I Like to Watch

From "Friday Night Lights" to "Dexter" to "Heroes," murder spells big fun for all. Plus: Raise a toast to blow-up lawn characters and ruthless games of Risk, for the holidays are upon us!

By Heather Havrilesky

Published December 23, 2007 12:00PM (EST)

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah and Happy New Year, inflatable geniuses! 'Tis the season to festoon our residences with several miles of blinking lights and then blow up seven to 10 giant Christmas characters for our front yards, festive polar bears and jolly snowmen, most of which light up and swivel and hiss, because big, tacky overzealous displays of Christmas cheer aren't just for lunatics anymore! 'Tis the season to deck the halls with photos of awkward, smiling families in their cutest Christmas-themed Cosby sweaters! 'Tis the season to roll out our most exaggerated, hideous impressions of all of our relatives, with their weird verbal tics and their lazy eyes and their fishy breath and their mercilessly long anecdotes! 'Tis the season to engage in interpretive readings of the latest "Dear Friends and Family" letter to arrive in the mail, heartlessly mocking every sweet little detail about Madison's first steps and Henry's latest display of adorably bratty remarks and uncanny athletic prowess, already demonstrating that he'll grow up to be just as much of a bloviating, self-satisfied crotch tugger as his daddy.

In my family, you haven't caught the Christmas spirit until you chug a double dose of DayQuil, then wheedle everyone into playing Risk, forming international alliances with your youngest nephews and nieces, spewing propaganda that teaches them to see their parents as malevolent forces on the global stage, begging to be taken down by a plucky band of the world's underdogs (spearheaded by you, of course). For us, it's not Christmas until my mom's Jack Russell leaps onto the table and dashes away with the smoked trout and my mom makes half a dozen passing "jokes" about the practicality and budget-mindedness of taking a lethal overdose in order to avoid a long, drawn-out stay in a nursing home.

Oh, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas! So bright and cheerful and happy and gay! I can't wait! After I've beaten everyone at Risk and Monopoly and Scrabble and rifled through all of the mass-mailed Christmas letters and speculated as to whose marriages are falling apart and whose daughters unwittingly married gay men, we make a big traditional Carpatho-Rusyn meal that includes pierogi and prunes and sauerkraut and other weird meatless dishes that make our spouses curse the day they married into this family, and everyone drinks a little more red wine than is prudent, and my sister's in-laws ask me when I'm going to be on NPR again, since to them, I'm an impudent troublemaker whose only redeeming quality is that on National Public Radio I once whined about something that got on my nerves.

But seriously, they're great, especially when they bring that really good Nova Scotia lox with them. And listen, Madison and Henry are awesome, so please, dear friends and family, whatever you do, don't stop sending those letters!

Go, Fight, Kill!
I wonder what Landry's mom will write to her family and friends this year. Landry (of "Friday Night Lights") and his folks have had quite a year, what with Landry beating that poor fella to death, then dumping his body into the river. Ah, well, you can't have a great year every year, can you? No doubt Landry's mom will downplay the whole ugly affair and try to focus on the positive ("Canning season was busier than ever this year, thanks to that bumper crop of okra we got this summer!")

Sounds just like the way the show's writers have handled the whole Landry-as-murderer storyline. Apparently sensing that they'd wandered into dark and soapy territory for a drama that always took pains to remain realistic and focused on the challenges of everyday people, the writers swept the story under the rug and tried to distract us with Landry-and-Tyra couplings, then gave Landry (Jesse Plemons) the moral high ground ("I'm tortured by what I've done! I must confess!"). Meanwhile, his cop daddy took the low road, hugging his son and then driving out to the middle of nowhere to torch his son's car (which was linked to the murder). The kid killed someone -- shouldn't he at least get a smack in the head?

Finally, Landry confessed to the cops, and we assumed he'd pay the price for going along with Tyra's (Adrianne Palicki) terrible, impulsive decision to dump the body. Instead, the cops of Dillon took pains to convince Landry that he acted in self-defense: Tyra's attacker was coming at him, wasn't he? He feared for his life, didn't he? Landry balked; he was ready to do hard time! But eventually, he lied like a good boy. At the end of the very same episode that began with his confession, Landry drove to Tyra's house and told her that the charges were dropped. We're off the hook! High five! Hey, teens, don't sweat it if you have to murder someone! Sure, it's inconvenient for a day or so, but then everyone forgives and forgets.

In short, the Landry-Tyra storyline proved to be just as disastrous as we thought it would be at the beginning of the season. No big surprises there. But has it ruined everything? Not by a long shot. There's no way you could ruin a show as good as "Friday Night Lights" (8 p.m. EST Fridays on NBC) with one stupid storyline. While Landry stuttered and stumbled through his bum steer of a plot, Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) left his big-deal university job with his tail between his legs and retreated back to his beloved Dillon Panthers, only to find the team in a serious state of disrepair. Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) was missing practice, Smash Williams (Gaius Charles) was cockier and less of a team player than ever, and Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) was seriously broken up over the Coach's daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) dumping him to go out with an older guy. But in the last episode, Riggins rejoined the team, Smash got his head back on straight, and Saracen started fooling around with his grandmother's hot nurse, while Julie developed a major crush on a teacher (played by Austin Nichols, see also: John of "John From Cincinnati"). (Does every high school kid in Dillon have a thing for older men and women? Remember Riggins' affair with his older next-door neighbor?)

