This week’s question comes from reader Sam M.:
“It’s nice when our favorite shows become validated as having some level of quality. There are shows, though, that are just horrible in terms of critical quality and yet they have something in them we enjoy and engage with. What critically scorned TV show have you enjoyed watching, either in the past or present?”
I’m a secret sucker for reality shows in which angry men yell at failing businesses for doing their business badly. For some reason, I only watch them when I’m staying in hotels, but sit me down on a maid-tucked bed, stick a Bar Rescue or a Hotel Impossible in front of me, and I’m as happy as a pig in extremely poorly laundered sheets. Regardless of what critics might say, the best of these will always be Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, because out of all these neck-veined hosts, Ramsay is the best at swearing, and the least embarrassing when the episode inevitably gets to the boring redemption part that I usually just skip through. (Also, he’s very good at getting people so mad that they might hit him, without actually crossing that line, which is an underappreciated skill.) It might not be high art, but sometimes I just want to watch a British man scream at idiots because they fucked up cleaning their grease trap or seasoning a plate of fish. Sue me.
There’s so much great stuff on TV right now, I find it hard to fit in what I like to call “folding laundry” TV, which is the opposite: trashy and inconsequential. I know that nothing good can come from me watching any of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, and honestly, a lot of the fun of RHOBH left with Brandi Glanville. But just like with any gateway drug, I learned that I could go ever lower: Vanderpump Rules. While some of the Housewives tried to keep it together or attempted to act like adults (not Brandi and Kim, obviously), Vanderpump, with its focus on the completely unfiltered young servers at Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant Sur, makes no such supposition. The fact that they all seem to hate each other a lot just amps up the powder keg. It makes for a TV train wreck I find it impossible to turn away from. Will Stassi be a bitch? Will Jax be a dick? Will James be completely disgusting? Will I keep watching even after my laundry is folded? Yeah, probably.
The joke was that I became addicted to Intervention, the AMC show about people who are addicted—to alcohol, drugs, or deleterious behaviors like eating disorders. The show, which has been criticized for being exploitative, is beyond formulaic, beginning with showing how severe subjects’ problems are, then flashing back to their childhoods, with family members relating just how happy they were until some traumatic event—often unbearably sad—changed everything, seemingly causing their addiction, as though it’s ever that simple. Then comes the pre-intervention, the intervention, and the subject (hopefully) getting on a plane to a detox center in some sunny desert location. Like so many self-improvement programs, Intervention unrealistically condenses the kind of big changes that can take years to accomplish. And yet, I was so often taken in by the subjects’ stories and the cathartic moments that occurred not just within individuals but also among family members. Sometimes all it took for a young woman to stop shooting speed was her dad apologizing for being a distant jerk, or so the show would have me believe.
Every criticism levelled against Hoarders is accurate. There is nothing good about spying on the lives of people whose mental illness compels them to live in unsafe living conditions—destructive to every relationship in their lives—for entertainment. But lord, my house gets clean after watching an episode. Viewed often, it becomes uncomfortable clear that the seed of compulsive behavior resides in all of us, and it is only the capricious twins of brain chemistry and circumstance that prevent us from living in a small nest carved out of a suffocating mound of garbage. “Am I really ever going to make a sculpture with that empty five-gallon pickle jar I brought home from the coffee shop?” the show compels me to ask. Some of the worst excesses of this kind of exploitative TV are ameliorated by Hoarders’ staff of legitimately caring professionals, but there’s no way a lifetime of psychological turmoil and struggle is going to be resolved by the time that last garbage truck stuffed with 40-year-old calendars drives off. It’s both depressing and motivating.
I enjoy a lot of things folks consider objectively terrible, and since I’m pretty sure I have shouted out the train-wreck fascination of Couples Therapy before, that exquisitely voyeuristic exercise in bottom-feeding where celebrity shrink Dr. Jenn tries to save the broken relationships of toxic, terrible people by having them flaunt their psychological scars and deep dysfunction for the amusement of the viewing public. So I’m going to take this time to praise/condemn its spin-off show Family Therapy, which applies a similar approach to, you guessed it, family therapy. I was particularly fascinated by the family of eccentric, egocentric former Roc-A-Fella mogul Dame Dash, who all look and talk exactly like Jay Z’s old partner. It’s terrible, to be sure, but the kind of terrible that makes my tawdry little heart sing.
