I Like to Watch

Welcome to the nut house! Would you rather be a high-powered sociopathic litigator, a traumatized bank-robbing war veteran or an emotionally unstable alcoholic detective?

Published July 29, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

In the old days, TV writers used to give their characters lovable traits: He has a soft spot for the downtrodden! She's self-involved but ultimately principled! He sings in the shower! She makes great banana bread, and sneezes cutely around cats!

These days, crazy is the new lovable. All you need to get viewers hooked on a character is a succulent psychological disorder or two: Awww, he's so obsessive-compulsive! Look, an alcoholic with violent mood swings! How cute! Her sense of self is so malleable. Oh, I love it when she gets all socially withdrawn and displays flattened affect like that!

Lead characters still have back stories, but they're usually accompanied by a psychiatric interpretation that justifies a whole host of dangerous quirks, from grandiosity to paranoia to sociopathic tendencies. Robert McKee's screenwriting bible "Story" has been replaced by the DSM-IV: Writers simply close their eyes and point to a page, then delight in the possibilities presented by long lists of lively maladies and disturbing behavioral tics.

If our TV sets are fun house mirrors that reflect who we are (except with whiter teeth and more money), then it looks like most of us are ready for the funny farm.

Fatal subtraction
I bet the funny farm is a blast, though, judging from the good times all these lunatics on TV are having. Whether they're running red lights with young kids in the back seat, blackmailing their enemies, or robbing banks with semiautomatics drawn, today's criminals are tomorrow's high-spirited heroes!

FX should be renamed the Nutcase Channel, given its preoccupation with characters who belong in the nut house or the big house or both. This summer, the narcissists of "Nip/Tuck," the psychopaths of "Rescue Me," the schizophrenics and histrionics of "Dirt" and that scheming tyrant on "The Shield" are joined by perennial wacko Glenn Close, starring as a high-stakes litigator with antisocial personality disorder on "Damages" (10 p.m. Tuesdays on FX). Close's Patty Hewes considers herself a crusader for the little guy, but she appears to have even less regard for moral standards than the corrupt CEOs and careless corporations that are the targets of her lawsuits.

Close is deliciously evil here, as always. She embodies the sort of malignance you can't peel your gaze away from: composed, steely eyed, fearless and vaguely amused. Patty Hewes' raw power and powers of persuasion are set up to feel almost mystical. All of her underlings and rivals keep telling us the same thing: Fear her! She always gets what she wants! She'll stop at nothing! And Hewes lives up to all of the hype, shifting from genial to icy cold in seconds, depending on her rapidly evolving strategy. In a less talented actress's hands, this extreme psycho-lady act would ring false, but Close has always had a way of making her lunacy seem alternately smooth and just awkward enough to put us on edge.

Riveting as such an extreme character can be, the whole moral equation of the modern TV drama seems to have evolved to a point of no return. Beyond the usual "She'll win at any cost" cliché, we're prodded to find Hewes utterly repellent: In the final twist of last week's pilot (Spoiler alert! Don't read this if you haven't seen it), we discover that Hewes has a dog killed in order to get the dog's owner to testify. OK, I get it -- she's really evil. Vic Mackey and Tony Soprano could shoot an innocent man in cold blood, but kill a doggie? No friggin' way!

But even as we're prompted to be horrified by Hewes, her unrepentant nastiness, when paired with her immense power, leaves us very little to hope for here. Ellen (Rose Byrne), her new hire, might be one source of hope in the story, except that we already know, thanks to some gruesome flash-forwards, that Ellen's life is going to fall to pieces in a few months, most likely due to some nefarious actions by her nasty employer. And it's obvious that Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), the corrupt mogul who cashed in millions in his company's stock right before it went bankrupt, is going down, the perfect post-Enron whipping boy -- which is too bad, really, because aside from being evil, he's one of the more sympathetic characters on the show.

There will be twists, of course. Twists are what shows like "Damages" are all about. It reminds me of the Grisham suspense thrillers of the early '90s, that mix of twists, high stakes and evil characters with awe-inspiring degrees of intelligence, foresight and craftiness. The problem is that, unlike the short thrill ride of "The Firm" or "The Pelican Brief," we're supposed to stay interested in the very bad people of "Damages" for an entire season or more. If the show were more character-driven, like "The Sopranos," we might be able to invest in a tireless sadist and her masochistic entourage. But this is a suspense-driven story, fueled by such extreme behavior that there is no up and down and no right and wrong. Without gravity, is a tightrope artist really all that impressive?

