I Like to Watch

From Bravo's "Millionaire Matchmaker" to HBO's "Bernard and Doris" to NBC's "Lipstick Jungle," boss ladies reign supreme!


Heather Havrilesky
February 3, 2008 6:00PM (UTC)

Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that free will formed the basis for morality. This was 200 years ago, back when human beings could be trusted to use their free will to enrich civilization. Sometimes they did this by exploiting or enslaving other human beings, but hey, at least they were industrious.

These days human beings are oversize toddlers who need to be spanked and sent to their rooms without any supper. In the absence of external punishments or rewards, most of us would lie about in our beds all day, soiling ourselves and crying for someone to bring us a cheeseburger. Isn't that what becomes of the very rich, who answer to no one and have the money to pay people to clip their nose hairs for them?

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Today, we must be robbed of our free will if we're to accomplish anything at all! We need ruthless bosses who know just how to shame us into being a little less useless and repugnant. Whether they're our overbearing supervisors, our pushy wives, our disrespectful therapists, our opinionated mothers, our meddling spiritual gurus or our overconfident, domineering children, it doesn't really matter. Without them, we limply await our marching orders and become unbearably depressed when there's no one there to give us detailed, slightly demeaning instructions, or to hold our hands and confirm that we're just as worthless as we feel.

Personally, I've been looking to hire a Boss of Me for years now, but qualified applicants (pushy, intimidating professionals) aren't generally in the market for such a thankless unpaid position. Even knowing this, I hold out hope that one day I might be oppressed by a tyrannical overlord who never tires of saying things like, "What are you reading? Don't you have a column due in an hour? Close your browser and get to work, maggot!"

Make me a gold-digging sea donkey!
Others must share my longing for a personal oppressor. What else would explain the proliferation of Bossy Expert reality shows from "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style" to "Flipping Out" to "How to Look Good Naked" to "Make Me a Supermodel." TV teaches us that, with the right team of despotic consultants, we might shed our sorrowfully incompetent skins and join the über-human race.

Free will should be reserved for people who are already happy with themselves -- you know, nut-jobs like your grandmother, a woman who doesn't go online or watch TV and doesn't know any better. She's not aware that her skin is blotchy and her house is cluttered and her wardrobe isn't doing her figure any favors and her diet lacks flair and her conversational skills need polishing, so she has no reason to look in the mirror and say, "Sweet Jesus, I wish I had the glowing complexion of Cover Girl Niki Taylor!"

It's no small wonder that your grandmother would make the ideal reality-show guinea pig. The guileless are an easy mark, and provide the perfect foil for the colorful egomaniacs that have become the ruling class of reality TV. Take the imperious matriarch of "Millionaire Matchmaker," Patti Stanger, whose calling in life involves bringing together two subsets of society that would otherwise have trouble finding each other: men who want women who are hotter than hell, and women who want men who are richer than hell.

"Millionaire Matchmaker" (10 p.m. Tuesdays on Bravo) covers all of the basic requirements of the Bossy Expert reality-show formula: We start with a pushy, outspoken professional, throw in a team of helpful but oppressed underlings, add a few hapless rich guys and a gaggle of gold-digging sea donkeys, braying over the idea of landing a man with lots of cash in his pockets. To these basic ingredients, we add that crucial spice of all reality recipes, shamelessness. Patti doesn't need to be coaxed into playing the Colorful Egomaniac. She's more than happy to loudly demean her underlings and her clients for the sake of the cameras.

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As Patti drives to one client's house in a particularly aggressive mood, she snappily informs the camera. "We're on our way to see Jeff, the millionaire rocker who's still living in the '70s. And he's not really rocking, he's a software guy, trying to live out his childhood fantasy that didn't really materialize into anything!" Um, the guy's got bad facial hair, wears cowboy boots and plays piano -- does that really make him a self-deluded asshole?

But don't tell that to Patti. Patti sees self-deluded assholes ... everywhere! "Millionaire men who were perpetually geeks in their youth, once they make a few bucks, they automatically think that gives them the card to get into the cool club. Sometimes they go over the top without an ounce of style or taste. It's my job to tell them that they don't look so cool," she explains. Sweet mother of Mary. What does give you a card to the cool club? Flat-ironed bangs and a TV show on Bravo?

Next Patti visits Julien, a nice-looking but slightly dorky millionaire who lives with two male friends in a crowded, ugly house. Patti suggests that Julien's choice to have roommates must be about saving money. "Julien is living like a college student when he's 28 years old ... That's a lazy, cheap son of a you-know-what," she tells the camera.

Then she asks Julien, angrily, why he's living in a "dump." "What girl's gonna date you if you live here?

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"Is that the right girl, that I want?" Julien asks.

"Oh, trust me," Stanger answers. "Cheapskate that you are, because you're living in a house like this, no girl with a spine is gonna date a guy..."

Hold on. If Julien's happy living with friends, what the hell? He's in his 20s, why not? But Stanger convinces Julien to start looking for a big, expensive place because she knows that if he stays in his bachelor pad, he'll disappoint the gold-digging sea donkeys she sends his way.

