I Like to Watch

Shiny, pretty people work hard to keep their stuff hidden, from the tragicomic celebrity stylist of "The Rachel Zoe Project" to the sleek but suffering suits of "Mad Men."

Published September 14, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

I have a friend who's a professional organizer. That means she gets paid to organize other people's stuff. Most of her clients are wealthy stay-at-home moms with maids and husbands who work and kids who are in school all day. This means that the onerous task of organizing all of their family's stuff rests on these women's shoulders alone.

Can you imagine the pressure? Not surprisingly, the women are often quite traumatized by just how hopelessly disorganized all of their stuff is. Everywhere they go, there it is, falling out of walk-in closets, shoved into the back corners of three-car garages, spilling out of guest bedrooms and spare offices and dens, taunting them!

The isolation must be intense. "Shouldn't my black sweaters be folded together, in the same part of my closet?" they ask, but no one is there to answer. "Should I keep this old candle, or throw it out? I never really liked the scent!" they wonder, but no one responds. How can they be expected to make such big decisions on their own? The silence must be deafening, as they pace from closet to closet, room to room, their eyes scanning all of their stuff. How do they control their nerves, as they flip nervously through their copies of Martha Stewart Living magazine, with its neatly labeled boxes and baskets and elegant little nooks and crannies for everything under the sun, so no stuff is ever showing!

My friend is a hero to these women. And while many of us may feel powerless as we watch America's economic, political and cultural dominance as a nation slip off the radar, at least we're getting the upper hand on household clutter. Yes, we may have become a country of dimwitted, angry animals, preoccupied by empty distractions and doomed to be ignored on the global stage forevermore. But at least our stuff will be organized.

Oof, there it is!
If that depresses you a little, then maybe you can appreciate the stomach-churning, head-spinning, soul-sucking feeling of vertigo that you, too, can enjoy by alternating between coverage of another disastrously shallow and moron-centric presidential race and the premiere of "The Rachel Zoe Project" on Bravo (10 p.m. Tuesdays).

Now, far be it from me to proclaim anyone's career trivial or meaningless. I watch televised entertainments for a living, a job that ranks, on the scale of "important and meaningful" work, somewhere between assembly line worker at a plastic spoon factory (Hello, Roseanne!) and Hooters waitress (with Hooters waitress clearly a step up from TV critic, since TV critics don't bring joy unto the world of hot-wings-eating frat boys by doing the Bouncing Booby Birthday Dance in orange short-shorts upon request).

Even so, there's something disturbing about watching celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe march around her little studio in her enormous sunglasses and enormous fur coats and enormous gold chains under an enormous tangle of tousled blond hair, gushing over the extreme beauty and funky delightfulness of clients wearing wildly expensive designer dresses. She expresses her enthusiasm using just four phrases:

"That is absolutely bananas."

"You are going to kill it."

"You're shutting it down."

"I die! I die."

It's not that Rachel Zoe isn't good at what she does. She's quite skilled at rifling through $5,000 gowns and foisting this one or that one on her pretty celebutante clients and then stepping back and saying "I die" 50 times in a row, with feeling. She knows that these women must leave her studio and journey to that red carpet knowing that they're absolutely bananas and they are going to kill it, period point blank. Zoe herself describes the process in almost sexual terms -- albeit in her faux-bored, Valley Girl rasp: "I look at my client, she looks at me and I, like, gasp for air. She feels it, she owns it. She's like, 'This is it.' And I'm like, 'It's so it.'"

And it's not that Rachel Zoe isn't an object of extreme curiosity. This is a woman who made a huge name for herself by putting the same gigantic sunglasses and gold chains and platform shoes that she wears on all of her celebrity clients. Think Nicole Richie. Think Jessica Simpson. Think Lindsay Lohan. All of the celebutards go straight to Zoe for their "unique" Rachel Zoe "look."

In truth, Rachel Zoe should be a real inspiration to all of the perpetually distracted, somewhat frivolous but enthusiastic C-students of the world: You really can make something of yourself. Don't let those somber, stodgy thinkers out there tell you otherwise! If you tirelessly self-promote, marry a super-supportive metrosexual investment banker and hire a really capable, hard-working "associate," you too can have a brilliant career!

Still, there's something about the self-important whirlwind that Rachel Zoe is caught up in, the swirling, stormy egocentric gusts that blow her hither and thither, to and fro, from her "brand development" meeting, where she clutches her latte and talks about how frightened she is by the immense promise of having her very own line of accessories and fashions and bath mats and bed linens to her meetings with her associate, Taylor, who explains that Zoe must follow the day's schedule and not dillydally or stop to pick up $10,000 of random vintage couture dresses and accessories at her favorite boutique like she seems to do every 20 minutes or so.

Watching this curious spectacle, you can't help thinking that if Zoe were to, say, skim through a copy of the New York Times, or scan some of the news on Google every now and then, if she were to briefly familiarize herself with the economy's downward spiral, with worldwide food shortages, with the energy crisis, well ... Could she still run around town, looking like Ice-T shrunken down to tiny, white, anorexic proportions, chattering nervously about her brand while she charges thousands in luxury accessories and fashions on her credit card?

