When summer TV goes bad

An ill wind blows in the macho stupidity of "Dark Blue" and the insipid nothingness of "Great American Road Trip"

By Heather Havrilesky
Published July 19, 2009 2:18PM (UTC)
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Logan Marshall Greene, Nicki Aycox, Dylan McDermott and Omari Hardwick in "Dark Blue."

There are lots of new TV shows on this summer, but make no mistake about it: Most of them suck. That's the part that you don't hear as much about when people are rejoicing over the death of the traditional TV schedule. "Why, we've got new shows every few weeks now. It's revolutionary!" Yes, about as revolutionary as stumbling over cement blocks every few feet instead of just scaling a big wall of worthlessness all at once.

Today, we hurdle the wall of worthlessness together, mostly so you don't waste your time watching something that's supposed to be good just because it's new. Remember, novelty doesn't guarantee greatness. New annoying people are born every day, but people tend to forget that just because they happen to be cuddly little babies. Remember, even the most irritating, tedious, repugnant mouth breathers on the planet were round and cuddly and drooled provocatively at one point or another.

John Jacob Jingle Bruckheimer Smith

The name "Jerry Bruckheimer" either gives you a happy shiver of anticipation down your spine, or makes you groan, depending on how big a bong hit you just smoked. Personally, I am torn between two lovers when I see that name. One side of me becomes nostalgic for the days when my stoner boyfriend du jour and I saw big, cheesy movies like "Armageddon" and "The Rock" on opening night at big theaters where they blast the sound so high that the experience is roughly akin to electroshock therapy. Another side of me shudders at the thought of David Caruso as a growly redheaded stepchild in mirrored cop glasses, waxing philosophic while surveying the scraggly swamplands of South Florida. If Virginia is for Lovers, then South Florida is for Jackasses in Mirrored Cop Glasses.

Jerry Bruckheimer is also for Jackasses in Mirrored Cop Glasses, proven most recently by TNT's new series "Dark Blue" (10 p.m. Wednesdays), which stars Dylan McDermott (see also: that annoying, slightly sulky fellow from "The Practice"). I know, I'm airing a lot of deep-seated prejudices today, but "The Practice" was always an open bag of cheap, overly sweet candy I couldn't stop eating, and McDermott was an orange-flavored spongy peanut (remember those?) that got lodged in my teeth and wouldn't come out. Just watching him bicker with his wife, Lindsay (Kelli Williams), made my ears ache.

But then, just as realistic bickering by married couples was David E. Kelley's one notable strength as a TV writer, Jerry Bruckheimer's one talent may be macho dialogue so grandiose and foolish it makes you feel like you're covered in deep fryer grease every time you hear it. "LA's a big place with lots of bad people," McDermott's character, undercover cop Carter Shaw, grumbles in one scene from "Dark Blue's" premiere episode. "And contrary to popular belief, I don't know 'em all." Moist lemony towelette, anyone?

Now look, I would've warned you not to watch this overwarmed bundle of clichés last week, except that I was recovering from walking pneumonia. They call it "walking pneumonia" because the only real sign that you have pneumonia (at first) is that you no longer feel like walking. Then you get a fever and spend six hours at urgent care. Then you cough up your small intestine.

Anyway, it turns out that having pneumonia is a lot like being an undercover cop. You start small: You catch the flu, or you just want to make the world a better place. Then you develop a secondary infection: You stop shaving and start speaking in a gravelly voice. You befriend criminals, and spend most of your time tossing back whiskey shots with them. You feel like nothing's changed at all, but deep inside, you're sick, very, very sick! Before you know it, you're one of them! It gets so bad that when your old "buddy," a fellow undercover cop, shows up to blow the cover off the operation, you tell him it's not time yet! You tell him he needs to be patient, to lay low, and other clichés. But really, you're having too much fun with these great guys -- er, bloodsucking thugs. Let's face it, they're not nearly as humorless and self-righteous as your old cop buddies. Still, you did just cough up part of your small intestine.

Finally, your undercover boss -- that's Shaw -- busts in and condescends to you while he kills all your best friends right in front of your face. Since all your pals are dead, though, you have no choice but to act like it's all good until the next assignment.

Sounds like a story you've seen 50 million times before, right? But have you seen it in full Technicolor Bruckheimian style? Have you seen the gigantic, empty loft where Shaw and his crack team of undercover agents investigate crimes, use software with lots of flashy graphics and trade witty barbs? Have you see the hot chick with the glasses who supposedly has some kind of skill set other than expertly applying pageant-level makeup before showing up at work, even though her colleagues can hardly be bothered to run a comb through their devil-may-care macho hair or shave their macho scruffy faces? Have you seen the newbie cop with the shady past whose character is a cross between Starbuck from "Battlestar Galactica" and Jon Gosselin's new hard-partying girlfriend?

But the real prize here isn't the recycled undercover cop story or the absurdly unrealistic plot twists, but the swaggery, swashbuckler (Swashbruckheimerian?) dialogue. Take this priceless exchange, in which Shaw explains his renegade/freewheeling cop routine to said promising newbie, whom he's still trying to recruit. The two are sitting at the counter of a diner in a bad section of town, and Shaw gestures out the window.

Shaw:What do you see out there?

Newbie: Cars. People.

