Watching Bad TV Near the End of the World

Netflix

In the season finale of Love Is Blind, a jerky camera follows a woman as she runs crying through bland gray streets after her fiance says “I do not” at the altar. (The camera has left him behind, sniffling and red-faced.) As the viewer/voyeur of reality television, intruding on private moments is the point. But the spectacle of humiliation here is heightened by the sense that we can hear the camera-person’s footsteps literally thumping after her to show it to us. 

Netflix produces reality TV with a knowing wink. The routine goes: please have a meltdown, and please do it on camera! Their innovation seems to be smiling, all sharp teeth, conspiratorially drawing us close, whispering: this is how your favorite guilty pleasures are served up; are you still watching? (Next episode.) 

A new layer of unveiling. Tacky-deluxe. And oh, how we love it. I learned about Love Is Blind from a friend’s snarky Instagram commentary and Twitter threads dragging “Messica”—the moniker bestowed on 30-something Jessica, the object of the internet’s collective schadenfreude for a time. On the show she slow-crawls towards matrimony with a man who repulses her, flirts in sexy-baby voice with one who is lukewarm at best, and drinks herself sloppy-drunk alarmingly often. In one widely memed scene, she slurs over her words as her dog laps at her wine. 

Our relish at Jessica’s protracted downfall is not that surprising. She is presented as basic and oblivious; a likely Karen. Given how long white women’s tears have been weaponized against people of color, watching her flail on screen feels pretty good.

The saddest thing about Jessica is her obvious shame at being over 30 and unmarried. I’m turning 29 this year, also unmarried, the kind of urban millennial woman who knows it’s gauche to bring up my visceral fear of ending up alone. Society itself stands firmly premised on the family unit as security and support—underlined these days as we’re sequestered into our own bubbles during the pandemic. Being alone is hard.

Pre-pandemic, I gulped down Love Is Blind in two days, during work-breaks or in the background of Scrabble with my boyfriend who complained the entire time. I’d tried to make Couple Trashy TV Time a thing before, but he had fallen asleep in protest. You see, it takes a certain kind of person to really love bad TV and I have loved bad TV for a really long time. 

*

When people explain why they watch what they consider “trashy” TV, they often say things like “I don’t know why, I can’t stop watching;” they’re “addicted;” they need something mindless after a long day; they can’t bear to think in addition to bearing menstrual cramps. 

Often it’s a gleeful bonding experience involving friends and roommates, alcohol and munchies. My Twitter mutuals certainly miss it. During the lockdown in India, season two of Four More Shots Please—a more dramatic Indian Sex and the City—dropped. They transitioned to synced binge-watching and a group-chat. There are live-tweeted threads. A certain kind of everyone watches, and we all feel a little dirty afterwards. 

Amazon Studios

According to cultural and media studies, there are three modalities in which “trashy tv” can be watched by the same viewers:

Ironic consumption, in which you create a distance between what you watch and yourself, and use the material to feel superior. Messica. 

Guilty pleasure viewing, in which you’re addicted and chagrined but can’t stop. An America’s Next Top Model marathon. 

And the most pleasurable, camp.

Susan Sontag wrote indelibly in her essay, “Notes on Camp,” that camp demands an appreciation of extravagance, artifice, and failed ambition. Camp is confection. The viewer of camp recognizes the absurdity of the material and revels in it. Doctor Who? Deliciously campy. Gossip Girl? Often camp. The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Definitively camp. Manos: Hands of Fate? Tragically and unintentionally camp, the way camp is meant to be. 

If you can’t tell, I love camp. 

*

The longest I have ever spent in front of a television is 19 hours. In the 12th grade, a few days after my then-best friend sexually assaulted me, I parked myself on the living room carpet, propped my head up on a cushion and just stared at whatever appeared on the Sony Max channel until bedtime. 

