I Like to Watch

The hapless underachievers of "The Office" and "30 Rock" bumble onward, while the charms of "Californication's" pretentious antihero wear dangerously thin.

Published October 21, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

My mom is visiting me this week, and she seems appalled and confused by the little details of my life in a way she has never been before. "Those look like they'd break very easily," she said when shown porcelain candleholders, a gift from a friend. Something in her tone suggested it would be better to just break them right now and get it over with.

When a package arrived from Fox containing a DVD of a new talk show plus a bag of marshmallows, some graham crackers and a bar of chocolate (there was a theme: S'more talk, less music? I can't remember), my mom was utterly flummoxed. S'mores? In the mail? Why? I didn't have a simple explanation. "They send TV critics all kinds of weird stuff."

"It could be poisoned," my mom said, and she wasn't joking. Forty years of motherhood have taught her to sniff out danger in the most seemingly benign places.

"'Please watch this show, then die?' They wouldn't get much publicity that way."

"I'm just saying I wouldn't eat something that came in the mail from a total stranger."

I found myself eyeing the marshmallows suspiciously. Publicists have always struck me as a nefarious bunch, so flawlessly dressed and coifed, clutching their BlackBerries, smiling manically and insisting that I give them my honest opinion of a very bad show they're promoting that month.

"People used to send anthrax in the mail," my mom added, as if it were once a widespread trend. "It just doesn't seem safe."

Insane in the membrane
I laughed at my mom and repeated the story over and over to my husband and my brother and my sister-in-law, the perfect illustration of how unhinged she is these days. Then I took the marshmallows and the graham crackers and the chocolate bar and threw them in the trash.

Because insanity, like good comedy, always has a grain of truth to it. Even paranoid schizophrenics can be very convincing, under the right circumstances.

My mom would make a great sitcom character, particularly today, when TV comedies are less focused on jokes and more focused on characters and situations that have a heavy current of truth running through them. The "Full House" template of comedy, in which characters didn't need to be realistic or relatable, but just needed to spout punch lines with lots of googly-eyed enthusiasm, has officially expired. Comedy today centers on odd yet familiar characters, people you've met before, who remind you of your sister or your friend or even yourself. Michael Scott from "The Office," Celia Hodes from "Weeds," Jack Donaghy from "30 Rock" -- these are characters who, however bizarre, bear a closer relation to real people, in all of their neurotic, quirky glory, than do the relatively heroic and noble characters that populate most TV dramas.

Whether they're bored office workers, bickering anchormen, lustful nerds or suburban pot dealers, whether they're arrogant blowhards, mumbling introverts, scattered, self-involved moms or hedonistic writers, the characters on today's best comedies are as strange and bumbling and deluded as you and I. Those poor, poor people.

The paper chase
NBC's "The Office" (9 p.m. Thursdays) has always trafficked in characters and stories awkward enough to be real, and the fourth season has so far matched the nasty delights of the first three. The running joke of the series is that, for all of our bluster, American workers don't get much done. Instead, we plan office parties and try desperately to get through the day without thinking about (let alone doing) any work at all.

One recent episode opened with the troops at Dunder Mifflin assembled for a meeting in the conference room. Strangely enough, everyone seems to be listening closely to the bossman, Michael (Steve Carell). Then we cut away to Jim (John Krasinski), who explains that they're all watching the "DVD Video" logo bounce around on the screen next to Michael:

"This cube on the screen, it bounces around all day, and sometimes it looks like it's heading right into the corner of the screen, and at the last minute it hits a wall and bounces away. We're all just dying to see it go right into the corner."

When the cube finally goes into the corner, everyone smiles and claps and says "That was so awesome!" Mistaking the applause as a response to his great idea, Michael tells the camera, "Some days I am just on fire."

After loving the original BBC series starring Ricky Gervais, it was tough for most of us to imagine that an American version could ever compare to it. But the writers of this series have done a great job of creating a show that quickly developed a life of its own.

This season, Ryan's (B.J. Novak) rapid conversion from temp worker to slick executive is a transformation that should be hauntingly familiar to anyone who spent the mid-'90s at a dot-com company, surrounded by recent graduates marching around in brand-new Prada loafers, playing make-believe at wheeling and dealing. Ah, those were halcyon days indeed, alternately basking in the limitless potential of expanding global markets and sweating over the very real possibility of sudden bankruptcy.

