Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Guilt TV

I define a "guilty pleasure" as something innocuous that you enjoy even though you think (or know) that it is wrong to do so. For example, salivating over the NCAA women's volleyball tournament is a guilty pleasure; tearing the appendages from insects is not. Another point I think it is important to make is that in addition to being innocuous, a guilty pleasure should be absolutely unironic. Now I enjoyed the first season of The OC as much as anyone but it was wrongly described as a guilty pleasure. Most people (myself included) appreciated it in a knowingly ironic sort of way, "I love how the show pokes fun at how trashy it is." That is just way too meta for something one "shouldn't" be enjoying. Guilty pleasures are not allowed to be self aware -- they should be legitimately enjoyed at face value.

To further illustrate my definition and application of the term "guilty pleasure," we shall use myself as a test subject. And let's stay within the medium of television since that is where the notion of guilty pleasures is used much of the time. I think it is safe to say that my taste in television programming skews toward the Pretentious Dickhead end of the spectrum, meaning that I believe the following list of shows to be examples of top-notch TV writing:

Battlestar Galactica
News Radio
The Wire
Arrested Development
30 Rock
The Office (BBC)

Essentially, I tend to like shows with high critical praise and low ratings (see: Pretentious Dickhead). So the way this typically works out is that my guilty pleasures are the inverse of what I openly enjoy, in other words bad television. What is a good, unironic example of this? Designing Women. I actually watch reruns of Designing Women on Lifetime every now and again and what can I say, I like the show. I guess there is just something about four perimenopausal southern white women with an indentured black manservant that speaks to me. However what this really shows is that I view a guilty pleasure as something to be looked down upon. Designing Women is a "bad show" and I therefore "shouldn't" like it because to do so goes against my very self-conscious self-image as an enlightened Pretentious Dickhead.

The reason I bring this up is because I was wondering what a guilty pleasure is from an alternative perspective. What does the average American TV-watcher consider to be his guilty pleasure? Even better, what does the average American anti-intellectual TV-watcher consider to be his guilty pleasure? Yeah, what does Sean Hannity like?

Mssr. Hannity should serve as an excellent test subject if only because I caught a bit of his show a couple of weeks back following the death of Jerry Fallwell. A point-counterpoint segment was featured with Ralph Reed openly fellating Falwell's alleged legacy while Christopher Hitchens went into one of his acerbic screeds accusing Falwell of treason and other high crimes and misdemeanors. Taking offense to Hitchens' statements and with no substantive counterargument, Hannity proceeded to dismiss Hitchens as a "pseudo-intellectual." An amusingly desperate bit of name-calling, I thought, but it nicely sets up Hannity as the straw man in my non-argument.

So let's assume that Sean Hannity is an Everybody Loves Raymond kind of guy. Or maybe King of Queens. OK just about anything on CBS; broadly appealing programming that the harsher critics (those jaded, pseudo-intellectual misanthropes) may dismiss but millions upon millions of Americans enjoy on a weekly basis. What then is this populist Average Joe's guilty pleasure? Now I imagine that there are some people who enjoy the thought of certain conservatives secretly indulging in their repressed, deviant sexual instincts. Perhaps Mr. Hannity does watch Sex & The City if only to see the "chick from Porky's" say cock thirteen times or go down on a gay guy, and perhaps he does feel "guilty" about it. But I don't think this qualifies as a "guilty pleasure" since he really is just indulging in a base desire (allegedly) that for business reasons he is forced to suppress throughout the workweek. No, his guilty pleasure would have to be something he "knows" he "shouldn't" like but cannot help but enjoy anyway. So where does that leave us?

Does this mean that his guilty pleasure would have to be some cynically high-brow pseudo-intellectual crap that he would never admit to watching? Would he secretly watch his DVD's of Arrested Development, snickering at all of the absurdly referential plot lines, or knowingly nod his head at The Wire's illustration of failed American drug policies? Is it possible that a guilty pleasure could be something "so good that it is good?" I think I just blew my mind...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Time keeps on tickin', tickin'...

