I Like to Watch

The era of truly bad TV is upon us! But will you embrace the pumped-up goons of "American Gladiators" or the vainglorious whores of "Celebrity Apprentice"?

By Heather Havrilesky

Published January 13, 2008 1:00PM (EST)

Like puppies, pizza and pretty rainbows, the free-market system is far too adorable, plucky and delicious not to love. If you didn't take the bus to the library to read this, you've probably benefited from the free-market system in countless ways over the years. Maybe you feel eternally grateful to the free-market system. Maybe you're a libertarian and you want to have, like, a million of the free-market system's babies.

Nonetheless, it doesn't take a filthy hippie or an angry neo-Marxist grad student to notice that things are spinning out of control these days. You don't even need a coherent argument to demonstrate that the very, very rich are leaving the poor in the dust; all you need is a short list of words: Enron, Katrina, Darfur, Baghdad. The little guy is getting screwed with clocklike precision, slam poetry is easier to write than ever, and the words "greedy corporations" and "inhumane, neglectful world leaders" are utterly redundant. Seven years ago, the observation that our great nation was careening recklessly toward disaster felt too glaringly obvious and weighty to state out loud. Now, we mention it in passing to the cashier at the grocery store, as if we're chatting about bad weather.

You'd think that with all of the reckless warmongering and raping of the environment the stock portfolios of the middle class would be skyrocketing from all that greed and corruption, but no. The only thing trickling down these days is shame, self-loathing and a creeping sense that our best years are behind us.

So why am I in such a good mood?

The joy of spandex
I love a good recession and a nation in decline the way I love a rainy day, getting dumped by a jerk, losing an annoying job, gaining five unsightly pounds or getting stuck in an airport overnight. There's something invigorating about a true crisis, something that makes your pulse race and your steps quicken and your thoughts become focused. Change is in the air, along with the odd promise of narrowing possibilities and limited options.

Maybe it makes me nostalgic for my childhood in the '70s, when inflation soared, Americans lined up at the gas pumps, and those bad Iranians took 52 U.S. citizens hostage, but Jimmy Carter was too smart and principled to ply a corrupt nation with high-powered weaponry. Everything looked so grim back then! Hot damn, it was depressing -- and romantic, like huddling in a tube station in London during the blitz.

And what was on TV? "Love Boat"! "The Dukes of Hazzard," "Charlie's Angels," "Family Feud." "Three's Company"! Happy, cheerful, stupid shows were on TV. Even on "M*A*S*H," they were laughing through the tears.

This is the beauty of bad times: The pop-cultural overlords don't give us programming that reflects our suffering. They don't give us anxious people cooking with beans and worrying about their mortgages and racking up credit card debt.

No, they give us behemoths in silver spandex named "Mayhem"! The same cheesy TV producers who dreamed up the disturbed spectacle of "American Gladiators" back in 1989 are conjured up to bring a truly crappy show back from the dead. Why? Because it's just flashy and stupid enough to distract us from the fact that the TV writers are still on strike, facing an uphill battle against their merciless corporate masters.

What can you really say about "American Gladiators" (8 p.m. Mondays on NBC), except that watching it will make you feel like the lead character in a tragic, futuristic short story about the ills of high capitalism?

Sure, "American Gladiators" was big fun during the late '80s and '90s. But lots of stupid things were fun back then: High-grade cocaine. Acid-wash jeans. Big hair. Eddie Money. After watching the premiere of "American Gladiators," I felt like I'd been transported back to a world of leggings and scrunchies and aerobics instructors and puffy-armed freaks in cutout Gold's Gym sweatshirts. While the '70s were a time of sublime, delicious self-abnegation and suffering, the late '80s and early '90s were a time of depressing, repugnant, queasy, foolish indulgence. Remember how, in the movie "Boogie Nights," on New Year's Eve in 1979, the groovy '70s gave way to the self-destructive, pathetic, hopelessly stupid '80s, and everything that was pure and sweet about the porn business turned sour and nasty? Or think of Lionel Richie, singing about how we're going to party, Karamu, fiesta, forevah! The economy was thriving, our cities were chock-full of tacky yuppies feeling their oats, but still it felt dirty, somehow, to dance in the streets with someone sporting pleather pants and a Zorro mustache.

