I Like to Watch

This fall's TV season comes in like a BBQ Pork Ravioli Bite and goes out like a bad case of indigestion, from Fox's "Fringe" to CBS's "The Mentalist."

Published September 7, 2008 12:00PM (EDT)

BBQ Pork Ravioli Bites. Aside from ushering in the apocalypse, those words reflect our precipitous fall from grace as a nation, and hint at the blind, savory-sweet hedonism that finally buried us on an international stage.

There was a time when T.G.I. Friday's wouldn't have gone so far, a time when our proud land could hold its head high as it dunked big breaded slabs of mozzarella and battered hunks of cream-cheese-filled jalapeños into the deep fryer. We were once a simple people, a people who merely wanted enormous platters of deep-fried food to nibble on before our actual meals -- gargantuan platters of deep-fried food -- arrived. That was before we needed everything, all at once -- a heady mix of sugar, salt, oil and extra dipping sauce, a volatile blend of cuisines from the Deep South, China and Italy, coming to rest at last in the land of "Bites," that deceptive territory where a 1,500-calorie, 45-fat-gram gut bomb is disguised as a satisfying but delicate little morsel for the grazing gourmand. Once, not so long ago, we may have had a hankering for a hunk of deep-fried cheese, but did we long for an explosive amalgam of pot stickers, barbecue pork and pasta? No. We had more restraint, more self-respect, more dignity than that.

But should we really blame ourselves, or should we blame the bloodthirsty terrorists craftily disguised as product development executives at T.G.I. Friday's, who've clearly infiltrated the inner ranks of one of our most cherished corporate institutions in order to pollute the minds, hearts and arteries of our people? Should we blame ourselves for not being able to resist temptation, having spent a lifetime like filthy animals, giving in to our most basic urges over and over again? Or should we blame the scheming terrorists who successfully revealed our weaknesses to all the world by waving fried, BBQ-pork-filled pasta pockets under our noses, cackling demonically as we inhaled them all, then engaged in hand-to-hand combat over the last greasy nugget?

As we lie here, ashamed and exhausted, our hands covered in grease and crusty fried crumbs and sweet red sauce, clutching our churning, aching stomachs, it hardly matters who is to blame. We are defeated, unraveled, undone at last. Our time at the top of the globo-cultural heap is over. Our day has passed. We are lost and forgotten. We are irrelevant, like Al Pacino in that irrelevant movie. We might as well be Canadian.

Fringe and purge
This fall's TV season is larded with the televisual equivalent of BBQ Pork Ravioli Bites -- bad cases of indigestion and regret disguised as sexy and exciting morsels for the discerning fast foodie. And at the center of this unruly mess of sticky-sweet, deep-fried temptations is Fox's "Fringe" (premieres 8 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, Sept. 9).

Now obviously, Fox is the T.G.I. Friday's of the Big Four networks, with NBC as Chili's (heavy, salty delights in faux-authentic environs), ABC as Applebee's (zany, goofy fun and big fruity drinks for girls) and CBS as the Olive Garden (bland food for hungry old people). Throw in demon chef/executive producer J.J. Abrams, temporarily on hiatus from dreaming up provocative new chipotle-honey-buffalo-soaked plot twists for ABC's "Lost," the Crispy Shrimp and BBQ Riblet Combo Platter of serial dramas, and you've got a recipe for a tasty-looking but ultimately regrettable culinary booby trap.

Because sending J.J. Abrams to work at Fox is like sending Bart Simpson to work at T.G.I. Friday's: No good can come of this -- unless you consider mad scientists and deadly viruses that make your skin transparent and cows mooing for comic relief "good." J.J. Abrams may have started with a simple idea: People on a plane die suddenly from a mysterious virus! The plane lands on autopilot, and it's filled with dead people! An act of terrorism, or something bigger? At this point, Abrams is just looking for a new name for his pork pot sticker, since pot stickers, like mysterious plane disasters, are so hopelessly '90s.

But then what does Abrams do? He does what any demon chef worth his salt would do. He breaks out the BBQ sauce and the deep fryer. He throws in some FBI agents, a secret love affair, an evil mastermind willing to kill his own identical twin, a mysterious corporate entity, a mad scientist-genius, a covert operation, a rebellious international wheeler-dealer in legal trouble, a foreboding "Gattaca"-like corporate headquarters, a cow, a tank of some liquid for the sexy, half-naked FBI agent to float in, a potent dose of LSD, and a lady with a robotic claw for a hand. Suddenly, "Fringe" has gone from your run-of-the-mill Deluxe Nacho Platter to a Sweet-Salty-Fried-Porky-Pastarific Fantasia!

Abrams, the quintessential American dreamer and overindulger, the ultimate boyish idiot-savant imaginator, just can't control himself. He can't exercise a little self-restraint. On "Lost," when the boat came for those poor people on the island, it couldn't be populated by regular human beings or even frightening corporate drones. Noooo, it had to be filled with Steven Segal and Vin Diesel types with tattoo-covered bulging muscles who enjoyed firing their semiautomatic weapons into the air for kicks. When the helicopter with Jack and Kate on it took off from the boat, naturally the boat needed to get blown to shreds by an enormous, fiery explosion. When Jack and the others tried to return to the island, it wouldn't be good enough if they simply couldn't locate it. No, the island needed to disappear into thin air, before their very eyes!