The assault came in the middle of one of my worst episodes of undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder. I had not yet said “OCD” out loud although it hovered sometimes around the periphery of my internet-searches and my mind. I hadn’t really slept in a year. At night I would lie stiff, and stare tiredly at the ceiling, waiting for the cycle of obsessive thoughts to fall away. My mother beside me would sometimes wake up, attempt to literally shake some sense into me until she was near tears and I pretended to go to sleep. 

That year all four of us—my parents, my little brother, and I piled into the same bed, lying the wrong way to fit. There was a single AC and it was summer in Calcutta. I didn’t study for my final exams in school, the same way I didn’t study for my final exams in undergrad. Both last semesters I picked at the idea of death as a tenable solution. 

The first time I was so unbearably sad, I couldn’t resist my OCD thoughts anymore, nor did I have the physical energy to perform the compulsions. Watching TV was the closest I could get to doing something without doing anything. 

The second time, I flung myself into emergency therapy-sessions and, briefly, a joyfully promiscuous theater group which inducted me into  Doctor Who fandom. It saved my life. Because I couldn’t sleep once again, I would spend the night on my friend Rachel’s air mattress in her living room. We’d eat wasabi popcorn and scream things like “Oh my god, he’s a pig-person!” at her television.

Doctor Who is not trashy TV although it’s definitely camp. Camp in the fullest sense, the kind which prompted Susan Sontag to write, “Camp is a tender feeling.”

*

The same viewer can watch the same thing in different modalities at different times. However, according to cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu, it’s an indication of social class to be able to consume material that you delineate as “in poor taste” while still being able to partake of it. 

A lot of us in India grew into our love for bad TV beside beloved grandmothers, aunts, and domestic workers. There was usually an afternoon or evening ritual of tea and soap operas we called “serials.” 

When I was growing up, the Hindi serials were extremely complicated affairs. They tended to involve rebirths, face-transplants, revenge-plots, evil mother-in-laws, evil sister-in-laws, comas, a long-lost love-child, and an alarming dedication to prayers and murders at temples.

At my grandparents’ we watched Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi [Because the Mother-in-law was once a Daughter-in-law] after dinner. The lead actress from the show, Smriti Irani, now holds an important position in the government. Undoubtedly her many years playing the nation’s iconic bahu [daughter-in-law] helped usher in the ideals of caste-supremacy, unquestioning religiosity, patriarchy, and submissive femininity that our fascist Hindutva government thrives on today. But I didn’t know any of this then. Serials were a matter of predictable comfort and routine. 

In the 2000s, the television channel StarPlus had a slew of K-serials, all directed by the fabulously successful Ekta Kapoor—all named with a K. In the sixth grade, I was instructed by my Hindi teacher, a fearsome Mrs. Katoch, to watch as many K-serials as I could to improve my Hindi. Bengalis are famously bad at Hindi.

I was soon hooked. My favorite was Kasautii Zindagi Kay [The Trials of Life]. It was a romance (they all were) between a poor but feisty and sanskari girl and a rich boy with a heart of gold and an elitist family. A classmate of mine was so enamored with the lead of the show she made a shrine to him in her room. On his birthday, she would bring cake to school.

Balaji Telefilms

As I’ve grown older and into my ideas about “good taste” and feminism, I’ve distanced myself from these serials but I harbor a soft spot for Kasautii—ironically. 

In lockdown, Sonia (20-something, media professional) tells me that she’s watching the TV-serials she would ordinarily watch with her mother to simulate the warmth of the experience. You know, real life, before the lockdown.

*

Being locked inside means missing the city, in a way that is not just about the people I am intimate with and speak to still, but also the amorphous mass of the city. The inversion of being lonely in a crowd is feeling lonely for being a person in a crowd. Since the lockdown, classes happen online over shaky internet and audio-lags. I’m stuck in January, when we were introduced to anticolonial surrealist theorist, Suzanne Césaire. Surrealism allows us to think that which we have not yet been able to. She calls it a “permanent readiness for the Marvelous.” 

