I Like to Watch

"The Amazing Race" and "Notes From the Underbelly" demonstrate that the joys and perils of family are as countless as the dirty dishes piling up in your sink.

By Heather Havrilesky
November 25, 2007 5:00PM (UTC)
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From the outside looking in, family life seems chaotic and irritating. Meandering through the world like multiheaded beasts that sweat and squeal and bicker and grumble, families take up too much space, make loud, unpredictable noises and leave big messes everywhere they go.

It's easy not to want a family when you see one lumbering toward you from a distance. It wouldn't make much sense to wish for an army of little mouths that need to be fed and limbs that need to be washed and butts that need to be wiped. It wouldn't be logical to long for big piles of filthy laundry and stacks of dirty dishes and tens of thousands of necessary errands and appointments. No one daydreams about snotty faces and unmade beds and day-care bills.


And when you throw in your childhood memories, a string of mildly oppressive family activities, pesky chores and unbearable car trips, punctuated by countless little breakdowns and clashes and standoffs and shouting matches, it can be troubling, indeed, to contemplate creating a topsy-turvy emotional fiefdom of your own.

But once you have a family, all of that fades away. When you settle into the necessary rhythms of recurring Monopoly games and slow-cooker recipes and activities designed to contain the chaos of small people, neurotic worries sink into the background. Emancipated from the incessant demands of the ego, you're free to revert to your basest, dorkiest state. Conveniently, this is also the state that kids like the most: the singer of dumb songs about putting on your shoes, the aggressive landlord at St. Charles Place, the wide-eyed moron who's awed by big trucks and helicopters, the freak who'll dance to anything, from Radiohead to the nursery rhyme electronica of children's toys.

Becoming a cheerful, enthusiastic halfwit turns out to be tremendously relaxing. And while a family can feel like an unwieldy clown car with a flat tire and bad steering, most of the time, it's pretty fun to drive.


Offspringing forward
But you youngsters, with your glossy hair and your big ideas and your endless hours of leisure time, you don't understand these things yet. And look, don't hurry. Slow down and smell the tequila, for chrissakes! Don't even think about having a family until you're boring enough to handle one.

Maybe all young people who want to get married and raise a family together should be forced to complete some kind of elaborate, stressful obstacle course, to give them a realistic idea of whether they're old and washed up enough to handle it. The course could be specifically designed to incite bickering and emotional breakdowns and blaming. Couples would emerge traumatized but less starry-eyed about their futures together, and the parents and ministers and friends who came to watch could share a big, hearty laugh at their expense, then place their bets on how long they expect the marriage to last.

This is the basic spirit of CBS's "The Amazing Race" (8 p.m. Sundays), that long-standing international scavenger hunt that's not for the weak of heart or the short of temper. Of course the show's producers are looking for at least a few combustible personalities: teams of two, either couples or close relatives or friends, who are likely to curse each other mercilessly while navigating crowded, unmarked streets in Shanghai or racing along treacherous paths in New Zealand.


This year, the show's wily producers have had a soft spot for difficult challenges involving temperamental pack animals. In the first leg of the race, the teams had to coax donkeys to carry a small load down a rocky road. The teams that whispered and cooed at their donkeys finished the task easily, while the teams that lost their tempers found themselves with donkeys that planted themselves in the middle of the road and refused to budge. Remember Jack and his stubborn mule on "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams"? Well, it was just like that, except with more flailing and shouting.

And on last week's episode, Lorena had one of the worst breakdowns in the show's long history when she was forced to milk a camel and her camel not only ran out of milk but began kneeing her sharply so that she kept spilling all the milk. Her boyfriend, who described himself as having "one foot out the door" of the relationship in the first episode of the season, stood by looking vaguely amused in that way that says, "My other foot is heading for the door, too."


