NEW YORK — All this time I’ve been hate-watching and I never even knew it.
Turns out, “hate-watch” is a fancy term for watching shows you don’t like but get perverse satisfaction from.
Hate-watching is a sport that used to fall under the broad term “guilty pleasure,” but now seems retrofitted for the age of social media.
It goes something like this: You watch a show you wouldn’t choose to watch for any reason other than to mock it for its awfulness — say, by sharing snide Twitter exchanges with like-minded hate-watchers when the program airs. Collective delight.
Lately, hate-watching seems to have flourished at the expense of NBC’s drama-focused-on-a-Broadway-musical, “Smash.”
But as I think back through my years in front of the TV, I can’t recall a more pleasurable experience of what I now recognize as hate-watching than the long-ago Fox prime-time soap, “Melrose Place.”
Just consider the following circa-1994 gem of dialogue, as Michael confesses sheepishly to Kimberly, “I don’t know how to say this, but ... um ... when I heard that you had died — y’know, grief and confusion — well, it’s just ... um ... I got MARRIED!”
Classic hate-watching content! And even back in those dial-up, pre-Web days when “Melrose Place” was on the air, a howler like this line of dialogue could be savored communally, thanks to an innovative form of proto-social media: Mere hours after “Melrose Place” had aired, “The ‘Melrose Place’ Update” was ready and emailed to fellow fans by a 20-something-year-old visionary in Bellevue, Wash., named Ian Ferrell.
“I think they’re making something cool,” Ferrell explained to me at the time, referring to the “Melrose” production team. “But I don’t think they have any idea what they’re doing.”
That, of course, is what makes hate-watching so delicious: An awfulness, and hence an inadvertent coolness, the program doesn’t know it has.
It was therefore left to Ferrell to deconstruct each episode, cataloguing its meaningful glances, its tearful “I’m sorry” confessions and all the scenes that culminated with sex — not to mention shining a light into its cavernous plot holes.
Ferrell (who today works at Microsoft) also welcomed other viewers’ thoughts on the show, such as this satisfied assessment from one “Melrose” regular: “It’s badly written, not very well-acted, and irresistible.”
These days, it’s “Smash” that’s winning similar hate-love. A spirited discussion on a recent edition of Slate magazine’s “Culture Gabfest” podcast explored the term “hate-watch,” with “Smash” singled out as a glaring example. On Twitter, (hashtag)hatewatching became a trending topic.
A scathing review on the New Yorker.com website was headlined, “Hate-Watching ‘Smash.”’
And on The Huffington Post, critic Maureen Ryan wrote, “When it comes to group hate-watching, ‘Smash’ is the gift that keeps on giving.”
I must quickly add that I disagree with this particular position. I watched the entire first season of “Smash,” but never in hate-watching mode. I am pleased to say I love “Smash,” minority voice though I may be.
Even so, I’m all for taking a new look at appreciating TV — if that’s what hate-watching is.
But what exactly is it? Definitions vary, but “Culture Gabfast” framed the phenomenon as “celebratory” viewing “in an aggressive, nasty way.”
And among definitions volunteered by its listeners, this one sounds solid: “Hate-watching provokes feelings of outrage, indignation, contempt or loathing so intense they become pleasurable.”
But where, I wonder, is the hate in hate-watching directed? Toward the characters on the show? To the show overall? To the people who created it or put it on the air? To the wide-eyed viewers who truly like it and watch with no ulterior motives?
The answer is unclear. But the essence of hate-watching seems to take its cue from a wisecrack once made about newspapers: TV shows are never good enough, but a bad one is a joy forever. Hate-watching can redeem a multitude of sins.
So I wonder if I told myself I was hate-watching the fourth hour of “The Today Show,” not simply watching it, could I stomach its pink slime of news and information?
If I convinced myself I was hate-watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” not just watching it, would I be entertained by its sappiness, instead of fighting the urge to claw my face into ribbons?
If I convinced myself I was hate-watching “Jersey Shore,” not merely watching it, would I reach true enlightenment and find amusement in its boozy, horny nincompoops?
Or would I fall short in my effort to find TV pleasure in TV pain? Odds are, I’d surrender long before the show is over, hobbled by this thought: No matter if it hurts so good to watch, its awfulness will always still be awfulness.