I have often been told by a friend or an acquaintance that he or she has "outgrown" something. Whether it be X-Box Live, or Days of Our Lives, or body shots with strangers, when viewed in the condescending light of a new found maturity whatever "it" is, is no longer appropriate. The most frequent application of this phrase seems to be in reference to one's friends, "I don't know, I feel like I've 'outgrown' my friends." The inner analyst in me will always translate this to mean that, "I'm tired of getting fucked up as a source of amusement. I need classier friends."

Fair enough. I can certainly see how a social scheme that involves group drinking and whatever reprobate shenanigans ensue might be found tiresome by a portion of the population.

Fable #1
As a hypothetical, let's say that two friends find themselves somewhat over served at happy hour last Thursday. In a populist attempt to spread the joy, the two begin barraging a third friend with phone calls and text messages to join them on the Carpool patio as he resides a mere one block away. Now let's say that this third person is actually at home but studying for a professional certification exam which was far more important than the recently elapsed happy hour special on domestic draft. Never ones to be discouraged by a failed first charge, the two libertines skittered through traffic across Fairfax Drive to the 7-11 on a mission to bring the mountain to Mohammad. Six dollars later, Number 3 answers the knocking on his door to find two drunks standing in his hallway with bursting bladders and 120 ounces of malt liquor. The End.

The point of that rambling, Aesopian tale is that I do get how people can feel as if they have outgrown a group of friends. But that is usually a look from the top down. What about from the bottom up? Have you ever felt that perhaps your friends were "outgrowing" you?

Fable #2
For our second hypothetical, take the case of a large group of college friends who at one point in the mid-90's (think O.J. Simpson, Rusted Root, and Milwaukee's Best Ice) all lived on the 7th floor of a certain dorm at a certain university with a long name in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Through the mediums of softball, alcohol, and nuptial after nuptial, these friends managed to stay closely connected up to the present day. Among their group traditions is the annual pilgrimage to a friend's lake home where each Memorial Day weekend for the last seven years there has been much eating, drinking, and merriment. Like any living organism, the nature of this journey evolved over time as evidenced by people entering serious relationships, then marriages, and then child-rearing. As a reflection of this, girlfriends and then wives and most recently children began to join the annual festivities. To their credit, the lake trips remained as light-hearted and fun as ever even while many, well most, actually just about all had moved on to the Next Phase of their lives. With another couple getting engaged at the most recent Memorial Day trip the passenger manifest became firmly locked down with all of the regular attendees being either married to one another, engaged to one another, or "seriously dating" one another. That is of course except for the hero of our tale who is the consummate bachelor and the lone shot of singleness in this largely betrothed cocktail.

While he vainly enjoys the public attention his bachelor status yields at this event, upon reflection of the past seven years (especially in light of the most recent engagement) our hero was left to ponder, "Have my friends outgrown me?" For 99% of the group, the weekend at the lake serves as a respite from the stresses of home, hearth, and family offering an opportunity to imbibe and revel in the days of yore. Our hero on the other hand approaches each year from an opposite route. He looks forward to his weekend at the lake as a respite from the intensity of his constant social solipsism (see Fable #1) which he views as his time to "dial it back" for a few days. Fortunately these two curves intersect at the same intended point but he wonders if this will continue to work out in the years to come. As more conversations turn to marriage and mortgage, will our hero have anything to contribute other than his cynically pragmatic philosophy of The Avoidance of Both? Perhaps no.

As long as he continues to look forward to and enjoy his days at the lake, his presence each year is assured. But it is hard to believe that this will continue on forever. To be 30 and still renting an apartment in Arlington makes a certain statement, whether it be subtle or overt, about how one plans to spend his off-work hours and it does not involve trips to Home Depot or Bed, Bath & Beyond irrespective of how much time you may have. That is not a judgement in the positive or negative but it does point to a future incompatibility with what may soon become your friends' family getaway.