I Like to Watch

American idle: If you can't live a life of leisure, at least you can watch one on TV, from "Big Brother" to "The Real Housewives of New York City."

By Heather Havrilesky
Published March 23, 2008 12:00PM (EDT)

Productivity is overrated. When I think of the vast sea of to-do lists I've written over the past 20 years, thousands of little slips of paper with items crossed off and added and circled and rewritten on new lists, I'm struck by the utter futility of this incessant compulsion to accomplish stuff.

Surely the gods find such a relentless pursuit of trivial goals utterly pathetic! As they gaze down at us from their leisurely perches in the clouds, they must laugh heartily, to see how we scamper to and fro, telling ourselves that we're almost done. But we're never done! There's always more laundry, more dishes, more deadlines, more errands, more phone calls, more e-mails, more projects, more, more, more!

Why awake each morning with a to-do list? When we're old and gray, will we measure our lives in laundry, errands and e-mails? It's time we finally emancipated ourselves from the oppressive, ever-looming burden of productivity. Life is too short to waste time inventing even more supposedly important, time-sensitive tasks. Let's float free of goal-oriented living and drift aimlessly through the world like idle aristocrats or retirees or stray dogs! Let's spend our time wandering and sniffing around and relaxing in the sunshine and sipping coffee and reading the paper and musing on the meaning of it all!

But then, how will you escape the tidal wave of idiotic, pointless tasks that's sure to drag you under after just a few idle days? If only you were going through some kind of a midlife crisis or struggling with some sort of substance abuse problem, you'd have a solid excuse for dropping out completely ...

It's no wonder the inhabitants of "Big Brother" (9 p.m. EDT Tuesdays, 8 p.m. EDT Wednesdays and Sundays on CBS) always seem like such a fragile lot. Unable to conjure the proper degree of enthusiasm for drinking or drugs or a nervous breakdown, they opted for an equally tumultuous and undignified exit from their everyday lives: the reality show. But what better excuse for avoiding your responsibilities in life than by literally being imprisoned in a well-lit romper room with other aimless, soul-searching drifters?

"Big Brother" offers a rare opportunity to observe human beings in a completely idle state. But do the inhabitants seem relaxed and happy, like retirees or stray dogs? Sadly, no -- they're more like depressed zoo animals. But unlike captive polar bears, which pace the same steps over and over, quietly going insane over the years, captive human beings display their deteriorating mental health in much more colorful and entertaining ways. Say what you will about "Big Brother" in general, but this season has featured, hands down, the most demented, manic, talkative, paranoid, melodramatic crop of prisoners in the history of the show.

Splitting the group into teams of two and telling them they'd been paired with their soul mates was a stroke of genius. Partners Chelsia and James fell in lust and made out around the clock. Natalie grew infatuated with her partner, Matt, and became convinced that he adored her, too -- he just happened to show it by avoiding her and insulting her constantly. And partners Sheila and Adam hated each other more than they would've otherwise, considering each other far too ugly and inferior to constitute a proper match. But whether bonded by love or mutual hatred, the couples became close out of necessity, coming up with joint strategies, working together during challenges, sleeping in the same beds, and insulting the other houseguests ruthlessly in the privacy of the Head of Household room.

Of course, the second everyone got comfortable, it was time to tear the couples asunder, forcing each player to compete individually. The house went from being a bustling beehive of strategizing, alliance forming and shit talking to an asylum filled with desperate, chattering lunatics. While in past seasons, the captives of the "Big Brother" house would sit around talking about nothing, and once every three or four days someone would trip on something or get into a bickering match and that footage would make it onto the show, this season, I pity the editors who have to decide what footage to include.

If you've checked in with the live footage of the house featured on "Big Brother After Dark" (12 a.m.-3 a.m. EDT on Showtime 2), you'll see that every single night, the captives stay up late, strategizing and talking shit. Joshua calls Allison sad and pathetic. Matt makes a move on Sharon. Matt and Sharon confide in other players that they only kissed each other for strategic reasons. Natalie follows Matt around. James and Chelsia make out. James suggests Chelsia for eviction ... The insanity goes on and on and on, with brand-new alliances and enemies forming every few milliseconds. This season, the Big Brotherians are willing to strategize with anyone, at any time, whether that person is on their side or not.

Take last week: Josh and James resolve to persuade Ryan to vote out his buddy, Matt. Natalie, who's ostensibly in agreement, turns around and tells her darling Matt. Matt tells Ryan. Ryan agrees not to put Matt up, but tells Josh, James and the others that he'll put Matt up anyway. Ryan makes a secret deal with Josh. Ryan changes his mind, and puts James up. James is voted out 5-1, but then, when the housemates have to decide between bringing back James or another unknown houseguest who's already been voted out, they bring back James. James wins Head of Household and then goes on the warpath, since he feels betrayed by everyone but his lusty former partner, Chelsia, and proclaims the rest of the house total idiots for voting him back in. James promises Natalie he won't put Matt on the block, so he puts Ryan and Sheila up for eviction, then wins the power of veto (so he can take someone off the block), changes his mind, takes Sheila off and puts Matt on the block after all. Matt's voted out, leaving Natalie heartbroken and hungry for vengeance.

In the old days, there'd be three or four big power shifts per season. This season, the power in the house shifts constantly -- it never stops shifting. You can tune in for an episode and see one thing, then switch over to "After Dark" and see a completely different plan emerging. No one has a concrete plan. Everyone is all over the map, and nothing you hear anyone say matters one damn, because they'll turn around and say the exact opposite thing a few hours later.

