For the Love of Bad Television
So, I’ve been giving this blog post a lot of thought recently, and with Riverdale taking Yet Another Break for three weeks, I feel like it’s about time I wrote about it. Why do I love bad television so much?
And I’m not talking about problematic television (because as a feminist, I instantly set alight a pile of boxsets of any show that doesn’t spell it “womyn”, eliminating the need to watch it in the first place), but television that’s actively just…not the best quality. I’m talking about both seasons of Smash, twice; I’m talking about all of Nip/Tuck. I’m talking Hemlock Grove, 18 to Life, America’s Next Top Model, Gossip Girl, Scream Queens, A Thousand Ways to Die, Cupcake Wars. Gotham. Fucking Gotham. It’s a running joke between my partner and I, that if something has a bad/stupid/obviously disastrous premise, I will watch it at some point. He thinks it’s a problem – I think it’s a plus. Prestige TV with great actors, directors I deeply respect, and a compelling and original storyline? Ah, I’ll get there eventually. Ten episodes of a Youtube star trying to parlay her already-annoying schtick into an actual show? Take my fucking weekend.
I don’t know what it is, but there’s this black hole that drags me into these bad shows in a way I can’t resist. I know that they’re going to be meritless, I know that they’re going to be tropey, I know that I’m going to spend most of my time rolling my eyes and groaning at how obvious every plot development is. And yet, I watched all of True Blood’s terrible back half before I even watched an episode of The Americans. I never finished Mad Men, and I actually looked forward to the second half of The Get Down. I’m a monster. I’m a fraud of a television critic. Shame. Shame.
I mean, there are reasons for this. One of the biggest is that a lot of the genres I really love (musical theatre, horror, romance) are ones that are dense with tropey nonsense down to their very core, and making something in that genre that’s actually, you know, not utter bollocks has eluded even the finest creators in the business, so I end up wading through a lot of Smash looking for, say, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a lot of season three of American Horror Story to get to season six of American Horror Story.
I’m also a niggly little contrarian for no other reason than my damn parents, who spent my entire childhood ignoring “DO NOT ENTER” signs and eventually rubbed some of that off on me in television form. When everyone says a show is fucking terrible, I have to go in there waving my arms around going “actually, ACTUALLY”. That’s how I wound up watching Riverdale, and it’s honestly a pretty great show, so joke’s on all the snobs who thought a sexy Archie comics reboot could never work. Actually, when I put it like that, the joke’s on me, but still.
To be honest, I think part of the reason I’ve always been drawn to bad TV is because I’ve learned far more about storytelling from shows like that than any prestige drama. It’s a case of “what not to do”; I learned from watching three seasons of the unacceptably awful Gotham that a central conflict is what defines a character and if you take that away, you’re left with a Batman-less Jim Gordon who’s nothing more than a good cop without the caped crusader. Smash showed me that it doesn’t matter how good your genre frippery is, if your characters and stories aren’t there. Gossip Girl showed me that you should never cast Chace Crawford in anything, not ever, not even once. There’s a lot to be learned from watching exquisitely rendered stories like Breaking Bad and, once again, The Americans (seriously, fucking watch The Americans, friends), don’t get me wrong. But there’s a visceralness in the cringe of a story told badly that tends to get it stuck in my mind more than one told with great finesse. Bad TV makes me a better critic and writer in general, by giving me a sturdy example of what not to do.
So, yeah, I’m never going to stop watching obviously bad television, for all the reasons I listed above. I love a good prestige drama or perfectly-crafted comedy, but there’s something special about a show that strives for excellence and winds up at awful anyway – and there’s something to learn from it too. You can keep your Mad Men and your Game of Thrones (neither of which I have watched all of, nor do I ever plan to): give me some tropey genre crap, a bucket of popcorn, and a decent heaping of snark, and I’m set for life.
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(header image courtesy of Amazon)