I Like to Watch

Discovery's "Alaska Experiment" takes "Survivor" to hungry-bear-filled hinterlands (Tom Cruise takes Oprah there, too!), while "Battlestar Galactica" is darker than ever!

By Heather Havrilesky
May 11, 2008 3:30PM (UTC)
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Dead horses, deadly cyclones, erupting volcanoes, evil monsters, priests floating away on helium balloons, never to be heard from again, plus even more dumb people with babies ... The news is so dark these days, it's not surprising that all our favorite TV shows are doing their best imitations of a Lifetime movie of the week -- you know, the one where the kid and the kid's pony die at the end?

But you know what makes all the little children feel better about how dark and scary the world is? Fairy tales. So let's start with a fairy tale about a little prince named Tom Cruise.


Once upon a time, there was a sad little prince named Tom Cruise who wanted to share his love with the world, but the world wasn't in the mood. As the little prince trampled joyfully on Oprah's butter-yellow sofa, all the world's peoples sighed and picked lint off their corduroys. Even as they listened to the squeals of the unruly fraudience of middle-aged "Top Gun" groupies who'd been fantasizing about Tom to the strains of "Take My Breath Away" for 20-odd years straight, they remained indifferent. They had fallen out of love with Tom somewhere around the 50th time they heard a roomful of frat boys sing "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'." They certainly weren't having any of this latest flash of bleached teeth and overflowing emotion for a princess bride whose career had been up "Dawson's Creek" without a paddle for years.

So little prince Tom gave the world the cold shoulder. Prince Tom and princess Kate and their anatomically correct robot-baby, Suri, would lock themselves away in their 400-acre kingdom in Telluride, sipping red rum to get through those long wintry months. Sure, they'd allow legendary photographers to enter the snowy compound and photograph them as they squeezed each other and squinted into the middle distance like models at a Sears catalog shoot, but otherwise they'd remain far from our nasty, clawing, thetan-infested, psychotropic-drug-popping clutches.

Until last week, when little prince Cruise decided to allow Oprah (also royalty, after all) into his magnificent castle for a face-to-face interview. Needless to say, there would be no jumping and waving and fist pumping this time around. No, sir. Donning his "No, I'm serious!" face, Tom sat down with Oprah for a heart-to-heart ... or maybe we should call it a heart-to-press release.


Oprah: People think you're insane, judgmental, controlling and possibly gay. They wonder why you lost your doughnuts on my show. They wonder why you condescended to that nice man Matt Lauer and insulted poor depressed Brooke Shields. They wonder if Suri is your baby or just a wondrously lifelike assemblage of pricey robotics ...

Tom: I'm not going to comment on what ... The press really doesn't interest me, unless they've got all their credentials in order and they're contractually obligated to photograph me from my good side.

Oprah: Come on, Tom, don't you just want to die sometimes?


Tom: [Frowning] I'm incredibly happy, so happy I can't even put it into words. I feel so very privileged and blessed, truly blessed, to live this life. I feel pretty and witty and ... I'm sorry, our time is up. The chopper is waiting outside for you.

And so Oprah flew off, and the little prince lived happily ever after in his imaginary mountain kingdom! See, children? Even when entire villages are leveled and pretty horsies are killed, there's still hope left in the world. God isn't dead, boys and girls, he just likes Tom Cruise better than you.


If you're craving even more "T.C.," there's a nice summary of his interview in the Washington Post, but here in ILTW-land, we've got bigger fish to grab straight from an icy river, chop into little pieces, stuff into jars and subsist on for the next three months.

Unbaked Alaska
Did that make you hungry? If so, it may be time for you to tune in for "The Alaska Experiment" (10 p.m. EDT Tuesdays on Discovery), which starts with the basic premise of "Survivor" -- ordinary people, struggling to survive without caffeine, booze or Internet access -- and throws in subzero temperatures, hungry bears, rifles so powerful that they bruise your face, rocky cliffs, rusty handsaws, freelance moose-hunting experts, canvas tents and circling wolves. Oh, and there's no million-dollar prize, either. Welcome to the Discovery Channel, where you suffer for free!

The aptly named "volunteers" of "The Alaska Experiment" consist of four teams. There's a married couple (Greg and Bernice), three friends (Tim, Jasmine and Allan), a father and two daughters (Dennis, Jennifer and Carolyn), and a dating couple (Elizabeth and Jeff). The quality of living quarters and the surrounding landscape vary wildly for each team. While the family of three lives in an "old fish shack" near a beach, the dating couple beds down in a canvas tent, even though they see brown bears roving around the area regularly. The teams also spend their time differently: The three friends obsessively chop wood for the winter, while the family and the dating couple spend several days catching salmon with their hands, cleaning them, chopping them into chunks and then sealing them in cans so they'll have a source of protein to eat as the winter approaches and there's not much hunting or fishing in the area.


