yelling at the screen
my love affair with bad tv
It’s 10 a.m. in New York City in the middle of August, and I’m hungover. My friend and I have planned for this: We bought pizza last night so that we could eat it cold today, plus she’s got a bottle of atrocious wine in her fridge. There’s only one thing left to do—sit down, bring up Netflix, and turn on Lucifer. Comfort food and “hair of the dog” are classic hangover cures, small steps back toward humanity; it’d be easy to assume that the mind-numbingly sensational police procedural functions similarly. Basic visual stimuli and unchallenging storylines ought to gradually rev our brains back into fighting shape, but, far from a slow recovery, we’re jumping up and down and yelling at the television within minutes. This injection of bad TV isn’t a gentle wake-up; it’s a slap in the face to get us agitated enough to go out and take on the world.
We’re not the only ones with a passion for bad art. I’ll never forget being 13 the year my grandpa first discovered Mob Wives; ever since, he’s loved nothing more than to giggle at the antics of those terrifying Staten Islanders. The constant drama and over-the-top personalities are a wild contrast to his quiet New England life. But, mostly, the awful artwork we love to watch takes itself seriously, or at least appears to. If it was meant to be laughed at, laughing at it would just be passive reception—nothing with which to make our own fun.
Of course, you can’t throw a stone these days without hitting a negative review, with YouTube channels like CinemaSins poking holes in the newest blockbuster films and TV series almost daily. However popular, there’s something joyless about that sort of takedown. When I’m watching an episode of Zoo, I will often literally roll on the floor laughing and audibly yell at my TV—especially if I’m watching with a friend. It’s not just a pastime, but an activity, and a communal one at that.
What we’re doing isn’t formal criticism, not really. I’m not bashing any of these TV shows for an audience, because I don’t particularly care if anyone agrees with me, and more importantly, because I don’t actually hate them. Hate implies wanting them to go away, or at least to change. If my rage at these terrible plotlines could change anything, it would either get these shows cancelled or improved. As much as I’d love them to improve for their own sake, neither of those outcomes is what I want when I’m turning wide-eyed to my friend after the latest shark-jumping extravaganza. This isn’t about me wanting to change the world; as curious as it sounds, it’s a form of self-expression. It’s in the tradition of a Rocky Horror Picture Show shadowcast or a screening of The Room where everyone throws spoons at the screen, with the key difference being that my banter is all improvised. I’m not trying to participate in a tradition or join a mass of people united against these works, but rather, to explore for myself and revel in the laughable treasures I find along the way.
I can pin my discovery of this practice down to one moment: My friend Betty and I, bored at her house in the summer of 2017, decided to watch the 2006 film Zoom—a family-friendly superhero movie starring Tim Allen. I’d seen the film as a kid and remembered only that I had loved it (literally, nothing else), but Betty warned me it was terrible. I took her on—I’d find out exactly how much my taste had changed, if at all. I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t.
Zoom is a masterclass in how not to make a movie. It could be thought of as an extremely early prototype of the gritty superhero flick. When it opens, Tim Allen’s title character has lost his superpowers and is incredibly jaded toward the government testing that has turned his (formerly superheroic) brother evil. This attempt at nuanced morality clashes with the absurd comic book logic that Zoom’s brother could even be turned “evil” by science experiments. The film makes a point of explaining that this is a moral turn and not a mental one. He isn’t warped by rage, his reality isn’t distorted—in this world, good and evil simply exist, and he got switched from one to the other. Meanwhile, the superhero kids that Zoom spends the entire film mentoring to take down the bad guys each perform exactly one action in the film’s finale; their entire existence is a Chekhov’s gun that holds only a single, irrelevant bullet. Zoom, for his part, regains his super speed when the youngest kid—an adorable little girl with super strength—is in danger and he rushes in to save her. His explanation for this rediscovery is that he finally really needed his powers… as if saving his brother and fixing the most traumatic part of his life had not been reason enough.
This was only the tip of the iceberg, but it marked the beginning of my love affair with bad TV and film. I had more fun critiquing this movie with Betty than I ever had worshipping it as a child. We laughed until we cried, several times over. I wrote the above summary of our findings not as a screed against Zoom, but as a means of reproducing the joy I felt upon saying them the first time. I wouldn’t want the film to be any different, or risk losing any of that enjoyment in translation.
When my friend Jonah and I began watching Zoo later that summer, we did so unironically. We were thrilled by the premise. A reversal of the food pyramid? How it would feel if humans were no longer on top? Equal parts terrifying and fascinating. When they announced that the animals’ increased intelligence was due to a mutation giving them “triple helix” DNA, we realized we were leaping into the deep end of pseudoscientific gobbledygook. Rather than turning off this ever-descending drivel, we instead chased the same rush that Zoom had given me a couple months earlier: I let the commentary fly. The same thing happened with The Flash the next summer, and Lucifer the next, which brings us to today. It’s now a time-honored tradition for me to pick a terrible show each summer and revel in it.
So often I define myself by the things I enjoy, works of art that are actually outside of me. This critical habit, on the other hand, is totally mine. These terrible TV shows bring me closer to my friends while challenging me to figure out exactly what is going wrong, as well as the most enjoyable way to express it. Maybe bad TV is too commonplace to be worth writing about, but commonplace or not, it’s comforting to know I can enjoy something like Lucifer in my own company, even when I’m at my loneliest. Now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be browsing Netflix…snarkily.