Which makes this show even more of a colossal waste of time than it usually is -- which is exactly why we list-makers love it with a burning passion. Three nights a week, we sit and waste a full hour on this circular, gossipy, pointless chatter. It's the least productive, emptiest, most foolish thing we could possibly spend our time doing, and as such it constitutes one small taste of emancipation from the burden of productivity.

Pup is up
For those looking for something similarly relaxing to watch, but who can't quite stomach the meatheads and acrid tartlets of reality television, might I recommend another group of very idle beings, albeit ones with far more personality and flair than the "Big Brother" houseguests?

Welcome to the Sleeping Dog Channel, an online video site by the geniuses at World of Wonder productions. The site shows nothing but dogs sleeping, which makes it a little less interesting than, say, "Dancing With the Stars" and a little more interesting than "CSI: Miami."

What is it about watching dogs sleep that's so relaxing? Whether it's the heavy-lidded blinking of Chloe or the worried brow and paw licking of Stella, the Sleeping Dog Channel offers so many hours of commercial-free enjoyment that it's sure to make its creators rich, I tell you, rich as kings!

Now if only they could recast "Paradise Hotel 2" with rescue dogs, the show would be much improved: "Residents of Paradise, there's a twist! Instead of bringing a new man to Paradise this week, we're bringing a male collie mix, a female Great Dane-lab mix and a litter of Jack Russells! Will you continue to get drunk and make out with your current roommate, or would you rather drink to excess, then frolic with a room full of high-energy puppies, and send your current roommate packing?"

The harried leisure class
The irony, of course, is that truly idle human beings are, like caged animals, more neurotic and anxious than the rest of us. Look no further than "The Real Housewives of New York City" (11 p.m. Tuesdays on Bravo) for proof. Despite a lot of big talk about their careers, these high-strung New Yorkers don't appear to have a lot to occupy their time, outside of beauty treatments, shopping and socializing. Oh, but don't think for a second that you can't create a world of stress and pressure from these seemingly relaxing pursuits! These desperate housewives make play look like serious work.

Of course, the real draw of this show is to marvel at the hopeless tackiness of people who claim to be elite. The most objectionable of the lot may be Alex, who loves to brag about how perfect her life is and how superior her taste is. She doesn't go to the Hamptons in August like so many wealthy New Yorkers; she goes to St. Barth instead. Why? "For a vacation, I want to relax. I don't want to be looking over my shoulder to see if there's somebody I need to impress sitting at the next table." My, how down to earth of you!

Naturally the only "Real Housewife" who isn't seriously cheesy, LuAnn, is a major snob. She's married to a man whose actual name is Count Alexandre, and her daughter Victoria, who's 12, shows horses and has been riding since she was 5. When loudmouthed fellow "Real Housewife" Ramona shows up at the Hampton Classic horse show where Victoria is riding, LuAnn sniffs at how out of place Ramona looks in her big hat and her dress, saying, "I think she thought it was like the big tent day, where you get all dolled up and it's all about the hat and the dress? This day was all about the show, and the jumping." Oh yes, it's so very easy to break some crucial rule in the hallowed, horsey Hamptons!

Meanwhile, poor Ramona nervously grips her photocopied schedule of the day's events and fires questions at LuAnn like she's the new girl at school, while LuAnn snipes to a friend, "She keeps asking me all these questions about the show and I'm going, I don't know, I'm watching."

But the pettiness has only just begun! Later "Real Housewife" Jill feels hurt that Ramona didn't invite her to a cooking party, and seeks revenge -- how else? -- by challenging her to a doubles match at tennis. LuAnn, who's tall and athletic, is Jill's partner (and they're actually friends). After her husband, Mario, shouts several instructions from the sidelines, Ramona loses her cool and tells him to keep quiet. For WASP-y LuAnn, the whole display is lamentable.

LuAnn: I was in shock! She told him to shut up. She told him to leave! I was like, oh my God, if I ever spoke to the Count like that he would be out of town, permanently!

Yes, this woman, who refers to her husband as the Count, feels comfortable casting judgment on others. Now I can't get that counting vampire from "Sesame Street" out of my head. One absurdly snotty remark! Two absurdly snotty remarks! Muhaha!

But LuAnn and her equally judgmental fellow "Real Housewife" Bethenny give the NYC version of this show what the Orange County version so sorely lacked: a voice of reason, however nasty and condescending that voice happens to be. Those bad, cheesy women in Orange County would parade around in ass pants with their fake jugs on display, throwing back margaritas and flirting with men 20 years younger than they were, and while you had to admire their pluck and sass, some small part of your brain couldn't help screaming, "Why doesn't someone tell these women to keep their voices down?"

Unlike the Orange County "Real Housewives" who looked like they'd been surgically transformed into creepy old Barbie dolls, LuAnn and Bethenny wear the life of leisure rather well, like they spend most of their time playing tennis and brushing stray dust off the bed linens. They're fit, they're smart, they have good taste. In a teaser for next week's show, Bethenny even observes that Alex "overcompensates for insecurity by being pretentious."

Needless to say, this is totally unacceptable. We aren't supposed to respect or envy the idle rich; we're supposed to pity them! Luckily, though, next week Bethenny's boyfriend gets commitment-phobic and the Countess's children get lice. Yes, the good Lord (or at least the executive producer) is on our side after all!

Drawing conclusions
The lives of the idle force us to ask ourselves a difficult question: If we freed ourselves from the puerile persistence of productivity, would we find happiness? Or would living without lists make us listless? Would we find ourselves quick to temper without little tasks to ground us? Would idleness only make us more aggressive, or tackier, or snobbier? Maybe we should feel grateful to those endless to-do lists, for keeping us safe from the neurotic tics and existential crises of the leisure class!

Next week: On Showtime's "The Tudors," the idle whims of Henry VIII take down the Roman Catholic Church!

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