The dawn of the so-called Golden Age of Television has brought many pleasures — but none as unexpected as the rise of “hate-watching.”
Hate-watching is that counterintuitive phenomenon in which viewers watch TV shows they mostly dislike for the sheer pleasure of criticizing them, either through Twitter, snarky comments, or just inward groaning.
You wouldn’t think that better TV would lead to more hate-watching — but with the industry offering more than 400 scripted shows this season, there are bound to be more than a few that hit that sweet spot of “good enough to be watchable but not good enough to be taken seriously.”
More important, the increase in quality programming has raised the bar for all shows that want to stand out. As recently as 20 years ago, a routine procedural like “Law and Order” could be nominated for an Emmy, but last year even shows as great as “The Americans” and “Justified” were left out. This increased pressure to develop outstanding television has some showrunners reaching for a level of sustained quality that exceeds their grasps.
Hate-watching is on my mind now because of the launch of the final season of “Downtown Abbey,” which I’ve been hate-watching and blogging about for several years. My wife, who bailed on the series after only three episodes into Season One, can’t understand why I would spend any time at all watching a show I find so objectionable. And yet there I was last night, going out of my way to watch it live and then complain about it all evening.
It’s important to note that hate-watching is different from watching a guilty pleasure. The latter is a show you actually enjoy even though you know you shouldn’t — one whose appeal you feel like you have to explain. You might, for example, think that “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is a lot of fun, but feel like you’re slumming whenever it’s on. That’s a guilty pleasure. In contrast, by its very definition hate-watching is following a show you don’t really like.
The origins of hate-watching go back to Comedy Central’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which ran for six seasons in the 1990s. This show, in which characters watched and made hilarious comments about cheesy sci-fi movies, showed how much fun it could be to watch bad content.
Hate-watching television is different from hate watching bad genre movies, though. The true hate-watching experience on TV usually involves a prestige show that has failed to live up to its early expectations. Like say, “Glee,” Smash,” “House of Cards,” or anything by Aaron Sorkin. I suspect that by the end of its most recent season, most of its remaining viewers were actually hate-watching “True Detective.” These are shows that are trying to produce quality TV, and maybe even think they’re succeeding. They’ would usually be better as outright spoofs because they are undone by their own seriousness and lack of self-awareness.
In other words, hate-watchable shows straddle that fine line between quality and parody. They are just good enough to watch — and are sometimes even weirdly compelling — but ultimately fail the test of creating true-to-life characters or believable plots.
Television is especially susceptible to hate-watching because of the unique challenges in creating a multi-episode, multi-season work of art. Sometimes the writers just doesn’t have enough original ideas or insights to sustain more than a few hours of content and have to resort to recycled or farfetched plots to keep the show going.
That was the fate of “Downton Abbey,” which had a decent first season and even made some interesting observations about class and gender roles in early 20th century Britain. But the show quickly devolved into a glossy soap opera, with storylines on amnesia, false murder accusations, convenient deaths — and worst of all, no serious consequences for any particular financial or health-related reverse.
And yet, as much as I like to complain about “Downton” (and about “Glee” before it), I still watch because I somehow became attached to the characters and want to see what happens to them. Nobody sets out to make a show that’s hate-watched, but developing decent characters is the key to sustaining a hate-watching audience even when an admiring audience has deserted a show. For example, a lack of affinity for the people in “House of Cards” explains why I went from “hate-watching” to “not watching” at the beginning of Season Three.
The reviews suggest that “Downton Abbey” is better this year. I hope so, because I’d rather “pleasure-watch” than “hate-watch.” I’m not optimistic, though. If it suddenly became a serious drama, it would lose half its audience. No, I think I’m resigning myself to a final season of snark.