I Like to Watch

The Southland bursts into flames. Is the apocalypse looming? Plus: The contagious spirit of "Pushing Daisies" wins out over the cheesy B-movie gloom of "Bionic Woman."


Heather Havrilesky
October 28, 2007 5:00PM (UTC)

After two full days of watching houses in Southern California burst into flames as updates on fires throughout the area scrolled by, it didn't seem like much of a stretch to imagine that the apocalypse was just around the corner.

But let's look on the bright side: If these are the end times, at least that means we don't have to worry about watering the plants or vacuuming or doing the dishes. No matter how oppressive our to-do lists might be, it's relaxing, somehow, to think that they might be rendered irrelevant at any moment. After all, as we sit and watch our worldly possessions going up in flames, will we really be preoccupied over how disorganized they are, boxes teetering on top of other boxes, piles of clothes begging to be ironed at long last?

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That's one nice thing about the apocalypse. Since all of your worst fears have come to pass, that means they can't rattle around in your brain any longer, tormenting you and keeping you up at night. Hurray!

In fact, when the world ends, you won't have to think about not having saved enough for retirement (what a relief!) or catching a disease (dodged that bullet!) or even what to make for dinner that night, since you'll simply open whatever cans of food are left in your kitchen and eat what's inside until they're all gone. I guess you could worry that your neighbors will come over, looking for food, and you'll have to kill them to protect your food supply so you can stay alive for another week. And granted, that's pretty worrisome.

But you know what? I bet when it actually happens it won't seem nearly as bad as it does right now!

Propheteering
That's probably what Nostradamus had to tell himself back in the 1550s, when he was writing his lengthy tomes on rivers of blood and burning towers and so forth. It couldn't have been easy, having elaborate visions of every single depressing event that awaited mankind. At some point, people just stop inviting you to parties.

But luckily for us, on the History Channel, the doomsday party never ends! The two-hour special "Lost Book of Nostradamus" (premieres at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28) is clearly the work of true apocalypse-lovers and end-times fanatics, relishing the horrors that await us when Armageddon comes.

The special focuses on a recent discovery at the Italian National Library in Rome, a book of watercolor paintings that appears to have been created by Nostradamus. Even though two of the more somber scholars interviewed on camera assert that Nostradamus could never have created the paintings, both because his artistic talent was limited and because he preferred words to images, as evidenced by the rest of his work, the big Nostradamus fans tend to disagree.

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And of course, Nostradamus' modern-day groupies, not exactly known for their skepticism, are more than willing to go out on a limb and explain to the camera exactly what each and every one of the cryptic symbols in the book mean, from announcing that the crescent moon symbolizes Islam to concluding that three drops of blood in one painting clearly stand for Napoleon, Hitler and Osama bin Laden.

But how did this strange document emerge after so long? While the Nostradamians are quick to conclude that the discovery "is definitely no accident" (keep in mind, these are people who don't think anything is an accident), it still seems odd that a journalist would stumble on such a historically significant find. But practical facts and details are on the back burner here, as the voice-over lures us deeper into the bowels of this repetitive special, assuring us that this mysterious book outlines exactly when the world will end. We're told this before every other commercial break, in fact, until we're pulling out our day planners, poised and ready to move up our vacations and work leaves based on this very pressing bit of information.

It's a long, long wait. While "Lost Book of Nostradamus" might be a nail-biting ride for those who have an insatiable taste for gloom and doom, for the rest of us, it gets a little tedious after the first half-hour. Over and over, we see the same reenactments of Nostradamus, fiddling thoughtfully with astrological models or gazing at the stars, while one of the doom seekers waxes less-than-poetic on the man's enormous powers (one fan actually describes him as "the go-to guy for prophecy"). "But when does the world end?!!" we finally scream at our TV screens, no doubt scaring the hell out of our neighbors.

I would tell you the date of the apocalypse right now and save you the trouble of watching, but I don't want to spoil all the fun for those of you who'd rather live in fearful anticipation of that special day for the next five years.

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Oops.

