What To Watch. Besides Yourself.

Friday Night Lights, NBC
Big Brother 9, CBS
Paradise Hotel 2, Fox Reality
Moment Of Truth, FOX
jPod, CBC

So it only took the networks this long to get enough television shows on the air worth talking about, which really has less to do with the strike and more that the slow-moving dinosaur of network TV always tries to suck around this time of year.

Friday Night Lights is interesting, because there are two maxims here: number one, that the Tyra/Landry murder thing is universally hated, and number two, that the season has lacked a unifying moment like Street’s injury. Both are wrong. The first maxim is wrong because I love the Tyra/Landry thing, as writer, for reasons which I’m happy to explain. The second one is wrong because I made it up, and because it only became clear last week what season two’s 9/11 moment actually was, if you’re dumb like me.

To address the first thing: hot bad girl does not go for sweet ugly nerd. It doesn’t happen. Not in real life and not in stories. If you want to make that story work, you have to earn it: you have to drive them together in the grossest, most downward-spiralling way possible, so that the thing that brings them together is also the thing that splits them up. It’s really the only way to accomplish the storyline — and the “after-school drama” nature of the story, as much as it was ballyhooed, was a very savvy bit of flash: distracting us with something shiny in the left hand (“Sexual assault! Manslaughter! Guilt sex!”) while the right hand was rearranging all the pieces to make Tyra’s bizarre relationship with Landry fit. Of all the other hideous possibilities I can think of, the murder plot is also the only one that doesn’t follow through on Tyra’s sexual peril, which would have been a disaster in terms of the show’s feminism: you don’t take the one unrepentantly sexual teenage female creature on the show and rape her, or give her a baby in high school … Both of which are ways television has accomplished this shell game before.

The second thing is basically me being crazy again. I always loved the way Jason’s injury in the first episode basically inspired the whole season, in a very organic way. Think about it: Lyla and Tim wouldn’t have a story in season one without Jason. Matt would basically be worthless, because it’s only his assumption of the role that gets him into Eric and Julie’s radar, which is where the rest of his storyline comes from. Without Street as a stabilizing influence, Smash and Tim are bound to go off the rails. And without Street as a living testament to his failure, I sincerely doubt that Eric would have left Dillon at all.

Which is the 9/11 for season two, and I can’t believe it took me this long to realize it. Every single story arises from this (basically total) betrayal, and Eric’s spent the season atoning for it. Julie has lost her entire damn mind; Tami and her sister — and coworkers –have had to dismantle piece by piece the support systems that grew up around his absence. Obviously, Smash and Riggins are destroyed by his departure; Jason actually begins to grow and change in exciting new directions without the comfort of having Eric around, which in turn has helped with Lyla’s wonderful about-face. Although we didn’t see the months they lived through without Eric, with Dillon’s royal family scattered across Texas, we can feel the effects, because they’re still all around us.

And of course this obvious stuff only became clear to me once Saracen finally freaked out, in the most heartbreaking scene of the season (and a mirror to my favorite scene in season one, when Eric teaches him to scream): underwater, abandoned by his father and his love interest and his slowly departing grandmother, screaming at Eric: “You left me! For a better job!” Well, I just about died. Figures Saracen would do it.

Big Brother 9, Winter Edition, starts up on the twelfth. Big Brother is a funny thing for people to talk about, because it’s simultaneously two things: brainless Orwellian obsession with watching boring people do things you’re doing as you’re watching them, such as drink heavily and eat on the couch, while also providing a serious magnifying glass for human interaction. If the show aired on PBS — and it has, with the added benefit of time travel, in the Manor House series — it would be the brightest spot in the sky.

I watch it because I am obsessed with interpersonal and group dynamics, because it is my goal to be the best Julie this cruise ship of life ever saw, and because I’m sneaky and manipulative. It’s a training guide about people in distress and isolation, binge drinking, which is to say that it’s more real than real. I realize that a lot of it is faked, and a lot of it is producer-created, but the fact is you can’t fake body language or personal, of-the-moment honesty, which is what the show captures.

As you may know, it is a strong — central, maybe — belief of mine that the quality of any entertainment lies entirely on the viewer. You can get something out of it, or not, as you choose. But to me, a couple of hours of Big Brother is equal to a day watching The History Channel is equal to four episodes of Laguna Beach (seasons one and two). It’s what we were promised, and what we were given, in the early days of The Real World, when my obsession and yours with watching normal people do normal things first gained its glamour. Now, my friend Karen rightly points out that the damage done to our generation’s psyche by this concept is huge, but I also think it provides a certain insight, or objectivity, in regarding human character in the individual. By watching a person live their life, no matter who they are, you’ve learned a little something about how other people live their lives. And other people are always more interesting than ourselves, even as they’re illuminating ourselves — which is where the benefit comes in.

