5:19 PM CST, February 24, 2013
Anne Hathaway — insufferable, grating, insistently chipper, with those big stupid puppy-dog eyes and that dumb pixie hair, shocked, shocked, at the fortune and appreciation bestowed on her talented head, so rehearsed in her faux-humility, so rehearsed in her faux-uncertainty (“Thank you very much for this lovely blunt object that I will forevermore use as a weapon against self-doubt,” she barfed at the Golden Globes, after receiving an award she was assured of winning) — is wonderful.
Anne Hathaway makes for wonderful hate-watching. And when she inevitably wins the Academy Award for best supporting actress Sunday for her role in “Les Miserables,” as an unloved French peasant with no friends, the combustion of preening self-regard and lack of self-awareness will require a mass catharsis.
I know how this sounds: curdled, harsh and unnecessary. And yet I am far from alone. A recent headline in Canada's National Post — yes, Canada — read: “Why does everyone hate Anne Hathaway”?
There is a difference: Hating is a personal, ugly act, directed at someone, place or thing; hate-watching is an irrational, compulsive act that mixes satisfaction with disgust and often says as much about the person hate-watching as it does the object of their hate-watching. We hate-do all sorts of stuff now: Hate-drink Starbucks (familiarity breeds contempt), hate-read “Fifty Shades of Grey” (more out of cultural duty than interest), hate-purchase Apple products, hate-listen to Taylor Swift, hate-attend Lollapalooza. Hate-watching, though, is the only hate-whatever that makes sense.
I will now take your questions.
Q: What is hate-watching?
A: The term is a modern coinage, given traction by social media, for a behavior otherwise tough to explain: luxuriating in the perverse joy of habitually watching something that generates intense feelings of irritation. That something is usually an ambitious yet misguided TV series. Hate-watching, the act, has been around for years, but “hate-watching,” the phrase, is relatively new; Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for the New Yorker, is generally credited with popularizing the term, which captures an odd contemporary way of managing your recreation time. The phrase gathered steam in the past year, fueled initially by the steep drop in quality of the NBC drama “Smash,” then slid into overdrive with the debut of “The Newsroom” on HBO. It is not a fad; it is not planking, or the “Harlem Shake.” It is masochistic appointment viewing — a sought-out moment of perfectly rounded contempt, often expressed via Facebook or Twitter, you would not dare miss indulging.
You've heard of schadenfreude — pleasure found in the pain of others? This is telefreude.
Q: I want to hate-watch! But where to begin?
A: You're in luck: If you are coming late to hate-watching, the Super Bowl of hate-watching is the Oscars — nothing is responsible for more mass cultural aneurysms, and true hate-watchers would not have it any other way. (Incidentally, to specifically hate-watch Hathaway, begin with red carpet coverage, available on 17,000 channels.) As for weekly hate-viewing: “Smash,” “Girls” and “The Newsroom” make up the unholy trinity of hate-watching. Also, “New Girl” works well whenever Zooey Deschanel is around. Fervent conservatives might consider programming on MSNBC, just as committed liberals might flip to Fox News. The general rule is that a hate-watchable show is any show with pretense and outsize aspirations, and when it goes bad, it goes spectacularly bad. “The Newsroom” speaks loudly to the danger of giving Aaron Sorkin free rein to speechify. Just as the recently canceled “Boss,” set in Chicago, revealed the limits of mixing hard reality with melodrama.
Also, hate-watching requires being able to tell someone about your hate-watching — you take part so that you may complain enthusiastically later. Not unlike like having a job. If you find yourself fascinated (ideally, obsessed) by your own reaction to a show you compulsively watch anyway, you are already hate-watching.
Q: This sounds like having a guilty pleasure.
A: No, hate-watching a show is not the same as having a guilty pleasure. Traditionally you watch a guilty pleasure with an ounce or pound of shame — and shame carries a degree of cultural snobbery now. We arrived at TV hate-watching via evolution: First, before the remote control, we sneered from a soft couch; then we developed a sense of ironic viewing, the couch potato's prehensile tail (everyone has one and it does nothing constructive); then we embraced our guilty pleasures (around the time of “Melrose Place,” probably earlier); now we hate-watch.