Ryan has perfected the executive jackass routine, striding into the office, and then instructing Pam (Jenna Fischer) to wait until he's done texting before he can greet her. Later, he rallies the workers around his vision for the company by cobbling together the most grandiose business babble. "This is a massive overhaul!" he gushes. "We're getting younger, sleeker and more agile with the way that we adapt to the marketplace." Then he informs them that they'll all be getting BlackBerries.

Dwight (Rainn Wilson) promptly asks, "What if we don't want to use a BlackBerry because they are stupid and pointless?" "Next question," grumbles Ryan, grimacing behind his neatly groomed, Don Johnson-style five o'clock shadow.

In the next episode, Ryan speaks to the cameras entirely in clichés: "This is a paper company, and I don't want us to get lost in the weeds or into a beauty contest. Convergence, viral marketing, we're going guerrilla, we're taking it to the streets while keeping an eye on the street -- Wall Street! I don't want to reinvent the wheel here. In other words, it is what it is. Buying paper just became fun!" His words would sound downright ridiculous, if they weren't so eerily familiar.

It's the quiet cheer and spirit of the employees of Dunder Mifflin that keep this comedy ship from sinking -- which is strange, because the BBC version always dabbled dangerously in depressing territory. Gareth (Mackenzie Crook) was just so desperate and sad, David (Ricky Gervais) was hideously unlikable, and the awkward moments were throw-yourself-off-a-cliff awkward, instead of just uncomfortable -- all of which had its own special appeal, mind you, but NBC's version is a little less unnerving. Even when Michael hit Meredith (Kate Flannery) with his car, then made a big show of visiting her in the hospital just so everyone wouldn't hate him ("I hate hospitals. In my mind, they are associated with sickness"), or Dwight killed his girlfriend's sick cat, then gave her another one as if he could make up for it ("It's a feral barn cat! I trapped him last night, and I'm giving him to you as a replacement cat for the one I destroyed!"), it was less awful than funny. Or maybe it was funny because it was so awful.

Either way, "The Office" is consistently weird and hilarious, which is really the only fitting tribute to the deeply disturbed freaks and lunatics most of us work with day in and day out.

I think I might be sinking
Meanwhile, not only hasn't "Californication" (10:30 p.m. Mondays on Showtime) made me laugh in a long, long time, but it seems to get darker yet more precious every week. This is a comedy, remember? I'd rather not spend an entire half-hour sighing heavily.

How did this show go from looking fun and promising to repeating its party tricks over and over like a precocious but ultimately tedious child? Our hero, Hank Moody (David Duchovny), stumbles through life, charming the pants off everyone he meets, reducing his ex-wife and daughter to giggles at every turn, but no one seems to mind that he's a hollow shell of a man with no real drive and nothing substantive to say, beyond sweeping criticisms of everything and everyone around him. It's not hard to understand why the guy has writer's block.

It would be fine to make Hank a pathetic drunk, if the writers didn't simultaneously have such a strong attachment to making us think he's devilishly suave and clever, and that his kid is deliciously adorable. Becca (Madeleine Martin) plays the guitar and sings! Is that cool, or what? And naturally his ex-girlfriend, Karen (Natascha McElhone), is so unbearably gorgeous and patient and loving, the ultimate One Who Got Away. But does she have a discernible personality behind those cheekbones?

The big problem is that none of this is funny. Hopelessly cool people are never funny, in fact. The writers keep trying to convince us, week after week, that Hank is eminently cool just because he wrote a book called "God Hates Us All" -- so edgy! -- and because he spends most of his time informing other people of how unoriginal and lame they are. But we don't sympathize with him, as he mopes around the set of the crappy romantic movie that someone paid him tons of money to make out of his book. Didn't Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" prove once and for all that we're not remotely interested in self-involved Hollywood writers who struggle with substance abuse because they're too rich, too idle and too self-involved not to be depressed?

There is a way to make it funny, but the writers of "Californication" haven't found it yet. The characters aren't fully formed, and outside of the occasional snappy retort, there's not a lot of reason to invest in what happens next. Why should we care in the least bit about Hank's agent, Charlie (Evan Handler), and his marital troubles? A few scenes about S&M are amusing enough, but what's the issue with Charlie and his wife, really, beyond boredom?

Scratch the surface of "Californication" and there's nothing there. It is just a half-hour comedy, true, but look at a show like "Weeds," which borders on farce week after week, yet we do know who Nancy Botwin and her family and friends are. Nancy is daringly unlikable, and her character really wouldn't work if she weren't. If every week we saw Nancy one-upping her foes with wit and flair instead of passively chewing on her frappuccino straw and mismanaging pretty much every aspect of her life while acting like a big asshole, "Weeds" would be hard to take. Instead, the writers dare to make her slightly hateful, and they make her sort-of friend Celia confused and mean, and all of the bad people on the show are basically tortured by their bad decisions every week. Most important, there are enough laughs that there can be some holes in the plot and we don't mind.