This wonderful phrase clings to each bright winter morning from those months. The context of everything is the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act—that targetedly excludes Muslims from citizenship. It is the kind of civil disobedience many of us have only seen in our textbooks and films. The police lathi-charge and detain protestors; more gather to protest at police headquarters.

The avant-garde works with a conscious, deliberate breaking of syntax. The Supreme Court describes Shaheen Bagh, a 24×7 sit-in on a highway in Delhi, as a space of interruption. The expected syntax would be for civilians to fall in line, and allow this erasure of our syncretic histories, further normalization of lynchings, and communication blackouts and arrests. 

That Shaheen Bagh multiplied into sit-ins across the country is surreal to me. It feels like poetry. Our days are full with movement and motion. 

Then, surreally, comes the Delhi pogrom. Then from its slow creeping, the pandemic is declared a crisis. And just as surreally, the lockdown. A complete and artificial stilling. The city shudders. Then it stops.

If the protests were a glimpse of what it’s like when anything feels possible, the lockdown is possibility’s end. Every day is the same. 

The lockdown in India is poorly managed and severely policed. It is murderous on the working class. The more privileged of us are shut indoors all the time. At most we walk the dog in the small radius around our building. Pet the street-dogs who are bewildered and lonely. 

The more I stay indoors, the less I want to leave. The less I feel want. That is how the warning-bells go off in my head.

Depression is the antithesis of motion. My brain turns to that familiar wool. A hallmark of depression is being un-able to think beyond yourself. Who considers freedom when they can’t drag their body, ripe with sweat under the shower?

I am working on a dissertation about how people with chronic psychiatric disabilities think of themselves. The body comes up repeatedly. On my excel spreadsheets pile up instance after instance of staying in alone, loneliness, staleness, suicide attempts, dirty dishes, filthy laundry, dust and grime, families who hurt, and falling out of spaces. 

Carpal tunnel makes my heartbeat visible—pulsing under the skin of my palm. My fingers clench up as I type. The deadline to submit pulls up. Beside it, my two-year plan leading to a media job puts on a clown costume.

The lockdown mimics well-worn territory. Here is the loneliness, the theft of possibility, staleness, dread. After all that active doing, a stagnant period. Something that you can only outlive by living through it.

*

When I ask people about their bad TV habits, I realize it’s difficult to draw up an exact taxonomy of bad TV. There’s the obvious lowbrow reality TV junk but there’s also middling-comfort TV that many of us in our 20s and 30s in India still reach for. I’m talking about extremely white shows like Friends and Gilmore Girls that were broadcast on our TV-channels here during our school years. My little brother and I grew up modeling our sense of humor on Friends and Drake and Josh. I mimicked them, he mimicked me. 

A writer I know tells me that after he was diagnosed with PTSD he could only watch That ‘70s Show for months. Nothing else. It was comforting, he said, “to know how every episode would end, how nobody learns, they all hang out in the same places—even the town is named Point Place.” 

Trashy TV is there for you. Trashy TV is your friend. Trashy TV is not going anywhere. When you are watching trashy TV only predictable things happen. Even when they’re unpredictable, they’re predictable. 

Like Love Is Blind, Netflix’s latest reality offering Too Hot to Handle also straddles the line between moralizing and mockery. 

In Love Is Blind participants are encouraged to fall in love and put a ring on it through a wall so they can be flown to an island vacation—whereas in Too Hot to Handle, participants are encouraged to fall in love while abstaining from physical intimacy on an island vacation.

Netflix

In the latter, the narrator frequently ridicules the participants’ horniness and stupidity. She alternates this with cheering for their moments of “growth.” It feels like Netflix already knows the different modalities in which we will watch the show and has set up an inside voice as accomplice. Netflix itself draws a line in the sand, distancing itself from the trashiness of its own show—getting to make trash and retain its self-image as superior too. 

