I Like to Watch

Guilt looms as the fall season hangs in the balance: Will "Veronica Mars" return? Can a sick "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff be cured?

Published May 13, 2007 1:00PM (EDT)

Being a TV critic is like being a very bad parent. When a promising new show comes along, you embrace it wholeheartedly, cooing at its little quirks and listing its countless charms to anyone who'll listen. Then, the second your perfect little baby makes a big mess or wanders off or disappoints you, you launch into a detailed tirade on its failings, tying each minor offensive into a larger theme of What's Wrong With These Sorts of Shows in General like some crusty old crab, ragging on an entire generation of spoiled, shallow whippersnappers.

And how do your precious little cuddle-muffins feel when they're suckling on the nourishment of your lavish praise one day, and then unceremoniously booted out the door the next, left to scrape and scrounge just to survive for another season?

How the hell would I know? I've got a whole houseful of brand-new cuddle-muffins to look after, not to mention an endless list of YouTube videos to watch for next week's First Annual ILTW Comedy Festival (a cherished tradition since 2007).

A carefree mind of her own

But I have to admit, every now and then I think about one of the filthy little monsters I sent packing and I get a wee bit nostalgic. Suddenly, I remember the way that sweet little thing used to babble and squeal, back when it was still cute and each tiny step it took amused and delighted me instead of making me roll my eyes and grumble, "Go tell Daddy, chumpy. Mommy's very busy doing the extremely important and complex work of deconstructing Mark Burnett's new pirate show!"

Last year, Fox sent me a messenger bag that says "The OC" on it, and sometimes I look at it and cringe -- not just because it's my kid's diaper bag and I don't feel like wrangling with someone else's feces at the moment, but also because I miss "The OC." I miss stupid Seth and boring Summer and repetitive Sandy and sad-eyed drunky Kirsten. I even miss sleepy Ryan and bony Marissa, but most of all I miss that point in the credits where the camera swoops up from the sea, soaring over a hillside littered with matching McMansions and Phanton Planet sings, "California! California! Here we coooome!" It honestly gives me a little lump in my throat, just thinking about it.

Yes, I do remember that "The OC" was only truly plucky and precious for about two years, some would argue even less. But back when it was cuddly and adorable, you really couldn't keep your eyes off it. Sandy and Kirsten would bicker and flirt, Seth and Summer would bicker and flirt, Seth and Ryan would bicker and flirt, and then Ryan would get all sad because, even though he looked like he came straight off a sailboat in Martha's Vineyard, he actually grew up dirt poor with a drunk daddy and a slut mommy. "It was such a sweet little story at first," I mumble to myself, like a slut mommy telling her junkie daughter, "You were such a beautiful, smiling baby! (Heavy pause.) I just don't know what happened..."

But then, it's not surprising that "The OC" lost whatever was left of its golden California glow when the kids graduated from high school, because college ruins everything. Just look at "Veronica Mars," my favorite child, my perfect little angel! When I read a few weeks ago that the show might not get picked up for a fourth season, I felt a sharp pang of guilt for feeling lukewarm about it this year. Why did I send my sweet bunny rabbit off to college, and only to send her care packages rigged with plastic explosives?

In part, at least, because college isn't fun to watch on TV. High school is romantic. College is this dumb time we'd rather not think about. Look what happened to "90210" when those freak jobs went to college: Donna was front and center, we spent far too much time watching Brian Austin Green getting his groove on, and suddenly we couldn't pretend to be watching for the kitsch factor, it was just another crappy show. Even when you're a major geek in high school, it's romantic -- in fact, it may be even more romantic. And even when you're insanely popular and happy in college, it's a wee bit shameful.

When Wallace got tied to that flagpole in the pilot, and Veronica had to cut him down? That was a classic, satisfying high school moment: Spunky underdog saves the new kid. Nothing like that could happen at Hearst College. Annoying feminist groups vs. dicktard frat boys? Shallow sorority girls and sadistic professors? To be fair, these were all perfectly fine choices for college story lines, but somehow they didn't have the same bounce to them that stories set at Neptune High had. The goofy teachers, the lame high school cafeteria, the wild parties at someone's house when their parents were out of town: It was all so much more funny and more tragic and more ridiculous than college could ever be. We could laugh at it all, because everyone was young and dumb and didn't know any better.

But in college, the characters either seem way too self-serious for their age (the cartoonish "angry feminists" on campus at Hearst) or they seem immature and pathetic (the cartoonish hateful frat boys). Even though we'd never begrudge college kids their fun (up to the point where they hire exotic dancers), we don't really want to think about them -- either because we hated them in college, or because we were them.

Even so, I don't think "Veronica Mars" jumped the shark this season, exactly. I still find myself caring whether Veronica ends up with Logan or Piz. The show still seems to have a few good twists up its sleeve -- and we might've remained more invested in it, if CW hadn't pulled it for two months so it could search for the next whoring sea donkey. But I did find myself wishing I could take Veronica away from all this, "Charlie's Angels"-style. She's bigger than college, after all, and deserves to loom large over something more romantic and high-stakes than keggers and sorority houses and the case of the missing football-team playbook.

And last week, there was new hope: Creator Rob Thomas was said to have pitched two different fourth seasons to CW, one of them a continuation of Veronica in college and another that leaps ahead a few years, to Veronica training at the FBI Academy. Yes! Who wouldn't watch a perky, G-rated "Silence of the Lambs" with a bubble-gum-pop soundtrack? Now there's the kind of talented, charismatic adult child that won't make you shake your head and wonder where it all went wrong.

