I Like to Watch

As our fallen nation struggles to its feet, CW's "Easy Money" gets the ax and Bravo's "Top Design" fails its final challenge.

Published November 9, 2008 1:33PM (EST)

The sun shines a little brighter on this once-great nation of ours today! With an unabashedly intellectual president set to replace the current ignorant frat boy in office, all of a sudden it's not impossible to think that we might crawl out of our slump somehow, that we might restore our global self-respect, that we might look in the mirror again one day and say, like Stuart Smiley, "We're good enough, we're smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like us!"

Suddenly strangers on the street seem a little more clever and attractive, a little less self-interested and slovenly and gluttonous. Suddenly the world isn't filled to the brim with our mortal enemies anymore. Suddenly the stock market's rise and fall seems less like an omen of a dangerous new age, and more like the harmless ebb and flow of the financial tides.

Could we be in store for a national renaissance, a golden age of culture and arts in America? [Cue the hopeful strains of "In the New Year" by the Walkmen.] Might we see the green revolution take hold in our households nationwide? Will we finally turn our backs on spray tans and granite countertops and strip malls and fried cheese once and for all, and rededicate ourselves to good books and outdoor concerts and great wine and long afternoon naps? Can we reimagine ourselves as thoughtful, considerate citizens with good senses of humor, no longer prone to cutting in line or swearing at other cars on the freeway? Let's all turn off our TV sets right now, and walk through the tree-lined streets of our newer, smarter, sweeter American towns, shouting hello to our neighbors and whistling a new tune all the way!

On second thought, let's keep our TV sets. And I want the fried cheese back, too.

Tanks for the memories

Still, it does feel damn good to be an American today, doesn't it? I didn't realize how bad it felt all of these years, until now. Finally, regular people can see the truth about the last eight miserable years, and they can work together to change the world.

Except when it comes to TV. With TV, we're subjected to the whims of suited development executives and Nielsen ratings statisticians and small, poorly selected focus groups filled with dumb people with crappy taste who have the time to sit around a screening room all day, laughing hysterically at really bad sitcoms.

Witness the untimely death of the CW's "Easy Money," which got put on hiatus (I think we know what that means now, folks, no need to use such delicate language) just as I was sitting down to write about its promise as one of the only truly odd new dramas on TV. But then, truly odd shows are about as popular as truly odd people. You watch a slow-paced, off-kilter show about a guy who grew up in a family of dumb, tacky loan sharks, and you can pretty much bet its days are numbered from the start.

Of course, there's also no clear hook to the show, beyond the vague notion that Morgan (Jeff Hephner) is an outsider in his own home. In one recent episode, having discovered from a DNA test that either he or his sister is adopted, Morgan quizzes his mother, who's a compulsive liar, about his sister Brandy's birth.

Morgan: You know, Mom, I was trying to remember. How did Brandy get her name?

Mom: Oh, I've told you, haven't I?

Morgan: Tell me again.

Mom: Well, when I was young, I was working in a bar in Galveston. There was this sailor who would come in, always ordered brandy. Well, I'd lean against the bar and listen as he'd drink that brandy and tell his sailor stories. Of course I fell in love with him! Your father knows all about this, it was just a silly girl's infatuation. But still, that sailor fell in love with me, too. But he said he could never settle down, no harbor was his home ...

Morgan: That's right, his life, his lover, his lady was the sea.

Mom: So you do remember?

Morgan: It's a song, mom. Brandy, Looking Glass, 1972.

Mom: You're in a funny mood today, Morgan Stanley.

It's sad to see any show with dialogue this absurd get kicked to the curb. And Laurie Metcalf is absolutely brilliant as Morgan's mom, Bobette, particularly when she's making up tall tales.

That said, where does this story go? The big joke is that Morgan's family is sort of slow and vulgar, in a Las Vegas McMansion, get-rich pyramid scheme, canned-beer-swilling, sports flashing on a massive-screen TV sort of way. Considering that most shows have to draw in a healthy cut of this exact dim 'n' cheesy demographic to get the ratings they need to survive, "Easy Money" seemed a little doomed from the start. Even rednecks can laugh at "My Name Is Earl," but do mildly unsophisticated middle-class people laugh at other mildly unsophisticated middle-class people? Personally, I'm not sure I would find a version of myself on TV all that amusing. I'd just want her to vacuum the dust bunnies off her floors and keep her fat mouth shut.

