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What I Watched Over Summer Vacation



Well, the kids are back in school. Which is nice in the sense that my head is going to explode if I'm exposed to one more minute of "Spongebob Squarepants," "The Fairly Oddparents" or "Dragonball Z." Children's television is great if you're a fan of nonstop screaming. Apparently there's nothing the kid brain finds more hilarious. Our household has three televisions. Get children's shows going on all of them at once and the noise approximates the wailing and howling one might expect to hear in a lower circle of Hell, with silly sound effects and a laugh track.

So I look forward to watching much-less-animated entertainment. Also much less TV about people competing to marry strangers. Isn't it interesting that everybody made fun of "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" when it debuted a few years back, that it was universally reviled as a sham and a tasteless debacle, and yet it continues to spawn imitators? This summer alone saw three of them. "Cupid" and "For Love or Money 2" were snoozy variations on the formula.

"Who Wants to Marry My Dad?" on the other hand, went in an alarming new direction. Kids determining whom their father is going to date and perhaps ultimately take to the marital bed? Do we really want children wielding this kind of power? Isn't it enough that they already control all the televisions?

What I can't get enough of suddenly is televised poker. A recent cathode development, it provided the viewing highlight of my summer. If you haven't caught this yet, you owe it to yourself to have a look. High-stakes tournaments are now broadcast regularly on ESPN, which makes sense, and The Travel Channel, which I'm not sure I understand.

Either way, what's not to like about a show in which mostly older, out-of-shape guys sit around chewing on cigars, rearranging stacks of chips and cogitating? In which some of the superstars make Dick Cheney look like Lance Armstrong, and many have names like Devilfish, The Dragon and Amarillo Slim? Generally considered the best ever to play the game, Doyle Brunson is a 70-year-old Texan who hobbles around on crutches and, according to ESPN's "World Series of Poker" Web site, is "still in his prime." Now this is a sport I can get behind.

Did you notice? Over the summer our old friend the miracle ab builder returned to the airwaves. A couple of years ago, you may recall, infomercials ran night and day for various brands of abdominal belts promising to transform your beer belly into a perfect six-pack by shooting electrical pulses into your stomach muscles while you sat around not exercising. I did a little research and reported in this column that the technology -- along with the claims made in the ads -- was a lot of hooey. Sure enough, within a matter of months the scam police had shut down every one of the belt makers.

Well, some people simply will not be deterred from their quest to fulfill the American dream of effort-free exercise. Now playing all over the dial and around the clock are familiar-looking infomercials for a contraption called the Abswing. Essen-tially a rocking chair disguised as a piece of workout equipment, the device is every bit as dubious as its predecessor. The ads are strikingly similar to the banned spots, too. You see "before" and "after" shots of abdomens, but no faces. Perhaps that's because, once again, they belong to different people. Testimonials from satisfied customers promise that you "can sit and use it at home while watching TV."

Makers of the belts guaranteed results from just 10 to 15 minutes of use per day. The geniuses behind the Abswing have whittled the time down to just five minutes. Now that's progress. Pretty soon all you'll have to do to lose weight and enjoy a lean new look is write the check for the damn thing.

One of the funniest parts of these spots is the disclaimer that appears beneath every testimonial. Newly svelte folks in bathing suits announce the number of pounds and inches they've lost, but under each success story can be found the tiny words: "Unique results. Your results will vary." In other words, "Don't get your hopes up. If this works, it'll be a fluke." You may want to call today. Something tells me this will prove to be a limited- time offer.

Over the summer, too, the country continued on its dumbward path. If you doubt that for a minute, you didn't catch any coverage of the California Recall circus. See how they run. I don't even want to talk about it.

News continued to cede ground to entertainment. By the 18th of last month, for example, the "top stories" on "Good Morning America" included the weekend's box-office grosses as well as the announcement that Freddy vs. Jason was the country's number-one film. This sort of thing is bound to happen, I suppose, when movie studios start buying up networks, as Disney has done with ABC. The frightening thing is, American programming is apparently contagious: On CTV the other day I saw an ad for the fall premiere of "Canadian Idol."

Depending on your age, you may remember a time when Americans tended to frown on the paparazzi. It was generally considered boorish, for example, when the photographer Ron Galella made life miserable for Jackie Onassis, stalking her relentlessly over a period of years. Younger readers may find it hard to believe that a judge eventually slapped the tabloid shutterbug with a restraining order. If Galella were around today, on the other hand, he might have his own TV show. Or at least be part of the action on AMC's new series, "The Hollywood Hunt Club" (Mondays at 10 p.m.).

That's right. American society has become so obsessed with entertainment culture and celebrity that the stalkers are now the good guys. "They're the big-game hunters of the world of entertainment," reads the network's press literature. "Each episode... is part detective story/part safari as real-life paparazzi... chase down and hopefully capture the stars in their natural habitat."

I watched the debut episode, in which a trio of photographers hunted Winona Ryder, J. Lo and the cast of "Friends." The latter had assembled in a remote hideaway for the wedding of Matt LeBlanc, and I have to say none of them were game. It takes a lot to make me feel sorry for attractive, young multimillionaires, but this show managed. Repul-sive stuff. Highly recommended, though, for connoisseurs of this cultural milepost.

And so went summer. It's awfully quiet around here all of a sudden. Almost too quiet. I sort of miss all the hubbub. Maybe I'll just put ol' Sponge-bob on in the background for a little while. There, that's better. Except, you know, for the fact that my head just swelled to the size of a medicine ball, the ringing in my ears is blotting out all other sound, and the entire universe seems to be vibrating out of control. Where are those Abswing commercials when you really need one?