Not only that, but "OC" creator Josh Schwartz has, along with an NBC pilot called "Chuck," a CW pilot called "Gossip Girl" that's about rich teenagers in New York. Aww! I love it already! Can I hold it?

So stay tuned, because on Thursday, we'll find out Veronica's fate. Please, CW, save my baby from the hard streets. Give my little honey pumpkin another chance to prove she's truly special!

California McDreamin'

Ah, novelty. The downfall of countless marriages, debt-strapped consumers, and alligator-infested sewers. What else can explain the latest two-hour nightmare episode of "Grey's Anatomy," in which those crafty writers tried to trick us into enjoying their upcoming spinoff, "Private Practice" (terrible, terrible title), in which Addison (Kate Walsh) moves to California ("California! Here we cooome!") and finds her own McDreamy, played by Tim Daly, whom you might remember from such good times as "The Nine's" hostage drama and last week's queasily tragic twist on "The Sopranos."

The Seattle-Grace part of the episode was just fine: Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) have been shuffled to the side, finally, so we can worry about whether Izzie (Katherine Heigl) and George (T.R. Knight) should be together, and ponder whether Cristina (Sandra Oh) is going to leave Burke (Isaiah Washington) at the altar, thereby assisting the show's producers in dumping Washington for his nasty words about Knight this season. Overall, "Grey's Anatomy is a bouncy, lovable, well-written soap that knows just how to whip up the drama. Whether or not Izzie and Meredith continue to roll their eyes and bite their lips and cutely second-guess themselves every few minutes, the show probably has a few more solid seasons in it.

What's alarming is that the producers have plucked Kate Walsh off the show and dropped her into her own little "Wellness Center" in California, assuming that she can hold down an entire show of her own, as long as she rolls her eyes and bites her lips and cutely second-guesses herself a lot.

Meanwhile, the nice thing about Walsh is that she didn't do the eye-rolling, lip-biting thing at all. Addison was always sort of matter-of-fact and steely-eyed and no-nonsense, yet vulnerable enough to be likable. How unimaginative is it to take a good character and assume that she has to start acting like Ally McBeal in order to carry her own show?

So instead of seeing Walsh take on this new setting in an organic way, mumbling and growling the way she does on "Grey's," we've got her making googly eyes and rambling on nervously and worrying about her fertility.

Plus, the Wellness Center is filled with high-minded liberals and humorless mouth-breathers and new age types whom we're all meant to make fun of. The faux-pilot featured a "Who's the Daddy?" story, in which a surrogate mother has sex with her boyfriend, the husband of the egg donor, and two gay men -- I can't even remember what they were doing there. It wasn't believable, so it's easy to forget the details.

We're also supposed to believe that the extremely young male receptionist at the center (played by Chris Lowell from "Veronica Mars" -- maybe she won't choose Piz after all) has a thing for the hot older female director of the place. Sure, it's the sort of pure "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" fantasy that put "Grey's Anatomy" on the map in the first place, but here it feels a little bit too bald, particularly in the scene where Walsh and two other women sit in the lobby and ogle the kid when he gets back from surfing on his lunch break. I think it would go something a little bit more like this:

Boss lady: Don't bring that wet board in here! And put a shirt on, slacker!

Young guy: You're not the boss of me, dude! You're, like, old! I quit!

Finally, I don't mind Tim Daly as her love interest, but one of the first things he does is stick a bunch of acupuncture needles in her and then leave, so she can lie on a table, yelling cutely for him to come back. Adorable. And how about when Daly's character informs Addison that he's going to kiss her "with tongue"? That's not romantic, that's repulsive. Why has flirtatious banter become so stupid and nasty? And -- I know I can't shut up about this, but -- why oh why does every female lead have to act like Skeletor McBeal? We didn't even like her, OK? Can anybody out there hear me?

Ruse traveler

Enough with awkward teenagers and their illegitimate children. Let's talk about my brand new baby, ABC's "Traveler" (returns at 10 p.m. on May 30). Unlike ABC's new drama "October Road" and Fox's miniseries "Drive," which are the sorts of babies that cry around the clock and spit up everywhere and smear poo on the walls, "Traveler" is pretty riveting, as far as pilots go. Jay (Matthew Bomer) and Tyler (Logan Marshall-Green) are buddies who, along with their pal, Will Traveler (Aaron Stanford) (I know, I know), are about to set out on a cross-country adventure when -- kablam! -- Will sets them up to take the fall for a big explosion at an art museum in New York City.

There are flaws to the pilot, sure, but I like these actors, the dialogue isn't bad, the story is fairly unbelievable but fun enough to make it worth it, and the mystery at the center of this one is intriguing: Why would their friend be messing with them this way? How will they elude a massive manhunt?

Naturally, this show has its share of painfully bad on-the-nose dialogue, like this patriotic outburst from our hero, Jay, in the wake of Will's big crime:

Girlfriend: Jay, you can't run from this!

Jay: My father died because someone in the government betrayed him. That didn't make me hate my country, it made me want to fix it. I want to fix this, whatever is truly going on. I need to figure out who Will Traveler really is!

Pretty cheesy, sure, but somehow by the end of last Wednesday's sneak preview, I need to figure out who Will Traveler really is, too -- beyond being just another pesky, towheaded college grad who romanticizes Jack Kerouac. Sadly, though, for some dumb reason the show doesn't return until the end of the month.

What? How the hell would I know? I'm old and tired and I've got a whole houseful of brand new cuddle-muffins to look after. Now stop asking me tough questions before I whip you all soundly and send you to bed.

Next week: Finale recaps of "Survivor" and "America's Next Top Model," plus the unintended comedy of Bravo's "Shear Genius"!

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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