I Like to Watch

Don't talk about the passion! The fervent cooks of "Top Chef" and devoted dancers of "So You Think You Can Dance" offer a glimpse of the lives of the pluckier than thou.

By Heather Havrilesky
June 24, 2007 5:00PM (UTC)
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"Passion." What an unsavory word! A perfectly nice word, really, that's been poisoned by the people who overuse it, people who run around announcing to anyone who'll listen, "I'm a very passionate person!"

Unless that statement is uttered by a preteen drama student or a Brazilian or an abstract painter three glasses into a bottle of red wine, it's tantamount to saying, "My head is so full of thoughts!" or "I just love puppies!" or declaring Wallace Stegner a great writer, as if to suggest he was just an unfocused drunk scribbling away in his journal until you came along. It's like saying, in a conspiratorial tone, "I'm such a sexual person" or "Music affects me at such a deep level" or "I breathe oxygen" or "I walk on two feet and eat food and sleep in a bed at night."


Because even though most of us don't feel very passionate at this exact moment, shuffling along in our scratchy pants, tending to the very necessary trivia of our lives -- screening calls, throwing away important receipts, forgetting to water the plants -- we are all passionate people.

Yes, you, too! Don't let the slouched shoulders and the dark circles under your eyes fool you. Picture the town you grew up in, the way the sky looked when a thunderstorm was about to roll in. Picture that sandwich you ate while driving through Spain, the one with the surprisingly delicious Manchego and the jamon iberico ("Ham of the Gods" you called it) and the really, really good olives, all purchased at a humble truck stop. You were listening to Pinback in the car, the sun was sparkling across the Mediterranean, and nothing in the world was wrong. Everything was shiny and perfect!

OK, maybe you had some strong coffee, too -- but even so, remember how passionate you were? That's because you're a very passionate person! Don't let your flagging enthusiasm or your lack of a will to live make you think otherwise. Just because you're not spewing a steady stream of superlatives like you've been huffing paint thinner all morning, that doesn't mean that you have no passion!


Passion-fruit jungle
This is important. Because when you know, deep down inside, that you're just as passionate as the next person, only then can you appreciate passion in others. Then, when people make deeply irritating statements like "I live for my art," or "Having children made me fully human -- before that I was more like some species of primitive, prehistoric amphibian," you won't want to smash their faces in (although, I'll admit, that is a very passionate response).

No, you'll want to hug them! That's how much you love life and all God's creatures, annoyingly great and pathetically small.

The truth is, passionate people can be a real joy to behold. Take the effervescent young people of "So You Think You Can Dance." Now stay with me, please -- I know you have important calls to ignore and crucial interoffice e-mails to delete. Even though you may imagine that "So You Think You Can Dance" is just a dippy "American Idol" also-ran, even though you'd rather iron your soft pants and regrout your tub than watch dorky teenagers waltzing or, worse yet, putting on "funky hats" and "hip-hopping" or whatever they call it, this show really is worth watching.


Despite the bad outfits, despite the screaming preteens in the audience, despite the "Vote for me!" hamming of the contestants, despite the alienating "Meet your dancers!" routines, with their excess of cheesy, exaggerated grooving, this is a competition that hinges on passion. Each performance, whether it's a contemporary extravaganza of tangled limbs and faux-passionate emoting or a faux-passionate Argentine tango or a romantic, graceful faux-passionate waltz, depends on the real passion of the dancers involved.

Yes, the dancers are more talented than ever in this, the show's third season on the air. Yes, you get to see these young, lithe, athletic humans learning remarkably difficult routines in a matter of hours, which can make "Dancing With the Stars" look about as entertaining as watching an old dog trying to learn a new trick. Yes, the producers and judges clearly aim to recruit not just great dancers, but kids with very positive, bubbly personalities, the kinds of happy, healthy, well-adjusted teenagers who a crotchety old grump like you might be tempted to trip if they walked by you in the mall.


