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Lithium The catharsis of hate-watching as explained by a bad-TV addict

Jan. 13, 2021
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Here’s the thing: I watch TV like I need it to survive, and I talk about TV like it’s my job. For me, it’s less so a way to relax than it is some kind of mission I’ve assigned myself—one I’m a little too enthusiastic about carrying out. Because of that, people (correctly) assume that I have a lot of opinions on the subject, which means people ask about my favorites, or what I’ve been watching lately, or any recommendations I might have. And every time, I have to bite my tongue to keep from admitting that my favorite genre of TV is any show that would be universally classified as “bad.”

When I say bad, I don’t mean the shows that are deliberately weird or poorly-constructed. The Communitys and Mystery Science Theater 3000s and Big Mouths of the world have found their niche and they thrive in it. I’m talking about the shows that are completely, unjustifiably terrible. The badly-written, dead-horse-beating, stereotypical shows that, if they had to be greenlit, at least should have been mercy-killed after season one. I mean, I watched Misfits, the Netflix Degrassi spinoff, and Dance Moms of my own volition. I see a critic call a show garbage and my interest is piqued. Obviously I don’t watch bad television exclusively, but I watch enough of it that my friends and family worry about me.

Now, you might be saying, “Jack, why would you put yourself through the pain of watching shows that seem to be written by spinning a wheel of bad genre tropes?” We’re gonna get into that. Before we do, though, I want to dedicate some time to one of the most infamous and relevant examples of my addiction: the CW monstrosity known as Supernatural.

If you inhabit one of the corners of the internet untouched by the Winchester brothers, let me bring you up to speed. Supernatural ended on November 19th, after fifteen years of killing and immediately reanimating its ghost-hunting cast of characters. The best thing about the finale is that it was the finale, which means there will be no more episodes. Beyond that, I can’t come up with a single genuine compliment. I watched it with my roommates, all of us taking in the end of an era with the kind of nauseated excitement that most of the ex-fans who watched the end of season fifteen have reported feeling. Did it make me physically ill to think about the fact in the show God ate his sister and was replaced by a four-year-old antichrist who had just spent some time chilling with the concept of nothingness, who took the form of Sam Winchester’s ex-girlfriend for no clear reason? Yes. Did we have to pause the show and take a good five minutes to calm down after hearing lines like “It’s just… I’m supposed to kill God.” and  “[the archangel Michael]’s a cuck”? Also yes. Were Thursday nights the highlight of my week during the show’s final run? Absolutely. As any bad TV connoisseur will tell you, the point isn’t to enjoy yourself. The point is to feel a kind of rage that circles around to humor, to become so goddamn angry you have to laugh.

Hate-watching has become a bit of a national pastime in the last few years. It’s almost more lucrative to make a terrible movie than it is to make a good one. The Supernatural finale is a great example, actually: after spending the last few years pumping out mediocre content for a fandom that had mostly died out, all it took was one monumentally bad episode to make it relevant again. The meme accounts and video essayists of the world are waiting to pounce on every subpar show and film they can get their hands on, and I mean, so am I. Right now we’re at the height of hate-watching season—in which obtuse, formulaic Christmas movies reign supreme—and personally, I’ve never been happier. But why? What’s driven us to the point where we’d rather watch Goat Story than Onward?

I think we just need a place to put our anger. Not to get too existential in an essay that name-dropped Dance Moms in its introduction, but we are very small people in a very big world, and we’ve been handed a lot of things to be angry about with no way to fix them. Like, I can’t do anything about American healthcare. I can vote, and protest, and donate to my friends’ top surgery GoFundMes, but it all feels like trying to find my way through a very dark cave with a single match. The match is going to burn out, and it only lit up the couple inches in front of me, anyway. But when I turn on Misfits and watch Nathan Young’s “look at yourselves! You’re wearing cardigans!” speech for the fiftieth time… Well, I’m still in a dark cave, and the match is still going to burn out, but it’s really goddamn funny. You can’t do anything about the fact that Robert Sheehan really delivered that monologue on international television, but it doesn’t matter! It’s utterly terrible, and you can hate it with a passion, and it won’t affect your life at all outside of the fact that you just wasted an afternoon on Hulu! And I think that’s beautiful.

None of this is to say that bad TV is good, or that we shouldn’t be critical of the media we consume. Misfits is a deeply problematic show. Supernatural killed off or outright censored every queer character it had. I am in no way telling you that those things should make you angry in an unfunny kind of way. But the rest of it is free reign. We live in a world that tries to turn everything we do into something productive—feeling angry being one of those things. And while anger at the state of the world is necessary, I think it can be a form of resistance to feel it in a way that is completely unproductive. The absurdist anger that comes with hate-watching isn’t helping anyone, but it isn’t hurting anyone, either. And it’s a fun way to spend an evening. So while I’m not recommending Supernatural in any capacity, I am recommending the catharsis that comes with warming your hands over a garbage fire.