Tami's (Connie Britton) relationship with her daughter Julie has been one of the highlights of this season. Their scenes together have always been great, but lately the writers have made their dynamic more combustible: Instead of being respectful and careful of her mother's feelings, Julie has been more reckless than usual, and Tami has been lashing out in return, mirroring the rockiness of most mother-teenage-daughter relationships.

It's unfortunate that the crappy Landry-Tyra murder storyline has received so much press, because lots of people have said to me, "That show's not good anymore, right?" Nope, sorry. "Friday Night Lights" is still one of the best dramas on TV.

Facing reality
By the way, there's a glut of crappy reality programming coming your way this January, thanks to the continuing writers' strike, which means you have no excuse not to catch up on "Friday Night Lights" and "30 Rock" now. And instead of watching "Pushing Daisies," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Gossip Girl," soon you'll be forced to chose between "Celebrity Apprentice," "American Gladiators," "Dance War," "Big Brother," "The Biggest Loser," "Wife Swap, "Supernanny" and "Extreme Makeover," not to mention more game shows like "Deal or No Deal," "Power of 10," "1 vs. 100," "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" -- all of which can make you suspect that very few Americans are smarter than a fifth grader.

But now for the good news: Fox Reality is planning to bring back the best reality show of all time, "Paradise Hotel" (see also: Drunk Asshole Hotel). Fox Reality president David Lyle told "Broadcasting & Cable" that he's just giving the people what they want: "All of our research has shown that 'Paradise Hotel' is a brand that reality viewers are desperate to see on TV again."

Desperate? Isn't that an insulting term to employ in describing your target demographic? Of course it's accurate, but shouldn't a smart executive chose a less stigmatizing word, like "excited," or even "anxious" or "itching"? I think most of us would rather be itchy than desperate.

But then, the beauty of Drunk Asshole Hotel is that it makes you feel anxious, itchy and desperate while you're watching it. We can only hope that the producers don't mess with the original formula (the way they did when they brought the show back but changed the name to "Forever Eden" and set it in a dark little swamp and made up a bunch of crappy rules and it promptly tanked). No. They need to start with the same gleaming white luxury palace in Acapulco and fill it with the same googly-eyed lunatics (I'm sure they're all available, at least until they become elected officials).

Better yet, start with a new batch of innocents, naive but aggressive, wide-eyed but bitter, filled with hope but also filled with rage and several strong, fruity drinks. Yes, I'm sure there are 10 firm-bodied young people out there, of average age, slightly above-average looks and slightly below-average intelligence, who would love to flirt and bicker and slur and stumble in paradise for a few months, while a bunch of sad old people at home ogle and despise them.

Of course, according to my mom, the producers could save a lot of money on that costly rent in paradise by giving all of the residents a lethal overdose. Talk about a show-stopping finale! When the Mexican officials come to investigate the deaths, they can just tell them that the residents of paradise joined together and attacked the producers with ashtrays and coat hangers, and the producers feared for their lives. I'm sure no one will press charges. And the ratings will be off the hook! High five!

Murderer makes good
While we're on the subject of murder, let's not forget last week's "Dexter" finale, a big blast of explosions and raging fires and insane twists and dirty deeds. (If you haven't seen last week's second-season finale of "Dexter," don't read this.)

Now, like the "Friday Night Lights" Landry resolution, this finale was all a little convenient, from Dexter's scorned lover Lila (Jaime Murray) blowing Dexter's nemesis Detective Doakes (Erik King) to high heaven, thereby destroying the evidence that Dexter (Michael C. Hall) is the Bay Harbor Butcher, to Dexter reuniting with stable love Rita (Julie Benz), to sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) not suspecting a thing. I like how Rita's kids were kidnapped by Lila, but weren't all that scared, and then they slipped out the windows without a scratch before the fire got gnarly. Mom shows up and sees them, and all she can say is something like, "Oh good, everyone's safe! See you tomorrow for bowling, Dex!"

"Dexter" is such a strange mix of sophistication and willful dorkiness. After building suspense all season, everything is conveniently torched, and the only one who cares is Lt. Laguerta (Lauren Velez) because she loved Doakes.

The best misdirection had to be when Dexter told Lila they belonged together. I actually believed for a few minutes that Dexter would drop everything to be with Lila, because they are soul mates, after all. Plus, that would make for an interesting season: Lila and Dexter, killing people together, hand in hand.

Nah, we'd hate them too much. It's bad enough that Dexter is, well, a homicidal maniac. In fact, I struggle with this show, because I really dislike the murder scenes, no matter how evil the victim is. Hell, I can barely watch those scary shots of raw meat and frying eggs in the opening credits.

Anyway, all of you heartless, immoral types who love this show should chime in and let us know what you thought of last week's finale.