Introducing us to Hank's dad, who died in a recent episode, may have killed "Californication's" golden goose. Daddy is just like Hank, to the 10th power. He walks around saying things like "OK, who do I have to fuck to get a cocktail around here?" and "Life's too short to dance with fat chicks." But most of us heard really hysterical lines like that at crappy frat parties 15 years ago, so all we can think is that life is too short to spend time with surly, cliché-spouting drunks.

After a while, it's hard not to notice that Duchovny pretty much refuses to emote. Is he channeling Kevin Costner, or did he never, ever emote, and we were all too bewitched by his pretty face to notice?

You know how every episode of "Mad Men" is heavy with larger meaning, each scene hinting at the secrets and lies built into the American dream? Even though you could easily fold Hank Moody into the same conflict between the security of family life and the thrills of freedom and reckless hedonism, his struggle against his own worst impulses feels far less compelling than Don Draper's.

He gets depressed, drinks, mumbles and makes a cheap pass at his ex, who's engaged to someone else. And if he ever wins her back, will that be satisfying? No, because we don't care about him or her or their happiness. Don Draper and Nancy Botwin are hapless, confused underdogs, so we can't help cheering them on. Hank, on the other hand, is just a smug drunk who hates us all. Why bother?

Humble peacock pie
Contrast the pretensions of "Californication" with the supremely humble tone of "30 Rock" (8:30 p.m. Thursdays on NBC). The characters on "30 Rock" are writing a TV show, they work in entertainment, yet we're supposed to recognize them for the abject losers that they are. When Liz (Tina Fey) buys a wedding dress and is discovered trying it on in her office or Jenna (Jane Krakowski) gains 30 pounds and then instructs the hot, young secretary not to stand next to her? Now that's the kind of pathetic behavior we expect from comic characters.

On "30 Rock," the egocentric vanities of the rich and famous are, without fail, treated as the side effects of severely delusional personalities. Take this exchange between Jerry Seinfeld (as himself) and network exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin):

Seinfeld: I was vacationing with my family in Europe in a country that only rich people know about ...

Jack: Svenborgia?

Seinfeld: No, better. But I can't tell you!

In another scene, the show's star, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), worries that his marriage is falling apart, but only in strictly selfish, practical terms:

Tracy: Who's gonna do my banking? Who's gonna write my blogs? Who's gonna do the cooking on Taco Wednesdays?

Liz: OK, well, Kenneth, you are now in charge of helping Tracy with any of the nonsexual things that Angie would do for him.

Tracy: So he's, like, my office wife?

Liz: Sure, let's go with that.

Tracy: Kenneth Parcell, will you take this ring ... and sell it in the Jewish part of midtown and use the money to get us a Nintendo Wii?

Kenneth: (Big smile, tearfully) Yes, yes! A thousand times yes!

Notice how many funny throwaway lines are included in this one farcical, over-the-top exchange? In laughs per episode, "30 Rock" rivals Fox's brilliant-but-canceled "Arrested Development" -- it's dense with great moments and spot-on parodies. One of my recent favorites has to be the promos Jack showed Seinfeld for a new reality show called "MILF Island," into which Seinfeld would be digitally inserted in order to boost ratings: "25 sexy moms, 50 sweaty eighth-grade boys and one beloved American comedy star!"

From Jack Donaghy to Liz Lemon to Tracy Jordan, every character on "30 Rock" is a serious wreck, making bad decisions and behaving pathetically at every turn. The more successful they are, the crazier they are, but they continue to feed each other's delusions. Or, as Jack puts it, "Lemon, don't ever say you're just you, because you're better than you!"

Conclusiastical remarks
Sadly, you're not better than you, and I'm not better than me, and that's why we love to laugh at characters who fall far short of their own expectations. But worry not, my friend, because cleverness and coolness are overrated, and strokes to an already-overblown ego are like poisoned S'mores for the soul.

God doesn't hate us all, he only hates the egocentric blowhards and the self-involved, pretentious pudwackers who think that drinking off-brand whiskey and penning mediocre romantic comedies are tantamount to suffering. In spite of our petty squabbles and bad shoes and inability to floss regularly, God likes you and me just fine, and he likes our crazy moms even better.

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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30 Rock Californication I Like To Watch Nbc Television The Office