Confused by our commitment
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is an odd one—have you ever had a case of what I’m calling Pop-Cultural Stockholm Syndrome? That is to say, you find yourself curiously addicted to some lousy TV show, pop song, etc. simply because it’s there? It seems like it’s possible to become absorbed in something you normally wouldn’t like, even if more intellectual/fulfilling options are right in front of you. Please let me know I’m not alone in this, as I’m still not sure why I’ve sat through marathons of multiple Law & Order series. —Zack Smith
You aren’t alone, Zack. We’ve talked in the past about guilty pleasures, here, but it sounds like you’re talking more about bafflement than guilt, and more about long-term commitment to something you don’t understand your addiction to, rather than a one-off thing you like in spite of popular opinion or your own analysis of the thing’s merits. I’ve just got one of those big “Why do I stick with this?” entertainments in my life: Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, the inspiration for the HBO series True Blood. I didn’t make it past the first DVD of True Blood—hated the fake accents and overacting and boring prurience and cartoonishly awful characters—but I read the first book out of curiosity about how they compared. And then I read the second one. And the third one. And now there are a dozen of them, and I’ve read them all. And I don’t know why. They’re simply written supernatural soap operas, they’re kind of vapid and country-friendly, and I don’t read anything else remotely like them. And I don’t understand the appeal. Maybe it’s because I never got into soap operas, and I have no immunities built up against them? Maybe it’s because they only take a few hours to read and they have a low-key, unchallenging junk-food appeal? One way or another, I keep tuning in to see what far-flung relative or supernatural being Sookie is going to catch up with next, as if that were actually fascinating.
I can tell you why I like a lot of the crap I watch, even though I should know better: Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo is funny, entertainingly edited, and strangely heartwarming. With Bridezillas, I am fascinated by women who behave like horrible little children, plus I watch it for old times’ sake, as my husband and I used to watch it as a cautionary tale before we got married. However, I cannot tell you why I tape and watch Intervention every week. It’s not like it applies to my life in any way (thank goodness), or that I enjoy watching people’s lives spiral into disaster while they bring everyone else down with them. I tend to hate those type of misery-shows, actually; Hoarders never does anything but depress me and turn me off. But for some reason, I am addicted to Intervention. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go tape my final interview for this documentary about addiction that I’m involved with. I predict it should go swimmingly, with no surprises.
There are any number of things about myself that I’m not proud of, but I never really questioned my value as a person until I realized I was 30 minutes deep into extra features on a CBS murder-show DVD. Stockholm Syndrome is a pretty perfect way to describe my addiction to Criminal Minds. I know it’s bad, but I love it, and I will always defend it. It started in college, as so many bad habits do, with a roommate who basically lived on our couch in front of a constant loop of Criminal Minds. If I wanted to leave my bedroom, I watched Criminal Minds. At the time, it drove me a nuts. I mocked the wooden acting and tawdry plots, not noticing that I was taking longer and longer to get back to my room. When I moved, I thought I was free of the BAU, but antennae only pick up so many channels, and Ion really does know how to stack up episodes of my favorite stabby show. Now I can’t stop. I’m not sure if it’s habit or a desire to know that somewhere, a fictional murder victim is having a worse day than me, but I get pretty cranky if I have to miss my stories for more than a week. I’ve gotten real nerdy trying to justify why I like it, but as Criminal Minds so often teaches us, human motivations are very complex. So I’ve come to accept who I am. The DVDs are perpetually in my Netflix queue, and my friends know only to refer to it by its pet name, Crimsy Minds.
“I have seen every single episode of HBO’s Entourage,” I mentally repeated to myself with some incredulity at various points throughout the series’ interminable eight-season run. There is no suitable explanation for this. I suppose there was some moment—perhaps one of those early episodes where Bob Saget dropped by as a pot-smoking sort-of parody of himself—when it seemed like the show might be on the verge of becoming a genuinely sharp showbiz satire, rather than a show that merely convinced itself it was a sharp showbiz satire to cover up how inane and obnoxious it was. (“See, we’re just making fun of how stupid and shallow and formulaic Hollywood is. Here are some self-aware tits!”) I also remember hanging onto the hope that eventually, everything would not work out for Vince and his crew, and the series would then become about their spiral into well-deserved obscurity and painful poverty. “That would be brilliant,” I often told myself while enduring another celebratory Heineken-clink aboard a private jet on the way to Vegas, baby. I stopped deluding myself right around the time Vince bounced back from rehab with his magical-dog script, but goddamned if I didn’t keep watching right to the end anyway. And if I’m being honest, it was probably so I could make fun of it more accurately. So I hope it was worth it.
