Here at Flavorpill, we often sing the praises of such genuinely excellent TV shows as Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, 30 Rock, and everything David Simon has ever done. But, as much as we love that stuff, we can’t deny that we have our fair share of guilty pleasures. No, we’re not talking about cult series with small, vocal followings (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who) or shows whose main audience is little kids or raunchy sitcoms that somehow manage to double as biting social critique. For our purposes, a guilty pleasure only qualifies if we (or others whose taste we trust) know it’s bad but enjoy watching it anyway. We’ve listed our all-time top 10 after the jump; clear your conscience by confessing your own in the comments.
Yes, its predecessor, The O.C. could certainly be considered a guilty pleasure. But everything that was ridiculous about that show is blown up to ten times the absurdity on Gossip Girl — the wealthy teenagers, the backstabbing story lines, the forbidden romances, the increasing reliance on guest stars (and guest bands). We freely admit that GG, currently in its fifth season, had lost all semblance of a believable and compelling plot by the time the characters graduated from high school. Yet there we still are every Monday, glued to the TV screen, enjoying every minute of it. These days, the characters’ spendy wardrobes are the best reason to watch; the show has become a sort of video fashion magazine, and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t OK with it.
Dudes who feel superior to ladies who watch Gossip Girl, ask yourself this: Am I a fan of Entourage? If so, then congratulations, because your TV viewing habits are equally indefensible. Entourage is basically Gossip Girlfor men — if GG is video Vogue, then Entourage is video Maxim, a fantasy about an actor who hits the big time and brings all of his schlubby buddies (and asshole agent) along for the ride. The attraction of both of these shows is that they give us what is supposedly an inside look at a sparkly, sexy world we’ll never be a part of, and for that we forgive them a million plot holes and other assorted annoyances.
Now for a classic guilty pleasure: Dallas, the wildly popular nighttime soap that followed incredibly wealthy Texas oil/cattle family the Ewings. Somehow, over the years, the show has gained a certain respectability, but make no mistake — it was pretty silly. Featuring loads of characters, comically tangled romances, constantly shifting alliances, and endless cliffhangers, it also eventually became too silly for its own good. At the beginning of Season 9, the events of the entire previous season were revealed to be nothing more than one character’s dream — and unlike Roseanne, which made a similar revelation in its finale, Dallas kept chugging along for years after that.
The Real Housewives
You can’t make a list like this without including reality TV — although it’s almost impossible to decide which of them to include when so many fit the definition of a “guilty pleasure.” But there is no way we could even think of omitting Bravo’s The Real Housewives franchise, which kicked off five years ago in Orange County and expanded to include New York City, Atlanta, New Jersey, DC, Beverly Hills, and Miami. The premise of these shows is painfully simple: They follow very rich and mostly idle women who have nothing better to do than shop, gossip, and pick fights with each other. Their appeal combines our curiosity and jealousy of the fabulously wealthy with our limitless desire to see real people humiliating themselves.
Beverly Hills, 90210
Welcome to a world where the quips are pointed, the feuds are dirty, teenagers are in their 30s (well, some of them, at least), and the producer’s daughter plays the show’s virginal moral center. Beverly Hills, 90210 had all the flaws of your typical guilty pleasure — unbelievable story lines, bad acting, several entirely superfluous seasons — but also boasted just about every one of their enticements: rich characters, a glamorous setting, teenagers behaving badly, scripts so melodramatic they’re actually funny. This, we assume, is why we can’t resist watching it every time it’s on and we’re channel surfing.
Food shows of all kinds have invaded network and cable TV alike over the past decade or so. They range from standard cooking demonstrations to travel-oriented programming to competitions for chefs — and because of the ample food porn, strong personalities, and opportunity they offer to retreat into a world where nothing is more important than the endless possibilities of what you might make for dinner tonight, many are bound to become guilty pleasures. Sure, some are actually educational and you could argue others (like, say, Top Chef) are valuable because they show us real artisans at work. But Hell’s Kitchen? It’s pretty much an hour of Gordon Ramsay bawling out mournfully under-qualified wannabe celebrity chefs about being too slow, stupid, or fat. It certainly doesn’t teach us anything about cooking. Basically every other famous chef in the world has pointed out that no one in their right mind would run a restaurant kitchen the way Ramsay does, so it’s clear that the show’s claims of realism are bogus, too. That being said, who doesn’t love watching a gaggle of naïve culinary school grads trying their damnedest — and failing spectacularly — to avoid pissing off an extraordinarily cranky Scot?
Once accurately dubbed “Drunk Asshole Hotel” by TV critic Heather Havrilesky (who also found she couldn’t stop watching it), Paradise Hotel ran for a single season in 2003 on Fox. The idea was that nine hot, young singles would check into a beautiful resort with nothing to do but drink and scheme and slut around in hopes of pairing up with an opposite-sex partner to share a hotel room. Every week, the cast member who didn’t have a roommate would be kicked off and replaced by someone new, until the check-ins stopped and the final players faced off in hopes of winning a handsome cash reward. So, it was sort of like Big Brother, but more shameless. Although the producers must have expected the cast to do a lot of hooking up, they mostly instigated drunken fights and formed warring alliances. It was sort of like No Exit. There was a guy who was obsessed with Pumping Iron.
Everybody loves a high-concept action series, and when it premiered — less than two months after 9/11 — a show that followed an American government agent who works in the fictional Counter Terrorism Unit clearly struck a chord with viewers. Its central conceit, that each season would cover a day in the life of protagonist Jack Bauer one hour at a time, was also compelling. But eventually, some details of 24 started to become worrisome: the tacit endorsement of torture, the implication that all terrorists are Muslim, and what many have found to be a generally right-wing hidden agenda. Of course, by the time that stuff became apparent, everyone was already hooked on the show’s guaranteed adrenaline rush.
When we first heard about Jersey Shore, we felt self-righteous about our decision not to watch it. The show celebrated the worst kinds of people — the skeevy guy in the club, the girl who can’t have fun unless she’s throw-up drunk — and stereotyped Italians. It was condescending and mean-spirited and it would almost certainly make us dumber for watching it. We still agree with these sentiments, but somehow we ended up watching it one night and got sucked in. We are constantly indignant about The Situation! We feel somehow protective of Snooki! We are baffled by the entire cast’s inability to recognize that the Vatican isn’t a moderately large church in Florence! We are grossed out by the relentless bathroom humor, but somehow, we just keep watching.
Some will surely argue that True Blood isn’t a guilty pleasure. It’s on HBO, after all (so is Entourage!), and its creator is behind one of TV’s heaviest shows of all time, Six Feet Under. But let’s get real — True Blood has no deep meaning. It does not reveal essential truths about human existence. It’s a vampire soap opera adapted from a series of supernatural romance novels whose goal seems to be to get the main character, Sookie, into a threesome with two rival vampires. There’s lots of violence, tons of creepy sex, and so many competing story lines that it’s easy to forget what’s going on. At times, the show is entirely unbelievable, even within the parameters of a world where vampires, werewolves, witches, and — er — werepanthers exist. Don’t get us wrong; it’s one of our favorite things to watch. But it’s still a guilty pleasure.