Shaw: I see the guy in need of his next fix. I see the girl who just made her rent in the back seat of a car. I see the mother who just lost her son in a drive-by. I see everything that needs to be fixed. I can teach you to see that way, too.

Newbie: How?

Shaw: I run a, um, how should I call it? A special unit, deep cover. Independent of standard departmental jurisdiction. That means no one knows about us. So if you want to do some real work, if you want to show me who you really are, and maybe, possibly, redeem yourself --  here's your chance.

Newbie:Why me?

Shaw: We're about perception. Or, more accurately, deception. You're one hell of a liar, Jaime. Something I can really use.

Now don't you feel like you're some kind of a Hollywood agent who's forced to read terrible scripts written by teenage boys with delusions of grandeur, just to keep your kids in private school?

But remember, occasionally a teenage boy with delusions of grandeur becomes wildly successful, and then a nation full of overgrown teenage boys smoke enormous bong hits and go to see the latest multimillion-dollar macho romp that their overpaid teenage stoner god made for them. After that, the deluded teen stoner god creates television in his likeness: growly and macho and self-important and cobbled together entirely from 20-year-old B-movie scripts.

Yes, "Dark Blue" is bad, so bad that it's almost good. But not quite.

 Road trip!

While we're on the subject of horrible clichés, let's go ahead and announce to the small portion of the universe that doesn't realize it yet that road trips, as a narrative device, are wildly overrated. Yes, there have been many great road trip movies. "True Romance" comes to mind, plus the one with Peter Fonda on a motorcycle that the stoner boyfriend du jour had always seen 500 billion times, plus the one with the outlaw in the car who makes friends with the DJ on the radio, but still dies at the end.

OK, maybe road trips work as long as there are guns and fast cars and vaguely suicidal outlaws involved. But road trips with enormous Winnebagos and chatty moms and beleaguered dads and chubby kids that yell "Are we there yet?" every five minutes? Unless Chevy Chase or Albert Brooks is about to appear and drive the Winnebago into the Grand Canyon, we'll pass.

No, I can't quite explain why I decided to watch NBC's "Great American Road Trip" (8 p.m. Mondays). I guess I was hoping for some sweet little family version of "The Amazing Race." If anything, though, this show demonstrates the enormous difference between a really well produced, well edited reality show like "The Amazing Race" (I think it's probably mandatory that I mention Jerry Bruckheimer is a producer on that show at this point) and a really horribly produced and edited show like "Great American Road Trip."

Here's the basic rundown: "The Amazing Race" introduces us to a wide range of odd personality types, people whose personalities become clear through their talk and their actions. "Great American Road Trip" introduces us to seriously annoying human beings who have nothing to say. "The Amazing Race" is edited down to exciting, funny or quarrelsome moments. "Great American Road Trip" includes extended footage of a family fishing, or a bunch of teams going to eat frozen custard, but no one says or does anything interesting. "The Amazing Race" is a race. "Great American Road Trip" is a really boring tour across America with some of the nation's dullest, most obnoxious families.

Yes, like a family car trip that never ends, "Great American Road Trip" is excruciatingly boring, and by the end of it you want to beat someone's face in. Sadly, though, the show doesn't seem to include any bloodshed. Clearly its producers should rent "True Romance" and rework their premise accordingly.

Misery = Mizrahi

Of course, there are many, many summer shows that rival the worthlessness of "Great American Road Trip." "The Fashion Show" (10 p.m. Thursdays), Bravo's flaccid "Project Runway" replacement, is about as bad as "Project Runway" is good. Worst of all is Isaac Mizrahi, the show's host and one of its judges. Everything out of his mouth sounds like a really bad first read-through of a script by a child actor hopped up on amphetamines. Yes, "The Fashion Show" is unnervingly crappy, what with the sullen competitors and the soggy format and the blah editing, but who told Mizrahi he could save it all by imitating Krusty the Klown?

ABC's "Superstars" (8 p.m. Tuesdays) sounded like a reasonably amusing concept at first: Well-known athletes and D-list stars form two-person teams that compete in running, swimming, bowling and an obstacle course. You know, it's just like "Battle of the Network Stars," except with Ali Landry instead of Linda Carter. (Yes, there is an enormous difference between Wonder Woman and the girl from that Doritos commercial.) But if you ever wondered if athletes like Bode Miller and Lisa Leslie and that female soccer player who ripped her shirt off when the Americans won in the Olympics are interesting in real life, wonder no more: They're not. Sure, Terrell Owens is sort of intriguing, but he bailed without much explanation this past week, leaving his spokesmodel teammate Joanna Krupa "pissed off." I guess T.O. got as bored as we did.

Suspecting that there must be more to this story, I searched the interwebs for some new information, and what did I find? The kind of footage  (Yes, watch it right now. Trust me) that would make "Superstars" an instant hit, if only ABC would air it. Apparently T.O. finally got fed up with being emotionally abused by his deranged Superstar Barbie teammate and quit. You go, Terrell! You don't have to take that kind of abuse from anyone, do you understand? Maybe you can explain how you learned to stop being a victim on your reality show on VH1 ("The T.O. Show" premieres Monday, July 20).

Anyway, there are lots of other terrible new summer shows you shouldn't be watching out there, but I'm running out of space. Just take it from me, newer doesn't necessarily mean better, no matter what the car dealers and plastic surgeons and vinyl siding salesmen of the world try to tell you.

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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