NEW YORK — All this time I’ve been hate-watching and I never even knew it.
Turns out, “hate-watch” is a fancy term for watching shows you don’t like but get perverse satisfaction from.
It goes something like this: You watch a show you wouldn’t choose to watch for any reason other than to mock it for its awfulness – say, by sharing snide Twitter exchanges with like-minded hate-watchers when the program airs.
Lately, hate-watching seems to have flourished at the expense of NBC’s drama-focused-on-a-Broadway-musical, Smash.
But as I think back through my years in front of the TV, I can’t recall a more pleasurable experience of what I now recognize as hate-watching than the long-ago Fox prime-time soap Melrose Place.
Just consider the following circa-1994 gem of dialogue, as Michael confesses sheepishly to Kimberly, “I don’t know how to say this, but ... um ... when I heard that you had died — y’know, grief and confusion — well, it’s just ... um ... I got MARRIED!”
Classic hate-watching content! Even back in those dial-up, pre-Web days, a howler like this line of dialogue could be savored communally, thanks to an innovative form of proto-social media: Mere hours after Melrose Place had aired, The Melrose Place Update” was ready and emailed to fellow fans by a twentysomething visionary in Bellevue, Wash., named Ian Ferrell.
“I think they’re making something cool,” Ferrell told me then, referring to the Melrose production team. “But I don’t think they have any idea what they’re doing.”
That is what makes hate-watching so delicious: An awfulness, and hence an inadvertent coolness, the program doesn’t know it has.
It was therefore left to Ferrell to deconstruct each episode, cataloguing its meaningful glances, its tearful “I’m sorry” confessions and all the scenes that culminated with sex — not to mention shining a light into its cavernous plot holes.
Ferrell (who today works at Microsoft) also welcomed other viewers’ thoughts on the show, such as this satisfied assessment from one Melrose regular: “It’s badly written, not very well-acted, and irresistible.”
These days, Smash is winning similar hate-love. A spirited discussion on a recent edition of Slate magazine’s Culture Gabfest podcast explored the term “hate-watch,” with Smash singled out as a glaring example. On Twitter, #hatewatching became a trending topic.
A scathing review on the New Yorker.com website was headlined, “Hate-Watching Smash.” On The Huffington Post, critic Maureen Ryan wrote, “When it comes to group hate-watching, Smash is the gift that keeps on giving.”
I must quickly add that I disagree with this particular position. I watched the entire first season of Smash, but never in hate-watching mode. I am pleased to say I love Smash, minority voice though I may be.
Even so, I’m all for taking a new look at appreciating TV – if that’s what hate-watching is. But what exactly is it?
Definitions vary, but Culture Gabfast framed the phenomenon as “celebratory” viewing “in an aggressive, nasty way.”
Among definitions volunteered by its listeners, this one sounds solid: “Hate-watching provokes feelings of outrage, indignation, contempt or loathing so intense they become pleasurable.”
This arms me with a new way to approach my TV consumption. And possibly a fresh way to find pleasure in shows I might otherwise scorn or avoid altogether.