A Defense of My (Very Picky) Taste
I’m sure many of you think that I hate everything. This isn’t true, but I certainly understand why you would think that. It doesn’t help my case that I love to write about things I hate. (I even use the word “hate” too liberally. I don’t hate AMC’s The Killing the same way I hate, say, neo-Nazis, but I use the same language to describe them both. I have a tendency to indulge in melodrama, hyperbole and absolutes.) Things I hate are just more fun to write about, and thus most of my writing about pop culture deals with trash, crap, guilty pleasures, or whatever else is making steam come out of my ears that day. Describing something that’s good (or even worse, just okay) is difficult, and frequently uninteresting.
I’m also just really fucking picky. In order to sleep well at night, I need a very precise environment to be created. It must be dark. It must be 68 degrees Fahrenheit. I must have a fan blowing to provide white noise. I don’t have a long list of environmental parameters, but the ones I do have are damn specific. I’m the same way with pop culture.
A show has to hit three main points for me. It must:
1. Have a hook that can be explained in one sentence. Think about it: every great TV show has a simple hook. It’s the one or two sentence description that was pitched to network executives. Breaking Bad: “a high school chemistry teacher develops terminal cancer and starts cooking meth to provide for his family when he’s gone. Trouble ensues.” Fuck yeah, I’m watching that show. Mad Men: “Ad executives in the 1960s deal with society’s changes.” Sounds great. Where do I sign? The Sopranos: “A mob boss struggles to keep his personal and professional lives separate in modern day New Jersey.” I’m on board.
It works every time. There are few shows that can’t be broken down like this. (Except for Lost. Good luck explaining Lost to someone who has never seen it. You sound like schizophrenic homeless person, talking about smoke monsters, Egyptian statues and an island that causes infertility.)
2. Bucking formula/predictability. This is a matter of taste, but isn’t all of this? I don’t watch TV for the pleasures of escapism. If I did that, I would never switch off the USA Network. I need my TV (and all the art I absorb) to wring emotions out of me, whether I want it to or not. I want to be shocked and a little mistreated by it. I don’t like being coddled within the warm and fuzzy confines of predictability and formula. I need the sick thrill of surprise.
3. A measure of reality. I love reading fiction books, but as soon as they cross into the realm of fantasy, I’m out. I need my art and entertainment to be grounded in a world that I recognize. It wouldn’t mean a thing to me if it wasn’t. A degree of plausibility must be maintained. (Once again, the obvious exception is Lost. I was invested in that show the way you embrace the madness of a bad acid trip. Just gotta ride it out, man.)
So those are my parameters for a TV show. Not a lot meets those expectations, but when it does I will stick with that show through hell or high water. But I can’t roll with sub-par entertainment for long. Some people are able to shrug off an awful movie or TV show. Not me. After a terrible movie, all I can think about is how I’m two hours closer to my death than I was before I watched it. I get angry and sad about that lost time. This is why I rarely see movies in theaters, and only when the critical consensus is overwhelmingly positive. I don’t want to be trapped in a movie theater with a shit picture. I’m also pretty cheap. I wouldn’t walk out of a three hour long clown-snuff film if I paid full price. (I don’t know why I would’ve paid full price to see a snuff film in the first place. Don’t ask so many questions. It’s my hypothetical!)
I have a tendency to be more critical of TV, in particular, because I love it so much. TV is the closest a visual medium can come to telling the kind of grand, sweeping epics usually reserved for 600-plus page novels. I’ve seen the heights the medium can reach (The Wire, The Shield, Breaking Bad) and I don’t understand it when other shows can’t match them. “Look at them and do that,” I think rather petulantly, as if it’s that easy to just create an enduring masterpiece. If I lash out at shows like The Walking Dead or Hell on Wheels, it’s only because I want them to succeed so badly, and I know they can. It’s all the more frustrating when you see glimpses of promise that go unfulfilled. I’m like an alcoholic hockey dad screaming at his kid in the post-game parking lot or getting into pushing matches with refs. I do this because I care. I will never root for the failure of a show (reality TV excluded). But when it happens, I won’t just let my disappointment fade, either.