Lord help me, but I love me some Storage Wars. A&E’s reality show shouldn’t stand out from the crowd, and yet something about it takes me through the two-hour marathons of episodes that seem to be scheduled six times a day on the network. I think I know the reason, however, why this show repeatedly draws me in. In a sea of scripted dramas that only occasionally promise something will happen, Storage Wars features almost nothing but things happening. Each episode features at least nine central events (three purchased lockers, three “unique” finds, and three appraisals) that, while highly scripted in and of themselves, nevertheless create a sense of momentum that rockets through each episode. Throw in the fact that each “character” on the show is lovable/hateable simultaneously, and you have a program that I have no time to watch yet constantly lose time watching.
I sometimes become stupidly obsessed with an artist whose work does nothing for me, because it sounds like something I’d love. For instance, I find most of the work of novelist and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer practically unreadable, but something about him—his intentions, his rough-hewn mystique, his taste in collaborators, his cool name—has driven me to waste several hours I will not get back reading and re-reading his hard-to-stay-interested-in prose stews. The last several years, I’ve had a real love-hate thing going on with filmmaker Larry Fessenden (Wendigo, Habit, No Telling). I think his movies are messes, and I don’t really think they ever get off the ground, but they’re independently produced horror movies made by somebody who clearly wants to do something different with the genre, and boy, does all that push my buttons. Every time I start to think I should just ignore Fessenden’s next movie, or at least not watch one of the old ones again the next time I stumble across it on the Sundance Channel, I remember Dave Kehr’s claim that Fessenden is making the movies John Cassavetes would have made if he’d been employed by Universal Studios during its classic horror period in the 1930s, and then I get excited all over again. Which really makes no freaking sense, because I don’t like John Cassavetes movies, either.
The one unquestionably awful show I will watch endlessly is Cops—I’ve literally watched six hours of it in a row. Why would I do this to myself? The show is exploitative and propagandistic, designed to appeal to the basest desires to rubberneck at other people’s tragedies and root for the “good guys,” even when they turn out to be not very good guys at all. Then there’s the fact that every single episode is basically the same thing—drunks and drug addicts, domestic disturbances, an occasional car chase, and the rare stabbing/shooting aftermath—over and over and over, even though the show has been on the air for roughly forever. I know all this intellectually, yet whenever I flip past it, I stop and watch it as long as it is on. I even used to stockpile episodes of it on my DVR and watch them in the background while I wrote, a habit I broke myself of only with a supreme exercise of willpower. Hey, at least I never got hooked by any of the infinite knockoffs—when it comes to following around LEOs with a camera crew, it’s the original or nothing at all.
My wife watches reality shows. Lots and lots of them. The ones that especially pique her interest are ones where a group of women fight tooth and nail with another group of women, usually over slights that men wouldn’t even blink over. The Real Housewives series is especially annoying, mainly because Bravo executive Andy Cohen seems to be giddily pulling the strings behind the scenes as his charges drink, fight, and curse at each other. But two of the Housewives series, New Jersey and Beverly Hills, are must-watches for me, in spite of my dislike of the series in general. Why? The Beverly Hills series hooked me with the nutty travails of one of my favorite ’70s kid stars, Kim Richards; I still remember her from Hello, Larry, for Christ’s sake. My relationship to the Jersey version, on the other hand, is more complicated. Sure, I can pick out most of the locations, since I don’t live far from where they shoot, but I’m also intrigued by the family dynamics of the show; unlike most of the other Housewives, this group actually has a history with each other. Plus, Teresa Giudice is a hoot to interview, as I found out last year.
