I Like to Watch

Jeff Lewis of "Flipping Out" embodies the tragicomic hothouse flower, while Nancy Botwin of "Weeds" makes the world safe for lazy, self-involved moms.

Published June 22, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

There's a cafe in my neighborhood where I go to write where everything is all wrong. The tables are the wrong height for the chairs, the chairs are uncomfortable, the walls are covered in bad art, the bad stereo system blares the worst of Journey and Lionel Richie, the breakfast sandwich features over-buttered bread and that fake-smoke-flavor ham, the room is too hot or freezing cold, the teenage cashiers are friendly but inattentive, and a herd of middle-of-the-room flies circles endlessly in the sparsely populated dining area.

Now normally, I might not notice the fake-smoke-flavored ham or the chirpily distracted cashiers, except that the stubborn mediocrity of the place makes me hypersensitive to the countless managerial mistakes unfolding before my eyes. Soon I start to wonder if I'm the only one who's bothered by the ants crawling across the floors or the strong smell of ammonia in the air or the walls the color of baby poo or the murals depicting local sights, murals that look half-finished and that include an illustration of the front of the restaurant itself.

But there's another, more corporate place nearby where everything is right. The tables and chairs are made of smooth wood and are perfectly placed, the menu is tastefully designed, the lighting makes everyone look like models at a photo shoot, classical music soothes patrons from a safe distance, cool breezes blow in the open French doors, and the small cup of gazpacho they serve has little slices of melon and a dab of pesto in it. Delightful! But it's always crowded with people who have expensive haircuts and alarmingly nice shoes, so you end up waiting a long time for a table, and then sit in a corner alone, savoring an $8 cup of gazpacho while wondering, "What does she do to afford those shoes?"

As repellent and deeply wrong as the local cafe is, the overpriced, meticulously designed corporate eatery seems certain to transform you, slowly but surely, into the kind of person who pays too much for haircuts and shoes, the kind of person who experiences gazpacho that doesn't have a little dab of pesto in it the way the rest of us experience a herd of middle-of-the-room flies. And therein lies the paradox of American upward mobility: The higher you climb, the thinner the air gets, until you can barely breathe. You become like Julianne Moore in "Safe," suffering from a nervous breakdown when the delivery guys bring a black couch instead of the white one she ordered. You become the kind of hothouse flower who only feels comfortable in perfectly calibrated, beautiful spaces, the kind of person who's never satisfied and can't play nicely with others.

Keepin' it real estate
Which brings us to the best comedy on television right now: "Flipping Out" (10 p.m. EDT Tuesdays on Bravo), in which "real estate investor" (aka flipper) Jeff Lewis parades his apparent personality disorders in front of the camera for all to see.

"Flipping Out" bestrides the professional-entrepreneur reality show genre like a colossus. This isn’t just another "Blow Out" or "Work Out," nor is it merely one of those shows aimed at allowing catty viewers to feel superior to the sad sacks depicted therein. No. "Flipping Out" is a work of pure comic genius. "Flipping Out" is the new "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- only better.

Like Larry David, Jeff Lewis is always trying to get the upper hand on his apparent sociopathic or narcissistic or obsessive-compulsive urges. He calmly explains, in the show's second season premiere, that he's really trying to take things more lightly and not sweat the small stuff these days. Then he has this exchange with his assistant Jenni regarding the precise temperature of the latte she just fetched him.

Jeff: Is this 140 [degrees]? Really?

Jenni: Yeah.

Jeff: Honestly, I think it's like 150 or 155. It's not 140.

Jenni: She said out loud 140.

Jeff: It's not 140.

Jenni: Is it too hot?

Jeff: It's 150.

Jenni: It's 140! Come on!

Jeff: It's not 140! Trust me, I know what 140 is. I drink these every day! (Pause.) But it's OK. It's fine. It'll cool off. You know what? I'm not going to worry about it. I'm not going to worry about it.

Jenni: Good.

Long pause.

Jeff: But what's interesting is, it doesn't say 140 on here.

