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:
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...