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Opinion | Why are we hate-watching TV shows?

Despite there being shows for everyone out there, our quest to find something we can mock often ends in disappointment

Larry David opens a coffee store to take down an abrasive café owner in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’
Larry David opens a coffee store to take down an abrasive café owner in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’

I have not watched—and am not likely to watch—Indian Matchmaking, a recent Netflix reality show about arranged marriage in the Indian diaspora. Given the state of my Twitter timeline, however, flooded by screen grabs and memes about the show, I may never have to. The GIF-able ubiquity that makes non-viewers experience popular art through osmosis can surely be a sign of popularity (I am looking at you, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a show I don’t watch yet can quote) but these days, more often than not, it’s an indicator of loathing. Of pointing and laughing, of mocking instead of simply—and sanely—changing channels.

Why, in this era of far too much excellent television for any of us to consume, are we choosing to watch what we know we will hate?

In the most recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Disney+ Hotstar), Larry David opens up a coffee store in order to take down an abrasive café owner who has been particularly rude to him. David, playing a fictionalized version of his billionaire TV creator self, is transparent about his singular motive as he undercuts prices to drive his rival out of business: He triumphantly calls his store a spite store. Now while this behaviour may suit David’s misanthropic screen character, the show’s big revelation about our culture today is that David is not ridiculed for this—as he would have been on previous seasons. Instead, he is toasted by some of Hollywood’s brightest. Celebrities, with money and malevolence to spare, follow in David’s footsteps and start opening “spite stores" across Los Angeles. What hope does a jeweller have when Mila Kunis sells bracelets next door, unhampered by profit margins?

Despite there being shows for everyone out there, our quest to find something that scratches our very specific itch often ends in disappointment. Some shows squander the promise of a great cast, or a great premise—or, like in Game Of Thrones (Disney+ Hotstar), several great seasons—and we justifiably rant about our disappointment. Snark may not be the most productive way to channel exasperation but can be amusing in itself. You watched something you didn’t like, so you rolled your eyes in public and threw in a pun for good measure. Fair enough.

The question, however, is why you would continue to subject yourself to something you know you aren’t likely to enjoy. This may admittedly seem an odd question from someone who reviews mostly mediocre Hindi cinema and frequently finds himself disappointed by shows but critics are meant to bite the bullet. It is a masochistic life. Exposing oneself to a 3-hour Ajay Devgn movie early in the morning in an empty theatre, or braving 13 episodes of some series built around a lousy, over-spelt allegory…. It isn’t enviable.

It isn’t just critics. Some of us watch things we don’t like for research, some of us are completists doomed to endure uneven filmographies, some are commentators trying to see what shows are really saying—to and about their viewers. Watching something for work is not a choice. Choosing to spend your own time on it is on you.

I once wrote about the envy I feel for people who could walk out of a film halfway, simply because I didn’t have that choice. If nothing about a film—plot, character, cast, lines, style—appeals to you in 40 minutes, give it up. It is improbable that the final hour will suddenly win you over.

Dismissing TV, I admit, is trickier. Some shows take a while to find their voice, some are built on mid-season or end-season surprises, and some, as mentioned before, break our hearts in the end, bringing forth the outrage of betrayal. But that doesn’t explain watching shows from which we hold no hope. If you find yourself irritated by the first three episodes of a series, irritated enough to stop expecting it to get better, I say skip it and seek out something more your tempo. Is it worth it to keep watching something you actively dislike merely to be able to be catty online?

Who, in that case, is the joke really on? Is it on the show which is being mentioned over and over again, attracting more viewers from outside its demographic, all watching to point and deride? That seems unlikely.

In the Apple TV + series Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, a character talks about our need to hate-watch as a modern-day replacement for more violent schadenfreude of the past: “People must really miss public executions." It’s an alarmingly fair comparison. Dislike has become de rigueur. We are getting too consumed by our stores of spite.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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