I saw several, possibly all, of the houseguests for this season on The Early Show this week. And I am not sure that I want or care to know how it is that they live their lives, because they seem to be completely vacuous and brain-dead to a level at which the show’s previous editions have only hinted. But I think that I have thought this every single year, and yet every year I keep watching until the end, so maybe this feeling will go away. Even if it doesn’t, though, the sheer science of watching them degrade will still dazzle me, if nothing else. There’s a point in every Manor House season where the people just stop worrying about the flies walking around on their faces, you know? That’s what I wait for. Not out of prurient interest, but because that’s when you know they’ve gone so far past being aware of the cameras that they have retreated into a world of their very own, and this is edifying.

Paradise Hotel 2 is less so, unfortunately. I almost wept actual wet tears of joy when I heard that this show was coming back. The original’s power over me was something akin to mystical — although the short-lived and idiotically boring sequel Forever Eden made it clear that this was due more to the personalities involved than anything else. Because those bitches were crazy, and did crazy things, and that was more of a draw on PH than it would ever be on BB. Really, the show was just the Extreme Dating version of Big Brother, as far as I’m concerned — and if you’re interested in altered and weird human behavior, dating should always be your first stop.

This is one of the reasons I’m so excited about BB9, even after it disappointed me so badly last summer: the twist involves eHarmony-style matchups among the 16 singles, the details of which they may or may not understand yet, but which we’ve learned will have strategic import. If you take my two favorite reality shows, Big Brother 2-4 and Paradise Hotel 1, you’ve got the perfect show, no matter how dumb the people are. Hopefully.

I’ve only watched the first episode of this season of PH — I’ve got the second one on DVR as we speak — and as yet it seems to be falling into the MTV category (Next, Date My Mom, Home Invasion, whatever their titles are or were), which I only watch or can stomach in marathons, for some reason. If you’re feeling it or not makes a huge point of difference, but it’s one that can consume a whole day. (I’ve also lost all interest in America’s Next Top Model, a former long-term favorite, but am open to future marathons for this reason.)

I’ll keep an eye on it and let you know, but for now it’s on the bubble. I find myself wondering why I’m watching it when I could be watching the latest Terminator for the eighty-fifth time, which is always a bad sign.

Moment Of Truth is another bubble show for me, right now. The concept is just about the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard of, right up with Kid Nation‘s inspiringly American high concept, or Nip/Tuck‘s mantra, “Tell me what you don’t like about yourself.” I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than watching a person spontaneously admit their shit, in front of people, for cash. It’s like watching somebody go through six months of deep therapy over the course of an evening. If you can do Moment Of Truth, you can do anything — it’s like climbing Kilimanjaro, only instead of going outside, where nature is located, you just go further in.

I’ve seen a lot of guilty and grossed-out faces when this show comes up, and I get it: are we dicks for watching this take place? I think maybe we are, but I don’t care: I’m in it for the victims, not the finger-pointing hilarity. I want to see people climb those walls in themselves, because it’s inspiring and beautiful to watch anybody weigh the consequences of admission, knowing that they’ve already been laid bare. The focus is shifted to the act itself: not “are these things true” but “can you say out loud that these things are true” — and as we all now, saying it out loud is the most powerful magic there is. Raise the stakes however you want: cash, loved ones standing by, a shark tank — I won’t complain. You can’t buy that much psychological value.

I think having the questions take a sliding scale of difficulty — contestants are asked to assent to various statements, which have already been verified with a pre-show lie detector, with a rising embarrassment (or horror) quotient as they go, tied to a dollar amount. Answer this many questions without lying or sicking out, and you rise to the next dollar amount — but answer untruthfully, and you lose it all. I have lived my entire life waiting for someone to do this to me, for the absolute comfort in admitting the worst that there is to admit. I wouldn’t even need cash for it — think about it. Knowing that you have no more secrets left, and that the whole world knows them; you would enter, I think, a new covenant with the world at large. It would feel like being born.

Except for how the questions are pretty defanged, for the most part. I haven’t seen anybody really come clean about anything truly fucked up yet. But we live in hope, for them and for us.

jPod is the last show I’m loving right now. It’s a Canadian show, out of the CBC, starring the young guy’s mom from Queer As Folk US and Alan Thicke as the main character’s parents. It follows a group of young game designers navigating the 3.0 world, with style and humor and more than a little madcap mayhem.

I have a longstanding agreement with Douglas Coupland, the novelist who wrote the book on which the show is based, and who had an obvious hand in its development. Every year, he writes a novel. And every year I read it, when it comes out. This is because his book Generation X changed … if not my life, at least my aspirations. If not my aspirations, then my furniture. It also made me obsessed with Canadians. Every year, I read the book, nod my head noncommitally, and toss it on the shelf.