Jeff Lewis has impeccable comic timing. He knows when to pause. He knows when to lower his voice. He's perfected the art of the tag line. He's exactly the sort of tortured tragicomic character who belongs in a Jonathan Franzen novel. He tries so hard to overcome his flaws and compulsions, but he never quite succeeds.

If the first season of "Flipping Out" introduced Jeff's struggle to thrive as an entrepreneur in a world that has never lived up to his expectations, the second season of the show is the perfect sequel to the first. With the real estate market in a slump, Jeff has been forced to take on consulting work with a boss who's richer, more powerful and possibly even more difficult than he is.

"He [Jeff] shows up to a job site for 30 minutes a day and screams and yells at people," says business partner and ex-boyfriend Ryan. "And now all of a sudden he's in this world where he can't just fire his answer right back at somebody, or scream and yell at somebody."

Ryan is the ultimate straight-man sidekick who's there to set up Jeff's best punch lines. Ryan draws Jeff out, and Jeff obligingly rambles on about his psychological state, like he did during a business lunch with Ryan in the show's season premiere last week.

Jeff: So I've been doing a lot of thinking. I've been kind of, like, really mellow this week? Like I said the other day, I feel like I'm medicated but not medicated? (Excitedly) I think I'm depressed. I think I'm actually depressed! And I'll tell you why: I feel like I was on top of the world. I feel like we were flipping all these homes, six at a time, making a ton of money, I'm my own boss. And now, it's like everything's changed. At what point did I become a prostitute? Because that's what I feel like. And I'm depressed. I'm seriously depressed!

Ryan tells Jeff to suck it up and put his ego aside, but Jeff won't have any of it. "I'm being punished. God's punishing me. I've seriously thought about that. I mean, I don't think God screwed up the real estate market to punish Jeff Lewis. I'm not that much of a narcissist."

Oh, yes, you are, Jeff. Don't be shy about it now!

By the way, remember the reader mail for this column last week, where some readers claimed that Americans think that they're whores when they deign to do work that's not purely creative and inspired and free from the tedious limits of commerce? Well, Jeff certainly supports that argument.

But Jeff isn't just incorrigible. He isn't just neurotic. He isn't just insufferable. Like any great character, he's unpredictable and complicated and, at times, even a tiny bit likable. Jeff Lewis belongs with Tony Soprano and Nate Fisher and Don Draper in the pantheon of TV's most fascinating antiheroes. He's quintessentially American in his habit of wanting far, far too much, more than is good for him. His team of underlings keeps his house as spotless as a showroom under the auspices of keeping the property salable (he always lives in one of his redesigned properties until he finds a buyer for it), filling their days by sweeping up every last leaf on the patio, trimming dead leaves from Jeff's plants and turning the bottles of water in Jeff's refrigerator to face the front. Lewis' obsessive-compulsive tics are indulged, day in and day out, in the name of his profession.

But it's clear enough that Jeff can't relax in any environment that isn't pathologically fastidious. While he might say that his aim is to make enough money flipping houses so he can work less, he's clearly a workaholic who's chosen a business that invades every free corner of his life and his time for a reason. His friends are his employees. His home is a perpetual open house. He circles like a shark, picking lint off the couch and wondering what will go wrong next. And when something does go wrong, he's flooded with emotions he can't control. One tiny mishap or flaw sends him spiraling downward, convinced that God has it out for him.

And what's funnier than a depressed, narcissistic obsessive-compulsive? "Flipping Out" charts the slow unraveling of an American archetype: the perfection-fetishist. It's a cautionary tale for the control freak -- which means it should appeal to at least half of the population in this pampered land of ours.

Home by the sea
The other half will relate to Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) of "Weeds" (10 p.m. EDT Mondays on Showtime), absent-mindedly sipping on her lukewarm Frappuccino while batting her eyes at yet another drug dealer who finds a use for her innocent white-lady looks. Although Nancy wants all the same things that Jeff Lewis wants -- big piles of cash, pretty stuff, an enormous house by the sea -- she can't be bothered to attend to any of the details along the way. She's the distracted, ineffectual, largely absent matriarch who wants to figure out some way to avoid working for a living altogether.