If your hate-watching involves guilt, you are not doing it in the proper spirit. To be fair, this can be confusing: The divisions between hate-watchable TV, camp (delivered with a wink) and guilty pleasures (which generally offer no pretense of quality) can seem razor thin.
Reality TV, for instance, is rarely hate-watchable because it lacks brains and ambition. (As Susan Sontag wrote in “Notes on Camp,” her seminal essay on the aesthetics of irony, “when something is bad, it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition.”) But there is an exception — award shows. For instance, no one watches the Academy Awards expecting the show to be good — hate-watchable TV tends to be speedy and takes chances, two qualities you would never associate with a typical Oscar spectacular. And yet, the self-righteousness, the obliviousness and the unintended self-parody make up for it. Indeed, not unlike “The Killing” on AMC (very slow and hate-watchable), the Oscars offers long, empty spaces, perfect for live hate-watching.
Please note: A hate-watchable show that grows desperate for attention — “Smash,” the defunct “Grey's Anatomy” — poses a strong likelihood of abandoning pretense entirely and becoming a solid guilty pleasure.
Q: But isn't this the Golden Age of Television?
A: It is. In fact, hate-watching is a byproduct of a spoiled culture, awash in choices and television that aspires to greatness. You did not have hate-watching when your choices were “The Love Boat” and “Knight Rider.” Sorkin's “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” an early hate-watching touchstone, did not become reviled because it aimed low. Hate-watching happens when a series does not live up to its promise — but with flair, an outline of smarts remaining. It's one of the unsavory things about hate-watching, particularly when voiced on Twitter: Taken the wrong way, it discourages going out on a limb. Unlike a “Harlem Shake” video, where the joy is immediate, or “House of Cards” on Netflix, which dropped its season on viewers in one lump, thereby forestalling whatever decline we might feel compelled to hate-watch. An ambitious series playing out in real time leaves hate-watcher forever on vigil for that moment when the other shoe drops and Jeff Daniels drives them nuts.
Q: Can I just hate-watch a person, not a whole show?
A: A lot of fervent hate-watching begins with a character, not a series. No one hate-watches “Mad Men” — but January Jones' zonked-out Stepford Wife? I don't hate-watch “The Office” but I hate-watch Jim (John Krasinski), whose attempts at reinvention, at leaving Scranton, feel smart and smug. Likewise, Andy (Ed Helms), once a charming dolt, has deepened, grown disturbing — it's an ambitious stab at complexity, but hard to reconcile since the show seems uncertain of how we should be feeling toward Andy. The most hate-watchable character on an otherwise fine show, however, is Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath, who, like Dunham seems too aware of her own ambitions, position and self-awareness to feel natural. Which is partly the point. She is pushing you to dislike her.
Q: Is hate-watching really necessary? Who goes out of their way to watch what annoys them?
A: Ah, the biggest problem with hate-watching — who has the time? Hate-watching is deeply, understandably suspect. If, after working, paying bills, reading books, seeing movies, eating out, talking to people, answering email, tending to kids, cooking, cleaning, brushing teeth, planning for your future and watching TV without reservation, you still have time to watch TV that makes you mad, you are in love. You watch because you are a human being, and hate-watchable TV shows are troubled family members. An obligation is attached. Tina Fey, on the penultimate episode of “30 Rock,” captured this bind: “DVR at 98 percent. I am just never in the mood to watch ‘Treme.' OK, first things first, I'll watch a bunch of ‘Tremes.'” Similarly, it's easy to hate-watch, say, “Saturday Night Live,” when week after week flaws and aspirations go unresolved. You beat your head against that wall always.
Besides, to quote Russell Crowe in “Gladiator”: “Are you not entertained?”
Which … now that I think of it … not really — at least not by Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” — too somberly mediocre a display of angst to merit Grade-A hate-watching. But Russell Crowe in “Les Miserables”? Singing as the lawman Javert (“I am Javert!/Do not forget my name!”) delivering his low-register baritone with the bravura flatness of a Dakota road trip? A talented guy, pushing himself and way out of his depth?
I dreamed a dream, and, astonishingly, Russell Crowe is set to sing Sunday night. As Javert. At the Oscars. On live TV. Alongside Anne Hathaway. Hope-watch all you want, but I have an idea where this is headed.
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