But even if you tripped these bright-eyed kids and they fell on their faces, as they picked themselves up and dusted themselves off, they'd flash you a jazzy thumbs-up and say "My bad, man! My bad!" Their unbridled jubilance, although somewhat creepy, is actually infectious. Just as your nasty attitude is infectious, whether you're bitching at boneheaded drivers on your daily commute or silently cursing the nimrod who left a paper jam in the copier, the unabashed enthusiasm and appetite for life that these kids feel is uplifting, somehow. Not when they say the stupid things that they say about how passionate they are about dance, of course. No way! No one wants to hear them string words together into sentences or anything like that. But when they dance, you get to know them and, eventually, love them.

You think I'm exaggerating. Something tells me your heart is as dank and cold as a cellar when you read my words about these irrepressible lords a-leaping! But trust me, when you watch these kids learn a different style of dance each week, you'll recognize how some of them struggle and fail to sell it, or they're good little robots who lack a certain flair, while others creep and shimmy and leap and flail and sneer with the raw electricity of the possessed. These are the ones who'll grab your eye, who'll demand your attention and respect, these rabid little weirdoes, these odd little physical magicians, who can take a hip-hop or jazz routine and turn it into a transformative, emotional roller coaster.

And if Wade Robson is the choreographer, then watch out. Robson crafted dances for Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, and I know you couldn't care less about any of that, but you will when you see this guy's dances. They remind me of that scene in Bob Fosse's "Sweet Charity" where Shirley MacLaine shows up at a fancy party, and all of the sophisticated hipsters break out into dance, not in that terrible "Flashdance!" or "Fame" kind of way, but in a stylized, transfixing way. Their dance, called "Rich Man's Frug," tells a story: You are not one of us. We are special! Each gesture is haughty and fluid and elusive.


Robson's choreography shares the same whiff of disturbed whimsy. Watching his dances is like witnessing a witty, fantastical three-minute-long play or a demented puppet show.

I'm not saying there aren't lackluster waltzes and crestfallen sambas to sit through. I'm not saying the solo dances are consistently original or groundbreaking -- they are choreographed by the dancers themselves, which is sort of like asking an "American Idol" contestant to write an Elton John-like ballad and then perform it. But at least once per episode, a couple churns out a remarkable performance, and afterward, you can see it on their faces: Feeding off the crowd and the music and the excellent choreography, they just danced better than they have in their entire lives.

And unlike Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, two people who have remarkably little to say given the time they spend on camera, the judges of "So You Think You Can Dance" are smart and outspoken and not easily impressed: Nigel Lythgoe (who is also a producer of "American Idol") serves as both an unreserved judge and a spokesman for the show, contemporary choreographer Mia Michaels vacillates between pleasingly opinionated and irritatingly precious, hip-hop choreographer Shane Sparks is sometimes in awe and other times bored, and my personal favorite, ballroom choreographer Mary Murphy, aka the Dick Vitale of dance, has an alternately funny and unpleasant habit of screeching loudly out of sheer delight, but they're all unself-conscious and odd and their interactions rarely feel forced or showy. Beyond recognizing talent, they're in touch with the emotional weight of a good performance -- last season, every one of the judges got teary-eyed on more than one occasion.


All of which probably sounds unbearably dorky, but once you develop a taste for the show, such unguarded emotional responses feel rare and special, like eating Ham of the Gods while speeding along the southern coast of Spain. It's inspiring, and it will remind you that you, too, breathe oxygen and walk on two feet and eat food and sleep in a bed at night.

What I like about food
Speaking of eating food, is there anything in the world better than eating food? Maybe it's just because I'm currently feeding two people, both of whom are fatter than they've ever been in their entire lives, but goddamn it I'm passionate about food right now. I've always been a big eater, so much so that I've spent my entire life saying stupid things like "I really, really like to eat." And even though someone might've been tempted to tell me, "Look, everyone likes to eat, jackass. That's why we're not all starving to death," no one ever has, probably because of that crazed look in my eyes that told them of the strength of my passion, and my willingness to belt anyone who stands between me and my pastrami sandwich. No, let's make that a prosciutto sandwich, with aged parmesan and really good balsamic and tasty virgin olive oil and some plum tomatoes on some freshly baked sourdough, the kind that's soft but still springy...