But those camels were the real stars of that challenge. Camels, like donkeys, are the karma police of the animal kingdom. They don't tolerate hotheads, and they refuse to be rushed, whether it's an impatient nomad on their backs or a troop of do-gooders with care packages ready to feed the world to let them know it's Christmastime. Camels don't give a hot damn about Christmastime, and they'll let you know it, too.

Aside from the colorful beasts of burden, there are some pretty amusing teams this season: Goth couple Kynt and Vyxin, with their hot pink hair and their confusing tranny-show looks mixed with a cutthroat competitive spirit; Shana and Jennifer, blonde dummies who, confusingly enough, look older than their age and look like they've already had work done; Ronald and Christina, a controlling, temperamental father who can't shut up and his mild-mannered but exasperated daughter; Rachel and TK, a hippie couple who are known to chuckle softly when other teams get "totally fraahhh-zzled"; Azaria and Hendekea, geeky, likable brother-sister duo; Nicholas and Donald, outspoken, brash granddad and dorky grandson; and Jennifer and Nathan, wildly dysfunctional couple fueled only by their contempt for each other.

Right now my money's on Kynt and Vyxin, oddly enough, but that could change if -- or should I say when -- they start fighting. They always do, sooner or later. Unless they're too old and washed up to fight, of course, in which case they're also too old and washed up to win this race.


Underbelly dancing
Watching those snarling humans, it's easy to forget how enjoyable family life can be. Sadly, it's also easy to forget this when you're about to have kids and you're filled with apprehension over what having a family will do to your identity and your social life. (Let's make it quick and painless for you: It'll destroy both.) This is where the married couple at the center of "Notes From the Underbelly" find themselves. (The second season premieres 9:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 26, on ABC.)

Like families themselves, "Notes From the Underbelly" looks big and corny and willfully dorky from the outside looking in. If you've never had a kid, jokes about breast pumps and Boppies and French baby nurses with the perfect swaddling technique all sound pedestrian, if not mildly chafing. "Who are these awful yuppies and why must we hear about their bourgeois troubles?" you might wonder, twisting your dexterous young fingers through your long, glossy hair.

And granted, the characters here, like so many on TV these days, are upper-middle-class urbanites: Lauren (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Andrew (Peter Cambor) live in a big, spotless house, they take yoga and sushi-making classes, they sip enormous cocktails and whine about stuff that's such a hassle, like breathing. Even so, "Notes From the Underbelly" does a nice job of skewering the cluelessness of first-time parents while having fun with the ever-widening culture gap between parents and nonparents.


Rachel Harris in particular is fantastic as Lauren's friend, Cooper, who becomes visibly disgusted anytime the dull concerns of child rearing enter the picture. She's the perfect foil for this show: the self-obsessed go-getter who couldn't care less about kids, who's constantly grossed out by pregnancy, parents and pretty much every single aspect of domestic life.

Peter Cambor has really grown on me as the beleaguered husband -- sure, he's got the usual TV husband's (and real-world husband's) fear of standing up to his wife's bossiness, but Cambor is a departure from the jolly, easygoing oaf you'd usually find in this role. He's a little nerdy, with pockets of unexpected neuroticism that you don't often see in male sitcom characters. In the second episode of the new season, when Cooper is telling Lauren and Andrew about trouble she's having with a co-worker, Andrew gets snagged on an unimportant detail along the way:

Cooper: She's always trying to one-up me. It's like I'm the original Terminator, and she's the more advanced model in the sequel who could turn himself into metal.

Andrew: (Thinking, in a voice-over) Don't correct her! Don't correct her!


Andrew: Actually, the T-1000 was a cyborg made of liquid metal that could assume the shape and density of solid objects.

The women react by staring blankly at him, and Andrew looks like he regrets opening his mouth. This isn't really a story line -- in a lesser sitcom, it would be. Instead, it's just a running joke, and gender-difference gags like this are sprinkled throughout each episode. Even though this kind of material has been done to death, Andrew's obsession with movie trivia is reasonably original -- OK, to be fair, it conjures up hints of Ross, David Schwimmer's character on "Friends." Even so, it's the kind of character quirk that separates an engaging sitcom character from a flat cliché.