This time around, it's different, though. The second incarnation of "American Gladiators" is so willfully stupid, so clearly designed to distract us from our empty bank accounts and our crumbling national pride, that it just feels depressing. The fact that it seems so sad and small frees us up to revel in its lameness, and marvel that the names of the muscular behemoths are even less imaginative than they were years ago. Nitro! That's a downright artful nickname, compared with "Militia" or "Crush" or "Fury" or, for chrissakes, "Hellga"!

Isn't it disturbing how the producers seem to be coaching the contenders, who sound just like bad child actors pumped full of amphetamines every time they're asked to speak?

"My kids are my life and joy! Hi, babies. I love you. Mommy's gonna make you proud!"

"I'm gonna show everyone what you can do when you get fit and healthy!"

"Marines rock! Semper fi!"

On the other hand, the kinds of people who are in insanely good shape, who do things like swim and rock-climb and lift weights and coach gymnastics and compete in grappling, also tend to be the kinds of people who might take being on "American Gladiators" seriously.

And to be fair, the final obstacle course, "The Eliminator," is almost too difficult for some of these very fit humans to finish. In the first race between female contenders, both women looked exhausted about halfway through the course, and then looked near death at the end. The winner, Venus, winced and almost cried and then gathered herself enough to scream, "I'm in so much pain, I can't breathe, but I am so frickin' excited and happy to be here!"

On the second episode of the show, a standoff between two male competitors ended with both of them standing side by side at the foot of the final steep, moving treadmill called "The Travelator," each trying to catch his breath.

The smaller contenders with lower centers of gravity seem to have less trouble on "The Eliminator," which sort of makes you wonder how pumped-up beasts like Wolf or Toa or Fury would handle it. Why don't they make some of the Gladiators complete the course?

Also, can someone who's familiar with bodybuilding please tell me: Are we expected to believe that this man, who looks like a character from a combat video game, has never seen a steroid in his life? I'm not trying to cast aspersions. I just want to know the facts on the ground as regards bodies covered in massive, bulging, meaty, old-school muscles.

Most of all, it's amazing that more contenders don't get hurt. Sure, the first female contender blew out her knee almost immediately and had to leave the competition, and another female contender bloodied her forehead on the final obstacle course. Even so, each of the challengers falls 10 feet or so into the water or onto mats five or six times through the course of her appearance. One contender, a Marine named Bonnie, held onto rings dangling above a water tank with Fury, a 148-pound woman, hanging off her body, trying to make her fall. (Bonnie eventually made Fury fall to the water, remarkably enough.) I know they're wearing helmets and neck braces, but ... it still looks insanely dangerous. And exhausting.

OK, fine. I'm sort of into this show now. Damn you, callous network executives, pandering to the weakest, rowdiest Greek spectator within me!

Promotional rescue
Onward, to even more tripe masquerading as quality televised entertainment. Since "The Apprentice" had transformed slowly but surely into an infomercial, it makes sense that "Celebrity Apprentice" (9 p.m. Thursdays on NBC) feels just like a celebrity infomercial. Whether that improves on the original for you really hinges on whether you enjoy watching minor celebrities disingenuously promote random products, and then shill themselves with the same lack of conviction.

On last week's premiere, the whole insane circus began with far less fanfare than usual. Donald Trump arrived and matter-of-factly announced, "We're all commodities. I'm a commodity. Lennox, you're a commodity." Isn't "commodity" just the free-market-loving parlance for "whore"?

Next Trump stated that the entire group of celebrities had been "hand-selected" by him. Really? We're expected to believe that the Donald took time out of his busy robber-baron schedule to call the producers and say, "Hey, find out if former Olympic softball player Jennie Finch is available!"?

Soon it becomes clear that "Celebrity Apprentice" is an experiment in humility: Trump told the teams they wouldn't be receiving any special treatment. Their first challenge would be to get out onto the streets of New York and sell hot dogs to the common man. That exercise alone wouldn't be adequately humiliating, though, so Trump made it clear that the celebrity apprentices were going to have to "call up favors" or, at the very least, use their fame to sell their product at an inflated price. Ah, now we understand that all that talk of commodities was just Trump's way of preparing his newly minted whores for the tireless whoring they'd be engaged in over the next few weeks.

Now, for the folks at home, all of this would seem completely natural. Surely Lennox Lewis can sell a hot dog for $100 to one of his admiring fans? But for a D-list celebrity, at least one with some sense of dignity and self-respect, this is a rapid descent into the darkest pits of hell. How often, since Nadia Comaneci achieved worldwide fame back in 1976, do you think she's been asked to appear somewhere or help promote something or get her friends in high places involved? This is the endlessly repeating insult of faded celebrity: Everyone wants your star power for their pathetic promotional machine.

