I Like to Watch

What should you be watching this fall? "Pushing Daisies" and "Gossip Girl" top the list.

Published October 7, 2007 1:00PM (EDT)

OK, let's skip the dead kittens and get right to the point this week: television. Although it might seem difficult to imagine for even a second that I consider you, the common chicken, when I'm sitting down to write my column, I do. My aim is to make these words palatable for chickens who a) watch tons of television and want to discuss all of it, b) watch a few good shows and enjoy hearing about the really bad ones, c) don't watch TV at all but want to keep abreast of any and all small-screen insanity for water-cooler purposes, d) don't watch TV or care, but enjoy sad anecdotes about dead kittens and working at the Gap and hitting the wall in calculus, e) don't watch TV but read this column to comment on what a waste of time it is to watch TV and read this column.

Now that you understand my target poultry demographic, you have some inkling of the chaotic soup of conflicting impulses that swims through my big, empty head every time I sit down to write this column. Should I quickly review all of the best shows of the fall season in a concise but upbeat manner, or should I dedicate my entire column to the aging Derek Zoolander character on "Survivor: China," and how he represents the broad-scale collapse of the American personality over the past 20 years?

Wow! The answer is so obvious when I just lay it out simply like that.

Bull in a China swamp
In the old days, Americans were strong and silent. If you've been watching Ken Burns' World War II documentary series on PBS, "The War," you know what I'm talking about. Sure, we didn't say too much back then, and sometimes we got very drunk and fooled around with our secretaries. Other than that, though, Americans were pretty dependable: brusque, a little dogmatic, maybe, but reassuringly solid. When a problem presented itself, we rolled up our sleeves and solved it.

These days, Americans are more like Dave, aka Zoolander, former model and contestant on "Survivor: China" (8 p.m. Thursdays on CBS). Dave is the kind of guy who says "Calm down!" when he's losing his temper and "Don't be so sensitive!" when he's being overly sensitive. Dave is the guy who tells you to relax in a tone that makes your heart race faster. He's the control freak who accuses you of being controlling. He bullies you about what a bully you are, and stirs up trouble by calling you a troublemaker. Dave fancies himself a relaxed, happy, peace-loving guy who's both "a motivator" and a "good team player" (according to his bio on the CBS Web site), but he's actually wound-up and defensive and can't play nicely with others. The magic of Dave is that, when he gets in your face about something, he can almost convince you that you're the crazy one. And then he goes away, and you don't feel crazy anymore. You just want to kill him -- a completely rational urge, actually.

Or, as ousted Survivor Ashley puts it: "Dave, if I had one word to describe him? Tool. That is the perfect word for him. Tool."

See, in the old days, it was easy. If you met someone like Dave, you'd just avoid him. But these days, our workplaces and schools and even our homes are absolutely filthy with Daves. You can't order a sandwich at the corner deli or make a flight reservation or drop your kids off at school without some Dave slowing down the line or insulting someone or losing his temper over nothing. In the old days, a Dave would've kept quiet, drowning his inner demons in whiskey and loose women. These days, though, the Daves can't shut up. Whether they're collecting the trash or running Fortune 500 companies, Daves are a pox on the land. They represent the aggressive wimp, the wishy-washy zealot, the psychoanalyzing psycho, the nitpicky, fault-finding mess of flaws. If you wake up every day in a country you don't recognize anymore, that's because Daves across the nation are compromising our productivity and ripping apart our families and destroying our diplomatic relations worldwide, leaving a trail of paper jams and broken homes and chaos in their wake.

New, new, new!
But you don't think for a second that I'd let a rapidly spreading global plague with massive, long-lasting cultural and geopolitical implications stand in the way of discussing the new and returning shows that you might want to watch this fall, do you? I should hope not.

"Pushing Daisies" (8 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC) is a surreal, oddball dramedy that makes all of the other fall pilots look lackadaisical (get it?) by comparison. The story centers around a pie maker who can bring people back to life just by touching them -- sounds sort of familiar so far, at least until you throw in some visually stunning sets, great actors, and writing that's whimsical and funny and dark and wry and holds your attention from start to finish. Best of all, the most clever moments on this show are tossed off without fanfare, like when pie maker Ned (Lee Pace) is asked, "How was the convention?" and he responds, "Conventional." The witty weirdness is packed into this show like ripe cherries baked into a big, delicious pie, making it the best dramedy bet since Betty Suarez donned a hideous poncho and stormed the offices of Mode magazine.

Which is not to say that it's a sure thing, of course. This show represents an odd combination of procedural drama (Ned solves crimes by bringing victims back to life and talking to them) and romantic comedy (except that he and his true love can't touch -- not sure how they're going to work around that one). Will it still feel fresh and interesting four or five episodes in? The plot may be a difficult puzzle to solve, but the imagination and smarts behind this one bode well.

Another favorite of mine this fall is "Gossip Girl" (8 p.m. Wednesdays on CW), a snappy, mean-spirited teen drama with all of the sophistication that "The O.C." (also created by Josh Schwartz) lacked. Of course we hate the prep school brats at the center of this story: We hate them for tossing back $15 martinis at the bars of luxury hotels before they're even drinking age. We hate them for dressing better than we do and throwing extravagant parties. We even hate them for checking their Sidekicks to see who just walked in the door at the party -- you know, a few feet away from where they're standing? Why would we want to watch a bunch of snotty kids who constantly remind us of how old and poor we are?