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We meet some of these mythical ladies at a party Patti holds for two clients during each episode. Now, far be it from me to cast aspersions on these young women. Even the best of us sometimes think, "Why not replace the regular, reasonably nice guys I date with filthy-rich, reasonably nice guys, and then I can spend most of my time getting spa treatments, shopping for uncomfortable shoes, and jetting off to Italy to snack on cured meats instead of toiling away at a pointless job for the rest of my life?"

The men grin from ear to ear when they spot the hotties that Patti has found for them. Who knew that the promise of cured meats could attract such a favorable flock?

But something interesting happens when these young, sociable ladies meet these rich, socially awkward men. Yes, the men are delighted, and they eye the pretty young things hungrily. But you can see a sick realization flash across the women's eyes. Suddenly they recognize how effortful it's going to be, feigning attraction and interest in someone who's not all that attractive or interesting to them. You can almost read their minds as they stare down at their hands and try to focus. "Can't we go out on his yacht or fly on his personal jet and drink a lot of good champagne so I can ignore the fact that he has no social skills and nothing to say?"

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Yes, "Millionaire Matchmaker" demonstrates very clearly that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy -- albeit a filthy-rich dull boy. And while we may feel real empathy in our hearts for the plight of the gold-digging sea donkey -- never quite extinct but never truly thriving either -- we have a little less feeling for the rich guys, mostly because they are thriving in spite of the fact that they're hapless little dudes with crappy personalities.

Plus, it's tough to cheer them on when they say they're looking for a "Winona Ryder" type who's "no older than 32" when most of these guys seem to be over 40. Patti sees long-term problems with matching middle-aged men with women young enough to be their granddaughters, and she seems to enjoy rolling her eyes and grumbling every time she meets another enthusiastic cradle-robber.

Anyway, there's plenty to chuckle and snort at here, but the bottom line is that a show as hopelessly shallow and cheesy as "Millionaire Matchmaker" should really be more fun to watch. Unfortunately, Patti is so showy about her opinions and some of the scenes appear so staged that it all feels a little forced and stupid.

Why would a rich guy put up with such a bossy woman bossing him around anyway? And more important, how can I find someone that bossy to boss me around, too?

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Odd couple
Maybe that's what Bernard Lafferty was thinking when he went to work for famed tobacco heiress Doris Duke. HBO's new original movie "Bernard and Doris" (premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9) imagines what the relationship between the tycoon and her trusted butler, confidant and friend Bernard might've looked like, behind closed doors.

Instead of presenting Doris Duke as a cartoon of the colorful, egomaniacal heiress, Susan Sarandon and director Bob Balaban paint a portrait of a woman whose paranoia and miserly ways arose from a lonely lifetime spent wondering whom she could trust.

At first, when Doris hires Bernard (played by Ralph Fiennes) as a butler, she treats him like just another hand-servant on her staff. And with Bernard's somewhat creepy devotion to former employers Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee, we imagine that he could be a deluded, nefarious loner who's secretly casting a greedy eye on Doris' fortune. Slowly but surely, though, Bernard gains Doris' trust, and she begins to see him as a kindred spirit.

The growth of their relationship is subtle, and might be lost along the way in less talented hands. But Fiennes and Sarandon are obviously skilled actors who have the range to flit effortlessly from charismatic to creepy and back. Sarandon brings so much heart and flair to Doris Duke, it's impossible to imagine anyone else doing justice to this role. Sarandon's Doris isn't just another rich demon, she's a self-possessed, opinionated woman who has a real appreciation for intelligence and eccentricity in others. She recognizes that Bernard is unique and gives him a kind of love and approval that he seems starved for. Fiennes, in turn, brings a believability to Bernard, and doesn't overplay his sexuality (he's gay). You can see a light go on in Fiennes' eyes when Doris is drawing him out of his shell.

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This is a small story, the kind of film that doesn't find its way into theaters anymore these days, so it feels exciting to discover such a sure-footed, smart, subtle movie on TV. Instead of giving us the same old story of the rich diva and the sycophant, director Bob Balaban brings to life an unexpectedly sweet and lasting connection between two otherwise isolated, searching people. Don't miss this one, and be sure to look for my interview with Susan Sarandon on Salon later this week.

Ladies who power-lunch
Speaking of rich, powerful boss ladies, I was relieved to discover that, although NBC's "Lipstick Jungle" is just as fluffy and soapy as you'd imagine a show based on a book by Candace Bushnell should be, it's still far smarter and more appealing than ABC's rich-and-powerful-lady fluff-fest "Cashmere Mafia."

Where "Cashmere Mafia" is pert and cutesy, "Lipstick Jungle" (premieres 10 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, on NBC) is reasonably snappy and substantive. Brooke Shields, Kim Raver and Lindsay Price are all well cast as women who wield power convincingly, and the show doesn't reduce its confident leads to giggling, insecure teenagers like so many other female-dominated dramas do. Sure, there are a few scenes where Nico (Raver) is rendered breathless and googly-eyed by a younger suitor, but her struggle to justify her behavior and hide the truth from her close friends is treated with the weight that it deserves.

