You hate them. You really hate them! But you can’t stop watching them, either. That’s how it always feels when good shows go bad. Who among us can swear that we turned the TV off immediately after Smash went Bollywood and Katharine McPhee lost her mind (and the better half of her shirt)? Or whenever anyone tripped, walked into a glass door, or cried to a Coldplay song on The Newsroom? Or that time on New Girl when Jess taught us that ladies get so irrational on their periods? (You know what really makes us crazy? Being called crazy, especially by an adult woman who wears parrot pajamas.) As TV critic Emily Nussbaum pointed out in a New Yorker essay that popularized the term ”hate-watching,” it’s not enough to recognize when a show has jumped the shark. We desperately need to see where that shark lands.
It’s strange that hate-watching has become a phenomenon when we are arguably living in the greatest era of TV history. The best filmmakers (Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann) are doing great work on the small screen, and groundbreaking shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men have become so intellectually rich, they’re being discussed on prestigious college campuses.
Now that viewers are super-watching — that is, commenting about shows in real time on Twitter and other social media — we’ve trained our brains to analyze symbolism so thoroughly, we can break it down scene by scene. Hate-watching, after all, requires a whole new level of engagement. You’re not just sitting back and enjoying your favorite program. You’re actively challenging yourself to define what it is, exactly, that bothers you about this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad show. Hate-watching is making us smarter.
As long as hate-watching exists, TV will never be passive entertainment. It’s like taking your DVR apart: Dissecting a show can teach you a lot about how it works, or why it’s not working at all. And the experience always feels very personal. After gorging on Scandal recently, I realized that I could practically structure my own episode: Start by introducing a troubled client; insert a lady fixer’s gettin’ things done! montage set to a ’70s-soul soundtrack; cut to an emotional, brink-of-tears close-up where Kerry Washington gets the Claire Danes Award for Dramatic Chin-Quivering; and end with a scene where she announces, ”It’s handled!” and walks away purposefully. Somehow the fact that anyone can do this makes me feel hopeful for us couch potatoes — but maybe slightly worried for TV writers. Someday networks will just crowdsource regular folks to write the best bad TV shows of all.