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Not So Humble Opinion: June 20, 2012

Making Peace With Bad TV

There’s a show on the Food Network where pastry chefs compete for the title of “Sweet Genius.” Sweet Genius, hosted by cake maestro Ron Ben-Israel, challenges the chefs to make desserts with unusual ingredients like cactus, aloe vera, hot sauce and even baby formula. Nine times out of ten, the chefs try to hide the weird ingredients in some kind of batter or frosting, thinking they’ve beat the system, only to be devastated when Chef Ron says—with absolute, deadly seriousness—“I can’t taste the cactus in your cake….”

It’s incredibly silly and maybe even stupid, but I’m hooked: I love the show, and I even love watching Chef Ron stretch the concept of campiness to previously unheard of levels. It wasn’t always thus.

For years, I refused to watch anything on TV I considered vulgar, stupid or trashy (you might assume this led to watching very little TV, and you would be right.) I had Proust to read, pictures to draw, things to do; I had no time to spare watching mental Lilliputians humiliate themselves on national television for only the briefest taste of fame. I turned up my nose at all of it.

The seduction started innocuously enough. When I started visiting my boyfriend’s (now fiancé) parents, they would often have the latest episode of Top Chef playing in the den. Not wanting to be rude, I sat through an episode here or there, telling myself I wasn’t “really” watching it; I was just being social. However, casually watching the show if it happened to be on quickly changed to “Did you DVR the latest Top Chef?” I realized I’d lost the right to say I wasn’t really watching when I heard myself say things like “Richard’s passion for molecular gastronomy appears to be tempered by his appreciation for traditional cookery and bold flavors.”

Okay, so I liked Top Chef, but was that really so bad? It was something of a reality show, but if anything it was closer to a game show, and I had grown up watching Jeopardy! Top Chef is just like Jeopardy!, I told myself, only with sautéed foie gras instead of Daily Doubles and a supermodel subbing for Alex Trebek (who never should have shaved his mustache, but I digress.)

However, one day Hell’s Kitchen was on instead of Top Chef, and I had no conceivable excuse. For those who haven’t seen the show, it features foul-mouthed British chef Gordon Ramsay screaming his head off at a bunch of equally foul-mouthed (and often, dumb as bricks) line cooks over and over again. It was stupid; it was trashy; with Ramsay in a speaking part, it was automatically vulgar. I should have been appalled, but whenever Ramsay turned purple with impotent rage and began yelling “you DONKEY!” at someone for trying to serve him undercooked beef, I giggled. I couldn’t help it.

Having watched Hell’s Kitchen and admitted to enjoying it, at that point the floodgates were opened: I started catching episodes of Cake Boss, What Not to Wear, Say Yes to the Dress (and who could forget Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids?) Now, instead of trying to defend the things I watch as “not that bad,” I know I watch them specifically because they’re bad.

How can any reasonably intelligent person defend these shows when they’re usually mind-numbingly stupid? For me, I’ve realized that my mind sometimes could use a little numbing, because even things that are supposed to be leisure activities often turn into projects. I write about anime and scripted shows (i.e., those that have actual plots and characters and some semblance of production values), so watching most shows isn’t really relaxing; I enjoy it, but I’m always composing a piece in the back of my mind. I write about games too, so even playing a video game often involves too much thinking.

As much as I love to read, I also find that I just can’t do it all the time. A thought-provoking book can stay with me for weeks, keeping me up at night while my mind tries to process new information. Light fiction is something I also must consume in moderation: it takes up mental real estate that I don’t seem to have as much of as I would like. Sometimes I want to start reading a series, but the idea of making room in my mind for a whole new world of characters and locations is just exhausting. I can only care about so many things at once.

And that’s the beauty of bad TV: I’m never going to write a literary analysis of Hell’s Kitchen. It requires no permanent residence in my mind. Top Chef actually inspires me to cook sometimes, but pure laziness usually nips that in the bud, so it’s still almost pure relaxation.

All that said, this kind of television can be harmful. I shudder to think about those who make a steady diet of it without breaking it up with something more intellectual. Furthermore, it demonstrates and reinforces a culture of narcissism. Every reality show contestant seems to feel the need to stick out their chest and say “I’m the best, I’m awesome and I’m going to win!” because they were raised to believe that they are all Very Special Snowflakes; they apparently never learned that it’s better to be modest and let other people say nice things about you.

So yes, I realize there are problems with bad TV, even major problems if you consider it from a sociological angle. Yet, if I can find a place for it in my life— and whether I’m proud of it or not, sometimes I really do need that kind of mind-numbing relaxation—I can’t dismiss the possibility that other people might have good reasons for watching some of it too.

I still refuse to watch those Real Housewives shows, however; sometimes, you just have to draw a line in the sand. Arbitrary? Yes, but please allow me to maintain the illusion that I’m still above something.