Ah, yes. More than the pot cultivation or the drug smuggling or the high banter, nothing offends quite like the unapologetically lazy, irresponsible mother. In America, no one is more loathed and despised than she is. This is a character who could never exist on network TV, even now, in the age of celebrating and embracing the dysfunctional among us. When dads ignore their kids, it's funny. When moms do it, it's tragic.

Plenty of people probably can't tolerate Nancy Botwin, but personally, I get a little charge when she mumbles and whines and rolls her eyes for the millionth time. This woman makes the world safe for sloppy, daydreaming assholes like me, the sorts of people who struggle with recurring urges to hide in the broom closet rather than change another dirty diaper. Even though we're soothed and comforted by our love and fierce protectiveness of our children, our inner teenagers are still petulant about having to wake up early and refrain from saying "fuck" when the little mimics are within earshot. And while it shouldn't be considered courageous to suggest that flawed, distracted parents don't generally end up chaining their kids to toilets in the basement, in these judgmental times, implying such a thing is brave, indeed.

This season, Nancy is a little more bratty than usual, too, having torched her home back in Agrestic in the hopes of getting the DEA off her scent. Her adopted home with a disapproving, somewhat loserly father-in-law, Lenny (played by Albert Brooks! Hallelujah!), will do for now, but Nancy needs to make some big money and fast if she's going to keep her family satisfied and fed in their new coastal hideaway.

Money is also the key to Lenny's heart, not surprisingly. "Listen, Bonnie and Clyde," he says to Nancy and her brother-in-law Andy. "I don't know what you two are running from, and you know what? I don't care. Why don't you just give me $300 in cash, right now, and the subject is dead?" Andy chuckles, but Nancy calmly opens her purse, pulls out $300 in cash, and hands the bills to Lenny.

Meanwhile, Celia (Elizabeth Perkins) is stuck in jail, thanks to the fact that her name is on the title to Nancy's former grow house. Why is Celia always punished on this show? Last season she was humiliated when she discovered that Nancy was sleeping with her lover, and now she's being tortured in jail. When she asks about her chances of going free, her disorganized lawyer responds, "Anti-drug crusader caught with grow house? You're fucked like a stray dog in Chinatown."

Despite the change of scenery and the welcome addition of Brooks, this fourth season of "Weeds" isn't all that different from the seasons that came before. Here's Nancy, being schooled by yet another deeply corrupt but exacting drug entrepreneur. Here are the kids, poised to stir up trouble in whatever misguided ways they can. Here's Celia, looking to nail Nancy for dumping her as a friend. (I sort of miss the days when those two were friends, don't you? Nancy could use a good friend, particularly now that her former business partner, Conrad, is out of the picture.)

Even with the same repeating story lines, the truth is I could watch 10 or 12 episodes of "Weeds" in a row, simply to follow Nancy around, slurping on her adult-size sippy cup, cocking her head and trying to figure out a good angle on whatever messed-up situation she's in at the moment. She's a hero to our inner teenagers, and we want her to get rich, damn it, rich as royalty! Let's show the world that irresponsible, lackadaisical mothers are just as entitled to big piles of cash as the tightly wound, obsessive-compulsive workaholics who more typically acquire them.

Besides, it would be interesting, to see what might happen if Nancy became a drug kingpin and got loaded. Would she stop sipping on the dregs of Frappuccinos and insist that they be kept at the perfect icy temperature? Would she hire a full-time nanny and send her kids to pricey private schools? Would she finally have the free time and money to become detail-oriented and fastidious? Would she finally have the free time and money to feel truly, deeply dissatisfied?

After all, that's the dream, isn't it? Instead of training our minds to appreciate the little comforts of our humble existences, we yearn to become more and more precious, to surround ourselves with increasingly beautiful things, to hoard our stuff and our free time and our obscene piles of money until all of that beauty and space and meticulous perfection melts into an unbearably inadequate, fly-infested, profane mess.

Here's to keeping the dream alive!

By 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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