I Like to Watch

Time to give thanks for an impending recession, a memorable "Weeds" finale, "Battlestar Galactica: Razor" and the return of "Project Runway"!

Published November 18, 2007 1:00PM (EST)

As Thanksgiving dashes toward us faster than an anxious turkey, let's all fill our hearts with gratitude. For even as our housing market collapses, the value of the U.S. dollar falls and an ugly recession looms just around the corner, it's important for us to thank the good Lord for this great land of ours! Yes, it's true that our motherland is stumbling like a drunk whore across the back alleys of international commerce. Yes, it's true that we're falling behind other nations, thanks to the fact that the incompetent jackasses we knew back in high school and college are assuming positions of authority, where they're doubtlessly screwing things up with reckless abandon.

But let's give thanks anyway. Recessions aren't all bad, remember. At least now your dumb yuppie friends will stop prattling on about installing a Jacuzzi tub in their enormous bathroom. At least now fast food and cheap beer will be back in style. At least now college kids will stop thinking that they should be running their own companies or directing multimillion-dollar movies the second they graduate. Instead, they'll have to go get temp jobs, just like we did, back during the last recession. Because when recent college grads aren't eating Ramen and groveling for unpaid internships, there's really something wrong with the world.

We've been spoiled, so spoiled! With our stupid iPods and TiVos and iPhones and Nintendo Wiis! Wasting our days at work, checking the value of our stock portfolios, shopping online, giving money to fight global warming so we don't feel so guilty about fueling up our gigantic cars and driving them to the Container Store for more containers to put all of our useless stuff in. Sept. 11 was supposed to have changed us forever, given us our souls back, made us focus on the important things in life. Instead, we've spent the past six years reorganizing our walk-in closets.

Now we'll eat bad pizza and like it, thank you very much! We'll be grateful for our small houses and our enormous mortgages, grateful for our small tits and our crappy jobs, grateful for our outdated shoes and our threadbare furniture! We'll learn to sew patches on our clothes, we'll learn to cut our kids' hair, we'll learn to clip coupons and cook with beans! We'll start saying stuff they used to say back in the '30s, like "At least I have my health!" and "All I need is a roof over my bad haircut and a place to hang my unfashionable hat" or however that one goes. We'll turn down the heat and put on sweaters, just like our parents used to force us to do when we were little! We'll invite our dogs into bed to keep us warm!

Aww. I like us so much better than I did just a few minutes ago!

Flame out
You have to admit, there's an electricity, a raw-nerve-ending thrill to the tough times that the good times just don't share. Good times are all about improving your position in life (or just getting anxious about it), acquiring stuff (that doesn't make you any happier), trying to relax (in ways that aren't all that relaxing) and endlessly upgrading everything (which only trains you to look for flaws in your environment). Bad times, on the other hand, are all about acceptance and commitment and hard work: You forget what the neighbors are doing, you throw out the West Elm and Restoration Hardware catalogs, you survey your surroundings and you say, "This will have to do for a while. Honey, get me a can of beer. Let's watch something stupid on TV."

Can you feel it? Can you feel that jittery energy in your bones, the kick in your step, now that you're broke and the economy is going to hell in an overpriced Pottery Barn handbasket (which you only bought because you needed a place to store your Pottery Barn catalogs)? That's the feeling of being emancipated from the unwieldy chains of consumerism! Purge those unneeded needs from your body, shake off that upgrade angst, and you'll find yourself spiritually and emotionally refreshed! Or at least a little less sullen and distracted.

This is the "everything must go" spirit that Nancy Botwin embraces during Monday night's "Weeds" finale (10 p.m. on Showtime), and it's good to see her failings as a suburban mother, drug dealer and human being finally hitting her like a brick in the face. In fact, toward the end of the finale, I thought, "I like her so much better than I did a few minutes ago!"

