I Like to Watch

CBS puts kids to work, "Burn Notice's" out-of-work spy works his charms, and Tim Gunn makes making it work look like no work at all!

Published September 9, 2007 1:00PM (EDT)

Nothing is as it seems! We live in a world of illusion. The once-carefree Butterscotch Stallion is suicidal, Mother Teresa repeatedly doubted the existence of God, and Republican senators don't hate gays, they want to marry them and have like a million of their babies. Or at least they'd like to give them some sexy fondlings in a bathroom stall.

So would I, frankly. But first, I have to come to terms with the fact that every single public figure on earth turns out to be his or her polar opposite in private -- except for Ronald Reagan, who was exactly as cheery and simple-minded as he appeared.

Next week, we'll probably discover that Nancy Grace is a serial killer, Pat Buchanan is into bestiality, and Angelina Jolie beats her 22 adopted children with wire hangers.

City of lost children
But then, if Jolie really wanted her children to suffer, she'd send them to "Kid Nation," which is CBS' really nice, empowering name for the child labor camp it has set up in the middle of the desert in New Mexico.

Apparently the skyrocketing costs of domestic labor are putting a serious strain on CBS' bottom line, so much so that they've been forced to recruit children into slave labor under the guise of a reality show. The hand-wringing and brow-mopping over this one have been really impressive, but as usual, the child sympathizers are ignoring the simple reality of current market conditions. I mean, surely you're not so naive as to imagine that a company as big and complex as CBS can continue to run smoothly without forcing a bunch of children ages 8 through 15 to lug huge buckets of water around in the desert for them!

Besides, how badly do you want to see this show? Does CBS have its finger on the pulse of crusty old-timers in America, or what? I can't imagine anything more delightful than watching kids do hard labor. Most of us haven't had so much fun since we reread the really good parts of "Oliver Twist" for the 50th time.

But there's something in this show for everyone, from college kids to recent graduates to washed-up old drunks like you and me. Yes, "Kid Nation" (premieres 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19) is a great drinking game just waiting to happen.

A few possible rules:

1) Drink every time a kid announces that something is "No fair!"

2) Drink twice each time a kid expresses a need for his or her "mommy." (Cackling mirthlessly is also a natural response, post-gulp.)

3) Each time a kid face-plants and cries hysterically, finish your beer, then face-plant and cry hysterically.

Oh man, being a kid was so great! I sure do miss hurling myself onto the ground and weeping and weeping, loud enough that my mom would hear me from the bar down the block. She was so sweet. She'd lean as far as she could off her bar stool and scream out the door, "Keep crying, you big crybaby!" Damn, that woman loved me something fierce.

Gunn shy
The only person who loves me more than my mommy (who I want right now, by the way, because having to write this column is totally no-fair) is Tim Gunn. Tim Gunn doesn't know me, but if he did, he would love me. I just know he would! He would love me with every cell of his snotty, effete, overeducated, cringing, mincing, unsettlingly earnest body.

This is all part of the strange appeal of Tim Gunn. First, we all know -- you know it, too, don't you? -- that he would love us like a son or daughter, if he ever met us. He would pick us up and brush us off and clutch our hands in his soft, bony, fluttering hands, and he'd pull us to his birdy chest like the gay father we never had (but now wish that we did). Then he'd give us a serious look and say, "Make it work, [insert your name here]." And then we would! We'd make it work, because Tim Gunn makes making it work look like no work at all!

And even when he's being kind of spongy and weird, when he's looking at a really bad pair of jeans with an awful cut that makes your ass look like an armchair, even when he's searching for the right words to describe just how wrong those jeans look, flipping through the many, many words in his enormous vocabulary, even then, he's filled with love and empathy. Even when he thinks you're tacky and, quite frankly, gross, he gets away with it, because he also wants what's best for you, he believes in you, and he just knows that you're going to make it work, somehow, some way!

Needless to say, it was very wise of Bravo to give Tim Gunn his own show, and to put his name on it: "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style" (10 p.m. Thursdays). Because no one really wants to watch another makeover show, and no one cares to see another pear-shaped girl with bad taste and frizzy hair get her hair smoothed down and her pear shape draped in beautifully cut designer clothing she can't afford.

But you throw Tim Gunn in there, and suddenly, you're making it work! Because Tim Gunn knows with every inch of his ruthlessly discerning, willowy frame that you may look like a wreck on the outside, but that doesn't mean you're not a sweet little princess of goodness and light on the inside, where no one else but Tim Gunn can see you!

So here's how the show works: Tim Gunn and Veronica Webb (who really only matters because she does a reasonably good job of listening to what Tim Gunn says and then saying things that Tim Gunn can respond to) meet with a woman who makes bad fashion choices. First, they look at photographs of what the woman wore that week, trying very hard not to snicker or roll their eyes or vomit all over the photographs.

Then, they explain that the woman is in for a real emotional roller coaster. They tell her very solemnly (Tim Gunn is so good at being solemn!) that she can't just bail when it gets difficult, she has to be very committed to pretending to struggle with throwing out all of her crappy clothes, so that it's more dramatic and exciting when Tim Gunn gives her a brand-new designer wardrobe for free.

Then, when the woman finally says goodbye to all of her lame, slutty, ill-fitting, hopelessly cheap clothes, Tim Gunn (and someone else, what was her name again?) invites all of her friends and family over, and once everyone has convinced her that she looks a million times better (straining not to imply that she looked terrible before), Tim Gunn whips out a bottle of champagne and they all toast, "Queer Eye"-style, and then everyone chokes back tears over how touching it is to see a regular old frumpy, disheveled schlub all trussed up in expensive designer attire.