Even Victory (Price), who's being romanced by billionaire Joe (played by Andrew McCarthy), doesn't giggle and "aw shucks" her way through her lines, nor does she moon over Joe and his money. She's much too preoccupied by her stalling career as a fashion designer, so she sweetly but firmly makes it clear to Joe that she doesn't have lots of time to fly around on his private jet, eating snow crabs and sampling cured meats. (Hey Joe, Patti Stanger has a pretty selection of ass magnets who don't have inconvenient "careers" or "hobbies" that might stand in the way of your good time.)

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"Lipstick Jungle" isn't perfect, but the dialogue is sharp and funny, and for once, we're given female characters who don't sacrifice their dignity or personal power for the sake of another lovable, goofy story line that's guaranteed not to intimidate female viewers. These women are making tough choices, they're good friends to each other, and they feel fairly genuine in the show's first two episodes. Here's hoping the show's producers will stick to their guns (even if their overbearing network bosses disagree) and stay committed to these unapologetically strong female characters.

Island living
Meanwhile, I sort of wish the overbearing network bosses at ABC would give some explicit, detailed instructions to the masterminds at "Lost" (9 p.m. Thursdays on ABC), something along the lines of "We can't spend another season stuck on that damn island trying to figure out who's good and who's bad, so don't try to make us!"

Here's my beef. (Spoiler alert: If you missed last Thursday's premiere of "Lost," don't read this.) The castaways are about to get rescued. There's a helicopter and everything. Why not stick with that mood, have everybody hug and cry, get some people on the damn helicopter and have it fly off? Maybe the rest of the castaways have to wait until the helicopter comes back. Eventually, when no helicopter returns, the castaways who were left behind might start to wonder if the rescuers were eeevil, plus they'd get the news of Charlie and freak out. Maybe the castaways on the helicopter are given some explanation as to why they'll return home without the others. But they go home, there's a parade, they try to enjoy it all. Of course there are questions looming, plus some mysterious circumstances ...

I don't have it all mapped out. All I'm saying is that, with a rescue, the writers had an opportunity to do something new. Let's see everyone get excited and stay excited for one episode. Of course one or two characters are suspicious of the whole thing, to keep up the suspense. But let's see a few of the castaways happily take a helicopter home; let's see some of them rejoining society and feeling relieved about it for half a minute.

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Yes, there are the flash forwards, but they might as well be flashbacks, because they're just as isolated and magical. Charlie appears to Hugo with ominous warnings. Doesn't that scene feel like a "Lost" Mad Lib? "[Character name] who is actually [adjective] appears to [character name] as [opposite of adjective] and says, 'You have to [verb] before [character name] is [past tense verb]!'"

Instead, what do you know? The helicopter doesn't land anywhere but drops someone off in a parachute, and now we've got Henry Gale (or Michael or Ana Lucia or Locke) all over again. Is he good or is he eeeeevil? Let's hold a gun to his head/torture him/befriend him/ask him questions/put him in a pit in the ground/lock him up and find out!

Obviously some of the castaways are going to make it off the island eventually; maybe it'll even happen soon. But we need to have some new experiences and stray away from this dominant, ominous mood in every single scene. There have been episodes that were relatively light in the past. It's not like there can't be trouble brewing when some of the castaways are excited to leave. Must they all mourn Charlie together, when there's a helicopter on the way? Must they all struggle with whether to join Locke or not? Can't one among them be as self-interested as Michael? In the first two seasons, all of the castaways had a lot of flaws. Now it seems like they're all valiant heroes, each more courageous than the last, one-upping each other with one act of self-sacrifice after another.

And enough with the visions and the magic! They don't propel this story forward anymore. We know by now that these visions rarely add up or come back into play, so we don't trust them or take them as anything but "Now the scene gets really spooky!"

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This perspective won't come as a surprise to those of you who gave up on "Lost" long ago (who will chime in on letters to remind us just how long ago you knew that "Lost" was a lost cause) or to those of you who love "Lost" with a passion and find an intricate, interrelated web of meaning in every little detail, but personally, I don't see how the writers could take a rescue and make it feel like something that's already happened on the show before.

Don't forget to boss
I do want to add that mapping out the right path for "Lost" is a seriously difficult undertaking, one that's a world apart from doing the paint-by-numbers plotting of a procedural drama or even a nighttime soap. The show's writers are in uncharted territory -- or they will be whenever they go back to work. It's not really their fault that they're writing the same scenes that they've written before, any more than it's our fault that we're so lumpy, sullen and slovenly after so many years on the earth, or that we expect to extract so much promise and meaning from our TV sets. Let's face it, we all need new bosses, bosses who'll bossily boss us around until we come close to resembling those capable, industrious human beings who walked the earth 200 years ago.

Next week ... Fanboys join the fray on "Survivor," while "The L Word" fumbles but doesn't drop the soap!


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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