by Darren Franich
We are living in one of the great periods in TV history. The last decade saw the expansion of the cable universe and the popular rise of serialized shows, a pair of major evolutionary changes that pushed the boundaries of the medium. A show’s protagonist no longer had to be a good guy, or even particularly likable. Storylines could run for months, or years. The Internet provided the foundation for a hyper-attentive new strain of TV fandom. We began to talk about TV shows the way that people in the ’70s talked about movies, or the way that people in the ’20s talked about literature. Shows like Sopranos, Arrested Development, Mad Men, and The Wire had set a new benchmark. A host of new TV shows arrived, shows with sky-high ambition, shows that wanted to be great.
And then some of those shows turned out to be terrible.
This is the story that led, at least in part, to the rise of “Hate-Watching” — the practice of watching a TV show that you know is bad, for the specific purpose of enjoying that badness. “Hate-Watching” has achieved a certain prominence this year, with the debut of a pair of TV shows that positively radiated huge ambition. Smash was the big NBC debut of the midseason, with a pilot that promised “West Wing on Broadway” and a cast of big names. The show quickly descended into self-parody, then descended into self-parody-parody, then had a Bollywood number. (New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum’s piece, “Hate-Watching Smash“ brought the hate-watching phenomenon into the open.) Smash was followed, this summer, by The Newsroom — a series with an impeccable pedigree, a great cast, a beloved TV auteur, and so so many themes! Newsroom belly-flopped, but watching it weekly and luxuriating in its particular badness has become a kind of Twitter parlour game (How many pratfalls? How many speeches? How silly can the female characters be?).
“Hate-Watching” is NOT the same as a guilty pleasure. You wouldn’t tune in every week to hate-watch a really “bad” reality show — that’s a guilty pleasure. Generally speaking, hate-watching requires a TV series with high ambitions and features a certain amount of aesthetic perfection — Smash and The Newsroom are both glossy productions with talented actors — yet fails consistently and badly enough to make it compelling. It helps if a show moves quickly: A typical episode of Glee mixes several dozen inane subplots with six or seven auto-tuned music sequences. Likewise, the sheer overabundance of Sorkinian dialogue gives Newsroom a guaranteed jolt. That said, the pace doesn’t need to be fast. The Killing was prime territory for hate-watchers precisely because its lugubrious pace felt built for MST3K-esque zingers.
I was a proud hate-watcher of The Newsroom until the fourth episode, when the combination of preachy dialogue, the recurrence of a Sasquatch subplot, and the extended Coldplay montage left me feeling that my time would be better spent by watching every new episode of Breaking Bad twice. But I’m interested to hear, readers: Are there any shows that you find yourself hate-watching? Perhaps a once-great TV series that has devolved into self-parody (Hello, Gossip Girl!) Or an aesthetically tasteful drama that can’t live up to its gorgeous set design? Or maybe you just loved to hate Girls? Tell tell!