I Like to Watch

Tracey Ullman takes on America, "Lost" imitates a bad Vin Diesel movie, and Lauren Conrad of "The Hills" shows us that mute, expressionless humans can be TV stars, too!


Heather Havrilesky
March 30, 2008 5:00PM (UTC)

Considering how much TV I watch, you'd think that eventually my senses would become numbed to the insanity of the small screen. What other defense could my brain launch in response to so much lowbrow entertainment, than to dampen the clumsy blows of pop culture's bluntest weapons? Surely, after years at this job, my sensitivity to the idiocy and outrageousness of television would decrease, rendering me less and less surprised or disturbed by the madness I encounter.

Sadly, though, the more exposure I have to the volatile, absurd, depraved kaleidoscope of televised entertainments, the more my senses have become heightened to the boob tube's confusing stimuli. Little details that other viewers have long since accepted as part of the mundane TV landscape -- David Caruso's growl, Tyra Banks' elevation to giganto-tranny/high priestess of the universe, Julie Chen's wardrobe choices -- these things confound my overtaxed senses much like a scrap of shiny paper confuses the ecstasy-addled teenager.

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"The Hills" aren't alive with anything
Take Lauren Conrad, the star of reality soap "The Hills" (10 p.m. EDT Mondays on MTV). When the series returned last Monday, it struck me once again, this time with even more force, how utterly devoid of charm and personality and a discernible pulse Lauren is. What is this limp rag of a woman doing on TV? Why is the camera trained on her empty face, which reflects the apparent paucity of thoughts floating through her head? Why do we see, time and again, that pouting, downturned mouth, which forms words so infrequently?

Clearly, the point of "The Hills" is to see Lauren tortured at every turn. How else could Audrina call, right after Lauren and Whitney arrived in Paris, to tell Lauren that she saw Brody Jenner, her sort-of sweetheart, in L.A. the night before with a girl he introduced as his girlfriend? Even Whitney, who's supposed to be Lauren's friend, has trouble stifling laughter at the swiftness of Brody's betrayal. "Really? That took, uh, two days!" she says with a smirk, then struggles mightily to wipe the smile away as she supportively brushes a stray hair off Lauren's face.

And what does Lauren say? Nothing.

Whitney: We can find boyfriends in two days!

Lauren: Silence.

Whitney: If he can do it, so can we!

Lauren: Silence.

Whitney: I'm sure that Paris is full of guys who are cooler than Brody.

Lauren: Silence.

Next, Lauren and Whitney decide to go out to a club with some guys from a French rock 'n' roll band called Rock 'n' Roll. Maybe these concrete thinkers will be slow enough to find Lauren interesting, or maybe the language barrier will render her mute frowning mysterious and seductive.

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One of the guys leers at Lauren from across the table, and she lights up immediately. "Maybe I'm crazy, but I think that greasy guy with the half-assed mustache is leering at me!" her delighted face seems to say, but her mouth, as always, says nothing. At least she's throwing us a bone by offering us a rare glimpse of how her face looks when she's not in a semi-comatose state.

The Leering Rocker (whose name is Mathias) follows her out to say goodbye, and she dodges his advances, which in Lauren's twisted universe is a crystal-clear come-hither sign. Happy to be encouraged by Lauren (Or the show's producers? It's so hard to tell!) Leering Rocker shows up after the Teen Vogue event she and Whitney are in Paris to help with. He rides up on a Vespa (His Vespa?) with two matching, shiny silver helmets (OK, obviously a producer rented this moped package for him). Lauren hikes up her ball gown and the two zip off into the rainy night for what is an undoubtedly unpleasant but nonetheless rather photogenic adventure through the streets of Paris.

The next day, Whitney and Lauren discuss their regrets over having to leave Paris so soon after arriving.

Whitney: I bet Mathias really liked you. I bet he wishes you were staying longer.

Lauren: Me too.

Whitney: What about Brody?

Lauren: Silence.

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Whitney: It's so weird, just to come here and then come home with like a whole new perspective on things, you know?

Lauren: Well, Lisa did say that Paris changes you.

Whitney: What about you? Are you excited to go back home?

Lauren: I don't know. I guess so.

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Wouldn't it save MTV untold piles of cash if they replaced Lauren Conrad with, say, a duffel bag? They could ship the duffel bag to Paris, shoot it lounging in the luxury hotel room as Whitney guesses at its innermost thoughts and desires. They could even prop it up on the back of the moped behind Leering Rocker and show it the sights of Paris at night. The duffel bag could appear on the cover of US Weekly next to the words "How I Got Stabbed in the Back" or maybe, "How I Got Thrown Around Carelessly."

And you can bet that a duffel bag wouldn't become outraged over its press, pathetically confusing itself with a real-life human being. A duffel bag would happily accept its role as a fictional character on an entirely imaginary "reality" show.

Anyway, we've got much more to discuss so we'll get to Lauren's ex-friend Ice Princess Barbie Heidi and her repetitive 'toon boyfriend Spencer later.

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Tracey takes on the USA
Instead of watching a human being imitate an inanimate object, why not tune in for Sunday night's premiere of "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union" (10 p.m. on Showtime), in which the always-brilliant Ullman imitates some seriously foolish human beings, from demi-celebrities like Larry David's ex-wife Laurie David and anchorwoman Linda Alvarez to invented personalities like airport security worker Chanel Monticello or a Bollywood-style singing pharmacist. Ullman has a sharp eye for the precise ways in which Americans are ludicrous and laughable and deliciously self-satisfied, and she knows just how to demonstrate our vanity to us, whether she embodies Laurie David bragging about her friend's minivan that runs on "cadavers and goat shit" or an African celebrity who adopts an American boy to save him from "dying of stupidity."

