When a TV show fills us with high hopes, and then dashes them when the plot rocks right before our very eyes, many of us keep watching for the sheer 'pleasure' of griping about it.
TV shows we love to hate
If your eyes are rolling amid your groans, yet your fingers refuse to click the remote to change the channel, odds are you’ve discovered a phenomenon of 2012 – hate-watching television.
Not to be confused with guilty pleasures such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Hillbilly Handfishin’ – that trashy kind of TV badness one can deliciously wallow in – hate-watching involves shows with top talent and grand artistic ambitions that fall so short of your expectations that you soon find yourself looking forward to loathing them as you tune in each week.
In fact, trying to sort out the smoking mess of plot rubble – or hoping to be there on that miraculous day your hate-watch show pulls its act together to realise its potential – soon becomes a perverse pleasure. Dawn Johnston, a communication and culture professor at the University of Calgary, also attributes the trend to “good old-fashioned schadenfreude”.
She says: “When we look at a show where the deck is so stacked with talent and ambition, there is a certain abject fascination with watching it flounder. Much like we continue to invest our time in case it gets better, we invest our time to see just how bad it can be.”
While such behaviour may simply be human nature – and “hate-watching” previously existed in social media – the term “hate-watching TV” reared its head earlier this year in the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum’s article, “Hate-Watching Smash”. After a gushy initial review, she relates how she watched in horror as the splashy Broadway series “took a nosedive so deep I’m surprised my ears haven’t popped”.
Yet she remains an “addict” and continues to watch. “I realise my vehemence is slightly suspect. I mean, why would I go out of my way to watch a show that makes me so mad?” she writes. “On some level, I’m obviously enjoying it. Maybe I secretly love Smash, at least in that slap-in-the-face Moonlighting way.”
Other shows cited as attracting the most hate-watchers include The Newsroom (characters only hint at Aaron Sorkin’s past greatness amid their jingoism and misogyny), Glee, The Killing (snail’s pace, bad sweaters), American Horror Story (a mishmash of every horror trope but the bloody kitchen sink), Mad Men, Gossip Girl and Gallery Girls (all wretched human beings), to name a few.
Even sci-fi fans took one on the cyber-chin with Terra Nova: despite its Steven Spielberg pedigree and dino-sized budget, this time-travel show delivered an eye-rolling schmaltz-fest of family fuzzies and lame dialogue.
Hate-watching television continues a seismic cultural shift away from novels and poetry and towards TV and streaming media as the new hub of cultural storytelling, says Robert J Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University.
The maturity of television drama, he suggests, has allowed it to supplant literature and, to a certain degree, even movies, as auteur-driven series and superstar show-runners have brought us novelistic shows such as Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and The Wire.
“It’s only been since the 1980s since anybody went to a television show with any kind of expectation that it was going to be really, really good,” says Thompson. “Throughout the 1950s, we had these goofy variety shows and nuclear family sitcoms. The writing was formulaic.
“Then we went to the 1960s – and we had talking horses and flying nuns. I’m not dissing any of that programming – because some of it was a lot of fun. It was good at what it did, but there was never any sense that any of this was going to change our life.”
He adds: “Then the 1980s rolls along and shows like Hill Street Blues, thirtysomething and St Elsewhere – and by the time we get to the end of that decade, certain television shows start to raise the bar – and therefore our expectations – that these are going to be important weekly events.
“So people now are expecting from TV experiences that it often just can’t deliver.”
What we now call hate-watching TV was in decades past the domain of television critics, says Thompson, but today’s social media and the internet have given all voices a forum.
“Now there’s a sense that all of this dialogue and arguing and complaining and dissecting and analysis – anybody can do it with a minimal amount of technology and an internet connection. In the end, it’s a good thing.”