Iraq and a hard place
Speaking of walking a thin line, Spike TV's "The Kill Point" (9 p.m. Sundays) struggles with a similar problem, trying to get us to identify with a team of thieves who set out to hold up a bank and end up taking hostages instead. They've got their work cut out for them, too: As the robbers are leaving with the money, a female FBI agent pulls a gun on them (bad move, lady!), and the robbers shoot her up but good.

But maybe they're not such bad guys: Right after that, they take time out of their busy schedule to give the woman an emergency tracheotomy!

But she dies anyway, which means they are bad guys after all. In fact, they're pretty much dead to us when the head robber, played by John Leguizamo, steps into the street and delivers a charming soliloquy on his time in Iraq and how he's been mistreated since he got back. Ah, yes. The ever-popular "I've been screwed by The Man one too many times" card!

And who among us hasn't been screwed by The Man? We see empathy and concern spreading across the faces of the bystanders on the street. "Maybe these guys aren't so bad after all..."

But then, Leguizamo's character, Mr. Wolf, becomes enraged when the power inside the bank is turned off. (Yes, the other characters have names like Rabbit and Pig, and they're all shown in slo-mo striding into the bank. Can we please drop the "Reservoir Dogs" looting at long last? It's been over a decade, people.) Wolf decides that his assigned crisis negotiator (Donnie Wahlberg) isn't respecting his wishes. So he announces that he's going to kill one of the hostages. An old guy, too! Big, bad Wolf!

But then the power goes back on, just when the old guy's about to take a bullet in the head, and we remember that Wolf is probably just suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, the symptoms of which include general restlessness, emotional detachment, depression, aggressiveness and a compulsion to wax eloquent on the ultimate injustice of serving one's country and then losing one's health benefits and being treated like a common street thug. Plus, the negotiator discovers that Wolf was involved in some questionable situation in Iraq that earned him a dishonorable discharge or the like. Clearly we're about to learn that he was framed by his superior officers, and in fact, he's a hero who saved his men from peril...

Yawn. Anyway, back to "The Nine"... I mean, "Standoff." No, it's "The Kill Point" -- although, to be fair, "Standoff" would've packed all of these twists and this backstory into one episode. Even with lots of twitchy posttraumatic stress on display, "The Kill Point" feels like something of a retread. The moving soliloquy was a nice way of kicking our empathy up a notch, but it doesn't change the fact that we're still stuck in a bank. Why aren't we in Baghdad instead? You get the feeling that these writers could tackle a war story with flair. But another bank robbery? We've been stuck inside a bank before, and frankly, we'd rather use the ATM.

Amazing Grace
Time to press on and tackle our next off-kilter antihero played by a big-name actor or actress on a cable channel: Grace Hanadarko, a self-destructive Oklahoma detective played by Holly Hunter on "Saving Grace" (10 p.m. Mondays on TNT).

Like Leguizamo and Close, Hunter plays a character who needs to seek the help of a caring professional: Grace is angry, depressed, drinks and drives, sleeps with her married partner, and seems to have very little concern for anyone around her, outside of her young nephew. Even so, instead of pumping up the suspense with threats of one bleak outcome after another, "Saving Grace" is all about encouraging us to hope for its lead character's salvation, even as she dares us (and herself) to believe that she's beyond saving.

Compared to "Damages," "Saving Grace" looks like "Touched by an Angel," and Grace is touched by an angel -- albeit one who chews tobacco and chuckles and says things like, "I'm just FedEx deliverin' the message." (Is that an endorsement deal?) But even when Grace's angel, whose name is Earl (Leon Rippy), says things like "Are you ready to turn your life over to God?" (Is that an endorsement deal?) he almost sounds like he's joking. Of course, when he mentions that "there's a lotta people goin' to hell these days," he sounds dead serious -- and it's tough to disagree.

