suppose it's easy enough to muddle through. Milk the goat, sweep the dirt, etc. But those of us cursed with special fabric blends that need dry cleaning and high-end appliances that need servicing and dogs that need their wheat-gluten-free organic food? We suffer.

I've heard that prison offers a nice reprieve from the humdrum burdens of modern existence, but I haven't tried it myself. Apparently life is nice and simple in the slammer. They say you don't need salad spinners or Post-it notes or closet organizers or paper shredders at all, ever, and when you drop the soap in the shower (which is provided for you, gratis!), there's always a friendly young man there, ready to give you a helping hand. From what I've heard, breakfast, lunch and dinner are cooked and served with clocklike regularity, laundry is whisked away and then returned, bleached and starched and folded, many prisoners are offered extended meditation sessions in a super-relaxing padded cell, and pretty much everyone agrees that anal rape is much more pleasant than it sounds.

Just look at how refreshed and well-rested Darryl Hunt appears after spending close to 20 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit. Sure, Hunt could've wasted those years fidgeting with the moving parts on his high-end vacuum cleaner, like the rest of us did, but instead he was afforded a chance to clear his head and relax in the peace and quiet of a correctional facility, surrounded by the hypnotic hubbub of jaunty criminals and colorful felons of every stripe!

Hunt is sort of a strange guy, though. He didn't want to stay in prison for so long. He wanted to marry his girlfriend, April, and live a normal life, clearly unaware that this would entail making extremely difficult, high-pressure decisions about food delivery options.

In fact, when you watch "The Trials of Darryl Hunt" (premieres 8 p.m. Thursday, April 26, on HBO) -- and you really should -- you'll be amazed that this sweet, good-natured man landed in the slammer in the first place. Falsely convicted of the rape and murder of a young woman in Winston-Salem, N.C., Hunt appeared to be yet another victim of an overzealous police department and district attorney anxious to pin the high-profile crime on someone, anyone! Even though the prosecution's witnesses appeared to be either racist or crazy, even though one of them recanted, even though there was no concrete evidence linking Hunt to the crime, a mostly white jury sent the 19-year-old to jail.

One slightly inconvenient aspect of prison is that once you're there, it's pretty difficult to get out. Even so, Hunt's repeated attempts to right the wrongs perpetrated by the police department and the D.A. are so frustrating and unthinkable, you'll find yourself gritting your teeth and groaning every few seconds. Just imagine how torturous it must've felt for Hunt, to have his life hang in the balance while the state continued to throw out appeals that should have cleared his name. "If someone's life was not at stake, I think the whole script would've been sold as a comedy," Imam Khalid Griggs, a Hunt supporter, tells the camera. "It could not have been taken as a serious case."

What's remarkable about Hunt is that his main goal wasn't simply to go free. Above all else, he wanted to clear his name; otherwise his years of fighting a corrupt system would've been in vain. At one point he's offered a chance to plead guilty to second-degree murder and get released on time served. "I couldn't accept it," Hunt says. "I was just hoping that they [his defense team and supporters] would understand, knowing who I am and what kind of person I am. I couldn't plead guilty to something I didn't do."

Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg do an amazing job of capturing the emotion of those who dedicated so much of their careers to fighting the good fight for Hunt. "It's like a little old man trying to move a mountain with a shovel. But you try, because if you don't, you die," says Larry Little, a longtime Hunt supporter, through tears. "If you give in and let them do this, then you've killed your own spirit. You've killed your own soul. To allow these people to keep a man in jail and you know better? I cannot do that. I do have a conscience. I'm a flawed individual, but I have a conscience."

Even when he remained in jail after DNA tests had cleared him, Hunt kept the focus on the bigger picture. He was always anxious to stress that the most important aspect of his case was that there had to be so many others like him out there, serving time for crimes they didn't commit. "I pray above all else that you all keep in mind and prayers the many, many other Darryl Hunts which racism and injustice has rained on," Hunt tells supporters through a statement, after another failed appeal. "And without you, many will not have the strength nor the courage to overcome the atrocities inflicted upon them."

For those of you who have a knee-jerk negative reaction to every "Free Mumia" group and Al Sharpton-supported cause you encounter, "The Trials of Darryl Hunt" will offer you a nice refresher course on just how the wheels of justice can run roughshod over a regular, law-abiding citizen. If a random man who wasn't even near the crime scene could be falsely charged and then spend 20 years of his life in jail, just imagine how many innocent people are wasting away in our prisons as we speak.

Saved by the smell
But you don't want to think about society's castoffs and losers, do you? No way! It's bad enough just glimpsing them on the street or smelling them in the corner store when you're in the middle of some really important gourmet-ice-cream-related errand.

The ambitious young yuppies on NBC's "The Apprentice" can totally relate! When asked to create a 60-second commercial for Renuzit Super Odor Neutralizer, Frank and Nicole made a super-funny commercial about a mom whose son is in the hospital right next to a smelly homeless guy! Ewww! As the camera rolls, the son's cute little button nose wrinkles in disgust and he gestures at the guy in the next bed. Like most proud citizens of your first-world nations of choice, Junior's pristine nose was revolting at the merest unwanted whiff of something that didn't smell completely citrusy or shower-fresh. Mommy took a moment to grimace at the stench emitted by the bum (Haw haw haw! The sweet-smelling, creative-minded yuppies in the room laughed and laughed!), then she helpfully whipped out her bottle of delicious-smelling chemicals and sprayed it in the air 50 or 60 times. And just like that, the middle-class mom saved her innocent son's virgin nose from the nasty stank of an under-bathed ne'er-do-well! Hurray!

Naturally we, the horrified audience, assumed that someone -- Trump, Don Jr., etc. -- would point out that, despite the peals of laughter rising up from all of the well-dressed whippersnappers in the room, it's not actually all that funny or all that cool, frankly, to make a TV ad about how horribly odorous those without a permanent roof over their heads can be. But since our hero, Carolyn Kepcher, was summarily dismissed from the show last year, there was no one sane around to point out the obvious.

What's worse, loudmouthed Frank and louder-mouthed Nicole then aired their deeply bad and tasteless commercial in front of an auditorium filled with people, and everyone laughed uproariously at how funny and delightful it was to see Mommy spray unknown chemicals into the air to rid the area of underprivileged stank.

It's sad, isn't it? Even when "The Apprentice" has cobbled together a relatively entertaining season in which mostly irritating Trump-idolizing freaks pull together awkward events and clumsy marketing presentations, resulting in what amounts to a mildly amusing one-hour infomercial for whatever mediocre product the show is whoring itself to that week (and that the NBC "Apprentice" Web site also whores itself to), its limited charms crumble when we realize that there's no voice of reason in this picture. Trump can pretend to have loads of street smarts and common sense, but how do you trust a man whose home is crusted over in so much gold, it would make any regular human feel queasy just to look at it on a daily basis? And how can you possibly cheer on the kinds of stunningly naive, tacky, sheltered dummies who would behave this way? Then again, how could you cheer on anyone who would deign to compete for the so-called honor of being one of Trump's lackeys?

We can only hope that the stupidity and humorlessness of Frank and Nicole's effort will be pointed out on Sunday night's finale (10 p.m. Sunday, April 22), or, at the very least, that James or Stefani, who are slightly less offensive than the other two, will win.

But look, don't trust me. I'm just in a bad mood because my baby overcooked the salmon. Looks like someone's going to bed early with a copy of "The New Basics Cookbook" again tonight! Right after the dishes are done and the floor's swept, that is.

Next week: We spray a little Super Mood Neutralizer around the house and television seems magical and special and full of promise again!

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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