Terminal Illness

The NBC airport drama LAX isn’t long for this world. But why?

Why isn’t anyone but me watching LAX? NBC just moved the new one-hour drama from Monday to Wednesday nights, heartlessly abandoning it to the same time slot as Lost, ABC’s critical and commercial juggernaut. But given the choice, would viewers rather watch the aftermath of a plane crash than the everyday workings of a busy airport? LAX’s ratings are flat-lining—last week, it was ranked 72nd among network shows. In a recent joke on the Tonight Show, Jay Leno compared the series’ status to that of Yasser Arafat, hovering somewhere between life and death. As of today, the show has officially outlived the Palestinian leader, but it will very likely soon be joining him in the world beyond. Yet of all new network series this fall, LAX is the only one I regularly follow, just for fun.

It’s not that it’s the best show on network TV. Rather, LAX’s appeal reminds me of my old crush on Fox’s Party of Five: it’s the kind of show that’s just unchallenging enough to make for relaxing viewing, while being just well-written enough to allow you to imagine elaborate psychological back stories for the characters. (LAX also has the best TV theme song of the new season: the infectious ELO hit “Mr. Blue Sky,” also used in the theatrical trailer for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

The wonderfully named runway chief Harley Random, played by estimable TV workhorse Heather Locklear, is my favorite female character on any show right now: job-obsessed perfectionist by day, party girl by night, she pulls into her parking place with her strappy sandals slung over one shoulder and gets right down to the work of averting terrorist crises and placating union bosses. She’s prickly, sometimes even bitchy with her co-workers—especially the suave airport terminal boss, Roger de Souza (Blair Underwood)—but you can just tell that underneath is a warm, funny, lonely woman dying to be loved. The real heart of LAX is what the fan boards call the UST—Unspoken Sexual Tension—between Harley and Roger. Locklear and Underwood are both vintage TV sex symbols (she’s been playing prime-time hotties now for over 20 years; he’s been a professional fox since 1987) and in LAX, they orbit around each other like a pair of gorgeous, smiling suns.

It won’t be long before LAX is put out of its misery. But I wish the network had given the show a chance to build an audience; it may still have some kinks to work out (like eliminating all romantic subplots not directly involving Roger and Harley) but it’s at least as good as Joey, which, despite diminishing ratings, NBC is nurturing and tending like a rare, delicate flower. I hope before it’s pulled from the airwaves, LAX’s producers are at least brave enough to write in the moment the show has been hurtling toward since day one: a Harley/Roger smooch. If Underwood were to lock lips with Locklear, it would not only break new ground as a rare black-man-with-white-woman interracial kiss (something movies like Pelican Brief and Kiss the Girls have skirted); it would also be juicy as hell.

Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2004

OK, readers, I take it back: You don’t need to send any more theories about Andrew Sullivan’s on-air butt-grab (see below). Perhaps I didn’t make it clear that I wasn’t looking to pad out my collection of homophobic diatribes. Much as I may disagree with his politics, Sully’s sexuality is fine by me, and I actually thought his tush-rub was kind of cute in its utter oblivious disregard of the rules of talk-show (or indeed, living-room) etiquette. Believe me, if a straight, left-leaning pundit were to engage in similarly unconscious behavior on live television, I’d be all over that as well (though I hear Chomsky is more of a nut-scratcher).

Anyway, we now have an answer from the man himself, with the elegant simplicity of Occam’s Razor: “It itched.” (Click here and scroll down.) … 10:47 a.m.

Monday, Nov. 8, 2004

Was anyone except me and James Wolcott watching last Friday’s hallucinatory season finale of Real Time With Bill Maher  on HBO? Maher’s guests included Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Andrew Sullivan, the well-known gay conservative blogger who recently startled his readership by reluctantly endorsing Kerry. Let’s skim over Simpson’s baffling interview with Maher, in which the senator, who is pro-choice and pro-gay rights, railed at Maher for making people laugh before advancing the odd argument that Wyoming as a state is progressive on gay issues because “Matthew Shepard was killed in this state, and the people of this state were offended.” We’ll also fast-forward past Sullivan’s frothing rage toward Noam Chomsky, who had appeared earlier on the show via satellite. Chomsky, Sullivan insisted, had bilked the country for “millions” by criticizing U.S. policy on the academic lecture circuit. Putting aside for the moment the image of a left-wing linguist rolling in rock-star cash, are we to understand that Sullivan himself commands no fee for his speaking engagements?

But the true high point of Friday’s Real Time was one of those moments that only live television can offer, more humiliating than Ashlee Simpson’s lip-synching debacle on SNL, more mysterious than the bulge under Bush’s jacket in the first debate. When the roundtable guests (who also included actor D. L. Hughley and former U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder) rose to shake hands and chat in the last few minutes of the show, why was Andrew Sullivan—there’s no polite way to put this—rubbing his own ass, in full view of the cameras and for what seemed like an eternity? (This screen capture fails to do justice to the sheer duration of the event.) Anyone who had ever been caught in a social blunder—picking their nose on the train, say—could only look on in horrified identification: Imagine being caught on live TV fondling one’s own tush! I know bloggers aren’t known for their social graces, but what problem was Sullivan addressing with his not-so-furtive adjustments? Numb buns? Atomic wedgie? Or just nervous fidgeting? Real Time will be replaying on HBO throughout this week. I welcome reader speculation on Mr. Sullivan’s dilemma. But please, people … keep it clean. … 3:47 p.m.