Desperation becomes her. But then, let it never be said that Mary Louise Parker isn't the perfect woman for this role. She plays Nancy Botwin with the self-involved remoteness of a hideously shallow jerk, the kind who whines about her circumstances without making better choices, the kind who stumbles through life chewing on her Frappuccino straw and begging for salvation among known killers and felons.

Some questions remain, however: Why did Nancy follow Peter's ex-wife around for so long, befriend her, and then refuse to give her any money, forcing his ex to move to Seattle and trade in her medical tech scrubs for those of a surgeon? (Brooke Smith, the actress who played her, just landed a permanent position on "Grey's Anatomy.") Why did Nancy get a U-Turn sign tattooed on her ass cheek, if she hated U-Turn (the drug dealer who pushed her around, then died earlier in the season)? Nothing about this woman makes sense to me. And something about those trendy peasant tops she wears, something about her milky skin and her 20-years-younger-than-it-is face, combined with her character's distinctly American selfishness, makes me want to pull Nancy's hair the way neighbor Celia did back in the old days. Nancy would never work as a character, if she were disheveled and dumpy and aging badly. She's infuriating precisely because she toddles around like a teenager, bashful and spaced out, flirting and changing her mind and making crappy decisions every few seconds.

Celia, meanwhile, is willfully bitchy and a total wreck but far more likable. Elizabeth Perkins has always played Celia's nothing-left-to-lose nihilistic daring in an utterly convincing way, teetering and chuckling huskily and thinking on her feet. And how about how poor Celia opened up to the man she thought was her one true love, only to have Nancy screw him while she was watching? Heartbreaking!Shouldn't Celia have kicked Nancy's ass for this?

And then there's that Mary-Kate Olsen, embodying the pot-smoking anorexic Christian so convincingly that I'm pretty sure Mary-Kate Olsen is a pot-smoking anorexic Christian. I also loved Matthew Modine's character, Sullivan Groff, but it seems like he stirred things up and then sort of shuffled out of the picture.

And did you catch that very weird little public service announcement, where Parker and Perkins told us they were sincerely concerned about the recent fires in California? How many bong hits did those two do before they filmed that thing? Just looking at their zombie faces made me feel like I was high.

Anyway, I can't really write much more, since you haven't seen the finale yet. All I can tell you is that its appealing apocalyptic flavor made me wonder if "Weeds" has been renewed for another season yet.

It has been renewed, but it seems like some major changes are in store for us. I called up "Weeds'" creator Jenji Kohan to find out more, but you'll have to wait until next week to hear what she said.

Battle of the Battlestars
But that's OK, because delaying gratification is an important part of shedding your compulsive consumerism. See how good it feels not to get something you want seconds after you decide you want it? See how deeply satisfying it can be to look forward to something for once in your spoiled, sad little life?

Remember this feeling, because you're going to need it to get through the dark nights of the soul that follow next weekend's enormous tease: "Battlestar Galactica: Razor" (premieres at 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24, on Sci Fi), a two-hour movie that will heighten your thirst for all things Galactican. Sadly, though, the show's final season doesn't air until 2008.

Before I saw "Razor" I wondered if I could get back into "Battlestar" in just two short hours. Last season was a little bit disappointing, after all, and it's not clear where this show will go from there. The Cylons are less and less menacing, thanks to the haplessness of their human-form counterparts. We've seen most of the nascent-government-in-crisis scenarios, from military takeovers to revolutionary insurgencies to anti-terrorist clampdowns. And we slid into sticky, soapy territory with longtime love-haters Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber) and Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) until we felt dirty just looking at either of them.

"Razor" frees us from these unpleasant memories, and resurrects one of our old favorites: Adm. Helena Cain (Michelle Forbes), the hard-assed commander of the Pegasus, the ship that Galactica rejoined after it wandered through the universe alone in the wake of the Cylons' nuclear attack. We begin our story right before the attack, when a young officer joins the Pegasus and must enforce Cain's brutal leadership. When Cain falls, Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen) ends up working with Lee Adama and executes a mission to a Cylon base ship that involves a dark passage from Cmdr. Adama's past.

