Everybody does it. We obsessively watch TV shows that we kind of despise, and then we mock them, and complain about them on the internet afterwards. "Hate-watching" is a thing now. What's going on — are we just masochists? Are we doing serious damage to our bodies? What's the worst thing that could happen to us?
I can't remember the first time I heard the phrase "hate-watching," but Tim Goodman wrote a big essay lamenting the trend back in February 2013. And our sister site Jezebel defended the joys of hate-watching around the same time. So I guess the past couple years, it's become a thing. And hate-watching sums up so much of our relationship with cheesy bad television in the tail end of the Obama era. Maybe it's due to Secular Stagnation, or maybe it's a side effect of too much getting turnt up. Hard to say.
But we're watching shows that we hate, and we're loving it. Is this a bad habit? Is it worse than chewing your nails, or even as bad as jay-walking and texting at the same time? Are we rewarding bad behavior in pop culture, or reprogramming ourselves with the harmful messages of dumb TV? Let's examine.
Our latest hate-watch at io9 is Scorpion, a show that traffics in terrible nerd stereotypes and ridiculous plot devices. (Like, to get the control software from an airplane so the Air Traffic Control software can be rebooted, you have to lower a plane in mid-flight onto a speeding car and drop down an ethernet cable. Or the best way to assassinate a political figure is to create a virus genetically tailored to his DNA and spray it at the mall at close quarters. Whut?) But the worst thing about this show is the way it leans on the stereotype that all "geniuses" are socially disabled misfits who can't deal with emotions, and they need a "normal" like the diner waitress to interpret for them.
And sometimes I do worry that I'm starting to like this truly awful show, or that I'm starting to care about its inane characters. Or that I'm wasting my life watching Scorpion's shenanigans instead of something educational, like a cooking show. What are we doing to ourselves here?
Why is hate-watching fun?
I'm going to go ahead and disagree with Jezebel, which claimed that hate-watching is when you secretly like something but are embarrassed by your terrible tastes, so you pretend that you're only watching it to make fun of it. Jezebel's Madeleine Davies wrote, "we often feel the need to cloak our broader tastes in a layer of irony."
To me, that's a guilty pleasure, not a hate-watch. Those are two very different things.
A guilty pleasure is when you know something kind of sucks or your friends will think you're dumb for liking it, but you still watch it anyway. And maybe eventually you get friends who aren't such jerks. Sometimes things get categorized as a "guilty pleasure" even though they're actually well-written and acted, just because of the trappings of tackiness — like The Vampire Diaries, for example. Sometimes, things become a "guilty pleasure" because they're fun and engaging, even though they're also as dumb as rocks. Like The Cape. (Gotham was a guilty pleasure, but is rapidly becoming just a pleasure.)
But hate-watching is different — hate-watching isn't about grudging enjoyment, or furtive pleasure. It's about something being such a terrible mess, or so repugnant to everything we hold dear, that you can't help but watch the disaster unfold. The experience of hate-watching is made especially pungent when the object of hate is something you have previously loved, or is associated with something you love.
I imagine a lot of people were hate-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation during its first two seasons. There's no way to get actual enjoyment out of most of those episodes, but for Star Trek fans, the temptation to observe the awfulness firsthand would have been irresistible. And there would have been so much grim satisfaction in the endless post-mortems. All those soupy organs.
But hate-watching can easily turn into love-watching. Legend has it that the burgeoning Bronies movement began when 4chan started discussing My Little Pony, and a bunch of male users decided to make fun of this show. "We were going to make fun of it, but instead everybody got hooked," as Brony "Security Chief" Nanashi Tanaka told Betabeat in 2011.
Of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation did become an excellent show, and the Bronies were won over because they saw that My Little Pony was likewise already excellent. The reverse can happen, too — see Heroes. Or the final season of BSG.
But sometimes, a show can be kind of heinous, and you can still be won over to enjoying it. Even a horrendous show can get its hooks into you. I've been accused of having Stockholm Syndrome on a few occasions, when I start saying things like, "Hey, I'm actually kind of beginning to enjoy Scorpion. I like how Robert Patrick scowls when he bails them out for the billionth time in the same episode."
Also, sometimes you can love a show but pivot instantly into hate-watching when one particular character or subplot comes on the screen. Lately, whenever either Katrina or Hawley appears, Sleepy Hollow suddenly goes from "my new favorite show" to "barfomatic spleengasm." Plushy microbes may in fact be thrown at the screen whenever Katrina starts talking about why she's kept secrets from Ichabod.
Honestly, anything that gives you pleasure is good, as long as you're not being too mean to other humans. I feel like we spend too much time worrying about the difference between "good" and "bad" enjoyment. (But your pleasure shouldn't involve making other people miserable, unless they really deserve it.)
If you derive pleasure from hate, then hate away. Let your hate flow. When people say "Haters gonna hate," respond: "That is a true observation that you have made. We certainly are, and thank you for appreciating our steadfastness." Or words to that effect.
At the same time, there are a few ways that hate-watching could turn out to be bad for you:
1) If you're forcing yourself to watch something that actually hurts your brain, just so you can hate on it. Your brain is a vital organ, that's still mostly irreplaceable, and you should treat it with a modicum of respect. I mean, don't go overboard into respecting your brain, because that's how we get megacephalic supervillains. But handle your brain with care. Don't just pour sewage into it so you can say, "Owww my brain is full of sewage" and get a cookie. At the very least, make sure to self-medicate before consuming any really heinous pop culture. If you feel like a piece of pop culture is so dumb that it's actually killing your brain cells while you watch it (over and above whatever you've killed with the self-medication) then maybe reconsider.
2) If you're watching something that's full of obnoxious stereotypes and they start sinking in, despite your attempts at filtering.
This is why I worry about Scorpion. And to me, the poster child of "hate watching became love watching" might be Big Bang Theory, another show that's just chock full of annoying nerd stereotypes. I feel like a lot of people I know started watching that show so they could rag on it, and then got sucked in because it does have some engaging storytelling — courtesy of a lot of Roseanne writers. And they added Mayim Bialik. But still, when you learn to love shows like Scorpion or Big Bang Theory, you're still getting spoonfed really heinous messages about socially dysfunctional nerds (and the women who put up with them.)
3) If you just can't let go of the love you once had for something, and it's an unhealthy attachment. Just let go. Just let go! Don't cling to a television show that no longer deserves your love. Honor the love of what it once was, by averting your gaze from what it's become. I find recaps are really good for this — you can just get a synopsis of the latest mess, without having to witness it. Or just wait and watch the whole thing on DVD eventually, when enough time has passed that your feelings have scabbed over. Picking at scabs is the new hate-watching.
4) Something starts being good, but you just can't admit it. Imagine if you were one of the people who hate-watched TNG during its first two seasons, and you just wanted to keep hate-watching during seasons three and four. And you tried to convince everybody else that the show was still a cruddy mess. That would be kind of annoying — especially if you managed to convince anybody else that it was still the show it had started out as. On the other hand, that's one of the upside of hate-watching — if so many people hadn't kept watching TNG just to complain about it, maybe the show wouldn't have survived long enough to get good. Or there would have been nobody watching to notice that it had.