I think to myself, “What a charming man is Douglas Coupland. He has still managed to write about young things in young ways, despite being a hottie of a certain age. In the north, things keep longer, but in any case, I think it’s pretty amazing. He’s like the well-mannered, large-hearted child of Anne Tyler and William Gibson. Bret Ellis on a potent Lithium-Thorazine-Paxil cocktail. That Douglas Coupland has once again managed to portray my life to its thinnest and stupidest detail, in a loving way that helps me comprehend my world.” In every way. I just love the man.

I don’t always love his books, though. Often they’ve been little more than erudite and hilarious conversations with an old friend that you don’t really remember very well a month later. I always, always like them, but I haven’t loved very many of them. Microserfs I kind of loved. All Families Are Psychotic I loved, although — as Ali says — it shares the distinction with jPod and Girlfriend In A Coma of seeming to have been written on a dare. In the case of Girlfriend, that was a no-go for me, but the other two are good.

Shampoo Planet is probably my second favorite, if only because I’ve been compared to the main character, positively and negatively, more than once; and because he represents a move of past supporting characters (often with the same name, Tyler, and usually the lead’s brother) to center stage. The satire, and the emotion of the story itself, were much improved by this shift, I think, and it’s much beloved in my home.

jPod is awesome. He could turn out potboilers like this every year — like he’s going to do anyway — and I would be satisfied. But what if you made a TV show of the awesome book, with lots of awesome Canadian actors?

Here’s a little taste: Alan Thicke plays a recovering ballroom dancer who falls in mutual bromance with a Korean mob boss who is storing his human cargo in the main character’s house. Nobody can understand why Main Guy has a problem with Kam Fong, because they all think he’s great: Not only does he give everybody furniture all the time, but he truly does love to dance with Alan Thicke. Mom sells pot and keeps killing Canadian drug thugs by accident. Big brother holds weekly “MILF Nights” because he can only get into women over the age of fifty. Dad (again: Alan Thicke) is a professional film extra trying to make it in the biz, which leads to truly horrifying dorky antics in a variety of locations with film production types.

Main Guy works at a game design company as the gore expert; they’re having to tailor their extreme skating game to include a fun cartoon turtle character because their new boss who is a divorcee who becomes obsessed with married pot-growing mom, to the point of trying to parent Main Guy in the office thinks turtles are fun. One coworker is the female Subway Jared of Canada, the catchphrase of which campaign is: “You made me an Underground Loser!” People constantly shout this phrase, in weird contexts. Second coworker is a totally hot internet-hookup sex addict who’s constantly getting roofied and found in strange situations. Possibly gay.

Coworker three was raised in a nondenominational lesbian commune and was so traumatized by all the parliamentary procedure and unconditional encouragement that he has changed his legal name to John Doe and obsessively monitors his hair color, height, weight, eating choices, apparel, entertainment choices, and word choices in order to approximate the national mean. (Keep in mind that this is Canada, so the average there is — mathematically possible or no — even more average than American average.) He also is maybe the darkest character in the whole story. Except for the last coworker, the single daughter of a large family, who gets bouquets from her parents that say things like “THANK YOU FOR NOT DISAPPOINTING US” and “YOU’RE OUR FAVORITE DAUGHTER!”

And finally: you get to see a cute turtle cartoon game character fuck up an Ollie and roll around in a pile of his own viscera, while everyone on the entire show floats around in a complete fog of amorality and total disinterested carelessness. It’s like The Great Gatsby in hyperultimatecrazyvision. It’s like your brain exploded, and all the fun awesome parts got picked out and baked into a funny cake. As described by a reviewer of the novel (or possibly Coupland himself), “These people do not watch the news.”

Beg or borrow the show, and stand amazed.


5 thoughts on “What To Watch. Besides Yourself.

  1. That Saracen moment killed me too; I felt like I _was_ Eric, because I had this forehead-slapping pity coursing through me: how stupid was I not to see how everyone abandons you, Matt, and how can I make it up to you?I would like Moment of Truth better if they would pick up the pace.


  2. I am sad it didn’t get picked up for a second season, but maybe that makes what was made all the sweeter. You know, like TV in Britain.


  3. Okay, so at least I’m not alone in thinking that jPod is also telling me the bromantic tale of Alan Thicke and a Korean mob lord finding love and world peace on the ballroom floor. Plus, for serious, who says no to all that sweet free furniture?On the other hand, I’ve only seen three episodes so far, but I have the suspicion there’s some sort of marvelous romance unfolding between Pot!Mom/Boss!Man and Skater!Turtle. — emily s/sab/los angeles


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