Aaron Yap reflects on his own recent hate-watching of Arrow, Under the Dome and Catfish, and attempts to get to the bottom of this bizarre viewing phenomenon.
I’m currently watching Arrow and I sort of hate it.
It’s the first of the current, intimidatingly large batch of superhero shows I’ve dipped into. An adaptation of a character from the DC stable (for non-comic book readers: they’re the guys who’re not Marvel), the show is about a hunky billionaire playboy named Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell). He reinvents himself as a Batman-by-way-of-Robin Hood vigilante after being left shipwrecked on an island for five years.
Arrow boasts some pretty solid, appealingly varied action. It’s sharply choreographed, mixing brutal martial arts, gravity-defying parkour, high tech gadgetry and good ol’ archery. I’m just not so sold on everything else.
Perhaps I’ve become too conditioned by subtler cable programming, and now expect similar sophistication from traditionally emphatic network TV – but boy does Arrow love hammering things home. The cheesy, annoying, one-dimensional characters (Angry Overprotective Cop Father), the forced humour (everyone’s wit and sarcasm constantly on full blast), the ghastly exposition-loaded dialogue that treats viewers like amnesiacs (gotta reel in those casuals!).
The biggest thing I’m having trouble getting over is Amell’s incessant, leaden voice-over. Obviously an attempt to ape the broody tone of Christian Bale’s Batman, it constantly spoon-feeds the audience everything his character is feeling and thinking, rather than showing it. It doesn’t help that Amell is incapable of injecting the requisite gravity to combat hilariously portentous lines like, “you asked me to save the city, to right the wrong. I will, I swear, but to do that, I can’t be the Oliver that everyone wants me to be, which means that sometimes…to honor your wishes, I need to dishonor your memory.” (Arrow spin-off The Flash, which I’ve also started watching concurrently, is more successful at this, just by being a lighter show)
Yet with these issues, I persist. I’m determined to soldier on, watching each episode, gritting teeth whenever it does something irksome.
The entry for hate-watching in Wiki defines it as “a neologism for watching a television show while simultaneously hating its content or subject.” But the approach to hate-watching will differ from viewer to viewer. Jezebel takes the mockery angle — you’re watching the show simply to make fun of it — while Entertainment Weekly draws a clear distinction between hate-watching and guilty pleasure (“You wouldn’t tune in every week to hate-watch a really ‘bad’ reality show”).
My requirement for a show to qualify as a hate-watch is the element of pain. It has to be an endurance test at some point. You may not entirely hate the whole show, but there has to be large portions when watching it is a complete chore. Moments that make you squirm in your seat, slap your head or feel compelled to throw things at the screen. But I don’t subscribe to the “so bad it’s good” line of thinking. That’s altogether another type of entertainment, one that reaches a state of sublimity that neutralises any form of pain.
So why hate-watch? Why would anyone want to invest all that time and energy on something they patently dislike? For the critic, the simple answer is it’s valuable. If you’re in the business of writing about TV or film, it’s not especially constructive to just watch the “good” stuff. Watch everything. You gotta watch the mediocre. Even seek it out. The more you watch, the better you’re positioned to contextualise and speak with authority. There’s enormous value in seeing the larger picture. No piece of art stands on its own.
On a more personal level, I tend to be drawn to hate-watching crappy genre shows with ambitious, unsustainably high concepts. Partly because I’m forever searching for the next cosmic long-arc mythology to fill my Lost/Fringe void, and partly because I’m just a sucker for mysteries, puzzles and plot twists. And the twists don’t even have to be good. Sometimes it’s fun to watch whatever random bullshit the writers have concocted in order to keep us guessing and hanging for the sake of it.
I sat through the ungainly, tortured narratives of one-season sci-fi debacles FlashForward and The Event because they hinged on mysterious seismic occurrences which I was desperate to get answers to. Of course, no satisfying pay-offs were to be found. Two seasons of suffering through its inconsistent characters, arbitrary plotting and general abject awfulness, and Under the Dome continues to grip me, because, What The Hell is That Dome? I want to know dammit. Sometimes it’s base attraction: Helix and The Strain are mostly garbage, but they sure know how to give good slick gory thrills.
Like most people, I find myself inadvertently seduced by the trainwreck factor of reality TV. It’s the reason why I continue to tune into each sorry Groundhog Day-like episode of Catfish even if it’s lost its relevance and surprise 3 seasons ago. The recent local versions of The X Factor and The Bachelor definitely dredged up strong hate-watch feelings. I was undeniably fascinated, even entertained. But I struggled to conflate the dreamily sincere intentions of its participants with the gaudily manufactured premises of the shows (I bailed on X Factor around midway).
An upside to persistent hate-watching is the possibility that a show might, you know, turn out good. So here’s to 64 more episodes of Arrow, and the hope that I might hate it less somewhere down the line.
I watched three episodes of The Flash on the plane and am hooked… the Olsen Twins won’t be returning for Fuller House and John Stamos is “heartbroken”… David Lynch is back on board Twin Peaks and will be directing all 18 episodes… Kurt Sutter is following up Sons of Anarchy with 10-episode Middle Ages drama The Bastard Executioner for FX… Amped for the return of Hannibal next month – the previews look tasty.