Maybe it’s because I’m a TV critic, but my “what are you watching these days?” questions to friends and acquaintances are often initially met with a disclaimer. “Oh, I know this show is bad, but …” or “You’re going to judge me, but …”
Reader I say unto them what I say unto you now: Free yourself! There is no such thing as guilty pleasure TV, because if you enjoy a show you shouldn’t feel any guilt. (Unless that show is actually some kind of mysoginist, racist piece of trash. They are out there!)
The fact that there is still great TV during a pandemic with production shutdowns goes to show just how deep the treasure veins of Peak TV really go. And that isn’t even considering, of course, the growing number of series available to stream. Because TV is now taken seriously though, there’s a pressure to spend your time watching something deemed worthwhile, or important, or part of the “Prestige TV” canon. It’s like feeling compelled to read a dense literary classic rather than a poppy beach novel. But keep in mind that the best TV shows (and classics of all kinds) are also first and foremost entertaining. They are meant to be!
I put the blame squarely on “Prestige TV,” which has so often taken the joy and entertainment out of television viewing. As I have written about many times in the past, “drama” can mean hope, joy, and happiness as often as it means grimdark, dour, and violent. Many TV shows wishing to be taken seriously forget that first part. Somehow, positivity or tears of joy are equated with a less serious or important experience. That is nonsense. If you aren’t enjoying watching a show, I don’t care how many movie stars are in it or how many promos the network aired or how many people breathlessly praised it on Twitter—get rid of it. If you want to watch a trashy show instead, you should. I do!
Criticism and curation is important in this vast sea of content because the hope of any (good) professional connoisseur of television is to make sure you don’t waste your time. It’s not about “I could have been watching something better,” it’s that you could have been watching something you actually enjoy. Pre-Peak TV, I used to be a completionist. No matter how bad the show got, within reason, I would stick it out. That time is long over. There is so much great television, entertaining television, television that understands how to be smart and funny and dramatic and intense and silly that you need not waste time on ones that aren’t. I have very little patience for shows that “get good” after a few episodes (or a season!) Not when there are so many that don’t need the lead time.
The same is true for comedies, which people often sheepishly tell me they are bingeing. Huzzah, I say, to you! Enjoying Schitt’s Creek? Soothed by your fifth re-binge of Parks and Rec? It’s comfort TV, it’s literally meant to make you smile. Let it!
But look, we’re not always in the mood for shows that are objectively good. Yesterday, instead of a bevy of screeners for objectively better shows, I chose to watch the new season of Marcella on Netflix. Marcella is a British crime show that started off with some merit and went off the rails so quickly and so completely that it was astonishing to see. (The same is true for the show Doctor Foster, and I could name so many more). These series have short seasons, feature British rural settings that I can’t get enough of, include pulpy central mysteries and lead actresses I really like, and make almost zero sense. It is true TV junk food, and perfect for what I required in that moment. Could I have watched something “better”? Absolutely. Did I enjoy this insane binge journey I took anyway? You bet.
Again, this is not to discredit excellent series doing the work of being informative, maybe even educational, as well as being captivating and worthy of every “play next” (another Netflix show, Unbelievable, comes to mind). But if you want to binge the Real Housewives of New York instead, you will not be judged. The world is really tough right now, reality has kinda been broken for most people, and we have no sense of how to plan for or cope with what’s next. Great show or total mess, it’s a brief escape. The bottom line: Finding a little TV pleasure should never make you feel guilty.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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