I Like to Watch

"Lost" proves that a wrinkle in time intrigues, but hundreds of wrinkles just mean you're aging badly. Plus: "Real Housewives" age badly by refusing to age badly!

Published February 1, 2009 1:11PM (EST)

If I could travel in time, I would go back to the fall of 1991 when I got that card from my boyfriend away at college, who wrote to say that he was so thankful for me, because I kept him from wasting his time trying to get laid by bitchy sorority girls. How romantic! Thanks to me, he could pursue his other interests -- studying, skiing -- more efficiently and effectively. If I could, I'd use time travel to go back and dump his ass.

Then I'd go forward a few years, to when I was obsessed with the steel drum player who'd dated Uma Thurman in high school. I barely knew that guy, but I spent all my time drinking and writing moony songs about him on my guitar, when instead I should've been reading good books and taking guitar lessons. I would use time travel to give myself a good, hard kick in the shins.

Then I'd go back and tell my high school chorus teacher she was a lunatic and I wouldn't go out of town the weekend that my pet rabbit died and I'd stop myself from getting that terrible perm and I'd quit my job at Applebee's and I wouldn't dye my hair red or leave those poems on my work computer when I quit.

But I'd still date that Irish house-painter (even though he was a drunk), because when I naively asked if they had Star Wars Action Figures in Ireland, he responded: "We had one in the museum!"

Does anybody really care, about tiiiiiime?

Yes, there is a moral here. You might've been mildly interested in my story but then, slowly but surely, you lost interest. Eventually, you just wanted to kill me. That's because I'm really annoying and tedious. It's also because, when a narrator brings magic or time travel or an act of God into the picture, then uses it without restraint, the story loses its anchor to real life.

Why do so many shows end up playing with the realm of time travel? Because time travel is cool, that's why! It means characters can die and reappear again at a different time ("Heroes," "Life on Mars"). It means the plot can get complicated in ways that it couldn't before. You can throw viewers off your scent. You can go back and witness history happening, for kicks. You get to play with cool retro outfits and sets and props. Time travel is awesome!

The problem is, once you start manipulating time, anything is possible. History can be rewritten -- and so can your entire show. Suddenly, the emotional foundation you've laid starts to erode. Time travel means not just killing the golden goose, but putting your entire goose population in front of a firing squad. Sure, the feathers fly for a while and it's pretty exciting, but then? Everyone just feels guilty -- and they're forced to eat goose for the next two months straight.

Maybe the introduction of supernatural forces and time travel and magical powers and mysterious clouds is reaching its logical conclusion on TV these days. At first, writers played with these elements and used them for all they were worth. The first seasons of "Lost" and "Invasion" and "Heroes" were all entertaining and provocative.

But eventually, TV writers made a big mess with their bag of tricks, and narratives started to lose their weight and meaning. They must've felt like King Midas at first -- it was so easy to make gold out of every story line! But once everything was made of gold, nothing was living and breathing anymore. Character development fell by the wayside, for the sake of story. Instead of presenting different ideological factions, playing out on a small scale, you had herds of new characters with nefarious intentions, clandestine forces working against each other, spies, secret operatives, people visiting the past or the future looking for more information, and the emotional heart of the story got misplaced along the way.

Dr. Chang's Busy Day

Dr. Chang: This station is being built here, because of its proximity to what we believe to be an almost limitless energy. And that energy, once we can harness it correctly, it's going to allow us to manipulate time!

Construction worker: OK, so what, we're going to go back and kill Hitler?

Dr. Chang: Don't be absurd! There are rules, rules that can't be broken.

What in the world is Dr. Chang talking about? The whole problem with ABC's "Lost" (9 p.m. Wednesdays) in its fifth season is that it's breaking all the rules, rules that shouldn't be broken, rules that take the whole island and hurl it through time. Or take the characters we know and hurl them through time, while everyone else appears and disappears. Time is a fickle friend, indeed.

Is this the latest brilliant twist, or is it pure wankery? Somehow listening to Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof hold court in yet another pre-show commentary about just how brilliant and special "Lost" is makes me lean toward the wankery assessment, since there's nothing more distasteful than two guys wanking over their latest bit of televised wankery.

But on the other hand, the wankery itself -- the white flashes and the rapid-fire "What year is this?" and "Where did Locke go?" and "How did Locke get back?"-- is at once completely pointless and vaguely intriguing. Why does it matter what Locke and Richard Alpert and Daniel Faraday or anyone else does, when they all seem as clueless and unfettered from reality as we are as viewers? How can these characters have any concrete agenda or strategic approach or philosophical perspective on anything when the rug is pulled out from under them by another Act of God every few seconds? Didn't Charlie Kaufman do an enormous send-up of this kind of convenient, short-cut storytelling in "Adaptation"?