While plenty of fans of "Battlestar Galactica" have expressed their disappointment that there's only one more season of the show and it doesn't return until next year, it makes sense that the writers would hesitate to drag this show on indefinitely. Part of the problem for them is that "Battlestar's" very best episodes have set the bar so high for the entire series. President Roslin and Cmdr. Adama's standoff, the Cylon invasion of New Caprica, the discovery of the Pegasus -- so many of the episodes from the beginning and the last legs of the first two seasons were intense and suspenseful, it was hard to understand how the writers could keep the excitement pumped up so high. In its best moments, this show was one of the most riveting, intelligent suspense-thrillers on TV.

But it's pretty impossible to keep that level of intensity going for so long, and there's no way that "Battlestar" could escape falling into a repetitive formula -- most shows do. As a flashback of sorts, "Razor" can't be as exciting to longtime viewers as rejoining Adama and Roslin in their current search for Earth, but it will remind viewers of one of the fundamental appeals of the series: placing morally sound characters in untenable, impossible situations and watching them struggle for stable ground.

There's also a quick glimpse of some Cylon Centurians in action -- you know, the big, clunky, talking Cylons from the original "Battlestar Galactica" series of 1978? Have Centurians made an appearance on this show before? If so, I don't remember seeing them. What's next, Muffit the robot dog busts onto the scene and licks someone's face for several minutes while Lorne Greene and the crew share a hearty "Super Friends"-style guffaw?

"Razor" is neither the fascinating, heart-pounding "Battlestar" of our fondest memories nor the cheesy, "All Along the Watchtower"-lyrics-spewing "Battlestar" of our worst nightmares. But those hungry for a glimpse of Starbuck and Apollo will eat it up faster than a leftover-turkey-and-stuffing sandwich.

Blocking the runway
Aren't leftovers the best? See, it's not going to be that bad, not buying stuff. Soon you'll see how, when you recycle the Anthropologie catalog before you have a chance to fixate on it, you don't imagine for a second that you'd be happier if you looked more like a moody, bony teenager in a Victorian-era baby-doll dress and intricately embroidered $300 lace-up boots.

If push came to shove, you could always sew that dress for yourself, right? Isn't that what making do with what you have is all about? When times get tough, don't the tough start sewing? Just look at those nimble, thimble-fingered freaks of "Project Runway" (10 p.m. Wednesdays on Bravo), which recently returned for a fourth glorious season.

Or not-so-glorious, by all appearances. Now, as you well know, I love this show, and I'm not remotely interested in fashion. I love the smart neurotics and the obsessive freaks and the fussy queens they find for this thing. I love how these people are designed not just to design, but to berate each other's crappy taste. Because there's really nothing like watching people demonstrate contempt for each other's taste. It's like watching an episode of "Antiques Roadshow" where, instead of appraising the value of various antiques, a snotty expert holds forth on the questionable style choices of each person, based on the tacky artifacts they own.

Unfortunately, the designers on the fourth season look like a bunch of experienced professionals who know how and when to bite their tongues. Damn them! Where are the outspoken sociopaths and charismatic madmen who might rival some of the "Project Runway" greats -- Jay McCarroll, Santino Rice and Austin Scarlett?

Because, while on other reality shows and reality competitions the villain is someone dumb and mean whom no one can stand, "Project Runway" always casts the sorts of mean, crazy people that you'd feel lucky to count as some of your closest friends. They're the complainers and whiners and 30-minute monologuists whose phone calls you would never, ever miss. They're the sorts of people who eviscerate the other contestants just to keep themselves from getting bored while they're taking a smoking break (McCarroll). They undermine each other with deliciously sharp observations, they play on each other's weaknesses (Santino), they do spot-on impersonations of Tim Gunn (Santino) and Michael Kors (also Santino). Wait a minute, can Santino really be responsible for all of those misty water-colored memories? So where's our Santino, people? Where?! All I see is a bunch of reasonable, ambitious types and one kooky hippie. Do you honestly think we're going to hang around just to hear Tim Gunn say "Make it work!" for the fifty-millionth time in a row?

