I Like to Watch

When the infinite TV universe feels cold and unkind, "Weeds" and "Flight of the Conchords" remind you it's a small world after all. Plus: "The Company" treads over well-trodden ground.

Published August 12, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

In calculus, I hit the wall when variables started approaching infinity. Up until that point in my math classes, I had been very brave. I held my breath and sallied forth as more and more unknown variables and steps and bizarre rotating parabolas were thrown into the picture. But when infinity came into play, I threw up my hands. Even though I knew that you could just move infinity around like any other variable (although it doesn't obey the usual rules of algebra, oh no, that would be too easy!), even though I realized that you didn't need to grasp infinity in order to solve most equations, you merely had to politely step around it and tolerate its unknowable existence, I still couldn't handle it. I felt overwhelmed by the sight of that little 8, lying on its side, helplessly slouching toward some unfathomable abyss ... Black holes... Outer space...

That's the unhinged state I've revisited lately whenever I so much as glance at the TV schedule, in all of its unbounded vastness. The networks churn out new summer programming every few weeks, a nonstop flow of specials and miniseries and brand-new game shows. Add to that the never-ending proliferation of Little Cable Channels That Could, with their unrelenting determination to find and produce the next "Sopranos" or "Angels in America." And now, even channels like National Geographic and IFC and Animal Planet and the Weather Channel are gaining confidence in themselves, and whipping out their own little dramas and reality shows, shows about film school students and meerkats and really bad tornadoes. And it all adds up to an uncountable, ever-expanding volume of televised creations, scattered randomly (if that's possible) across an inelegant, badly behaving, dizzyingly limitless universe.

That smiling TiVo icon shouldn't look so peppy and enthusiastic, he should have big horn-rimmed glasses and the dour, exhausted scowl of a math professor who's been squinting at the same impossibly intricate equation for five months straight. Poor little guy, stumbling around, shaking from too much black coffee, unable to pull his eyes from that fallen 8, on its side, slipping into the unknown, the massive nothingness, stretching for trillions and trillions of light years in every direction ... Limitless ... Expanding endlessly...

World without end, amen!
All I'm saying is, there's a lot on TV -- too much, arguably. And each show demands a total commitment: "Damages," "Saving Grace," "The Closer," "John From Cincinnati," "The Kill Point," "Mad Men," "The Company," "Rescue Me," "Big Love"? It's the summer, for Christ's sake! What ever happened to leaving us the hell alone all summer, so we might wander outside for a second and read a book or have a conversation or sip on something cold and boozy? How can we stop and sample summer's sweet songs, when our TiVos' to-do list grows beyond any assigned value?

People complain about the fact that there are too many reality shows on TV. But reality shows are the natural numbers of the TV lineup: countable, well ordered. They're a limited set with just a taste of drama, but no important story lines to keep track of, so you can watch or ignore them. Add, subtract, divide, no big deal!

But just try watching "Big Love" or "Rescue Me" when you've skipped four or five episodes. What the hell is happening? Who is that weird waitress, and why is Bill making eyes at her? Why would Tommy hand off a baby to insane Sheila? The eyes glaze over, the mind reels, infinity laughs its nasty laugh, right in your face.

OK. I know I'm the only one who sees my TiVo as a massive, constantly replenishing black hole of an in box. But is anyone else out there tired of "Big Love"? I was finally getting used to my three sister wives, and now Bill is making eyes at some pie-slinging tart? I can't handle it. And "Rescue Me" has gone from straining credulity to taking a baseball bat to our kneecaps, over and over and over again. Uncle! Uncle!

God bless the good people behind "Damages," who know exactly how to keep me from wasting my time: Show me the same depressing scene where our fallen heroine Ellen (Rose Byrne) is covered in her fiancé's blood at the start of every single episode, and I'll be sure not to watch the rest.

I really couldn't believe it when the same bloody scene showed up at the start of the third episode. Fine, maybe she was set up. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe she only meant to tap him lightly with her Statue of Liberty bookend. (Get it? The freedom of high capitalism is his undoing!) But honestly, 13 hours of viewing, just to find out how Patty pegs Ellen with the crime, or tortures her into committing it? One brutal crime, stretched into infinity -- or what feels like infinity, but is in fact bounded and knowable and therefore carries with it far fewer dizzy spells and headaches and emergency doughnuts.

Bad company
On top of all the rest of the summer dramas, there's "The Company" (8 p.m. Sundays on TNT) the big summer miniseries that none of us are supposed to miss. OK, maybe I'm the only one who's not supposed to miss it, but still: Alfred Molina? Michael Keaton? Chris O'Donnell? Directed by Ridley Scott and Tony Scott? An expensive historical drama that addresses issues of national security, espionage, romance, the CIA version of "The Winds of War"?

