Some evenings (or Sunday mornings or Monday afternoons), there is nothing better than sitting down on your couch, ignoring the news and unanswered emails, and watching some good bad TV. E&M’s Nicoletta Enria defends this guilty pleasure and explains why ‘bad TV habits’ are neither bad nor guilty, but comfort food for the soul in a world that values self-improvement and relentless hard work above all else.
I love rewatching TV shows, I love watching TV shows that get tons of bad reviews, I love reality TV – the true meaning of Il Dolce Far Niente in the 2020s is this zoning out to Netflix’s endless loop and indulging in bad TV habits. And I am no longer ashamed. But I am still interested in why I ever felt ashamed in the first place, ashamed for what is widely considered a disreputable way to consume television, whether because of the standard of direction or acting or the actual content (i.e. soap operas and reality TV), or for rewatching shows you have already seen. In a society where productivity, excessive work and self-betterment reign supreme, where such a loathsome phrase as ‘Thank God It’s Monday’ can exist but the three day weekend is as distant as ever, for me the comfort of ‘bad TV habits’, such as rewatching shows or watching notoriously bad ones, is immeasurable.
I will not delve into the depths of the already widely discussed racist, sexist, homophobic and classist roots in what we understand to be acceptably ‘good television’ or ‘bad television’ – as culture has been wielded to demean the products enjoyed by marginalised groups throughout history (read more on cultural racial discrimination, colourism, the systemic exclusion of queer culture, with only some members of LGBTQ+ enjoying recent improvements and this fantastic article on how reality TV throughout the Blair era was used to demonise the working class).
In a culture where we have to be constantly producing and striving for more, I find zoning out and the total release of watching television an immense pleasure.
In this hyper-capitalist consumer society, where we should consistently strive for self-betterment to achieve a higher place in society, our leisure time is no longer ours to consume. Whilst in the 60s and 70s the mere act of watching of television was demonised, with both the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and John Lennon, two keen representatives of unjustly idolised white cis-male culture, urging us to throw away our televisions. In fact, John Lennon went so far as to argue that if we threw them away we would have more peace. This individualised culpability placed on citizens rather than policymakers and institutional systems endorsing state violence stokes a rage in me that is inexplicable. Additionally, a quote largely attributed to Radiohead (do you sense a pattern in the judgement cast by these white cis-male ‘icons’?) echoes the same sentiment: “Most people gaze neither into the past nor the future; they explore neither truth nor lies. They gaze at the television.” This idea that leisure time is just a waste of time is a perpetuation of a capitalist consumerist culture which these icons aim to be against, where all our time must be spent merely to better fit into society, rather than dare I say it – actually rest and relax. Also, please don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of other leisurely activities which are relaxing and do not require us to be glued to a screen, please continue reading, writing, painting, and cross-stitching. Additionally, I also think self-improvement and learning are key and essential, not just for the perpetuation of capitalist society but for self-growth and building understanding and empathy within and beyond our community – both are essential. All I mean to say is, in a culture of oppressive pressures to constantly be producing and striving for more, I find zoning out and the total release of watching television an immense pleasure, in its escapism and comfort.
Now that Netflix and its competitors are so deeply embedded in our everyday lives, we can no longer easily look down on those who watch TV, because we all inevitably are. Instead, we can redirect this focus on how we watch TV, on whether or not we are consuming TV that makes us more informed, or that means we can keep up with small talk that increasingly consists of critiques or insights learned from the 600 Netflix series produced every minute. Our constant strive to need to know everything, and to showcase this on social media or in social interaction is just exhausting. Again, don’t misunderstand me – the quantity of extremely high-quality TV shows we can now easily and largely legally watch (looking at my limewire and megavideo compatriots) is astounding. We have access to an increasing number of films and series that give us insights into facets of society some of us were never exposed to, and to open our minds. Nonetheless, after a particularly long and difficult day nothing soothes me more than totally switching off my brain and watching something that gives me great comfort. This brings me to my first prize-worthy bad TV habit: rewatching shows.
1. ‘Bad’ habit: Rewatching shows
In the face of an unprecedented and terrifying global pandemic, many of us turned to old haunts and familiar series. Whether it was stories that made us mourn the politics of the 90s (The West Wing) or just friendly, trusted characters such as Kimmy Schmidt or the unfriendly Blair Waldorfs – we all wished to retreat to what we already knew. I hate to be *that* millennial, but I am a seasoned pre-pandemic season-rewatcher. I all too often seek comfort in Gilmore Girls’ stars hollow for an instant hit of serotonin. Similarly, in lockdown, I found myself binging any 90s rom-com I could get my desperate serotonin-hungry hands on. I found myself seeking films that showed the social closeness I so crave, but that were not too recent as to remind me of the fact I just recently had lost this privilege myself. Also, anything with Julia Roberts, please inject straight into my veins.
2. ‘Bad’ habit: Badly reviewed television
Another bad TV habit I highly recommend is watching badly reviewed television. Have we all learnt nothing from ‘The Room’ by Tommy Wiseau (whose story was then made into the film ‘The Disaster Artist’)? To me, there is no such thing as terrible television, just different forms of very subjective entertainment. I understand that Dolly Parton’s ‘Christmas on the Square’, for example, had a very confusing plot, which was at the same time unoriginal, impossible to follow and also wholly predictable. And yet it just gave me so much inexplicable joy. I also used to rely on reviews to choose what to watch, but once I saw a few films with incredible reviews that I found I could not watch, I decided to just go with my gut to watch whatever I want despite what anyone says – most of the time I get from it the comfort and joy I expect (or am extremely disappointed in which case I only have myself to blame). I am also a cynic that hugely enjoys mocking shows with zero chemistry or sense (i.e. ‘Zumbo’s Just Desserts’). But this is an argument I am less proud to make.
3. ‘Bad’ habit: Reality TV
An extension of this praise of badly reviewed TV is my praise of reality TV. The, in my opinion undeserving, snobbery around reality TV is a far more complex topic which deserves another article in its own right. I mean to highlight it due to the special shame attributed reality TV. I get a lot of slack for rewatching TV or watching terrible shows, but never as much as I do for my consumption of reality TV. Whilst I think some reality TV is truly unpleasant to watch, such as the body-shaming, sexism and racism in ‘Love island’ and ‘Made in Chelsea’. These shows can be toxic, especially ‘Love Island’, where the recent suicide of two contestants (Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon) and the presenter Caroline Flack cannot be discussed in isolation. Nonetheless, watching reality TV itself is not the problem here, but rather the culture of honing in and unleashing vitriol on individuals which it often creates a space for – like much other media. Therefore, the small point I wish to make is that whilst problematic, it is essential to remember that reality TV does not exist in a vacuum, yet at the end of the day, it is the ultimate escape television. While aware and informed viewership is encouraged, to live entirely in someone else’s reality at a time like this when our reality is so difficult, scary and extremely lonely – is not so bad after all.
2021 will not instantly resolve all the problems exposed, accelerated and worsened in 2020 (systemic racism, crumbling public health systems (especially in refugee camps), rise in far-right extremism, Beirut’s economic, infrastructural and corruption issues). I urge you to stay informed, consistently broaden your horizons and diversify the content you consume, be it news, books, TV or exhibitions, but I also urge you to seek comfort where you can. For me, this is these terrible TV habits. Nestled in the sweetness of doing nothing (dolce far niente) we can seek comfort, companionship, escapism, and a nostalgic craving for what seemed to be a simpler past, to help propel us into the ‘new normal’ of the future.