At the end of the episode, Lauren says, "I'm so glad our will is taken care of!" and Andrew responds cheerfully, "Yeah, now we can go ahead and die without getting all stressed out about it!"

Obviously this show is aimed at the 30-something child-rearing demographic, but even if that's not you, "Notes From the Underbelly" is like having a charming but disheveled family next door, one that makes having a family seem terrifying and awful but funny -- which is closer to the truth than most of us would like.


Apocalypse wow!
Speaking of terrifying and awful but funny, now that you've soaked in the apocalyptic flavor of last week's "Weeds" finale, you can understand my confusion over where things will be headed next season. (Don't read any more if you haven't seen last week's finale yet.)

In the last episode, the dealer Nancy approached for "protection" against the biker thugs ends up torching one of the biker's pot fields, starting a massive fire that encroaches on Agrestic. Nancy has a crisis of conscience and starts to question the depravity of her life there, until she finally comes to a decision: She goes back to her neighborhood, which has been evacuated thanks to the fires, dumps a can of gasoline all over her house and lights a match, which I guess is the weak-willed woman's way of forcing herself to get the hell out of Dodge once and for all. At the very end of the episode, we hear the show's theme song, "Little Boxes," as we see flames engulfing those familiar shots of the town from the opening credits.

After watching this unexpected slaughter of the "Weeds" golden goose, I tracked down "Weeds" creator Jenji Kohan to ask her what she was thinking, and to find out whether that's the last we'll see of Agrestic.

Kohan explained that she and the other writers had been talking about what kind of a project they'd like to work on next, since they'd all agreed that they'd want to work together again whenever "Weeds" is over. Then they asked themselves, "What if our new project is 'Weeds,' but with a new feeling?'"


"To keep it interesting and fresh for the writers, we want to reinvent ourselves a bit," she said. "This gives us the opportunity to play a little next season, and maybe do a whole new show within a show."

So what's going to happen next season? Where will Nancy and her family go? Kohan said she and the other writers aren't sure what the show will look like, and since they're on strike now, they're not really thinking about it. "We never wanted to set out to do a show where you find something that works and you do it over and over again. It's a roomful of people who are hungry to progress and see what's next and see what's around the next corner," she said, adding that no one at the network objected to their decision to burn down Agrestic. "We always gear up for a fight and then we don't get it.

I had to ask about Nancy's U-Turn tattoo, which completely perplexed me. Kohan said it was "sort of an homage to her mentor," drug dealer U-Turn. "I think there was a little Stockholm syndrome going on there." Getting that tattoo was a sign that Nancy was giving in and resolving to be the best drug dealer she could be -- albeit not a very good one.

When I mentioned that Sullivan Groff (Matthew Modine) seemed to fall out of the action halfway through the season, Kohan agreed. "Honestly, we had a bigger arc. We have so many characters to service, it got pushed and pushed and pushed, and in the end we didn't have enough room. Every season you start out very ambitious, and in the end, you win some, you lose some."

Is Agrestic gone forever? "I can't say we'll never see Agrestic again," Kohan replied, and then added, almost giddily, "But we burned that motherfucker down!"

Burn, baby, burn
See how invigorating it can be, to fuck shit up? Those of us with mouths to feed and dishes to do and dogs to walk may have accepted the busy rhythms of our chaotic microcosms, but sometimes we forget the raw thrill of burning one down, whether it be a joint or a fully furnished McMansion. Oh, but I know that you haven't forgotten, because you're young and pretty and you have lots of energy and all the time in the world, and you spend it doing carefree, reckless things, like drinking enormous fruity cocktails and having hot sex with firm-bodied strangers. Well, good for you. Good for you! Now get the hell away from me.

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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Family I Like To Watch Television The Amazing Race