The teams also seem to have very different aptitudes for surviving in the Alaskan wilderness for three months. The father and daughters manage to can a bunch of salmon for the winter, while dating couple Elizabeth and Jeff don't seal their jars correctly and lose half of their salmon as a result. In fact, Elizabeth and Jeff seem to struggle at every turn: Water floods their camp; menacing bears linger in the distance; crab traps remain empty (while a voice-over scoffs that they'd have to eat many a crab indeed to ingest even a little protein); driftwood refuses to budge as the waves lap at their feet. Meanwhile, hunger and fatigue make them both snippy -- although we're not treated to the sorts of knock-down, drag-out bickering matches you'd find on "The Amazing Race." (Dear Discovery Channel: Please try to emulate CBS's policy of recruiting wildly dysfunctional humans for your reality shows so we'll get all the hotheaded exchanges and unwarranted nastiness that we so richly deserve.)

But "The Alaska Experiment" makes up for the lack of personality disorders on display with other fun stuff, like freezing rain and flooded outhouses and gigantic bears that stare at you long and hard instead of running off into the brush when you yell at them. Sometimes the voice-over is a little too cheesy to take -- "Back in sunny California, Greg is used to pouring concrete, not fending off wolves!" -- but this show is just too rich to be tripped up by a little clunky prose. Plus, when Greg almost stumbles down a rocky cliff while trying to shoot a goat in the foggy distance, all we can think is, "Jesus, this guy is used to pouring concrete back in sunny California, not stumbling down rocky cliffs while trying to shoot a goat in the foggy distance!"

In last week's episode, Tim, Jasmine and Allan get so desperate for some source of protein before winter sets in that they go out hunting for squirrels and rabbits. Even though they do tag a few sweet little woodland creatures, Jasmine, who describes herself as a pacifist, is less than thrilled about the situation: "I have to say, it wasn't the most pleasant experience to have to cut off their paws."


Then the next day, the three of them are on a walk when they see big birds circling nearby. Despite the risk of running into predators, they draw closer and discover the bloody carcass of a bison. "Eww!" Jasmine gasps, and then she practically elbows the feasting eagles and birds out of the way as she reaches for her hunting knife. "There's still a lot of meat left on it!" she murmurs, carving some red, gnarled-looking muscle from -- yes, that's right! -- the dirty, bloody heap of skin and bones and guts they just stumbled on.

In other words, unlike the contestants of "Survivor" or "The Amazing Race," the volunteers of "The Alaska Experiment" don't demean themselves; Mother Nature demeans them. Mother Nature is a vengeful whore, too, which explains why we're watching a pacifist hacking on a bison carcass. But seriously, does TV get any better than this?

Let me guess: Next week, lost in the snowy woods, Jasmine tries desperately to build a fire, but her matches keep dropping into the snow and going out. "I have to say, it wasn't the most pleasant experience freezing to death."

Going back to Cally
And while we're slipping into the darkness, let's not forget "Battlestar Galactica" (10 p.m. Fridays on Sci Fi), which has swerved into seriously uneasy territory lately, with each scene more full of desperation and despair than a malfunctioning jumpy castle filled with sugar-addled toddlers. Starbuck pulls a gun on Roslin, Roslin obsesses over her impending death, Adama mumbles around in a funk, and Chief Tyrol stays out late drinking with the increasingly demonic fellow skin-job Tory, telling her, "I look in the mirror nowadays, I don't even know what I am."


Christ, Chief, pull yourself together! But in case you missed this episode, which plays like an after-school special on the dangers of fraternizing with robots, Chief's quiet moment of heavy drinking is interrupted when a sleepless, haunted-looking Cally enters the bar with her fat baby on her hip, Sean Preston-style. The baby starts screaming and crying and basically doesn't stop for the entire episode, which, taken alone, would be enough to make most of us leap out of the nearest airlock and float off into outer space. (Foreshadowing intended.)