And you know what? That might sound a wee bit shallow, particularly to frumpy schlubs like you and me, but it really is touching. Why? Because Tim Gunn is there! Tim Gunn makes it work, motherfuckers!

John goes back to Cincinnati
Sorry, just getting geared up to talk about David Milch. You will recall that Milch created the brilliant western series "Deadwood," but HBO canceled it just short of its fourth and final season.

So then Milch asked, "What would happen if God sent his messenger to Southern California, in order to spread an important message to all the world?" And Milch found out what would happen: People would get really confused, and then HBO would kill God's messenger. You know, just like those bad Romans killed Jesus.

Now, instead of looking back and wondering (like the Romans did) whether it was really a good idea to kill "Deadwood," instead of throwing down some tall dollars to make a fourth season of "Deadwood" happen, now those big-city cocksuckers at HBO want Milch to try his hand at yet another new show, this one a '70s era NYC cop show.

Sweet Jesus. What is their damage? "Deadwood" was one of the most original, interesting shows on TV, and they're going to take that gem and throw it asunder for yet another cop show? Yes, I'm sure Milch will do a good job with a cop show -- he needs the structure of a procedural to keep his wild ramblings on track. But "Deadwood" was on track, and it needs an ending, damn it!

Anyway, I'm not going to cast any more aspersions on the decision-makers over there at HBO, with their big, stupid ideas. Remember, nothing is as it seems! We live in a world of illusion. If they act like dimwitted, shortsighted children, that can only mean that they're actually creative geniuses, overflowing with great ideas.

Burn, baby, burn
You know, like the guy on "Burn Notice" (10 p.m. Thursdays on USA). How did this show's charms escape me for so long? I kept hearing that it was great, and I kept watching, an episode here, an episode there, but I wasn't buying it. Then I watched three great episodes in a row, and suddenly, I saw the light.

"Burn Notice" is truly odd. First of all, it's about a guy, Michael (Jeffrey Donovan), who has nothing to do, really, beyond trying to figure out why he's been fired as a government agent. In the meantime, he's this highly trained professional, this odd mix of MacGyver and Bourne and Bond, and he's living this sort of ragged, slacker life in Miami.

So when random, clueless people (and I love how random people on the show are always so jackassian by nature) approach Michael to ask for his help, he's always got this world-weary attitude like, "Oh Christ, really? I really have to busy myself with these small-beans kidnapping and fraud cases, when I could be mixing it up with high-ranking Libyan officials?"

Throwing a trigger-happy ex-girlfriend and a prototypical nagging mother into the picture really seals the deal. The ex wants Michael to participate in various semi-criminal acts without any heed of the danger (a great flip of the typical "Don't get hurt, honey pie!" girlfriend role), and the mom is either disinterested or invested in Michael's whereabouts, depending on what's in it for her. Or, as Michael puts it in a voice-over: "My mother's understanding of my career changes with what she wants from me. One day she can name everyone on the National Security Council, the next day she thinks I work for the post office."

The voice-overs on the show are fantastic, and really complement the story, particularly when Michael is explaining in his matter-of-fact drone the basics of handling semi-criminal acts when you're a fearless MacGyver/Bourne/Bond type of guy. Remember how "The A-Team" was mostly watchable because the team was so casual about its skill set, like everyone knows how to pick a lock or disable a bug or disarm a massive bodyguard? Michael captures that same spirit. When he's informed that a sniper's gun is trained on his head and asked, "How do I know you're not a cop?" he responds, dryly, "Cops don't make themselves available as potential hostages, they don't get paid enough for that. And I don't know what the magnification on your scope is, but the label is Armani. Cops don't fit Armani." Then he puts the phone aside and, smacking his gum, shouts, "How do I look? I look good, right?"

Yes, in keeping with our topsy-turvy times, gum-smacking smartasses are today's heroes. And while we're all playing against type, I'd like to officially apologize to all of you for not recommending this show sooner (though I know plenty of you have been watching all along). The truth is, these cable shows can strike me as hokey the first few times I watch. It's a prejudice, like sorting through the half-price bin at an indie music store, giving a sad-looking CD a listen, and deciding in a minute flat that the band is lame just because they haven't been signed to a big label. The fact is that, just as there are plenty of good unsigned bands, there are plenty of good shows on cable channels, even if they cut to commercials too quickly and their station identification graphics leave a lot to be desired. Cable shows definitely have a different feel than mainstream network and premium channel shows, there's no denying it. But once you look past that -- and it takes at least four episodes, I think, and at least two or three sittings (see also: moods, depending on how moody you are) to really get a sense of a show -- you can see the good (or bad) show underneath it all. You know, just like Tim Gunn does, but with a much smaller vocabulary and less style.

Philly cheese takes
And while you're in the mood for odd cable shows that might turn you off at first, you'd better not miss the third season of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" (premieres 10 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, on FX). This show has really grown on me over the years. Sure, a lot of the scenes devolve into seemingly improvisational shouting and manic weirdness, but there are some pretty funny moments in the mix. I could lay it all out for you, but I think the true charms of this show can be summed up in one particularly choice line of dialogue:

"Goddamn, this dumpster baby is heavy."

Conclusionary remarks
Maybe that dumpster baby needs to do an honest day's work, and then he wouldn't be so fat. Perhaps he could find work at the child labor camps of CBS, and eventually be promoted to the offices of HBO, where I'm told slow children are promoted into the executive ranks with lightning-quick speed. Someday, that big old dumpster baby might just join the other hardworking idiot soldiers of TV land, creating a world of illusion in which nothing is ever as it seems. Which is good, because without their hard work broadcasting fantasy worlds to distract us, the drab reality of our lives would seep in, causing us deep pain. So thank you, dimwitted puppet masters! You keep us neck-deep in the delusions that sustain us!

P.S. We want our mommy.

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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