Who really cares if Jack or Hurley or Sayid is on this side or that side anymore, if we, ourselves, can't tell which side they should be on? Moral relativism takes over. But all the while, the stakes remain less and less clear. Go back to the island, why? To save someone? To change the eventual outcome? To join the flashy time-travel merry-go-round?

But within the context of this limitless masturbatory time/space continuum, at least we've left behind the primitive Steven Seagal B-movie plotlines of the fourth season. At least Jack and Kate and Sawyer aren't playing out their love triangle at the moment. At least it remains unclear whether or not Ben Linus is good or evil -- for some reason that element of the show never ceases to confuse and entertain. And at least Juliet can speak Latin, although it's not clear what purpose that serves. And it's tough not to enjoy Desmond, fumbling around at Oxford or confronting Charles Widmore while looking for clues about what he's supposed to do to save the island. Hurley's confusion and hangdoggery can be amusing. Sayid is always good for some unself-conscious, efficient manslaughtering.

The truth is, for someone who thinks "Lost" is wildly overrated, I'm still rallying around it, in part because I think it should gain momentum in its home stretch, in part because I'm curious about how thoroughly the writers will clean up the enormous, unfathomably complicated mess they've made. At this point, it would be pure folly not to stick around and see how all of the loose ends get tied up. Will it be deeply stupid, or reasonably crafty and wise? And why does it seem like most people are either rabid fans, furious at the slightest implication that "Lost" isn't the most brilliant show on the face of the planet, or they're outspoken naysayers who think "Lost" is puerile, empty-headed trash? Discuss among yourselves.

Or, just tell us, do you want the goofy redhead to die of a brain ailment as badly as we do? (And how great would it be if she started gurgling "Narm! Narm!" before she kicked the bucket?)

Oh, and another thing: If you run into me 15 years ago, please tell me to put down the bottle of tequila, stop dying my hair red, and call my father.

Drunky's wifeboat

But now it's time to tackle a show that's far more weighty and culturally significant than "Lost": Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Orange County" (10 p.m. Tuesdays). As soothing as it is to hate these spray-tanned, fake-breasted broads and all they stand for, it's also impossible not to feel a little sorry for them. The addition of Gretchen, a fit, younger blond with a much older, filthy rich fiancé in the hospital with cancer, has thrown all of the housewives into a real tizzy.

Here's a woman who looks exactly as bland and peppy as a Malibu Barbie, the exact look the other housewives are striving for despite their advancing age. Without a chance of erasing 10 years off their faces and asses without looking even more like plastic lionesses trussed up in bright, shiny dresses, the "girls" are reduced to finding ways to make Gretchen look bad, whether by plying her with tequila shots in the hopes that she'll get wasted and make an ass of herself (Gretchen happily complies), or by implying that she's a gold digger for enjoying herself away from her sick fiancé's bedside. Ironically, in a later episode, the girls take a mother-hen role with Gretchen, strongly advising her to push her man to get married or make her the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. Classy!

Fellow newbie Lynne, who's disgusted by such talk, would be one of the only voices of reason on the show, if not for her own apparent weakness for hard-looking fake tits and a none-too-subtle face-lift. Add to that a daughter who has no plans for college or a full-time job, but who still manages to dress nicely and drink to excess while her parents foot the bill, and it's hard to celebrate Lynne as our down-to-earth heroine among this pack of shallow, margarita-swilling tree shrews.

This season, the relatively regular-looking Jeana might be a sympathetic character, if she didn't seem to be flat-lining half the time. She's apparently struggling with her weight. She's a wee bit condescending to the others -- although, who wouldn't be? But she seems depressed. She lacks affect. And when we watch as her two nasty teenage sons insult her at every turn, while she sits there and sighs heavily like it's just part of her lot in life, it's almost too much to bear. Come on, lady! Smack those whippersnappers upside the head and demand some respect! It's time for Jeana to get her groove back.

But my favorite manic sea donkey of them all is Tamra, who babbles loudly about her tits in front of her teenage son and seems to care deeply about being the "hottest" of the housewives. The fact that she's so visibly unnerved by the presence of someone younger and hotter than her (Gretchen) is a source of constant amusement this season. Of course, every woman on the face of the planet has at least one molecule of Tamra's pettiness deep down inside her soul. Old age is a ruthless whore, after all, and none of us completely escapes the desire to be the most beautiful girl in the whole damn room. However, if we're not completely insane, we accept our new (older) selves and have a large chocolate ice cream cone to celebrate our emancipation from the oppression of personal grooming and styling as a competitive sport. Tamra, on the other hand, just seethes and strategizes.

But maybe that's the soothing balm at the heart of "The Real Housewives of Orange County": By watching these somewhat lost women backstab and scheme and giggle and age badly, we can congratulate ourselves for simply aging. While they search for ways to travel back in time, we surrender ourselves to the ravages of time and its attendant long, slow march to irrelevance and death. Mmm, it relaxes me just thinking about it!

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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