No, my chicken friend. I refuse. I watched one full hour and my head grew heavy, thanks to some of the most on-the-nose dialogue I've ever encountered. In fact, since no one ever sent me enough examples of overly obvious, clunky, nail-on-the-head dialogue in the On-the-Nose Dialogue Contest, I'm just going to send all of this TV schwag over to the good people at TNT for filming the most annoying teleplay ever written.

Now I know it's the first hour of an epic drama that spans the CIA's Cold War years, so there's a lot of back story to lay forth. But even so, can we please use our powers of imagination for two seconds, instead of churning out scene after scene where two characters explain themselves and each other to each other in hopelessly clear, distinct terms? It's about as artful as Fregian representation, when it should evoke romance and mystery, like Cantorian space-time theory!

Take a gander, my little mathlings:

"But you, Jimbo, have true genius. No, it's true, you have that unique skill to find patterns within what seems like conflicting trivia, useless pieces of information."

"I drink what my health report describes as a toxic level of alcohol."

"Your mother taught you English as well as French. You have an aptitude for languages. Your grades at Yale were of the highest order. You were popular, you made friends."

But even after so much talk, we know very little about the characters here. There are no illustrative scenes where we're shown how these individuals interact with the world. Not only that, but we're assumed to care about spying in general, without being given any specifics on what's at stake in any of the first few scenes. There might be a mole. The safe house might be compromised. So what? Who are these people, and why shouldn't we change the channel?

Let me just add that O'Donnell is great as an aw-shucks preppy love interest for Meredith Grey on "Grey's Anatomy," but as a spy, he has all of the deadly charisma and churning inner conflict of lunchmeat. Meanwhile, Molina is growling his lines with gusto and Keaton is experimenting with some stylized, obnoxious deadpan delivery that screams, "Look! My guy is a genius! A paranoid, antisocial genius with a deliriously quirky nickname!" (He plays a CIA agent known as "Mother" [we learn his nickname in his first scene, of course] who's obsessed with sniffing out a mole in the department. Snore.)

Yes, yes, everyone says "The Company" is delightful. I'm sure it's positively riveting. Go ahead and watch the same rehashed, symbolic KGB-follows-CIA-guy-into-house-of-mirrors scenes, while I enjoy the simple pleasures of guessing what the food tastes like on "Top Chef."

Band practice
Forget hourlong dramas anyway! This summer, I only have the stomach for small meals, half-hour dramedies like "Weeds" and "Californication" and "Flight of the Conchords" and even the largely plot-free frivolities of "Entourage."

I haven't written about "Flight of the Conchords" (10:30 p.m. Sundays on HBO) because Thomas Rogers covered it nicely here, but it's definitely one of my favorite summer comedies. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are both hysterical, and while the brilliance of the musical numbers has waned a little since the heady thrills of that first Prince-inspired melody ("Lookin' 'round the room, I can tell that you are the most beautiful girl in the room -- in the whole wide room!"), I loved the ridiculous David Bowie sequence a few weeks ago, in which Bowie appears to Bret and tells him that an eye patch will enhance his look, all the while singing songs that span his evolving musical style, one minute sounding a little bit like "Changes," the next evoking "Diamond Dogs."

Normally, I hate ironicomical rock, or whatever you want to call it. Even though they're skilled mimics, I was never a big fan of Ween, and aside from a well-crafted Beck tune, lyrics without an emotional center have always bugged me. I still remember being dragged to a Ween show in San Francisco the night that Pedro, the gay guy on "The Real World," died of AIDS. The Ween guys announced his death, and then launched into "The HIV Song," an upbeat ditty that repeats the words "AIDS!" and "HIV!" over and over. Oh, ha ha ha! Get it? Yeah, neither do I.

All of which sits in direct contrast to the earnest, deadpan, post-post-ironic style of "Flight of the Conchords." These two don't make fun of musical styles so much as make fun of themselves for loving those styles so completely. Whether they're launching into a parody of Prince, Bowie or some absurdly bad '80s-era band like A-ha or Frankie Goes to Hollywood, their imitation is clearly a form of flattery.

Or maybe Bret and Jemaine as characters are so guileless as to render them toothless and lovable. Either way, the tone of "Flight of the Conchords" is pitch perfect, the visual style is odd and modern, and basically, this is the best new show that HBO has picked up in a long, long time.

