I Like to Watch

"The Suze Orman Show" and "Supernanny" uncover the perils of the American dream, while Sundance's Canadian drama "Terminal City" traces a housewife's battle with cancer.


Heather Havrilesky
March 2, 2008 6:00PM (UTC)

Let's keep the American dream alive, people! Repeat after me: The economy is in slowdown, but it's not a recession. Certainly not! Our economy is simply growing at a slender pace. Unemployment is up, sure, but that doesn't mean that fewer people have jobs. It just means that the rate at which people without jobs are finding new jobs is declining ever so slightly.

The housing market is in transition, but let's not use words like "collapse." It's true that many Americans are defaulting or are about to default on their loans, and their mortgage companies aren't really answering their calls. Look, that's just a common side effect of the economy's current ills. And by "ills" I mean a head cold, not a flu or some mysterious, deadly virus.

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Just because this country's head is full of snot, that doesn't mean a recession is looming. Slowdown? Yes. But meltdown, breakdown? No. Now let's all close our eyes and hold hands and will the American dream back into existence: "We pledge allegiance to the two-car garage, no matter how enormous our debt load. And screw the general public, who are in a serious jam. We believe in a strong U.S. dollar, under God, indivisible (unless you're trying to make change to buy a pack of cigarettes), with liberty and economic robustness for all. Amen!"

Hard times
The American dream is slipping through our fingers. While you might not realize that from the luxury of your three-bedroom split-level palace in the safe, dry, warm, white suburbs of your city, where you cruise the Internets searching for empty distractions, many of us ordinary Americans are eating pork butt in squalor while the debtors and tax collectors form a rambunctious, bloodthirsty mob outside our drafty doors. (No wonder no one's there to man the phone lines!)

The talking heads want us to think that it's all our fault for charging a 52-inch plasma flat-screen TV on our credit cards, but we're not buying that song and dance anymore. A pound of chicken breast is $7 at my grocery store. I live in a working-class neighborhood. What the hell are people eating out there? The federal minimum wage is $5.85 an hour! Can you imagine working over an hour for a fucking chicken sandwich? What is this, Zimbabwe?

In troubled times like these, I like to tune in to "The Suze Orman Show" (9 p.m. EST on CNBC) so Suze and her befuddled crowds and I can sigh heavily together over the sorry state of the U.S. economy. I love how Suze talks about good things to do with money I don't have. I like putting imaginary money into IRAs and then saving some more imaginary money for a 529 college fund. It feels reassuring, somehow, to know that if I stumbled on $10,000 or $15,000, I'd know lots of things to do with it that wouldn't involve Cabo San Lucas or high-grade cocaine at all.

But the best part of "The Suze Orman Show" is when sad little individuals and couples stand up and tell Suze all about their bad real estate decisions or their tremendous credit card debt. My favorites are the ones who make over $300,000 a year, but who have dug themselves such a gigantic hole that they won't dig out of it for several years. You're never too rich to be totally broke.

And when I listen to Suze give the woman who makes $24,000 a year a plan for paying off her debt and buying her first home? I listen closely, because you're never too broke to be rich, either ... it just might take half a century, and by then, well, you'll be dead.

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Home sweet groan
But the heartiest serving of schadenfreude comes from "Supernanny" (9 p.m. EST Wednesdays on ABC), the show that makes you feel better about your parenting by revealing what truly crappy parenting looks like.

Jo Frost, aka the Supernanny, was made for this role. A perky, increasingly full-figured British gal, Jo loves to gasp and sigh and shake her head and tsk-tsk over the awful parenting she sees. "What's wrong with these thick Americans?" her face says as she steps into a household full of filthy little monkeys, eating fistfuls of Cheetos for dinner and screaming at the top of their lungs when their parents weakly tell them to quiet down.

Knowing nothing about the show, you'd think the big draw would be watching bad kids get whipped into shape. But no. Once you meet both the kids, yelling and kicking, and the parents, shrugging and hiding in their rooms, it's the parents whom you want to see get their asses kicked.

And that might be Jo's favorite part of her job. Take Lisa Daniels, the 34-year-old mom with six kids who doesn't know how to talk to her children directly, discipline them or even hug them. When the kids go apeshit, she steps back and says there's nothing she can do. "I'm better off not dealing with it," she mumbles when Jo finds her hiding in her husband's office while her kids run wild around the house.

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Incredibly enough, Lisa's oldest daughter, Haley, does chores most of the day and is permanently banned from the pool in the backyard, while her younger siblings play in the pool whether they're allowed to or not.

Jo: Yesterday, when it came to Alexis and Haley being in trouble, there was Haley, inside the house, whilst Alexis was out in the poolside!

Lisa: I couldn't get her out of the pool. I mean, what do you want me to do, jump in and pull her out?

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Jo: Yeah. The fact is that you're lazy and you don't do nothing about it! What I'm not seeing from the pair of you is a willingness to take responsibility for what's happened here.