On top of the plot of "Fringe," which keeps us engrossed, of course, with foreboding music and a "Dawson's Creek" love interest and a sneaking suspicion that one of the good guys is very, very bad (skin-deep devices that amount to pouring salt and sugar liberally over the whole mess), there are these symbols that flash on the screen before each commercial break. A leaf! A frog! A butterfly! What does it all mean?!! But having been down this thankless road with Abrams before, and knowing that Abrams himself probably hasn't figured out what any of the symbols mean yet (Maybe he'll leave that for a late-night bong session with friends. "Dude, dude! Butterflies ... start as one thing, and then they transform into something else! Maybe that one denotes, you know, transformation!"), the symbols are just a pointless irritation. It's sort of like going to the T.G.I. Friday's Web site and, instead of getting Mapquest directions to your nearest chain, you get a scribbled treasure map littered with obscure signage that's meant to suggest all kinds of deeper, more complex meanings -- none of which you'll ever fully understand, of course, so that the whole chafingly moronic experience can remain shrouded in eternal, deeply futile profundity.

Sometimes you just want to say to Abrams, "Come on, guy. How stupid do you think we are anyway?" But then you remember that T.G.I. Friday's deep-fries macaroni and cheese and calls it an appetizer, when it's really an act of terrorism. Which means that Abrams must be a nefarious undercover agent or a terrorist of some kind, too! Which means that alien life forms, teleportation, a deadly virus, corruption at the top levels of government and some massive corporate conspiracy must be involved!

But what does that stupid frog stand for, damn it? I have to know!

Touched by Criss Angel
Just as I'm not one to shun any appetizer that comes with a trio of dipping sauces, I'm also not one to shun a procedural drama just because the star detective has mysterious psychic abilities. But Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), the lead in CBS's "The Mentalist," isn't psychic. He's just "paying attention."

Sadly, I have a soft spot for fried cheese and for half-crazy, intense detective types who know everything. Despite all the old, worn-out, predictable clichés surrounding the semi-supernatural, lonely lunatic detective (including USA's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" with Vincent D'Onofrio, NBC's "Life" with Damien Lewis and the million or so other examples), Simon Baker is transfixing to watch in this role. It's embarrassing to admit it, really. Just promise me that you'll tune in for the first episode (premieres 9 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 23, on CBS) and you'll see what I mean.

You at least have to catch the first five minutes, in which Patrick strolls around the house of a murdered girl, uninvited. The other cops and the family are outside, so Patrick calmly makes himself a sandwich, boils some water for tea, and then wanders around gazing at family photographs while eating the sandwich. The girl's mother walks in, angry, but Patrick's piercing blue eyes seem to put her in a trance. He fixes her a cup of tea and tells her he wants to help her.

Mother: You can't help me. What do you know?

Patrick: All sorts of things. You really only pretend to like skiing, right?

Mother: Yes, but ...

Patrick: Weren't you pleased that your best friend recently gained some weight, about 10 pounds? You wish you'd been more adventurous when you were younger. You love India but you've never been there. You have trouble sleeping. Your favorite color is blue.

Mother: I don't understand. You're a psychic?

Patrick: No, just paying attention.

So humble, so calm, so, so ... clairvoyant! Finally, Patrick asks the woman why she seems to suspect that her husband killed their daughter. She says she's not sure -- they'd both been acting so strange for the past year. He asks if she's ever asked her husband if he did it, and suggests that she should, since she'll probably be able to tell immediately if her husband is lying or not.

Like magic, here comes the husband, looking very guilty. Patrick looks him in the eye and asks him if he killed his daughter. (All highly unprofessional and unrealistic of course, but fun nonetheless.) When the husband says "No!" the wife gasps and then grabs a gun. Hey now! But can we really blame Patrick for this? The man is just paying attention! Yes, he pays attention, then mentions his observations out loud to grieving, devastated mommies.

It's absurd and cheesy and unrealistic, but it's a great opening scene for a pilot. Remember, this is a show called "The Mentalist." They're not exactly aiming for subtlety here. Plus, let's face it, it's pretty tough not to enjoy such little "I see right through you!" moments, or there wouldn't be so many psychics on TV these days, from Sookie the psychic waitress on Alan Ball's new drama "True Blood" to the psychic who informs the single gal on CBS's "The Ex List" that the man she's going to marry is an ex of hers (crappy show, by the way -- more on that one next week).

If "Fringe" is a flashier, more succulent, less realistic "X-Files," then "The Mentalist" is a flashier, less realistic "Medium." Unlike Patricia Arquette's character on "Medium" (who is actually psychic, I might add), Patrick Jane seems to know everything and he's always one step ahead of the game. The results are satisfying, and suspenseful, yes, but also a little bit stupid and predictable, too. For example, you'll take one look at the deep-set eyes and ghoulish looks of a character actor who appears on the pilot, and you'll know immediately that he's the killer. Sometimes those casting agents do their jobs a little too well.

And, perhaps in some effort to counterbalance Patrick's omniscience, the writers have given him a tragic back story that's so horror-movie sensationalistic, it's the narrative equivalent of dipping your entire show in batter and then throwing it into a vat of boiling oil. In fact, I was reasonably interested in this melodramatic show until the point where we learn how Patrick lost his wonderful family. After that, I started to feel a little queasy. "Waitress? I think I'm going to get those BBQ Riblets to go ..."

But if anything sums up the fall TV season this year, it's a notable lack of self-restraint. From unfathomable remakes of "90210" and "Knight Rider" to over-the-top fantasies like CW's "Valentine" (Greek gods in the Hollywood Hills!) to NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy" (a spy with a split personality!), the nonimaginary gods of TV Land are serving up greasy, delectable morsels for the masses. Once the stomachaches have subsided, though, will we really be back for more?

Next week: One last, incredible season ahead for "The Shield." Plus: Does Don Draper have to be such an asshole?

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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