Without a doubt, The Real World. I wasn’t even around when it was a “real” thing, circa the early ’90s, capturing young people grappling with the changing realities of adulthood: racism, AIDS, fickle taste in jeanswear, etc. But I came to understand this through viewings of other ’90s cultural touchstones like Reality Bites and Mr. Show, and through coming to terms with the crucial role it played in reshaping contemporary reality television. Then I started watching it, first as a guilty pleasure (though I was never really guilty about it), then out of sheer habit. And it’s terrible! There are no “issues” here. All the friction results from MTV shamelessly casting combative personalities and locking them in a house together to see whether name-calling, tossed chairs, and cat-fights result. Sometimes they do. But more often, all these people do is get drunk, eat Subway, and ride out the storm in an attempt to leverage their cutesy cast-member personas into more shit-work on MTV (shows like Road Rules and other “challenge” programming) serve to keep unemployable ex-Real Worlders employed, even if they’re being paid out in Beats By Dr. Dre headphones. A part of me knows I’ll always check in, switch off my brain (or hide it in the toilet tank), and sort-of-enjoy the routine bickering of the privileged, telegenic idiots that constitute Real World casts. But the current season is really testing my patience. I mean, can you believe the way Trey is playing Laura? Gah!
I love politics—and that fact alone should make me run screaming from MSNBC. Yet I can’t tear myself away. Alternately ham-fisted and shrill (except for when it’s both), the network’s political coverage wrings my brain into a perpetual cringe—even if (and especially when) I actually agree with the commentary being given. Granted, my general alignment with the opinions expressed by most MSNBC hosts and pundits is primarily ideological. When it comes to their delivery, though (like Chris Matthews’ mush-mouthed blather or Rachel Maddow’s screechy sarcasm or Chris Hayes’ hyperventilating wussiness), it’s as off-putting as the mental image of Clint Eastwood “doing that to himself.” So why am I always drawn to it? Is it some sick sort of accidental parody? Am I just a self-loathing liberal? Like the network’s many cut-rate commentators, I can’t coherently answer that question. All I know is, here I am, ready to switch on the motherfucking Ed Show and swallow MSNBC’s daily dose of knocking Fox News—by being exactly like Fox News.
I have given Will.i.am and his minions in Black Eyed Peas (The Other Guy, The Other Other Guy, Ex-Meth Lady) a lot of shit in these pages over the years. Hell, I pretty much created THEN That’s What They Called Music largely, if not exclusively, to give Will.i.am and Black Eyed Peas shit. Yet I must admit that something like Stockholm Syndrome has occurred between me and BEP. I’ve heard its songs so often that I’ve developed a strange affection for their sheer synthetic shamelessness and shiny pop craftsmanship. I have a fondness for “I Gotta Feeling” that falls somewhere between ironic and unironic while if Will.i.am’s collaboration with Usher, the immortally named “OMG,” with its Cole Porter-like champagne wit (“Honey got a booty like pow pow pow / Honey got some boobies like wow oh wow” goes a sample lyric) comes up on my iPod, I’m probably not going to skip past it. I love to hate BEP, but I’m fascinated by them all the same. So when it was announced that the quartet was going on an indefinite hiatus, I was part overjoyed, part sad. For the time being, at least, we won’t have Will.i.am and company to kick around anymore.
I like comic books, and I like Batman. The conception of the character is so simple—kid sees his parents die, trains himself to become a dark avenger of the night—but part of what makes him appealing is the way inventive writers and artists find so many variations on that simple conception. Trouble is, Batman is so popular right now—and has been for a while—that the demand for Batman product means a lot of not-so-clever, even awful variations on Batman hitting the shelves at any given time. Doesn’t mean I won’t read them, though. Not all of them, and not all the time, but I’ll sample most anything with Batman in it. Sometimes the bad stuff is compelling in its own way. I’m looking forward to reading the collected edition of Batman: Odyssey by Neal Adams. Adams has a long history with Batman dating back to the 1970s, when he brought a dramatic, illustrative sensibility to the stories he drew, a development whose influence continues to this day. But it’s an understatement to say his writing and art have gotten a little peculiar in recent years. I’ve only read a couple of issues, but I’m looking forward to digging into the whole thing. Lately, I’ve found the monthly title The Dark Knight, launched as a showcase for artist David Finch, compelling in its clumsiness. A recent issue found Batman chasing down an out-of-control muscle car heading directly toward a hospital nursery, a nursery located behind plate-glass windows on ground level, because that makes a lot of sense. Still, Batman is a lot like Bruce Willis: He’s in a lot of shit, but somehow emerges with his inherent cool intact.