Evil-natured robots, etc.
Sorry. But now that you realize you only have five more years to live, you'll find it easier to relate to Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan) of NBC's "Bionic Woman" (9 p.m. Wednesdays). Yes, it's true she can crush a man's ribcage with her bare hands and run 60 miles an hour and jump very, very high, but Jaime is in deep trouble, because the anthrocites (huh?) that keep the bionics from being rejected by her body eventually "become fatigued," and the bionics systems "cease to function." Basically, she'll fall to pieces over the course of the next five years, lending a sense of urgency to every day of her short life -- not unlike the sense of urgency the writers of "Bionic Woman" must feel to boost ratings, which have been falling steadily since the show premiered a few weeks ago.

And you can tell that Jaime feels this sense of urgency, because she delivers her lines with a husky, menacing whisper -- as does everyone else on this cheesy hellhole of a bad '80s-era B-movie of a dorky nightmare of a show.

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Take the scene in the second episode, where Jaime's sitting in a bar, talking to no one in particular, having just found a top-secret file on herself in her dead boyfriend's apartment:

"You never really know anybody. You think you know them. You think you want to marry and spend the rest of your life with them, and then they turn out to be a creep with a weird dossier on you."

Oh, ha ha! Wait, I thought I was watching "Chuck" for a second there. Sadly, though, the kitsch of "Bionic Woman" is awkward and disastrously off-pitch. Sample, if you will, the shamefully hokey next scene, where Jaime decides to make out with some random guy in the bar's bathroom, then ends up breaking one of his ribs by accident. Just as the guy is announcing that he has to leave and go to the emergency room (Tee-hee!), Jonas (Miguel Ferrer) who's part of the team that saved and rebuilt Jaime, strides in.

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Jonas: What the hell are you doing?

Jaime: What, are you following me now?

Jonas: Who's this guy?

Jaime: This is -- what's your name?

Guy: Steve.

Jaime: Obviously this is Steve.

Jonas: Go home, Steve. This is what you're doing with your life?

Jaime: Go away.

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Jonas: I would love to. Those legs, that arm, that ear and that eye belong to me, and they cost $50 million!

Oh boy. I bet the dialogue on the original "Bionic Woman" was less cheesy than this. And incredibly enough, all of the dialogue on the show is this bad. Everyone seems to speak in the terse, substance-less exchanges of bad action movies. Each line is a shallow riddle built on whatever the other person just said. Even Katee Sackhoff, who plays the first bionic woman, Sarah Corvus, sounds a little foolish growling out her empty lines.

And instead of laying out some semblance of a story or growing mystery, this show feels like nothing but a series of gruff, tough-guy disagreements, set in gloomy warehouses and dimly lit offices and dark hallways. Everyone is full of bravado and ego, and no one has any discernible personality beyond their location on the toughness scale. It's like being trapped in a bad Steven Segal movie.

Just feast your weak, human eyes on some of these outrageously clichéd lines:

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"We're a private, clandestine group dedicated to stopping rogue organizations from ending civilization as we know it. I'll make it simple for you: We're saving the world!"

"First thing they teach you in this game is never get too close to anyone!"

"I'm a bartender. We hear things."

"Don't even get me started about how objectifying this whole bionic woman thing is!"

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"Here's how it works: I say do something, and you do it!"

"Why, because you turned me into a half-robotic freak?"

"Bring it on, bitch!"

But the worst moments of "Bionic Woman" are the ones in which impressionable teenage girls (you can't swing a bionic leg without hitting an impressionable teenage girl on this show) are wowed and inspired by seeing Jaime take out the bad guys. "Thank you," one formerly smart-mouthed teen says to Jaime after Jaime saves her life. "I'm so gonna take up karate."

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When another woman asks her "How did you do that?" Jaime answers, "Pilates?"

Yes, ugh. "Bionic Woman" would be unwatchable anyway, but it's these horrid little jokes that turn it from disappointing to painfully, wretchedly crappy. How did they do that? Didn't this pilot have at least a small bit of promise, or was that the impressionable teenager in me talking?

Weirdness becomes him <
> But let's try to stay optimistic in the face of impending doom, OK? By deleting "Bionic Woman" from your TiVo, you'll clear out plenty of recording space for "Pushing Daisies" (8 p.m. Wednesdays), which ABC just picked up for a full season.

"Pushing Daisies" is exactly the sort of colorful, dynamic, clever show that feels worth watching in a vast sea of badly written, uninspired dramas. It's not fair to compare, I know, but where "Bionic Woman" is unoriginal and cheesy and cringe-inducing, "Pushing Daisies" is inventive and droll and engaging.

