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Fall '04: In Praise of Idiocy

One of the most common laments of the dedicated television viewer is that smart programming — the kind of stuff derived from deft and innovative premises, writing and acting — is endangered because people would prefer to watch dumb shows. This is the kind of argument that’s often made because it’s more polite than coming out and saying, “You, viewers, are stupid for not sharing my taste in this particular show,” and it’s ego-stroking for fellow show fans. And it’s also false: people don’t prefer dumb shows to smart shows. People prefer unchallenging shows to dumb shows.

This is not splitting hairs: it’s not hard to make a dull and formulaic show, nor is it particularly tricky to keep it on the air. Judging Amy is an example of one of those shows where you’re like, “Is that still on?” and when you watch it, your attention span drifts off into a pleasant, foggy zone. Making a stupid show is considerably more difficult, as it requires balancing a comprehensive ignorance of human logic and dramatic storytelling against a near-genius ability to still pique people’s curiosity.

Fortunately, every once in a while, a show hits the airwaves that’s so superlatively brainless, so outstandingly moronic, so excessively idiotic, that it ends up becoming as entertaining and attention-grabbing as a so-called “smart” show. Until last Friday, I would have argued that Tru Calling was the ne plus ultra of the stupidity-as-art field, FOX’s number two breakout comedy of the 2003-2004 season, and a work of unparalleled idiocy. After I viewed one episode through tears of incredulous laughter, I was hooked. It’s hard to figure out which persistently amused me the most: the way the episode offered periodic interstitial recaps of itself, just in case its viewers were egregiously attention-impaired as to not remember what happened ten minutes ago? The cast members wildly overacting to counter the void created by the parsnip-faced Eliza Dushku? The plots that Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine could have unraveled in five minutes? The cretinous dialogue? Until Jason Priestly showed up and wrecked the whole thing by goosing each episode with a surprisingly nuanced performance, moral uncertainty and a weirdly compelling charisma as an anti-hero, Tru Calling was hurtling toward the event horizon of dumb at a thrilling velocity.

But now it’s left to hover at the edge of television’s black hole like the U.S.S. Cygnus while an intrepid new experiment in stupid fearlessly hurtles forth. I refer to dr. vegas.

On one level, viewers can be outraged that the people responsible for this show have squandered Rob Lowe’s comic timing, Joe Pantoliano’s dangerous and seedy charisma and Tom Sizemore’s willingness to wear horrible hairpieces. Or they can get het up over wrecking a pretty interesting premise: the collision between the deliberate unreality of a casino and the relentless reality of medical ailments.

But why bother grieving what could have been when you can celebrate what is? The dialogue is so canned, it must have come from a bomb shelter. The plot developments could double as their own drinking game — a shot for the unsavory high-roller harassing the good-girl blackjack dealer! A shot for every Vegas cliche about gamblers and grifters! A shot for every moment where we get the message that good Dr. Billy (Lowe) heals other people, but he can’t fix himself! A shot for each instance of Tommy’s (Pantoliano) softer side trumping his crasser one! A shot for each moment Tom Sizemore’s on screen and you say, “Remind me again? Why is he here?”

This show makes Las Vegas look like The Wire. If the parting shot of the series premiere is any indication, it’s only going to get worse from here. In that shot, an exhausted Dr. Billy took a phone call from his daughter whom, we inferred, lives elsewhere with what one hopes is her mother and quite possibly Dr. Billy’s ex-wife. As the shrill voice piped up, Rob Lowe’s eyes assumed proportions normally seen only in Margaret Keane paintings, Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” began playing, and the camera began twirling around Lowe lest we miss a millimeter of his spontaneous, Lot’s wife-like transformation into a giant column of saccharine.

It was horrendous. It was stupendously maudlin. And it was a glorious promise of a season packed with moments that danced on the fine line between predictability and lunatic excess. God, I hope enough people are stupid enough to keep tuning into this show.


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