I Like to Watch

"Oprah's Big Give" makes charity look as easy as speed dialing Jennifer Aniston, while "30 Rock's" Tina Fey breaks the angst of the single female out of a frothy Aniston-flavored rut.

By Heather Havrilesky

Published April 27, 2008 12:00PM (EDT)

This week, many questions haunt me. Why does Oprah think we'll kill to catch a glimpse of Jennifer Aniston? Why can't poor Liz Lemon of "30 Rock" find a nice guy whose nickname for her isn't "dummy"? Why would those idiot Cylons on "Battlestar Galactica" give their robot stooges the ability to reason, thereby creating a master race of robots with a serious grudge to bear? Why can't I give my Roomba robot vacuum the ability to reason, so it can clean its own damn brushes and get back to doing the vital and important work of sucking a vast sea of dog hair off my floors?

On the other hand, my Roomba probably doesn't like me all that much, considering the demeaning tone I use to address it. ("There, I've cleaned your stupid brushes. Now get back to work, maggot!") Armed with an ability to reason, my Roomba might scale my bed and try to kill me in my sleep ... by sucking my brains out of my ear!

No way. That worthless maggot doesn't have the guts or the sucking power to pull off a stunt like that. It wouldn't dare!


Time to get to more important things, like Oprah, master and commander of the known universe and creator of "Oprah's Big Give," the show that introduced upper-class Americans to the countless joys of grass-roots charity. You know, that's where you sit at a big oak desk and call your rich friends on your cellphone and pressure them to write huge checks while the cameras roll.

This is the kind of down-home charity that fueled "Celebrity Apprentice," and it was on display again in the finale of "Oprah's Big Give." And look, Oprah's right: It is pretty amazing how easy it is to raise $10-, $20-, $30,000 just by picking up the phone. Let's see, all you need is a team of highly paid producers and publicists and agents with massive lists of contacts in their BlackBerrys -- oh, and some spending threshold: As far as I can tell, anyone who gives over $50K automatically wins a spot in front of Oprah's cameras. Hell, you could probably make billions and billions of dollars in a matter of weeks, just armed with the promise of Oprahganda.

Don't get all cynical, now. Yes, it's true that the winner, Stephen, dampened our spirits a little when we were invited to meet his pretty wife and three daughters, and the producers had trouble locating them in the cavernous recesses of Stephen's enormous house in tony Westchester County, New York. "Lulu! Taylor! Put the ponies back in the stable and come meet these nice men with the cameras right this minute! Daddy's close to winning another million to add to his overseas bank accounts, so be extra nice with a cherry on top!"

And it's too bad that Brandi, the pageant queen, couldn't seem to pull herself together, because she had exactly the sort of scrappy middle-class roots that you know the producers were thirsting for. But sad little Brandi acted like a petulant teenager throughout the final challenge, storming out and telling the camera, "The guys' ideas suck ... If I have to put an 'I' in team, I will." Sweet Jesus, don't do it! Don't you dare put an "I" in team! Seconds later, basketball games across the country devolved into chaos, political action groups and knitting groups alike started to turn on each other, and drum circles went from playing "Fire on the Mountain" to pounding out an unfocused mess seemingly composed by Philip Glass.

I blame the producers. This is the final challenge, and all you have to tell the final three contestants is, "Come up with something really big, and work as a team!"? Were you really surprised when the three finalists ran back to their hotel rooms and ... sat there for a full day?

Here's the thing: They aren't producers! They're photogenic people who look good handing out gigantic checks and hugging sick children. You've got to give them a starting point: Help the guy in this picture! Kiss these Katrina victims! Take these enormous cake pans and bake someone happy!

Stephen at least ran off to the Chicago Hope Academy, a school for underprivileged city kids (that Stephen himself attended long ago, before he had half a dozen millionaires on speed dial) and vowed to make them money for their athletic field (by speed dialing half a dozen millionaires). Then Cameron found a contact for the Blue Man Group on the Internets. He e-mailed them, and they seemed to call him back almost immediately. (That was so weird, how there were cameras on the Blue Man Group contact who called Cameron!) And guess what? The Blue Man Group guy said something like, "Look, Cameron, you seem like the greatest guy ever, and this school really needs our help! Not only will we perform for the Chicago Hope Academy, we'll also write you a check for $100,000!"

Brandi didn't like any of this, though, because Stephen thought of it. "I still want to find two lovers and connect them," she said in a daydreamy voice. She also suggested that, instead of entertaining the kids and raising more than $100K for their school, they should get some beauty queens to visit a children's hospital to cheer up the kids. Stephen and Cameron bit their lips and stared at their hands, but we knew what they were thinking: Beauty queens? Really? Are you going to give them Barney suits to wear?

Eventually Brandi organized a cooking lesson for some kids at the Shriners Hospital, and everyone hugged Brandi and told her she was a really good person, even if she was only middle-class and therefore thought it was super exciting to wear a tiara on her head. But Stephen understood, sort of. His daughters were a lot like Brandi ... when they were 4.

Even the judges, usually overflowing with praise, were stumped. How could they decide whom to anoint the winner of "Oprah's Big Give," when all they had to work with was two deep-pocketed guys who were good at talking on their cellphones and a bighearted but somewhat empty-headed beauty queen?

