Can you have a love-hate relationship with a guilty pleasure?
Wouldn’t it be easier if the world were divided into black and white? Good or evil, Yankees or Red Sox, Sopranos or Real Housewives? Sometimes, however, life is not so simple. Here are five TV shows that befuddle our best efforts at categorization — by routinely being either totally amazing or absolutely terrible — and sometimes both in a same episode.
1. True Blood
“Great” can mean a lot of things. Great drama, great writing, great atmosphere. When it comes to True Blood, “great” means that the show reaches heights of outrageous campiness and oh-my-God-did-that-actually-just-happen splendor. When Eric takes revenge for his family's murder by stabbing the man he's just seduced, for instance, or vampire king Russell Edgerton rips out a news anchor's spine on television, just try to keep the shocked smile off your face. Like all the most entertaining trash, it takes itself just a bit more seriously than it should, which allows the writers to really go all out, and features some pretty spectacular nudity. Please don't underestimate the importance of all those abs and asses.
Of course, the show's problems go hand-in-hand with its merits: lazy plots and levels of sex, violence, and craziness that feel gratuitous or just gross. (No one wants to see a woman get her head turned around 180 degrees while she's having sex. No, not even if she survives. No, not even if she's very annoying.) This show will never be The Wire, and it doesn’t want to be. But when an episode misses that sweet spot between sublime and ridiculous, it becomes the one thing great trashy TV can never be: kind of boring.
2. Cougar Town
When this Courteney Cox-helmed series first appeared, no one expected it to be good. And it wasn't! Cougar Town was everything terrible its name implied — crass, full of desperation, and at least five years late on the joke. Watching Cox's recently divorced Jules Cobb chase after young guys to get over her failed marriage was more uncomfortable than funny, and the show's premise was never really sustainable, when you think about it — “Will Jules ever give up screwing random college men? Find out this fall in Cougar Town season seven!” The recurring character of Barb — a mix of mentor and antagonist for Jules in the world of cougarism — pops up even now and then to drop off some salacious one-liners like a parody of the cougar stereotype, but in the beginning, she wasn't any more outrageous than the rest of the show.
Who could have guessed there was another show lurking inside, one that followed the wacky adventures of a group of wildly unambitious functional alcoholics? As the show shifted its attention away from “cougars” and towards Jules' group of friends, who never seem to do much besides hang out at her house and “pound grape,” it developed a heart that grounded its more ridiculous moments. Of which there are plenty; this is a group of adults that can play a children’s game all day long and thinks Mexico is an island. But under all its quirkiness, the show is an affecting paean to the families we build for ourselves and a sly look at the fears that middle age thrusts upon us all. Cougar Town can still lose its center at times, when the zaniness feels forced and needless. But when Cougar Town gets it right, it's as breezily enjoyable as blowing off work to go day drinking with your best buddies.
Torchwood, a Doctor Who spin-off, is meant to be mature version of the classic British sci-fi show. But its unconvincing melodrama and insistence on featuring sexy sex aliens often make it seem more juvenile than its mother show — and Doctor Who features a talking robot dog. In the first season, for instance, the character of Toshiko meets and falls in love with a malevolent female alien — hot lesbian action! — in about twenty minutes. And it’s sexy, sure, but it also feels like fan-fiction from a teenager's LiveJournal.
But when the show ditches a thirteen-year-old boys' fascination with naughtiness, it actually deliver some truly exciting and, dare I say it, intellectual science-fiction stories. The third season, “Children of Earth,” was a chilling and sometimes heartbreaking examination of the way individuals and governments compromise, connive, and yield when faced with difficult choices, like invasion by some disgusting space beasties. “Adult,” finally, started to mean more than just “horny.” It's possible the fuck monsters are gone forever, but we’ll see. Creator and executive producer Russell T. Davies has never been known for keeping an even keel.
Oh, Glee. After one of the most exciting and promising pilots in years, this musical explosion of teen drama and jazz hands got all Three Faces of Eve on its audience. The shows three creators pull the show back and forth between earnest after-school special and surprisingly dark satire, sometimes within the same episode — hell, the same scene. In the season one-episode, “Home,” we meet Kristin Chenoweth's April Rhodes, an alcoholic and failed performer who characterizes the show's inner darkness better than any other character… and we're asked to buy into the weird and silly saga of Mercedes' two-day eating disorder.
The show builds interesting and honest high-school characters, and then, periodically, all realistic motivation and character development seems to fly out the window. But Glee still has two strengths that save it: few other series can match its hilarious bitchiness, and its strongest musical cast members — especially Amber Riley, Lea Michele, and Chris Colfer — fucking kill it when they sing. And that allows the show to transcend the shlock of even the most ham-fisted PSA plot lines and once again feel truly thrilling. Any show that can redeem Katy Perry's “Teenage Dream” is doing something right.
TV's never been great at horror. Sure, there have been standouts like The Twilight Zone and the The X-Files, but those are tiny islands of success in a sea of bland failures. The CW's Supernatural isn’t on par with those two series, but the show, which follows brothers Sam and Dean, vigilante hunters of things that go bumping us off in the night, has a lot going for it. In early seasons, the audience was treated to more classic horror tropes — think murderous clowns, scary young girls appearing behind people in mirrors, and good-old gross-out moments — and some wonderfully entertaining moments of comedy in between all the bloodshed. Later, the show developed a master arc that actually worked, tying the first five seasons into one big story of Hell and Heaven's attempts to bring about the apocalypse. And surprisingly, it fits.
But sometimes, Supernatural shows its CW roots: a low budget can take a lot of the oomph out of some of its special effects. Worse, certain episodes go completely off the rails, with giant plot-holes and laughable premises (three words: racist ghost truck). And if there's one thing that grinds the show to halt, it's the daddy issues the boys have accrued in their many years of hunting demons, which get trotted out with a regularity that borders on obsessive. Any trope that’s so often repeated loses its emotional impact.