By the end of Too Hot to Handle, the contestants are supposed to have evolved towards self-love and true connection over hot sex and superficial banter. This is epitomized in the pairing of Harry and Francesca who manage to spend the night together without costing the group thousands of dollars because of sex. 

Even when there is the illusion of growth, the type/trope stays static. Both of them are essentially the same people as they were when they were flown out to this reality TV show. That’s why we lap it up! Bad TV is made for stagnancy. 

*

The lockdown isn’t just stagnant—it’s also a period of extreme individualism. I mean, I do the things I am able to. But they all feel somehow removed. 

We pay our domestic worker her regular salary while she stays home, we telephone her periodically to check in. We organize relief funds to support the man who used to do maintenance in the building. He cycles to us, avoiding cops. In his neighborhood, the police beat them if they venture near the closest center for rations. I donate to NGO-efforts for daily wage workers, I share this across my socials. I read the news: a cargo-train has run over sleeping migrant workers who were walking home across states in the absence of basic income, government rations, and transport. I cry. I Twitter Storm. 

LinkedIn emails me recommended jobs: “content writer” for a florist-chain—after six years of work, a master’s degree, a slew of part-time jobs and bylines to fund that degree, and a major award for emerging writers. 

The punchline is that I ask an old boss to keep me in mind in case they’re hiring, and he says brb dinner. I turn away from the pit in my stomach and turn on Netflix. 

*

Look, I can watch smart shit. I got a MUBI subscription (fine, it was free). MUBI reminds me again and again to watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It is exactly my scene. I ignore my MUBI account. Even when it advertises to me in between Instagram Stories.

I have promised myself I will finish the first draft of my thesis. I keep breaking my own promises—like the one about being asleep by midnight but instead here I am, stirring the dregs of the internet. Or watching Gossip Girl as guilty pleasure.

The last time I watched it, I watched it sincerely. I was 19 and living in a shitty basement-room in Canada, working a boring research assistant job. We were developing a cure for necrotic enteritis in chickens. Somewhere on this earth are poultry farmers and scientists who really, really care about Clostridium perfringens, the culprit pathogen. I did not. For a time, Gossip Girl made my evenings scandalous and interesting.

“We are better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own,” writes Sontag. The distance of time liberates a work from the need to be morally relevant and delivers it into the realm of Camp sensibility. I remind myself of this now every time Blair Waldorf says something repulsively classist. 

*

“When will you come?” I sob into the phone, a month into the lockdown. It is my first real cry. “I can’t come,” my boyfriend tries to reason with me.

The colony where he lives, just five minutes away from me, has several COVID cases. It is a rundown block where large families live crowded into rooms without windows and so they spill out onto the street outside at all times—making social distancing a fiction, and traveling through dangerous.

“But I want to see you-u-u-u,” I cry anyway.

My boyfriend texts, We’ll figure this out. I love you, and I leave him on read.

We try to watch It Follows on twoseven but their server is down. On video-calls, the video freezes up. “Reconnecting” it says over and over, while our futile attempt at maintaining some link with each other curdles into annoyance. It’s just easier to watch bad TV alone. 

I told you, I have always loved bad TV. And in this new surreal suspended time, it’s all I seem to be able to watch.

*

There is another worry I try not to think about. A dread that this will not end, that worse is coming, because we are in a climate emergency and the government is doing nothing. 

I try not to think about what climate collapse will mean and how this is just a rehearsal for worse. I know in different parts of the country it is already happening. The government is using the pandemic to facilitate ease-of-business for more land-encroachment. I sign petitions and pass them on. I furrow my brow and rut at my research. I ignore the nagging thought that whines we will just lurch from crisis to crisis in the years to come.

I skip past Snowpiercer and The Half of It on Netflix and watch the next terrible episode of Gossip Girl. I try not to think “what will we do???” because we’ll just have to do it when it comes.