On top of that, my fears that we'd run into the same old Josh Schwartz formula have been realized. Yes, here's the average boy, defending his sister's honor at a big, fancy party, and it ends in fisticuffs. Silver platters are toppled, rich folks turn and stare, and the average boy leaves disgusted, chased by a tall, pretty rich girl.

But even so ... look at all those tall buildings! New York City, hallelujah! Plus, the teenagers on this show seem far more dedicated to remaining mean and nasty indefinitely (remember how boring "The O.C." got, shortly after Summer and Seth decided to never, ever leave each other, ever, or at least until the show got cancelled?). Even though I know that we're likely to see the same fancy events, horrible misunderstandings, and melancholy walks through busy NYC streets on each and every episode, I'm happy to hop onboard this Lincoln Towncar to wealthy teen angst. This show is glossy and nasty and lots of fun, and that's more than I can say for the vast majority of pilots on the fall lineup.

For those with a taste for kinder, gentler teens, CW's "Aliens in America" (8:30 p.m. Mondays) is surprisingly charming for a show about a foreign exchange student stuck in suburban Wisconsin. You can't really lose with a couple of earnest underdogs, facing the hellhounds of high school together. As willfully dorky as this show can be, it's sweet and weird and I love it like an orphaned Pakistani boy. Speaking of hell, though, CW's "Reaper" is pretty underwhelming, aside from Ray Wise's excellent turn as a smooth-talking Satan. At this point, giving your lead character a job at a big-box warehouse store or an electronics store is painfully clichéd (Sorry, "Chuck"!) -- haven't 10 or 15 movies milked this setting for all it's worth over the past few years? And where does this show go from there? This generic overwhelmed guy is forced to work for the devil? Didn't Kevin Smith try something about God and the devil before ("Dogma"), and wasn't it terrible? Lucky for him network executives don't have long-term memories.

And then there's ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money" (10 p.m. Wednesdays), plucky but scattered. Sure, this show is cartoonish but it's also kind of clever, predictable but sort of endearing, and then there's Peter Krause, playing the frazzled, whiny lawyer with whiny Nate Fisher flair. It's tough to buy the notion that his character would follow in his dead father's footsteps, or do it only because he wants to get to the bottom of his father's mysterious death, but I guess we can suspend our disbelief for a few more weeks, at least.

But forget wait-and-see. Let's move on to some new dramas that are bad, plain and simple: CBS's "Cane," ABC's "Big Shots," CBS's "Moonlight" and ABC's "Cashmere Mafia" can be safely categorized as glossy, shallow copycat experiments with no soul whatsoever. My favorite promo, by the way, pairs matching spooky shots of Jennifer Love Hewitt's face on "Ghost Whisperer" with the star of "Moonlight," Alex O'Loughlin. Now all he needs is some big boobs and he's in business!

NBC's "Bionic Woman" is hard to ignore, thanks to Katee Sackhoff, but I hope they have something interesting planned, beyond a series of spectacular catfights. And "Private Practice," despite its obvious flaws, will at least be a solid alternative for viewers who are getting sick of McDreamy and Co. over at "Grey's Anatomy."

Comedy-wise, there's not a lot to recommend. Despite the rave reviews elsewhere, NBC's "Chuck" leaves me cold, ABC's "Samantha Who?" feels uneven despite some great moments from Jean Smart, and ABC's "Cavemen" is, simply put, unspeakably bad. Strangely enough, it's the most traditional sitcoms in the bunch, Fox's "Back to You" and CBS's "The Big Bang Theory," that seem to promise the most laughs -- even when you subtract the ones coming from the laugh track.

Old, old, old!
Meanwhile, NBC's "Heroes" is back and I'm bored already. They needed a big, new twist going into the second season, and Peter Petrelli with amnesia ain't cutting it. Sure, some sexy Mexicans are in the mix (Cue "Sexy Mexican Maid" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Claire's at a brand new school, but what else? Claire's daddy is working at a Kinko's (see also: clichéd retail outlet jobs, above)? Mohinder and Matt team up to raise the little wondergirl? At least it looks like Ali Larter is leaving the show -- her stories were, hands down, the worst of the bunch last season. But they'd better get Kristen Bell into the mix fast (she plays a new, eeevil character who doesn't show up for a few weeks). And they're going to need to come up with a newer, even catchier catchphrase while they're at it. How about a lucrative commercial tie-in: Eat the Big, Extra-Spicy Chicken Chalupa, save the world!

But why should I complain? "Friday Night Lights" (8 p.m. Fridays on NBC) and "30 Rock" (8:30 p.m. Thursdays on NBC) are both back, plus we've still got "Mad Men" (10 p.m. Thursdays on AMC) to cling to.

In short, there's too much TV out there, and most of it is pretty good, but not great. Like the Daves clogging up our schools and offices and corner stores, mediocre shows dress up their empty, pointless clichés in pretty outfits and expect us to tune in, year after year, only to eventually disappoint us with how empty and pointless they are. So be wary of the Daves of the fall lineup, because they're only there to slow you down and distract you from the good things in life, like ... give me a minute ... Damn you, Daves!

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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I Like To Watch Television