Courtney Hate
"This isn't, like, welfare. It's a game. Like, she doesn't deserve it just 'cause, you know, she sucks at life" -- Courtney, "Survivor: China," on efforts by Denise, a lunch lady in a cafeteria, to stay in the game because she and her family need the money more than the other contestants.

Speaking of heartless, immoral types, if you missed the "Survivor: China" finale on Sunday, you missed seeing one of the most unlikely "Survivor" contestants ever making it to the final three. For a minute there, it actually looked as if Courtney could win it, too. While the other two finalists, Tricky Todd and Ass-Out Amanda (whose butt was apparently hanging out during the entire season, based on the amount of camera blurring going on), batted their eyes and flattered the jury, rail-thin big-city cynic Courtney said that at least she was upfront and honest, and admitted, "I was physically scared to be in this game in the beginning."

But then Courtney insulted former competitor and juror Jean-Robert ("I won an immunity. Did you win an immunity?") while Todd (brilliantly) told Jean-Robert that he voted him out only because he knew that Jean-Robert was the biggest threat in the game. Everyone watching knew that this was far from true, except for one person: Jean-Robert. Todd might as well have said that he'd eliminated Jean-Robert because Jean-Robert was so studly and handsome that he would make Todd look bad by comparison. When Todd finished speaking, Jean-Robert looked very satisfied, didn't say another word, and ended up voting for Todd to win it all, despite having vowed to take him down a few weeks earlier.

So Todd won. Courtney came in second with two votes. And Amanda, who played a great game but started kissing up and acting demure to an insincere degree in the home stretch, got only one vote. Also, the wit and absurdly pretty physique of James the gravedigger won him a $100,000 fan-favorite prize voted on by viewers at home.

And what happened to poor Lunch Lady Denise? At the reunion, she reported to the audience that she was taken off the lunch shift because her star status was causing a big distraction at her school. So she was being forced to scrub toilets at the school at night instead, and she never got to see her kids. Then, at the end of the show, Jeff Probst announced that show creator Mark Burnett felt so bad for Denise that he was going to give her $50,000 of his own money, just for sucking at life -- er, rather, in order to turn her life around.

Later, the superintendent at Denise's school claimed that Denise had lied, that she was actually a full-time custodian (a promotion from cafeteria worker) at the time she took a leave of absence to appear on "Survivor." So, can we assume that Denise told a lie simply to win the sympathy and love of Americans everywhere? Hey, maybe Denise doesn't suck at life after all! I bet she's dumped one or two bodies in the river in her day, too! High five!

We can be "Heroes"!
Speaking of bodies piling up, how about the last few episodes of "Heroes" (9 p.m. EST Mondays on NBC), huh? Looks like we're back on track to save the world again, this time from a deadly virus that threatens to wipe out almost everyone on the planet ... except for people with really incredible immune systems, or people who are completely isolated in a luxury hotel in Acapulco. Uh oh. Imagine if the Earth were repopulated by a small band of dumber-than-average but cuter-than-average drunk assholes!

Isn't that what happened here in America? We were founded by outsiders, small groups of heartier-than-average, more-religious-than-average questioners of authority who believed in subverting the dominant paradigm and giving the king and/or queen the finger from across the big pond.

Unfortunately, those tough pilgrims and zealots paired up and gave birth to a bunch of dumb, in-bred ruffians, who set to work building strip malls and forming touch-football leagues. Thank God for the eventual influx of highly intelligent, wildly good-looking Carpatho-Rusyns, or this great land of ours would be led by aggressive, unattractive, in-bred half-wits.

Oh, wait, it is! Anyway, this gives you some notion of what the heroes of "Heroes" are up against ... although none of them seem capable of discerning who's good and who's evil or whether or not they should be working for or against "The Company" or each other.

Come to think of it, "Heroes" has more than a little in common with "24" -- first they're fighting a nuclear bomb, then a deadly virus. Various alliances form and shift and form again, with friends and foes at odds or working together in random succession.

And then there's the dialogue. Sweet Jesus, the dialogue of "Heroes" can be bad, almost as bad as "24's" dialogue, but not quite. Take this exchange, where Nathan's eeevil mom explains the simple, Landry-like reasoning behind the original collaborative effort to kill off the Earth's population:

Mom: And in the end Adam decided that the world just wasn't worth fixing, and that it needed to be wiped clean with an unstoppable virus. And just before it was too late, I, um, I came to realize how wrong it was.

Nathan: Did you? You and Linderman wanted to blow up New York to save the world. Doesn't sound to me like you've changed much at all, Ma!

But mommies never really change, boys and girls. You don't need to be a hero to know that. Neither do their impudent troublemaker children, whether they're poisoning their nephews' and nieces' minds against their parents or drinking too much DayQuil, then wrestling bad little doggies to the ground for fun and sport. So enjoy the twisted delights of the season and lean into the chaos, my lovelies! You get the chance to lounge around your parents' house in dirty socks whining for someone to refill your glass of red wine but once a year. Happy Holidays!

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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