When I first heard about HBO’s series Vinyl last year, my head nearly exploded with rapturous anticipation. A drama about the music industry in the 1970s, created by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese? And starring three of my favorite actors, Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde, and Ray Romano? And intermingling its fictional musicians with actors playing real historical figures, like Robert Plant, Andy Warhol, and Karen Carpenter? It was an Almost Famous fan’s dream come true.
Then, I watched.
I liked the pilot episode, but then again, I was primed to like it, Scorsese directed it, and I’d had some wine.
Hate-watching is not the same thing as reveling in a guilty pleasure
As the series continued, however, the dread set in. How did we end up with yet another plot about murder and mob ties? And, good lord, how could a murder be this boring? A show that began with such potential ended up with its sole bright spot being a recurring Donny Osmond joke.
And yet, I watched. Every minute, through its 10 episodes, to the bitter end.
Despite the embarrassment of rich, beautiful storytelling on TV, many of us indulge in exactly this sort of time-wasting habit: hate-watching has reached new heights. Fed by almost endless options for shows to watch, bolstered by the snark contest that social media has become, viewers now regularly revel in finding plot holes and analysing awfulness just as much as they delight in quality programming. Mystery Science Theater 3000 became a cult hit in the 1990s with what seemed like a bizarre concept at the time: showing characters watching terrible sci-fi movies and picking them apart with acid commentary. Netflix recently revived that series: the perfect encapsulation of our televisual times. Now, viewers across the world regularly commune online, like a giant communal Mystery Science Theater, to compete over who can craft the cleverest put-downs of The Newsroom, Smash, Glee, Nashville and dozens of other shows.
Hate-watchers exhibit the symptoms of fandom – watching every episode, micro-analysing it with other viewers – while still abhorring their targets on a rational level. This behaviour parallels haters in other genres as well: the ones who, for instance, love to point out Taylor Swift’s most annoying lyrics or post audio of Britney Spears’ worst vocal performances and the ones who pick apart Fifty Shades of Grey (the book or the movie will do). Such cynics made the obscure film The Room, known as “the worst movie of all time,” into a cult hit, which eventually spawned a behind-the-scenes book, The Disaster Artist. The James Franco-directed film adaptation of The Disaster Artistis, appropriately enough, making the festival rounds this year to enthusiastic reviews. Welcome to the Hate Age.
You’re getting pleasure from figuring out why it’s not giving you pleasure – Joli Jensen
To be clear, hate-watching differs from other types of less-than-loving consumption. It’s not enjoying a ‘guilty pleasure’ – a piece of work the viewer knows isn’t high art, but likes anyway. (Think Strictly Come Dancingor a fluffy comedy.) It’s not watching for sheer schadenfreude or voyeurism, like one might when tuning into Keeping Up with the Kardashians or any number of trashy reality shows. A hate-watcher is picking apart a show she thinks she should like, and trying to figure out why she doesn’t; a genre or a creator she normally respects, and trying to figure out what went wrong this time; or a piece of work that seems intended to be great but falls far short. Hate-watching is, therefore, an advanced form of fandom in an era defined by the power of fandom. “It’s a form of expertise, just like fandom is a form of expertise,” says Joli Jensen, a media studies professor at the University of Tulsa. “You’re getting pleasure from trying to figure out why it’s not giving you pleasure.”
And because hate-watchers are counted the same as love-watchers in ratings, shows can become hits if enough people hate them enough.
A history of hate
Hating as a form of fandom has been around for longer than television itself. Classical singer Florence Foster Jenkins drew crowds who wanted to hear her notoriously terrible singing in New York high society during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Her fans included songwriter Cole Porter – who obviously noticed how out of tune she was. Poet William Meredith wrote that what Jenkins “provided was never exactly an aesthetic experience, or only to the degree that an early Christian among the lions provided aesthetic experience; it was chiefly immolatory, and Madame Jenkins was always eaten, in the end.” She may have been eaten, but she was a pioneer in cultivating hate-fandom, so much so that Meryl Streep was nominated for an Academy Award for playing her in a 2016 biopic.
Since Jenkins’s time, plenty of pop culture figures and works have evoked hate, though perhaps our current age of hate began in 2005 with the online hype over the movie Snakes on a Plane – snarky bloggers made such fun of its overly literal title that distributor New Line commissioned reshoots to incorporate their suggestions to make the film “so bad it’s good”. It turns out it was just so bad it was bad, but the ‘buzz’ around the film did signal a new era in which passionate mockery could stand in for positive word of mouth if harnessed correctly.
Social media would drive hate fandom like never before. Amateur pop singer Rebecca Black became an instant phenomenon – and punchline – when her self-made video for a grating pop song called Friday went viral in 2011 (with a big assist from MST3K comedian Michael J Nelson calling it “the worst video ever made” on Twitter). The “worst painting ever” – a badly botched restoration of a Spanish church’s Jesus fresco – became a world-wide sensation in 2012.
Surely the Fifty Shades of Grey craze of 2011 owes at least as much to its haters as to its unabashed fans. An entire blog post genre is dedicated to Fifty Shades Hate, and it’s full of much more vibrant writing than the books themselves. One example, from Samantha Vincenty on Bust: “If Anastasia Steele bites her lip one more time, or if her friend José says ‘Dios mio!’ again, or if Christian Grey doesn’t stop running his hands through his copper hair, I am starting a fire and then throwing this book into that fire.” Such internet snark didn’t stop the book series from becoming an equally snark-inducing hit movie in 2015.
Profiting from scorn
By 2012, widespread mockery had become such a common strain of fandom, particularly in the ever-more-crowded realm of television, that it needed a name. New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum is believed to have coined the term “hate-watching” in her 2012 piece about the show Smash, a much-hyped drama that takes place behind the scenes of a Broadway musical. In it, she confesses to watching the show long after figuring out that she loathed it, “huddling with fellow Smash addicts” on Twitter: “I mean, why would I go out of my way to watch a show that makes me so mad? On some level, I’m obviously enjoying it.”
US network NBC learned to capitalise, knowingly or not, on this trend toward hate-watching when, in 2013, it launched its annual tradition of staging live musicals. The first production, The Sound of Musicstarring country singer Carrie Underwood, was a critical mess, due mainly to Underwood’s stilted acting – but Twitter loved it, and so did the ratings. The next year, the network seemed to lean into the ‘bad is just as good as good’ idea, casting Girls star Allison Williams as the lead in Peter Pan. Williams, a veteran of vehement hate thanks to Girls’ lightning-rod status, knew what she was in for: she blatantly pleaded with fans not to hate-watch the production. Twitter largely ignored her request, and NBC had another hit on its hands.
Now almost every dedicated TV fan has a hate-watching habit or two - in addition to the requisite guilty and voyeuristic pleasures. A casual Facebook survey among my American friends – a group heavily into television – revealed a few big reasons for hate-watching. Often, we’re overly loyal to a show we once loved, and like a lover clinging to better times, can’t stop trying to figure out what went so wrong. Some turn hate-watching into a game, like this Scandal-hating friend of mine: “It's like a Where's Waldo game of trying to find people on the show who I can stand even a little.”
“Today’s media culture is one of constant mockery and cynicism and evaluation,” Joli Jensen says. “Social media has made us all creators, in a sense, so we feel like we have more of a right to be snotty about someone not doing it as well as we think they should. We feel more entitled to judge and critique.” If only we knew how close our hate is to love.
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