Probably. Because if anyone can shut out the universe and sharpen their focus on their own navel, it's Rachel Zoe. But the point is, Zoe's world starts to feel very small and claustrophobic very fast -- as small as her cluttered studio, stuffed to the gills with shiny dresses and hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewelry and purses and shoes. Being in Zoe's company as she blinks her gigantic fake eyelashes and frets over her schedule and says "I die, I die" over and over again, I start to feel slightly short of breath and the walls start closing in on me and it's as if there are no food riots and no wars, there is just the unbearable, airless, migraine-inducing press of fabulousness. It's absolutely bananas and it's so it and I die, I die, I just die.

The sick inside
Which is probably how Betty Draper felt at the end of the last gloriously unsettling episode of "Mad Men," after hearing firsthand from comedian Jimmy Barrett that his wife and Betty's husband, Don, had been screwing around on the sly. But then, after an earlier scene where Don (Jon Hamm) and Betty (January Jones) were fretting over the kids merely wiping their smudgy hands on the brand new Cadillac, you just knew that beautiful car was going to be irreparably soiled by the end of the episode.

But that's the joy of "Mad Men" (10 p.m. Sundays on AMC), isn't it? That feeling that every glossy, shiny surface is just crying out to be splattered with something foul and unseemly.

And when you consider our fading grasp on the golden throne of international supremacy, "Mad Men" starts to seem like the ultimate exercise in escapism and nostalgia, reflecting as it does the booming early '60s, a time of great social and cultural change, a time when America was just starting to get her groove on. Sure, people didn't really talk to each other, they just chain-smoked and cheated on their spouses and threw their beer cans into the woods and drove drunk and beat their kids. But damn, the suits were slick and the shrimp cocktail was tasty and those 24-hour torpedo bras could cheer up a whole room full of bored businessmen at once. Hurray for the U.S. of A.!

The question that some have posed halfway through the second season of this fine dramatic series is: Does "Mad Men" have a narrative engine driving it forward, or is it floundering in the same old secrets and lies, with each scene a variation on the old swallow-down-your-feelings, grin-and-bear-it, sweep-it-under-the-rug-and-move-on theme?

Last week's episode provided some glimpse of the answer to that one: You can only swallow it down for so long before it comes spewing up, uninvited, and ruins everything.

Another looming question I've grappled with lately: Does Don Draper really have to be such an asshole? Even Tony Soprano, with his bad manners and his big bear hands and his swarthy, grumbling, sweating, ball-scratching machismo, had an impish grin and a soft spot for little duckies that made us love him like the felonious Bad Daddy we never had. Don Draper lacks that kind of hapless, clumsy, childlike appeal. He lacks vulnerability. And the problem isn't just that he's traditionally good-looking. Think of Harrison Ford, with his dashing good looks as Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Ford's scoundrel act was always leavened by some softness and worry in his eyes, some quiver of self-doubt that would flit across his smirking features. At this point in "Mad Men's" second season, Draper needs some similar hints of fragility.

Even when Jimmy Barrett (Patrick Fischler) interrupted Draper's smug, tuxedo-clad revelry with a little wake-up call on his true identity -- "You don't screw another man's wife. You're garbage and you know it" -- Draper just stood there, wincing, squinting, trying to regain his footing. Draper's face does have a nice way of shifting from smooth and young and lovely, like one of those happy-go-lucky dads in the Sears catalog circa 1973, to a haggard, knotted, distraught visage.

But do we understand Draper's weaknesses, outside of his stolen identity and his crappy childhood? This latest tryst with that nasty Bobbie (Melinda McGraw) really made Draper's loneliness start to look more like the laziness and boredom of a spoiled kid. Falling in love with Rachel, the department store heiress, was one thing, but having tawdry sex with a boozing, bossy, married harlot? Why? Sure, she's sharp and confident, but I don't know why that would appeal to a man who has perfected the exact same song and dance himself over the years and currently seems thoroughly bored by it.

Yes, there's something in the mix about Draper finding his selfish, manipulative equal. Clearly that's what his wife, Betty, found in the sweet little choirboy at the riding stables who's falling in love with her despite his impending marriage to a cavalier rich girl.

But often, Don Draper's actions are hard to fathom. He's honorable, but not really. He's loyal, but only occasionally. It's hard not to guess that Draper will try to do the right thing, for the most part, and then he'll do something very, very wrong again, just like the rest of the characters on this show. Think of Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) trying to please his wife, then sleeping with a random younger woman who doesn't interest him at all. Or Duck (Mark Moses), demonstrating the loneliness of his current work and home life, then letting his dog loose on the streets of New York when the dog becomes an uncomfortable reminder of all he's lost. Then there's Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), who works hard to rise in the ranks at Sterling Cooper, but coldly leaves her child without a mother.

Each episode of "Mad Men" is entertaining, intense and rich with layers of meaning. But do these episodes form a cohesive whole, a narrative arc that feels like it's developing over the course of the season? Tony Soprano never really grew or matured that much during the entire run of "The Sopranos," but he did struggle mightily to make progress here and there, even if he ultimately failed. For Don Draper to take on new dimensions in our eyes and remain a compelling character, we have to see him do more than act on impulse, then become sickened by his own lack of standards.

But then, with the latest explosive ending, we can only guess that the repression and deceit that ushered in the second season of "Mad Men" will be bubbling up and making a big mess for everyone. No matter how neat and organized you are, you can only keep your stuff hidden for so long.

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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