When you spend a lot of time with someone, some of it is inevitably spent watching TV.
Over the years, my husband and I have watched a lot of TV together. We watch much less than we did in our early twenties. We were only boyfriends then. And like that era, our days of binging prestige are also over. Truly, we enjoy a lot of trash. This is time spent sweetly, in my eyes.
Naturally the buzz killing instinct needed for prose somersaulted into action. I was reminded of a tweet, apparently from New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, where he equates the masses watching “Eighty hours” of entire TV shows with “audiovisual gavage” and “a sign—or cause—of mass delusion.”
Geesh, how dramatic. Well, pace not pace Brody, but sometimes you don’t want French New Wave. Sometimes you want trash. And the inability to differentiate between different kinds of trash, or between trash and recycling, speaks to a souring lack of imagination. Think more like a raccoon. Rummage harder.
That’s not to say I’m always a willing participant with Husband’s suggestions. Hence the duress of the title. I was even more reluctant once. And the process works both ways: how many times have I pleaded for another terrible episode of Undercover Boss?
So I decided to rank the more memorable “gavage” Husband and I have enjoyed. I tried to balance my personal feelings about these shows and movies with their overall quality, import and cleverness. This list is testament that people’s tastes can and should mutate. We’re all capable of revising our aesthetic prejudices; most of us are just lazy. This works across any aisle of culture, high or low. Not that those directions work anymore anyway.
Besides, exposure is how we learn if we like anything at all. Case in point: I hated Lana Del Rey until I met Husband. She was going to be on this list, but she was out of place and, besides, would only put all else to shame. Let’s just imagine she’s singing these opening credits.
16. Scream Queens (2015-2016, created by Murphy/Falchuk/Brennan, FOX)
Camp as a psychic defense from all healthy human interaction. A wretched show. Even my husband couldn’t finish Season 2.
15. American Horror Story (2011-present, created by Murphy/Falchuk, FX)
Sublimation in art means suppressing impulse. There’s nothing like that in the works of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. They indulge every lurid detail and shocking fetish against a backdrop of repressive horrors (psychiatrists, nuns, clowns and so on). I understand the need for shows that feed the id. And that this one provides an ideal diet for certain queer audiences who grew up on spooky stuff. I just find the general depravity of the approach, paired with pretensions toward epic-ness, off-putting.
14. Scream (1996, dir. Wes Craven)
Despite my obvious advocacy of navel gazing in writing, the meta-ness of Wes Craven’s Scream feels trite to me. Ghostface lacks the solemnity of a Jason Voorhees. IMO, a silent devil is scarier than a wisecracking one. The most recent iteration was so meta it kind of folded back into being amusing.
13. Superstar (1999, dir. by Bruce McCulloch)
I can’t say Molly Shannon’s mock Catholic school teen comedy is a favorite, but I do appreciate my husband’s appreciating Molly Shannon. Superstar eventually lead us to watch Wild Nights with Emily, where Shannon plays spectacularly the premier American poetess Emily Dickinson with all the requisite lesbianism and passion. There’s also the episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, where Shannon learns her family came from a rock off the coast of Ireland and was unduly persecuted by the Protestants. Now that’s what I call Catholic!
12. American Idol (2018-present, ABC)
Good background noise, but place your focus elsewhere. Since we started watching in 2018, I’ve sighed plenty at the show’s attempts to puff up its importance. None of the post-reboot winners have achieved any serious relevance. It will likely never produce a Kelly Clarkson or a Carrie Underwood again. The current version of Idol is a Sisyphean task, with a budget as colossal as that immovable boulder. The judges, realizing none of it matters, are excessive with praise. The humor often lies in their exaggeration.
11. Once Upon a Time (2011-2018, created by Kitsis/Horowitz, ABC)
It was hard to remember how this show began until talking about it with my husband: A town is under an evil witch’s spell, and its inhabitants are all fairy tale characters who’ve forgotten their pasts and identities. Such audience amnesia is the fate of a popular show sentenced to too many renewals. Once’s main sin is endlessly summoning new Disney IPs with every half-season. The later seasons become redundant with plot, but the seventh is a soft reset. It’s also very messy, which makes it fun to watch.
10. Weeds (2005-2012, created by Jenji Kohan, Showtime)
This was probably the first prestige show Husband got me to watch. It starts from the premise of “soccer mom sells weed” and gets increasingly zany. As such it fulfills all the usual needs of the prestige approach: unneeded escalations. Successive shark jumps in later seasons. But there are moments of brilliance; the season six finale has stayed with me for years. I just wonder if that impact would translate sans the context—that is, the hours and hours of investment leading up to that point.