Lisa rolls her eyes and sits like there like a spoiled teenager. Then Jo asks why she didn't spend any time with her kids that day. Lisa says she was too busy cleaning up and making lunch.

Jo: You make time. You sit down and you have fun with your kids. I mean, isn't that why you had six kids? Didn't you want to be a mother and have relationships with each one of your kids?

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Next Jo sets up a mock game show, where the parents are quizzed to see how much they know about their kids. The kids giggle when they see that their parents don't know their favorite colors, their favorite foods or their favorite animals. Their 13-year-old son Josh says with a smile, "I wasn't surprised that they didn't do that well."

Eventually, Lisa and Steve, her husband, learn how to discipline, but when Jo goes with Lisa and her daughter Haley on a bowling trip and coaches Lisa to talk to her daughter and be affectionate, Lisa stands awkwardly and mumbles "Good job" but doesn't touch Haley or look her in the eye. This woman doesn't need a Supernanny's training; she needs a thorough psychological evaluation.

Another recent episode featured Wendy Wilson of the group Wilson-Phillips, whose easygoing parenting style was repeatedly attributed -- by the producers, not by her -- to the fact that her father was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Wilson, like all parents, had some problems getting her kids to bed, but other than that, Jo seemed to be on the scene to encourage Wilson to emote over being neglected by her busy songwriter daddy. Finally, Wilson made it clear that she was over it and didn't blame her dad, and mostly she just wanted her 4-year-old boy to stop crapping in his pants. So everyone backed off and proclaimed her a good parent before the cameras packed up to leave for the next domestic hellhole.

The episodes where wimpy parents get kicked in the shins by their kids over and over are probably the most gratifying of the lot. I love that moment when the enraged beast of a 2-year-old is instantly quieted by Jo, kneeling down to the kid's level, looking him in the eye and saying solemnly, "That's un-ass-SEPtable."

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Jo may not make much of a difference in these parents' lives, but she sure makes us parents feel damn proud that our kids don't soil themselves and eat Cheetos for dinner. Not yet, anyway.

Let's begin again
There are more domestic perils in store on "Terminal City" (premieres March 6 on Sundance), a place where comedy and tragedy are wound together so closely you can't get one without the other. On the first episode of this Canadian drama, which was picked up by the discriminating masterminds at Sundance, Katie Sampson (Maria del Mar) has a lump in her breast, so she refuses to answer her phone. When the doctor finally tells her they think it's cancer, she goes home and starts hitting golf balls randomly into the neighborhood. The cops come by, but her husband, Ari (Gil Bellows), insists on bringing his wife a drink and talking to her first.

Cop: Are you sure that's a good idea?

Ari: This is a very good idea. It's my wife. I know my wife. And if you knew my wife, you would think it was a good idea, too.

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We're supposed to understand, early on, that Katie and Ari are people who make odd, unconventional choices. Take the second episode, when Ari tells his wife, "[W]e can get dressed up, but we're not doing horse tranquilizers." Now imagine that line on an American drama.

Katie makes another odd choice when, halfway through the first episode, she brings her 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, along with her when she goes to her breast biopsy. When Katie steps out of the procedure room, there's a TV camera in her face, filming a reality show called "Post-Op." Instead of mumbling an excuse and moving on, Katie lights up and shows the camera her tumor (which includes baring her naked breast). The show's producer, Jane, calls her boss with an idea: Let's fire our lame real-life-doctor host, and hire Katie to host the show instead.

This very off-kilter drama is nicely cast, beautifully shot, and the mix of desperation and joy presented here is about as ambitious as a TV show can get. Of course, with ambition and smarts comes pretentiousness -- the writing can get more than a little precious at times. After Katie's TV appearance, for example, Sarah admonishes her mom about her language on camera.

Sarah: Mom, you said fuck!

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Katie: I know ... and I should use that more often, because it's a great expletive.

Sarah: What's that?

Katie: An expletive? It nails life! My life and your life, too.

If an expletive nails life, having your lead character say that an expletive "nails life" doesn't nail life at all -- it nails unnatural, queasily cute, overwritten dialogue onto an otherwise worthwhile backdrop.

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But for every dumb exchange like that one, there are three or four good scenes: Katie in the procedure room, staring at the ceiling while she listens to the doctor prattle on to the nurse; Katie's father-in-law, Saul, saying to his son, when he finds out the news that Katie has cancer, "You have to be tough," and then standing up without giving him a hug or even a pat on the back.

Some scenes are uneven and dorky, but at its best, this tragicomic story carries a weight that conjures the melancholy, sweet mood of "Six Feet Under" or "Mad Men." Of course "Terminal City" doesn't quite come close to those two shows in its first two episodes, and a few bad scenes make it unclear whether it ever could. But I, for one, will definitely be around to find out.

Next week: Who'll win it all on "Project Runway"? (My money's on Jillian.) Plus, on Sunday night, look for the Salon staff to weigh in on the second-to-last episode of "The Wire."


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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