I Like to Watch

Time to leave the major networks behind and wander in the cable wilderness in search of fresh meat! Plus: Why Sundance's "Nimrod Nation" is the best show you're not watching.

Published December 2, 2007 1:00PM (EST)

It's official: Major network TV is seriously boring. I've strained to put a cheerful face on it, but now it's time to be honest. Golden age of television be damned, this fall's TV season has been a big disappointment. Outside of a few standout shows ("30 Rock" and "Friday Night Lights" are my personal favorites), the network offerings have been totally lackluster lately. What's worse, the writers' strike is starting to sink its teeth into the schedule, with nothing but reruns on every major channel. What's a poor, semiliterate, imagination-less American to do once they're done reading the latest Mitch Albom tear-jerker?

It's time to shake things up, man! I'm not a big fan of the dirty hippie, but sometimes you have to think like a dirty hippie to snap yourself out of a rut. The thing is, I get piles and piles of screeners and recommendations on what to watch every week, but sometimes it all gets to be too much, man, to the point where I can't, like, breathe! All those publicists at the networks, with their neat little hairdos and their dry-cleaned outfits, they just want to keep me working for The Man! But The Man is a Pusher Man, hustling product while he tramples on the little guy. I'm not gonna work for the Pusher Man, man!

Besides, I just want to roam, man, with no shackles holding me down! I want to wander through the hinterlands of cable television, unfettered! I don't want some stinking map either -- keep those TV Guides and Entertainment Weeklys away from me! I want to drift around from channel to channel, out in the real wilderness, not some state park of regulated TV viewing. Sure, maybe I'll get lost and I'll starve out there in the snow all alone, even though a rest stop with a vending machine is just a half-mile away that I didn't know about because I didn't bring a map. I don't care, dude! I'll pay that price for being truly free.

If I can get far enough away from the oppressive hustle and bustle of the major networks, I might just find true inspiration. After wandering in the backwoods of cable TV for long enough, I'll know just how that guy in "Into the Wild" felt ... well, except that I'll be warm and dry and well-fed and there won't be any hungry bears pacing nearby.

Alphabet soup
But how might I meander through the cable wilds in a way that would honor the vastness of the televised realm? Personally, I decided to start by picking "Find Programs" on my TiVo, then scrolling down an alphabetized list of every program on TV, starting with the letter A.

I was using this method, in fact, when I stumbled on a strange and intriguing show called "ABC News With Charles Gibson." Now, I only watched this show once, so I can't tell you that much, but apparently it's a little bit like "The Daily Show," except it's much less funny. This guy Charles Gibson really needs to work on his joke delivery.

In the episode I watched, there was a decent sketch on President Bush trying to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process jump-started. It was pretty amusing -- the guy who played Bush was great! -- but it could've been a lot funnier if Gibson had made googly eyes or grasped his hands together and said, Do tell! like Stewart always does.

I did love the absurd graphic where we see that 78 percent of "Israelis" and 67 percent of "Palestinians" firmly believe that the Annapolis summit will fail. But when the "reporter" called the two leaders "unpopular" and "weak," it could've been funny, if his delivery weren't quite so deadpan.

Discovering this odd show inspired me to continue exploring the list for more oddities. And let me tell you, I didn't get very far, because the A's of the TV dial turn out to be a rich and varied lot indeed, from the provocatively punctuated "Accessorize!" ("Eclectic accoutrements for everyday!") to the provocatively titled "American Black Butt" ("Sexy women make their lovers happy"). There's also a wealth of shows about amateurs, strangely enough, with cooking titles such as "Amateurs: Cream Pies" and nature shows, such as "Amateur Coeds: Jr. College Beavers." Sadly, for some reason none of these shows were free.

As I continued to peruse the A's for quality programming options, I can't say that I stumbled on the next "Six Feet Under," but I did get a better grip on the various hobbies and interests of the American people. Read on, and learn about your fellow patriots!

"American Misfits" Skateboard comedy? Believe it, dude! This show consists of very short comedy sketches that are difficult to understand and, to employ the native tongue, totally random. In between the comedy, we're treated to footage of a bunch of guys doing tricks on their skateboards in public places. There's a guy named Slam whose main goal is to injure himself (he succeeds at bloodying a knee and cracking a rib by the end of his segment), and later there are these guys who build a skateboarding obstacle course, then one of them falls on his head and bleeds all over the place, which for some reason makes everyone laugh and say Dude! a lot. Later, he's back from the hospital with 14 stitches above his eye. One can only assume that this is the sort of show that those scrappy, ne'er-do-well skate rats watch whenever they're not out breaking their arms and making old people cringe at their noisy derring-do in the Chili's parking lot. Even so, it does kind of get you in the mood to get stoned and watch TV with a bunch of 13-year-olds. (Fuel TV)

"Ask the Pastor" After announcing that "Ask the Pastor" is "the best thing on television right now," our host introduces a panel of pastors from North Carolina who are available to answer call-in questions. Five pastors face the camera and respond to such scintillating viewer inquiries as "How does one become born again?" (The answer: Repent your sins and confess that Jesus is Lord. They make it sound so easy!) and "Can you lose your salvation?" (You bet your sinning ass you can! See also: Lucifer, damnation and some Bible passage about how "the dog has returned to its vomit"). Sadly, though, no one calls to ask the pastors to prove the existence of God or to grapple with complicated ethical dilemmas. In the end, watching this show feels a lot like that bad dream you have where suddenly you realize that you're a Presbyterian and you're not wearing any pants. (TCT)