Ullman is obviously great at impressions, but it's the sharpness of the writing that sets this show apart from other sketch comedies. Ullman tosses off so many excellent one-liners along the way, it's hard to keep track of them all. Before her broadcast, anchorwoman Alvarez reads over the news that "In South Africa, Angelina Jolie was beaten by an angry mob of her own children." In another episode, Alvarez cheerfully tells the camera, "Coming up after the break, five things in your refrigerator that can kill you!"

And then there's the voice-over that begins, "At the Hamptons Film Festival, where the film industry goes to get away from itself, actress Renée Zellweger is talking about her new movie..."

Of course, not every character Tracey Ullman takes on is pure genius, and not every joke she writes will have you rolling on the floor. Some of her jokes and characters range from silly (a farting yoga instructor?) to just plain odd (Irma Billings, the low-key Christian Midwesterner, spouts clichés but does little else).

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That said, who else but Ullman would dare to imitate Arianna Huffington in her home gym, working out in the most awkward position imaginable while she furiously types a post on her blog? Later, we see Arianna in bed, cuddling with her laptop as she falls asleep. While you might think someone as obscure as Huffington would be an odd choice for a comedian to skewer, there's something so deliriously American about Huffington's tireless ambition, which is right in step with her tireless appearances, her tireless blogging, her tireless workouts...

What I mean to say is that Tracey Ullman sees right through us -- all of us, from mega-celebrities to complete nobodies. Now let's all say a quick prayer that we never end up in one of her sketches.

Kill, pussycat, kill!
I know it's been a while, but I don't think I can move on with my life until we discuss the "Lost" (new episodes return 10 p.m. EDT on Thursday, April 24) sort-of-finale. What did you think? It's certainly nice to have poor, selfish Michael back. Of course his relationship with Walt is on the rocks. Of course he's haunted by having killed Ana-Lucia and Abby in his efforts to break Ben out of captivity in exchange for being allowed to escape from the island with his son Walt.

Anyway, now we've got Michael on the "rescue" boat, told by Ben to kill some but not all of its passengers (Please wait for further instructions!), and we've got a boat full of thugs straight out of a bad Vin Diesel movie, firing their automatic machine guns in the air, thugs who are presumably charged with storming the island and killing everyone there. So the big question now is ... who's killing and who's getting killed?

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Kill, kill, kill. In the old days, when in doubt, the writers solved plot problems with mysterious clouds, polar bears, Dharma initiative clues, and the appearance of some important figure in a person's past in the middle of the jungle. These days, plot problems are solved by killing or threatening to kill characters. We find out Charlie is going to die somehow, and then he does. Locke kills Naomi. Sayid becomes a paid assassin once he leaves the island. Juliet's lover Goodwin ends up killed, thanks to Ben. Jin is going to end up dead. Michael is trying to kill himself because he killed two people, but he can't, so now he has to kill a whole boatload of people before they kill the people on the island. And how did the episode end? With Alex's lover, Karl, and mother, Rousseau, being killed by sniper fire. Maybe they should change the name from "Lost" to "Killed."

Although they may have the toughest job in television, the show's writers aren't making imaginative choices, given the possibilities. Each new plot development feels like it does the quick and dirty work of solving two problems: 1) prolonging the suspense and 2) pulling in some old thread along the way to make it feel more authentic (Juliet's lover is Goodwin, who we already knew was killed by Ana-Lucia; the spy on the boat is Michael, whose fate we've never known). But the plot of each episode accomplishes little beyond those two immediate goals.

The flashbacks used to reveal a character's personality and the formative experiences that shaped his or her worldview. Sometime last season, though, they became empty, plot-based threads that felt more like bad episodes of "The Outer Limits." (Remember Jack's affair with the creepy tattoo woman who said, "I mark people!" but who otherwise served no purpose?) And now even the flash forwards feel flat. Having Jin run around town, looking for what we thought was a present for Sun was a nice misdirection, since we thought he was finding a gift for her while she was in the hospital having their baby, and revealing his grave at the end was surprising, but what else did we learn about Jin or Sun in that episode? Remember how Locke's flashbacks demonstrated his stubborn pride and his unrelenting determination to win his father's love? Remember how we learned in a flashback that Michael had transformed from a reluctant to a dedicated father? There was growth in those scenes.

Plenty of loyal viewers will say, "If you don't like 'Lost' don't watch it." But the creators and writers of this show have made it clear that they can do much, much better when they bring the question of character and intention into the picture. When they honor the richness of these characters, that takes a lot of the pressure off the plot: We're happy to hang out on the boat or get trapped on the island indefinitely as long as there's a substantive conflict that reveals each character's motivations and flaws. Do we even know the difference between Miles, Locke and Ben at this point? They all seem one dimensional, and we're left to speculate which is the most deluded or evil. Of course Ben will end up being the most evil of all, because we know him the best, and that holds more power than simply introducing increasingly evil characters, "24"-style. This show once centered on the clash of various characters' philosophies. Remember? Those days make the current season, with its little skirmishes on the boat, look like a Steven Seagal movie in comparison.

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Next week: "Battlestar Galactica" returns! A nation of closeted geeks drools in anticipation!


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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