 Top decline

But let's leave our little surges of self-hatred aside, because it's a new dawn, a new day, etc., and self-hatred is very 2006. Just ask the finalists of Bravo's "Top Design," a few of whom should, by all rights, hate themselves, but don't for some mysterious reason.

Let me just confess at the outset that I have no idea why I've watched every episode of this very bad show all season. Some combination of judge Kelly Wearstler's terrible outfits (and ratty hairstyles) and host Todd Oldham's striking similarity to Kenneth from "30 Rock" keeps me coming back for more.

And yet, week after week, all I can do is marvel at how incredibly lackluster and pointless the challenges are. With tasks like "Design an underground bunker!" or "Design a room that exists in the future!" or, more typically, just "Design a room!" how do the producers expect to keep us entertained? The mostly sullen, personality-less designers run off to a bunch of stores that sell the same bland, contemporary furniture, they lug home the same mid-century couches and resort to the same black, white and gray color palettes week after week, and then everyone wonders why even snippy little Margaret Russell (editor in chief of Elle Decor magazine) is falling asleep on the judges' couch. Maybe, just maybe, we get a lounge chair that's bright orange, but mostly what we see are amateur versions of the same bland interiors that you can find in every copy of Living, Etc., Metropolitan Home, Dwell, Wallpaper and every other design magazine on the racks. The fact is that once you get a reasonable feel for the standards of interior design, most of the midrange designers' work looks just like the work of every other midrange designer.

Ironically, two of the show's judges are among the most dementedly eccentric figures in the design world. There's Jonathan Adler, who fills his spaces with whimsical hot-pink wiener dog statuettes and lime-green booby-shaped table lamps, and Kelly Wearstler, who's turned on by flocked metallic wallpaper and nasty-looking brass light fixtures and unthinkably ugly mauve armchairs that make your home look like a room at the Holiday Inn circa 1985. (If you doubt me, take a gander at the hideousness showcased here.) Not surprisingly, these two are both consistently bored by everything they see. And yet, you wonder why the contestants on the show don't just find some heinous cowboy lamp at a secondhand store, spray-paint it turquoise, and listen as the judges gasp and coo over their clarity of vision.

Instead, in the finale, Adler seemed downright depressed, asking each contestant over and over again, "Where's your splash of color?" and other little questions that amounted to, "Jesus Christ, people, at least try!" For a while there, Martha Stewart's stylist professional Eddie and oddball Nathan were competing to out-weird each other, much to the delight of the assembled thrill-starved judges. But by the home stretch, Eddie returned to his dusty comfort zone and made every room into a rich 80-year-old's bedroom in the Hamptons, while Nathan resorted to painting wacky, colorful patterns on the wall like a meth-addled teenager.

Meanwhile, Preston created interiors that looked like they belonged in a Jeff Lewis (of Bravo's "Flipping Out") home: Modern, sparse, fancy, and meticulous -- at once very masculine and very gay (all of which made guest judge Jeff Lewis swoon over Preston's exquisite taste). And Ondine ... well, who really knew what Ondine was thinking from minute to minute, with her eclectic and seemingly random assortments of knickknacks and weird touches? Mostly she lacked an overarching notion of what a room should communicate to the world.

But then, what should a room communicate to the world? And how is it possible that I watched this pointless show long enough that I'd even consider such a question?

By the time the judges stopped bickering among themselves and Nathan won the $100,000 prize for being the least boring (although not necessarily the most talented) of the lot, I was as comatose as poor little Margaret Russell and couldn't care less about the outcome. At least I won't be tempted to watch anything as useless as this show ... until the next time it airs in a few months.

In the meantime, though, I'm going to stroll around in my pretty American neighborhood, marveling at how much greener the grass looks and how much happier my neighbors seem and how much better everything in the whole word is. Then I'm going to walk home and eat some fried cheese.

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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