"American Justice" Another show about crime. Why do we need to know so much about every brutal crime ever committed? Are we really going to cut down on criminal activity by giving the most sensational, cruel and notorious killers so much free press? The episode of "American Justice" I watched focused on keeping kids out of gangs. According to the host, you do this simply by telling kids that "gangs are a dead end," and warning them that if they do join a gang, a group called the Gangbusters is going to come after their sorry asses. The Gangbusters must not be all that powerful, though, since they couldn't prevent an ad for "The Sopranos" from appearing on the screen while an anti-gang activist was speaking. (A&E)

"America's Psychic Challenge" Let me begin by saying this may be the best show I've ever watched in my entire life. In the repeated episode I was lucky enough to catch, four psychics were asked to compete against each other to see which one was the most psychic. In the first challenge, the psychics had to give readings to three strangers. Most of the psychics knew odd details from each person's life, and three out of four knew that one of the strangers was also a gifted psychic. (My God, they're everywhere!) In the last challenge, the psychics had to describe what happened at the scene of a crime. One of the psychics not only described the murder accurately, but he touched the victim's friend on the forehead, which the friend said the victim had done in a dream she'd recently had. Rigged? Maybe, but poignant nonetheless! Psychics are the greatest. Why do I waste my time watching "Grey's Anatomy," when I could be watching high-quality programming like this instead? (Lifetime)

"Australian Princess" Are Australians wrapped up in the idea of royalty or something? This competition is sort of like a finishing school for unsophisticated Australians, a cross between "Kath & Kim" and "Australia's Next Top Model." They start with a handful of rough-talking, big-boned gals, and teach them how to dress and act like Princess Diana, except without the wealthy Arabs and the prescription drugs. At the end, the ladies don ugly prom dresses and one of them is crowned "Australia's Princess," which would probably be a little bit embarrassing here in America, but somehow I suspect that in Australia, she'll be treated like an actual celebrity. (We)

In short, my excursion into the untamed back country of cable TV was truly an adventure! Sure, sometimes it was bewildering, sometimes I felt a little discouraged, but it was totally worth it! After a while, I felt just like that guy in "Grizzly Man" must've felt ... well, except when he was torn limb from limb by hungry bears.

Welcome to the U.P., bitch!
In keeping with my dirty-hippified pledge to shake things up around here, next week I'll finally look into some of these Web shows the youngsters keep braying about. (Be sure to send me your suggestions!) But in the meantime, we have to squeeze in a quick discussion of what may be the most odd and original show currently on the air: "Nimrod Nation" (9 p.m. Mondays on Sundance), an eight-part documentary series about the residents of Watersmeet, a small town in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

It might sound like just another sleepy burg, but Watersmeet is a seriously interesting place. Half of the people in the town appear to be related, and even though it's always snowy and way below freezing outside, they all march out into the snow with great big rifles in order to shoot bullets into the heads of innocent birds and deer and such.

While the dirty hippie in me objects to this careless slaughter, the amateur anthropologist in me ("Amateurs: Big Game Hunt") is fascinated by this strange and exotic culture, where people simply traipse willy-nilly across the snowy backwoods in search of food to sustain them through the winter. The people of Watersmeet are also pretty into high school basketball. They go to all the games, and when they're not actually watching a game, they're arguing about the game they just watched.

"Nimrod Nation" proves that, despite the prevalence of obvious, idiotic shows like "The Hills," a documentary or reality series can be smart and nuanced. The music here is odd and moody. The scenes are loose and boundary-less, with snippets of conversation fading in and out of the background. We join each scene halfway through, we're not quite sure what they're talking about, and then we leave before things get too repetitive. Most important, the tone and sense of humor of this series are always spot-on, and the storytelling can be pretty artful.

In one episode, we ride to school with the high school team's forward, Nathan Vestich, who's straining to see through his cracked windshield in the glare of the morning sun. Next, we see a bunch of high school girls gossiping about Nathan's habit of dating three girls at once, which they say always ends in tears and angry recriminations. When comparing notes on the girlfriends, one girl asks, "Didn't she trash his truck?" Cut to Nate and his friends, standing by his truck. "This just spells pure love," one of the guys teases him, pointing at the windshield. "That's a broken heart right there!"

"Nimrod Nation" feels like an experiment in storytelling. The editing choices are clever, the personalities are pretty fascinating -- or they're made to seem fascinating, thanks to the great editing -- and the story leaves you feeling like you just got back from a weekend visit to an odd little town far away.

A TV show that takes you to a new, unfamiliar place? I don't think there's anything better than that. Because, even though the televised universe is vast indeed, mostly it's just miles and miles of the same snow and ice and pacing, hungry bears. And no matter how badly you're in need of inspiration and enlightenment, sooner or later, you're going to want a taco.

Next week: We wander deep into the snowy badlands of the Internet, try to start a fire and eventually run out of matches!

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