But it gets worse! You'll recall that Cally is absolutely brimming over with hatred for those damnable toasters. Remember that awesome scene on Caprica where she shouted at Chief, "Talk to me, you motherfracker!" and then they both laughed, and you had to wonder if they liked each other a little bit? Yes, those two had the enduring love of two college kids who once got drunk and macked at a kegger, and then spent the rest of their lives together, trying to figure out why. Chief was always far more smitten with Boomer. (And hey, Chief and Boomer were both Cylons, too! They had sooo much in common.)

Anyway, Cally follows Chief and Tigh and Tory one night, and she hears them talking about the fact that they're Cylons. She's so distressed over the whole thing that she scoops up her crying baby and looks about ready to float out into space and take the kid with her. And honestly, there's something vaguely distasteful about the whole thing, like the writers are trying to teach us a lesson about racism and the rigidity of the American identity and how the pressures on working-class people with families are sometimes just too much to bear.

But all we're thinking at home is, "If Sean Preston doesn't make it out of this alive, I am going to be pissed!" Luckily, though, Tory is on the scene to soothe Cally into handing over her son, and once the baby is safe in Tory's arms, Tory casually backhands Cally, sending her flying several feet. Then Tory stares Cally down with her cold Cylon eyes and presses a button that opens a hatch and sends Cally tumbling off into space. We should be horrified, but now that the baby has been saved, seeing Tory go all Legion of Doom on Cally's weak Wonder Twins ass is mildly thrilling. Muhahaha!


But Chief Tyrol and his kid don't have a lot in common with K-Fed and Sean Preston, so instead of sharing a forty of Schlitz to celebrate their newfound freedom from Sean's crazy-ass moms, the two spend the next episode moping around Chief's dank, gloomy quarters. (If my kid's crib were a few feet from my head at night, I think I might want to kill myself, too. Having a baby isn't always the best choice when you live in a walk-in closet.)

Chief, who suspects that Cally didn't commit suicide like Tory said she did, deals with the pain by boozing it up. (Meanwhile, who's at home with the kid? The Galactica seems to have a seriously abysmal day-care system. Maybe that's something Baltar should take up with his rabble-rousing lady friends.) Once he's good and drunk, Chief has a seriously shocking exchange with Commander Adama (and just to be clear, this one isn't imaginary like the Oprah/prince Tom discussion above):

Tyrol: How many of us ended up with the people we really wanted to be with? Got stuck with the best of limited options. And why? Because the ones we really want, we really loved, are dead, or dying, turned out to be Cylons and they didn't know it, like Boomer, and ...

Adama: Let's go.


Tyrol: No! I didn't know. So I buried my head in the sand, and I took it and I settled. I settled for that shriek, those dull, vacant eyes, that boiled cabbage stench of her. And why? Because this is my life! This is the life I picked, and it's fine. But you know, what? It's not. I didn't pick this life. This is not my frackin' life!

Adama: What the hell's gotten into you? Don't do this. Don't do this to her memory.

Tyrol: I'm sorry that I'm not going to do this the way you want me to, the way you might, but I will not make an angel out of somebody who wasn't an angel.

Sweet Jesus, Chief, did you really hate her that much? Of course he's right -- Adama wouldn't in a million years dream of revealing his darkest emotions to anyone, no matter what the circumstances. When Adama gets mad, he smashes priceless model ships into tiny little bits, but he doesn't use words, no way!

Anyway, Chief continues to use his words until Adama demotes him, which also probably means Chief can trade in his walk-in closet for a broom closet. I wonder if he and Sean Preston can fit in that crib together?

Throw in the hybrid calling Starbuck "the harbinger of death," Roslin going bald, Tigh struggling with visions of his dead wife, and Baltar gaining conviction in his spiritual notions, and you've got a pretty dark, soupy mess on your hands. Right now, the situation is darker than the Cylon occupation of New Caprica (which, aside from the torture and the unannounced assassinations, wasn't all that dark, all things considered), maybe even darker than the days after the Cylon's nuclear attack.

What does it all mean, Galactican groupies? Thankfully, Friday night's episode was more suspense thriller (Hello, "Minority Report"!) than Lifetime movie of the week, but the repetitive spiritual questions aren't all that compelling, and whenever the plot loses steam, some character loses his or her mind. Remember when the lunacy was limited to Baltar, while Richard Hatch's Tom Zarek filled the need for a revolutionary underground? Making half of the characters on the show crazy feels like overkill -- and we've seen it all before.

But then, we've seen dead horses, deadly cyclones, erupting volcanoes and dumb people with babies before, too. I guess you can't teach an old God new tricks.

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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Battlestar Galactica I Like To Watch Oprah Winfrey Television Tom Cruise