Bake someone happy
Adding to my bliss in the discrete mathematics of half-hour dramedies is "Weeds" (third season premieres at 10 p.m. Monday, Aug. 13, on Showtime), that sweet little countable equation, filled with spaced-out moms and naive teenagers and kindhearted gangstas. Even when danger looms like never before -- as it did at the end of last season and does at the beginning of this season, when Nancy and Conrad can't find their sought-after MILFweed to hand over to the bad guys at gunpoint -- we suspect that everything will turn out A-OK.

And that's fine, because I'm tired of the high-stakes inflation on most dramas. It's not enough that gloom and doom are waiting around every turn, we actually have to see the awful outcome ("Damages") or spend all of our time inside a bank, surrounded by sharpshooters ("The Kill Point"), or all of the characters have to act like they're off their meds and about to turn violent ("Rescue Me").

"Weeds" is that odd comedy-drama mix that works without either a steady flow of jokes or the specter of nightmarish outcomes darkening every corner. The plot doesn't always pull us in, but the characters and situations do, from Celia (Elizabeth Perkins) with her desperate schemes to Doug (Kevin Nealon) with his constant quest to get high on whatever's within reach. As with jokey alternative rock, I've never loved stoner movies, but the stoner scenes in "Weeds" are the funniest anywhere. (My all-time favorite is when Doug and Andy (Justin Kirk) are getting high in the living room and Andy asks the housekeeper, "Lupita, settle an argument for us. What do you call the thing between the dick and the asshole?" She answers, "The coffee table.")

Who needs to set up an arbitrary enemy and have him lurking around, ready to bust heads, when you've got scenes that funny in the mix? Just keep getting Doug and Andy high, that's all I ask.

That said, though, I do have a tiny little plot-related beef with this season of "Weeds," a sticking point in this otherwise seamless equation. I don't want to spoil any of the fun for you ("Weeds" premieres at 9 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 13 on Showtime), but remember how Nancy's ex-boyfriend Peter was killed at the end of last season? Well, I'm not sure I understand her reaction to his death. Just watch and listen and see what you think, and we'll talk about it next week ... or not, depending on the 50 or 60 other shows that materialize out of thin air by then.

Oh, and by the way, didn't you always think that Mary-Louise Parker should consider dating the guy who played her dead husband on the show, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who also played Denny on "Grey's Anatomy")? Well, they were dating for a while there, but then they broke up. Just thought you should know that, because it's so very important.

Hostess with the mostess
And speaking of very important, before I sign off for the week and journey back into the boundless, space-time infinity of the TV schedule, a word about something seemingly infinitesimal, yet earth-shatteringly crucial: Cat Deeley, hostess of "So You Think You Can Dance."

Deeley may be the best reality show host ever to appear on American TV. I know you don't care, but bear with me, because the woman deserves some props. You know how most reality show hosts are mildly irritating at best? Think of Ryan Seacrest's devil-may-care goofball antics, or Brooke Burke, with her robotic-rocker talk, or that animatronic wonder Julie Chen.

Well, not only is Cat Deeley completely in tune with the awestruck one-big-family sweetness of "So You Think You Can Dance," but she knows just how to play teasing little sister to the judges, while being a comforting (and disturbingly sexy) Mommy to the dancers. She not only has a way of hinting at her reaction to each dance ("That was incredible!" or the less-enthused "You two look exhausted!" or worse yet, "Nicely done!"), but, even more incredibly, we actually care what she thinks. Even though she's very pretty and fully dolled up as you'd expect, she never calls attention to herself like your Seacrests and your Burkes. She's too wrapped up in the drama of the moment.

And even while the performances might leave the most garrulous judges speechless, Deeley always has witty banter on hand that fits every situation perfectly. I know that sounds completely ridiculous, but once you notice it, you really won't believe how on-point she is. Her reactions are always funny and completely natural. Sometimes she doesn't say that much, other times she chats happily, but none of it ever feels overdone, and she seems to single-handedly put the entire cast at ease. Those who remember the first season and its disastrously bad host, Lauren Sanchez, will have some understanding of how good Deeley is at her job. It's no wonder that she seems to be in demand these days. She does something that very few people can do: make a pretty dorky (if hopelessly addictive) show feel like a rollicking good time.

It's pretty clear why all of those little dancer boys are so in love with her, but she waves off their advances with the good-natured chuckle of your best friend's wise older sister. I bet she could teach you calculus, too, if she weren't so busy doing international-TV-spokesmodel stuff instead.

To infinity and beyond
In closing, let me just remind you that the finale of "So You Think You Can Dance" is this Thursday night (9 p.m. on Fox), and be sure not to miss the premiere of "Californication" right after "Weeds" on Monday night. For more suggestions on what to watch this coming week, check out the brand-new TV Daily page, our way of helping you get a handle on the ever-expanding, boundless realm of television programming before your tiny little mind explodes, just like mine did long ago.

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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