9. Girls Planet 999 (2021, Mnet)
I love K-pop, but I had to be convinced to watch this after we left the last K-idol competition show unfinished. (That one that ended up being rigged, lol). 999 brought together aspiring idol trainees from Korea, Japan and China to assemble a new girl group. There are many singing and choreography challenges along the way, each with aesthetic and sonic interest. The biggest flaw is the runtime; episodes can run over two hours. The padding in this show is mattress-thick.
8. America’s Got Talent (2006-present, NBC)
Like Idol, this show suffers from “judges too nice” syndrome. In fact it even offers emblematic proof that reality TV is a lot nicer now than it was in the early 2000s; look no further than Simon Cowell’s transformation from hater supreme to merely avuncular Brit. The acts are often repetitive, occasionally thrilling. What drops the overall quality is the judge chemistry. Howie Mandel and Mel B were hilariously neurotic together, but that magic, after several seasons of musical chairs amongst the judges, is now gone.
7. I Love Lucy (1951-1957, CBS)
I love my husband’s appreciation of older sitcoms. I was too hung up on mocking Full House as a middle schooler (that is: watching every night) to even consider anything made before the 1990s. But I Love Lucy is the nucleus of the sitcom form. The gags and bits are often unparalleled in their originality. Lucy, like her contemporary Daffy Duck, is a scheming narcissist who unfailingly gets herself into trouble. The true stuff of comedy. Maybe just don’t take your gender politics from this one.
6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003, created by Joss Whedon, WB/UPN)
I’m glad I was convinced to watch this. It was missing from my cultural education, and it’s honestly helped me to connect to people IRL. No point in laboring over how much of a touchstone this is; the storylines and characters are properly iconic.
5. Pretty Little Liars (2010-2017, developed by I. Marlene King, Freeform)
This teen mystery/drama is somewhere between soap operas and Twin Peaks, and it really is a gavage. Ridiculous amounts of information are hurled at the viewer every episode, most of it meaningless in the long run. The camerawork is often boring. The plots are helter-skelter, confusing, full of holes. This behemoth shouldn’t work, and yet it often does. Is it the actors? The excessive camp? I wouldn’t suggest you go watch all 120 hours of it, but this really is a titanic work.
4. Three's Company (1977-1984, developed by Nicholl/Ross/West, ABC)
John Ritter’s physical comedy as Jack Tripper is unparalleled, infused with a boyish stumbling that makes one empathetic. Jack’s nervousness, often the result of some stupid mistake, is relatable. The neighbors, whether the Ropers or Mr. Furley, are the essence of sitcom hijinks. Suzanne Somers’ Chrissy Snow is retroactively and subversively a sage. The show’s greatest demerit is upstairs neighbor Larry. His decidedly sleazy humor doesn’t hit right today. At least Jack’s horniness is mitigated by his constant bumbling—and his desire to be a somewhat decent man.
3. Halloween (1978, dir. John Carpenter)
I was so reluctant to watch this at first and I don’t know why, as Halloween (and its many sequels) are now among my cherished films. Like many a genre blueprint—in this case, the slasher—it is as much about atmosphere as it is plot. So many tense moments in this film rely on the push/pull of absence then presence, silence then noise. And it’s all composed with remarkable care and sensitivity. Picture, if you will, the dead leaves blowing across the asphalt of Haddonfield, Illinois.
2. America’s Next Top Model (2003-2018, created by Tyra Banks, developed by Mok/Barris, UPN/CW/VH1)
On one season opener of this modeling competition show, Tyra Banks tricks the finalists into thinking they’re going home. Then she reveals they’re actually this season’s contestants! Such elaborate gaslighting is only one of Tyra Banks’ many feats as host. Let’s just say she possesses an ego.
What thrills me in this show are the many moments of resistance from the models: girls who refuse to comply with challenges, who talk back to Banks or the judges, or who simply quit the competition. Equally iconic for me is a challenge where the girls are tasked with runway-walking across a busy New York street. It’s something I still think about when walking around in public.
Watching ANTM’s many, many seasons can be a deeply entertaining, even rewarding, experience. A true and notorious classic that crushes attempts at reducing its complexity.
1. Smiley Face (2007, dir. Gregg Araki)
Despite the title, lead Anna Faris’ face is constantly aghast here. This is not only one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, but a bright ‘Fuck you’ uttered to a miserable world. Its most hypnotic scene involves knowledge unbound as a certain radical book bursts open, sending its pages sailing on the wind. That spoiler shouldn’t ruin your essential experience of the movie, which is an excruciating rendering of the worst trip you can imagine.