Unsexy unsexual healing
Speaking of making it work, since the unsavory sex scenes and monotonous, mumbly couples therapy sessions of "Tell Me You Love Me" probably drove you screaming in the other direction weeks ago, let me tell you how it all turned out, OK? (Don't read this if you plan to catch up with this show some day -- although I'd strongly caution you against wasting your time.) Carolyn (Sonya Walger) finally got pregnant after whining about it for a full year, only to have her wussy husband Palek (Adam Scott) discover (through therapy!) that he really didn't want to be a father. And also through the miracles of therapy, he started to wake up to how self-involved and irritating his wife was. So, what to do? Palek made the reasonable choice and walked out on a hysterical, knocked-up Carolyn (just like his dad left him and his mom, don'tcha know!). Needless to say, this had to be the most satisfying scene of the entire season.

But then Carolyn had a miscarriage, so Palek went back to her. Bad, depressing, dreary, those two. Meanwhile, Katie (Ally Walker) and David (Tim DeKay) continued to struggle with their impoverished sex life and vaguely lame marriage, but when David stopped mumbling and started talking about his feelings, Katie decided she a) wanted a baby, b) wanted a job, c) wanted David to leave her, and finally d) wanted to share a gloriously uplifting mutual masturbation session with him, an unpleasant scene that may have been liberating for Katie and David's marriage, but which made the viewers at home want a divorce.

Meanwhile, Jaime (Michelle Borth) broke up with her cute boyfriend and got back together with Hugo (Luke Kirby), but it's OK because Jaime spent about three milliseconds alone, during which she learned that she's never really been single before because she can't stand to be without a boyfriend, and yet she cheats on all of her boyfriends. In case we were in the dark about any of this, Jaime laid it all out for us in one of her therapy sessions:

"You know, I've spent so long in relationships that I don't know ... It's like I have no lines, no boundaries. And it never used to bother me before but now it drives me crazy, now I want to run. But I'm afraid to run because I'm afraid to be alone, so I stay, only now I'm like this blob who can really fuck, and there's no ... There's nothing."

This is what we call on-the-nose dialogue. It leaves nothing to the imagination. Yes, this is a therapy session, and yes, we've waded through eight or nine episodes just to get to the point where Jaime might admit these things to herself (while they were painfully clear to us all along, thanks to scene after scene where Jaime demonstrates her trouble with boundaries), but even so, this sort of talk isn't interesting or artful. It's like having a woman eating cake for nine episodes, and then in the 10th she says, "You know, I feel sick all the time because I eat too much cake." Actually, that sounds pretty entertaining, by comparison.

Anyway, that's about it for this show. And to be fair, the last two episodes were reasonably entertaining, but only because the characters were talking instead of rolling their eyes and sulking, and something actually happened during the course of each hour. Basically, "Tell Me You Love Me" is a 10-episode series that would've been reasonably interesting (although not painless or provocative in a good way) if it had been edited down to the length of a long movie, say, two or three hours.

Incredibly enough, this show is coming back for a second season, presumably so we can see the same gaggle of tedious mouth breathers through their next marital crises.

Closing remarks
By next year, though, we'll have even less time for tedious mouth breathers, because we'll have socks to darn and coupons to clip and tomato plants to propagate. But we'll feel thankful! Thankful for our mediocre jobs, thankful for our median incomes, thankful that we made enough soup to last all week, just like our working-stiff neighbors. Do they stay up at night, asking themselves if they'll ever be rich and travel the world, eating expensive foods? No. They read used books and bake bread and mail letters and plant flowers and life is beautiful.

This Thanksgiving, we'll try to be more like them. All we need is a roof over our bad haircuts and a place to hang our unfashionable hats. (And a TiVo and an iPod and a good coffeemaker.)

Next week... "Notes From the Underbelly" and "The Amazing Race" demonstrate the volatile joys of family.

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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