The point is, I'm hungrier than ever, hungry enough to announce, after eating a huge prosciutto sandwich, "Wow, I could eat one more of those. I really could. Damn it, I want another one." And since I can't really eat another prosciutto sandwich without requiring a forklift to leave the house, I watch "Top Chef" instead.

I love "Top Chef" more than I ever have, too. Like "So You Think You Can Dance," it puts me in a good mood. I anticipate it all week long, wondering what ingredients the Cheftestants will have to work with this time, wondering what they'll make. And the third season of "Top Chef," set in Miami, seems to feature some of the most talented Cheftestants yet.


Someone once told me that "Top Chef" wasn't a good show because you can't taste what the chefs are making, therefore you can't really judge the dishes. I disagree: I love the guessing game. I love gazing longingly at the dishes, thinking about how delicious they must be, or how they don't look very tasty at all.

Like last week, when Sara N. made that BBQ with the marinated cucumbers? I wasn't sure that worked, and it sounded like she made her cucumbers too spicy -- but the judges loved it. It also seemed like Micah was going to crash and burn, up until the moment when judge Gail Simmons began smacking her lips in that telltale way that spelled Elimination Challenge victory for Micah.

In that way, "Top Chef" is sort of one part cooking competition, one part unfolding mystery: You develop your theories about which dish tastes the best, but you don't really know that it's lacking oil or acid or is unevenly salted until the judges have their say.

But mostly it's interesting to see a bunch of talented, passionate professionals protecting their egos from what can be a seriously demeaning experience. Take Tre Wilcox from Dallas, who has the words "Gotta Have Passion" tattooed on his arm. (Personally, I'd prefer a tattoo that says "Gotta Have Oxygen.") Tre explains that passion, like oxygen, is very important indeed. "Anybody who has a career, the only way that they're gonna be the best at it is if they're passionate about it. That's it, period." Tre certainly looked passionately depressed during the first episode when he was in the bottom three during the Quickfire Challenge, in which the Cheftestants are charged with making an amuse bouche using the hors d'oeuvres they'd been feasting on, but he rebounded by being in the top three of the Elimination Challenge.


And you have to love a challenge in which contestants are forced to choose between snake, eel, geo duck (a big nasty-looking shellfish) and black chicken (which also looks exactly like it sounds), among other exotic meats. And with Anthony Bourdain bringing his unpredictable wit and strong opinions into the mix as a guest judge? Bravo, lure that guy away from his "No Reservations" job with big money and make him a permanent judge already. Yes, it would drive judge Tom Colicchio crazy, taking some of the sting out of his Disapproving Daddy act, but it would also make "Top Chef" a mainstream hit. Who doesn't want a guy like Bourdain around, asking a competitor who failed to finish his dish, "What is your major malfunction?"

Bourdain embodies the very best kind of passion: one that doesn't talk about itself so much as knock over everyone else in the room with its bluster. Let's stop sending him around the world and make him sit in one place, with other opinionated people (whom he'll quickly grow to hate, of course). Imagine Simon Cowell, but weirder, meaner and more passionate!

Sounds like a mega-celebrity in the making. Because even though snippy curmudgeons like Bourdain and Cowell are often mistaken for apathetic grumps, they're passionate about plenty of stuff, or else they wouldn't be so passionate about the things that gum up the works and blot out all that's special and good in the world. You know: slow-moving mouth-breathers, mediocrity, engine sludge, lint and Paula Abdul.

Next week: The undying passion of pirates, posers and polygamists!

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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I Like To Watch Television Top Chef