Once the celebrity apprentices spring into action, though, you can't help noticing something a little bit strange about them: They don't seem to mind whoring themselves and cashing in on whatever thin reasons the public has for adoring them. Vinny Pastore suggests that the men's team call itself "The Bada Bing Boys," as if it's completely natural that his entire group should borrow on his identity. Maybe these vainglorious whores are the true survivors: Buoyed by delusions of grandeur, they remain immune to their increasing insignificance in the world. But then, since high capitalism has transformed the world into one big promotional event, it makes sense that those who refuse to whore are the maladaptive castoffs of the world, while the whores are the true victors.

Still, they do have more personality than the usual lineup of Donald-sucking clones. As the men's team continues brainstorming a good name, the backslapping camaraderie of egocentric men starts to emerge:

Gene Simmons: What about something that's got a mythic quality? Something like Hydra. Hydra was the, I think the, uh, three-headed dog that guarded the gateway to hell ...

Pastore: No, that was my ex-wife.

Bada bing! Thanks, Vinny, for one of the only highlights of the premiere episode, save for Omarosa's constant snarling, bossy outbursts (I have no trouble imagining that the Donald hand-picked her for the show, actually.) Overall, it seems that "Celebrity Apprentice" will consist of 1) awkward promotional events where people on the street get their pictures taken with Lennox Lewis while Stephen Baldwin flirts with teenage girls, 2) awkward exchanges between the "celebrities" and their rich and/or famous and/or high-powered friends, who'll show up and pull huge wads of cash out of their wallets just to make the poor people at home feel poorer ("But remember, it's OK to flaunt your money when it's for charity, America!"), and 3) egomaniacal bickering between bloated, deluded celebrity wankers of all stripes.

In other words, highly stupid, but still probably more worthwhile than "The Apprentice," which was just a bunch of ambitious, ass-kissing yuppies arguing over their PowerPoint presentations.

Strike that
I feel like I'm letting down the writers on strike, watching this drivel. Meanwhile, despite the fact that side deals are starting to scare the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the strike wears on and threatens to wipe out even the fall season of television. A little reality pap is all well and good, but are we honestly going to watch this shit for an entire year? Even though it sounded a little paranoid a few months ago, the AMPTP's refusal to negotiate looks more and more like a naked ploy to break the back of the unions, starting with the Writers Guild of America.

As you're surveying a schedule full of reruns and assorted horseshit, it may be time to remind yourself that those aren't simply self-righteous, entitled rich folks on the WGA picket lines. They're smart, talented human beings who clearly deserve to share in the profits garnered from their creations. Obviously it doesn't matter how much they make or what you think of the quality of television in general. What matters is the principle that when you create something, you should make some small cut of the profit garnered by that creation.

If you can't see TV writers as living, breathing human beings, consider perusing some of the essays on Why We Write, a blog set up by two writers of Sci Fi's "Eureka" to feature TV writers, known and unknown, musing on their love (or hatred, in some cases) of writing.

Personally, I loved this essay by Greg Berlanti, an executive producer on "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Brothers & Sisters." Honest, funny, self-deprecating and helpful to anyone who struggles with their writing (i.e., everyone who writes).

As our once-great nation trips on the hem of its cape, we all have to face the ugly facts about how often working people get screwed over these days without any repercussions. When working people unite for a common goal, and refuse to be trampled on by abusive corporate profit takers, that's something worth fighting for.

You don't have to reek of patchouli to know that corporations are, by definition, greedy. They serve their stockholders by maximizing profits at any cost. If we don't hold them accountable, we'll live like ghosts in a nation full of Enrons and Countrywides and Halliburtons. It's depressing, yes, but let it depress you in a focused, clear-eyed, angry, invigorating way, like it did back in the '70s. You can do more than choose between "American Gladiators" and "American Idol." You can keep up with the latest news of the writers' strike on Nikki Finke's site, and voice your support for those who are sticking it to the Man by signing this petition and by speaking up and telling anyone who'll listen that you believe in supporting working people, no matter who they are. You can only hope that other people will do the same for you if you ever need to stick it to the Man someday.

Don't think you won't. The Man is more of a bastard than he's ever been!

Later tonight: Read and contribute to our round table on "The Wire" after the latest episode. And next week: HBO trots out another drama about psychotherapy -- only this time, it's actually pretty good.

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