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At the heart of the story is the pie maker, Ned (Lee Pace), who can bring people and animals back to life just by touching them. If he touches them again, they die. If they're revived for more than a minute and Ned doesn't touch them, someone else nearby dies instead. This simple skill makes Ned an irreplaceable business partner to Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), a detective who's always looking for a quick way to make (or steal, if need be) a big pile of cash.

Everyone's been raving about Zachary Levi's charms in the lead role of NBC's "Chuck," but I think Lee Pace's Ned is far more affecting and original. Ned is just like the shy guy we all knew way back when -- that sweet, slightly dorky goofball everyone had a small crush on, but never had the courage to ask out. His childhood neighbor and sweetheart Charlotte "Chuck" Charles (Anna Friel) is the effusive but odd girl next door, hopelessly ethical and good, tempered with a wild streak and a relentless sense of curiosity.

Yes, they're both a little too good to be true, but that's part of this show's appeal. These aren't jaded characters -- or at least, we're meeting them at the least jaded point in their lives. They're in love and full of wonder, plus Chuck was just brought back to life by Ned, so she's constantly resolving to do everything differently the second time around.

Having a pair of lovebirds at the center of your dramedy would be untenable, if not for the fact that Ned and Chuck can't touch each other, and Chuck drives everyone else in Ned's life crazy, from Olive (Kristin Chenoweth), the waitress at the pie shop who's in love with Ned, to Emerson, who simply hates Chuck's upbeat demeanor and worries that if anyone discovers that she's been resurrected, the jig will be up on their little sleuthing business.

Each episode of "Pushing Daisies" is its own strange little mystery/fairy tale, with elements of the procedural drama (How did victim X get killed, and by whom?) mixed in with fantasy, romance, comedy and surreal digressions. Last week's episode had odd little digressions that involved an escaped convict, a lonely girl who lived in a windmill, a carrier pigeon with a broken wing, and the delivery of a pie to Chuck's two aunts (who were once popular traveling performers who were planning a reunion tour, but got too depressed to perform after Chuck's death). At one very strange point in the story, Olive and the two aunts are driving through the countryside, following the carrier pigeon with a now-repaired wing, and singing "Build a Little Birdhouse in Your Soul" -- yes, the song by They Might Be Giants.

Now I'll admit, the singing of a precious They Might Be Giants song almost pushed this whimsical, chiming, cheery circus wagon over a horrible, rocky cliff for me. But let's be fair: For those who don't grit their teeth when they hear any song by this band, it was a delightful digression. Besides, that's the price you pay for admission to the strangest show on earth -- or on your TV set, at any rate. You can't expect a show to be this odd and imaginative and not follow some path that's weird or superfluous or downright bizarre every now and then. I think we can all agree that, given the oppressive homogeneity of most dramas, it makes good sense to support and encourage the weirdos in the bunch.

That said, even though this is a cartoonish fantasy, the main characters and relationships have to develop a little more complexity for us to stay onboard for the rest of the season. Emerson should side with Chuck against Ned for a change -- maybe they could team up together. Olive needs a suitor (there have been hints of this), and we need to see new sides of all of the characters. With so much visual excitement and snappy dialogue, it might be easy to keep shining the surface of this sweet gem, but over the course of 22 episodes, we're going to need some substance and subtlety to keep us coming back each week. We can embrace the optimistic, plucky spirit of "Pushing Daisies," just as long as it's still complicated and dark enough for those of us who realize that the world's about to end.

And I feel fine
But there's one important thing to keep in mind about the apocalypse: It's not the end of the world! Just look at the people in the path of the fires in Southern California, evacuating with trucks full of their possessions, flagged down by local news teams in search of some teary-eyed, poignant pain. They look resigned, sure, but aside from a few heavy sighs and pained grimaces, most of them seemed to be taking their catastrophic losses in stride.

It's a good preview of how we should try to handle things when the world comes to an end approximately five years from now. Sure, we'll be disappointed -- devastated, even -- but if we can try to put a brave face on it and remain optimistic, that'll really make our lives much richer and more meaningful for those last few minutes or seconds that we have left. And isn't that more than worth it?

Next week: Why life is too short to miss NBC's "Phenomenon," a deliciously insane competition to find "the next great mentalist."


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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