Allow me to step outside the reality-show stream and say something controversial, at least around these offices: I think Family Guy gets a bad rap. Since it began, the show has repeatedly been taken to task by critics—for tastelessness, for being emptily provocative, for an over-reliance on random “cutaway” gags or pop culture references, for lacking both the satirical focus of South Park and the heart of The Simpsons (or even Seth Macfarlane’s other, more socially accepted series, American Dad). And while I would never argue that these critiques aren’t valid, over time, Family Guy has evolved into something weirder and, dare I say it, more clever than its reputation suggests. Maybe it’s Macfarlane’s publicly expressed ambivalence about it running so long; maybe it’s the natural evolution of a show entering its 15th season; maybe it’s lingering resentment over that “manatees” joke from South Park. Whatever the reason, a sort of palpable exhaustion with its own continued existence seems to have crept into Family Guy, one that’s led to a lot of fourth-wall-breaking and a running, self-deprecating commentary on its own formulas that I find genuinely funny. With that has also come far less of an emphasis on strict adherence to big plots, many of which can be scrapped at a moment’s notice in favor of following some pointless, conversational tangent for far longer than you’d expect. (I’m a sucker for cartoons that make a show of wasting the limitless potential of animation.) In particular, whenever Family Guy stops the wackiness long enough for its best characters, Stewie and Brian, to just banter—most effectively, in its 2010 bottle episode, “Brian & Stewie”—the show becomes the kind of witty, sometimes surprisingly poignant comedy that most of us would rally around, if those moments weren’t immediately followed by fart jokes. Family Guy is by far the most hit-or-miss show in my repertoire, but nearly every episode has at least one or two jokes that make sticking around through the groaners worthwhile, and I just keep coming back.
I’m ashamed to admit the number of shows on this list that I’ve watched, and still not finished Fargo season two. Yet here I am, freely admitting that I’ve seen every episode of Ink Master, even the gimmicky seasons. I’m not really a tattoo person—I got my one and only tattoo more than a decade ago, and am not in a hurry to get another—but reality TV is all about stakes, and the stakes for the “human canvases,” as host Dave Navarro (God, this is so embarrassing) calls them, couldn’t be higher. It’s all the drama of a competition reality series, plus the rubbernecking thrill of looking at pictures of bad tattoos, all wrapped up into one aggressively, self-consciously edgy package. Compounding my shame at being a fan of this particular reality franchise is the fact that judges Oliver Peck and Chris Nunez were sued for sexual harassment by a former crew member on the show, charges which were mostly dismissed back in 2015. But, to be fair, the show made steps to correct its more bro-ish tendencies on its most recent season, with two women making their way to the three-person finale. Plus, sometimes you get to see people getting cool tattoos.
Let’s chalk up the amount of time I’ve spent watching Disney Channel’s The Suite Life Of Zack And Cody to the idle hours of the collegiate layabout, a creature with a four-year lifespan that will accept the emptiest of entertainments so long as it affords a respite from, you know, thinking. I’m not ready to mount some sort of defense of the kidcom that ran for 87 episodes between 2005 and 2008, though former TV editor Todd VanDerWerff used to love threatening me (playfully, I think?) with covering the show for TV Club Classic. But I will stick up for the comfort of its formula. The DNA of every Suite Life episode is identical: The titular hotel-dwelling twins (Big Daddy stars Dylan and Cole Sprouse) are told not to cause mischief in Boston’s ritzy Tipton Hotel. Inevitably, they do. Scattered around that mischief are a number of multicam archetypes, like the Tipton’s stuffy manager, Mr. Moseby (Phill Lewis); airheaded Tipton heiress and poorly aged Paris Hilton reference London (Brenda Song); and levelheaded candy-counter clerk Maddie (Ashley Tisdale). This is a dumb, unfunny show, deploying broad slapstick and familiarly farcical misunderstandings, but sitcom formula is my favorite form of kitsch. There’s one episode where Moseby pulls a Steve Bartman, causing the Boston Red Sox to lose a big game, and the nickname he picks up because of the incident—“the most hated man in Boston”—still puts a smile on my face. Plus, The Suite Life proved to be a fertile training ground for its young stars: Cole Sprouse is a hoot as Riverdale’s brooding-writerer-guy take on Jughead Jones, and I contend that some lucky TV writer is going to score an undying multi-cam hit when they write the right pilot for Song or Tisdale. (That pilot was not Dads, a critically reviled program that deserves all the reviling it got.)
It wasn’t until I was surrounded by fellow TV critics back in January that I publicly admitted to loving What I Like About You. (No, it wasn’t part of any hazing or initiation ritual; I just felt secure enough to own up to it, because I was with my people.) The WB sitcom that starred Jennie Garth and Amanda Bynes did its best Odd Couple impression early on, which, as you can probably already guess, did not work in its favor. Watching boho Holly freak out her square sister Val would bore even the biggest Amanda Show and Beverly Hills 90210 fans (hi), so the show wisely changed course. The sisters were still opposites, but the relationship became more complementary. The dynamic was reminiscent of Gilmore Girls, but with a greater emphasis on physical humor than sharp dialogue. I’m not really going to defend this against something like Gilmore Girls, of course, but I once had my DVR set to record blocks of WILAY episodes on Nickelodeon.