The producers put their heads together and decided that there was only one answer to this dilemma: Call Jennifer Aniston! Once Jennifer Aniston arrives, everyone will scream and pass out on the ground and wet themselves (isn't that what they always do on "Oprah"?), and no one will remember that the final challenge was an uneven mess.

So in walks Jennifer Aniston, whose hair is flat-ironed so close to her head that it forms two perfect blond blinders, presumably so that she won't get spooked by the crowds and run off. Aniston smiles her winning "Brangelina hasn't broken me yet! I'm friends with Oprah, goddamn it!" smile, and then gleefully announces that each of the show's contestants will get ... $10,000? Aniston looks at Oprah. "Maybe we should double it?" Twenty thousand! "That just felt too good. So I would actually, personally, I'd like to triple it!" Thirty thousand dollars! Cut to the contestants, who high-five and hoot obligingly but have looks on their faces that say, "Are you going to quadruple that, Jen? Because we deserve it, after the hell we've been through."

But Aniston mercilessly strides off, knowing full well that you haven't been through hell until your hot husband is on the cover of US Weekly with an alien robot seductress and half a dozen third-world adoptees by his side. Basically, the whole thing feels about as suspenseful and exciting as one of those episodes of "Oprah" where a roomful of soldiers' wives win brand-new dishwashers.

Welcome to The Rock!

Speaking of brand-new dishwashers, how great is it to have "30 Rock" (9:30 p.m. Thursdays on NBC), the pride and joy of General Electric, back on our TV screens?

Last week's episode was particularly brilliant. GE chairman Don Geiss (Rip Torn) told Jack (Alec Baldwin) he'd chosen Jack as his successor instead of Geiss' new son-in-law Devon Banks (Will Arnett), a closeted gay man who was only marrying into the family to get the GE job. After Jack flinched from Lemon's congratulatory hug ("Hugging. So ethnic."), he explained that the board still had to approve him, but it was just a formality. "Geiss has stacked the board of directors with the most reliable collection of sycophantic yes men this side of an Al Franken book signing. His golf cronies, his army buddies, various unemployable family members, and his hunting dogs."

As usual, Alec Baldwin is fantastic, but what's remarkable is how quickly "30 Rock" has evolved into a true ensemble effort, with Jack, Liz, Kenneth, Tracy, Jenna and Frank all bringing different elements to the table. The contrast between Jack's smooth confidence and Liz's messy confusion (How great was that "Cathy" cartoon parody the week before?) and Tracy's utter delusion makes this show so entertaining and unpredictable from week to week, it makes most sitcoms feel utterly one-note by comparison.

That said, "30 Rock" isn't so completely farcical that it feels removed from real life, thanks to characters who are firmly rooted in reality. It often strikes me how well the show incorporates the ludicrous roller-coaster ride of "Arrested Development" but keeps all of the insanity tied down to earth with relatable, well-drawn characters and situations.

Take Liz Lemon, a character who, like most of us, alternately strives to be a better, more honorable, more down-to-earth person and gets diverted by her own shallow, petty urges. She knows who she is and occasionally tries to assert that her rather mundane desires and limitations are perfectly acceptable -- until someone shames her for them, and then she goes back into the closet and hides. Lemon embodies the nasty maze of conflicting desires and embarrassments common to single women in their mid- to late 30s: She wants a husband, sure, but she doesn't want anyone to be the boss of her. She wants to get ahead at work, yes, but she also wants to skip work and watch a rented movie in bed with a box of Chinese takeout on her lap. She wouldn't mind having a baby, true, as long as it wouldn't mind eating Chinese takeout in bed all day. The beauty of Tina Fey is that she can make all of these conflicting desires and weaknesses show through, without sugaring it all up with coyness and giggling and sad-doggy eyes like, say ... Jennifer Aniston!

OK, bear with me. I've always loved Jennifer Aniston. But a whole generation of sitcom actresses appears to have tailored their comedic shenanigans after hers, thereby making Aniston herself seem like the great big over-sweetened frappuccino of the sitcom world. All that "Oh gosh!"-ing, the forced dimples, the frantic physical comedy, the exaggerated "I'm so sad!" face. You know, maybe part of it is that, when Aniston appears on "Oprah" and "Oprah's Big Give" her exaggerated aw-shucks-iness reminds me of Tom Cruise. Remember when Tom Cruise went from lovable, goofy kid to scary robot star who'd clearly been reading his own press for decades? (And now he's transformed Lil' Katie into a shiny, faux-aristocratic, Posh-Spicy robot as well.)

The point is, Liz Lemon is her own (slightly sad yet resilient) woman. That's why, when Jack tells Liz that she's his first choice to fill his position ("head of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming"), she protests and says she's not remotely executive material. Then Jack writes down what her starting salary would be, and it's so obscene that Liz takes one look and slaps him in the face, then marches into the writer's room and yells, "Suck it, monkeys! I'm going corporate!"

Now there's a rallying cry for the times if I've ever heard one.

Next week: Showtime's "This American Life" is back, while "Battlestar Galactica" gets uglier than a Lifetime movie of the week!

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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30 Rock I Like To Watch Jennifer Aniston Television Tina Fey