Even with the obvious dorkiness of guardian angels with big, shiny wings and a manipulatively heart-wrenching child abduction storyline in the pilot episode, "Saving Grace" is my second-favorite cable drama this summer ("Mad Men" being the obvious front-runner), thanks to the excellent cast (Kenny Johnson and Laura San Giacomo, among others), and the fact that Hunter plays Grace with so much authenticity and scratchy sweetness. Grace may be borderline and an alcoholic to boot, she may be reckless and selfish, but she also has a way with kids, feels an almost debilitating amount of empathy for crime victims, and stands up to bullies without fail. Hunter makes Grace feel real and lovable without overplaying her vulnerabilities or making her bluster seem like a front. It's a common miscalculation to suggest that tough female characters are just pretending to be tough. Grace has a lot of confidence and charm, and she also has some serious emotional problems, and Hunter pulls it all together with serious finesse.

"Saving Grace" is an odd bird, really, like some unholy offspring of FX and Lifetime, but its undeniable appeal highlights the weaknesses of both "Damages" and "The Kill Point." Where those two shows feature stories that can have only a limited number of outcomes, all of them unhappy, "Saving Grace" could wander anywhere at all, thanks to the strength of Grace as a character and the willingness of the writers to craft scenes that pull at viewers' hearts without making them roll their eyes.

Pet peevishness
And now it's time to interrupt your regularly scheduled program with a short but important note to all of you second-rung cable channels out there: You know, you really wouldn't seem like second-rung cable channels if you didn't 1) have such tacky, blaring station identification graphics, and 2) cut off the ends of scenes with your tacky, blaring station identification graphics, thereby eliminating the emotional impact of the previous scene.

TNT, are you trying to look like Showtime's desperate second cousin? Because if so, it's working. Do us all a favor and watch HBO sometime. See how their promos make us like their TV shows more, instead of less? See how, whenever you're watching HBO, you feel like it's dramatic and exciting to be watching, a true privilege? That's what they call good branding. True, there are no commercial breaks on HBO, but if there were, you can bet that they'd find a way to transition to them smoothly, without reminding us that they're a station of tasteless jackasses. So, stop undercutting your best shows with crappy promos, and hire a new brand identity manager or whatever the hell you call the person who keeps you from wearing your proverbial tighty whities on your proverbial heads.

Now for our final big-name off-kilter antihero, featured on a show that's so touchy-feely, it belongs on Lifetime: "State of Mind," starring Lili Taylor. Oh wait, it is on Lifetime...

This show could've worked. Lili Taylor's character, Dr. Ann Belowes, is a psychiatrist who experiences a life crisis when she discovers that her husband is cheating on her with their couple's therapist. Not a bad premise. And the writing is reasonably smart, the subplots are compelling, and I loved to hate Lili Taylor on "Six Feet Under." My main beef with "State of Mind" (9 p.m. Sundays) is that Ann talks to an imagined version of herself, and the imaginary Ann appears to be suffering from histrionic personality disorder ... Either that or she's overacting.

Imagining people who aren't there went from delightful to annoying in about five short years, and it's time to put the whole device to rest unless there's a really good reason for it. Most of the time, it's an excuse to show us what's going on in a character's head, something that we'd really rather see revealed in the way they fold their clothes or fiddle with their pens.

Subtlety may be a lost art on television, with all of the voiceovers and endless explanations and psychobabble, but the really good shows embrace it. Meanwhile, the bad shows are bad because they're hopelessly obvious. I can't even tell you how many of the fall pilots feature characters sitting around together, having these gratingly on-the-nose conversations about what's going on in each of their lives. It's just lazy and boring. Have them quarrel about the wine and let us figure out what it's really about, for chrissakes.

A long talk off a short pier
Because we may enjoy crazy people, but we're tired of therapy. Talking about your feelings is so late '90s. These days, when we feel impulsive or enraged or entitled, we just eat something crunchy straight out of the bag and check out what Mr. Lee did today. This overheated big blue marble is too crowded with child snatchers and puppy drop-kickers for us to achieve some idealized healthy emotional state just by talking about it. Plus, it's a lot cheaper to eat chocolate pudding and watch "Nobody Loves Chachi" instead.

Next week: Time for your summer reality roundup, from the narcissists of "Big Brother" to the angry backstabbers of "Top Chef"!

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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