Sometimes it seems like there’s an eternal debate taking place: what exactly is a “guilty pleasure”? And is it okay to call things guilty pleasures, or should we just admit that, if we like something, well, we like it, and can’t everyone just be okay with that thank you very much?
I’ve never really been sure of where I stand in this debate. To quote Community‘s Abed, “I just like liking things”–sometimes I think that’s my primary personality trait. But that doesn’t mean I never feel any guilt when I settle in with an episode of Gossip Girl, or when I plow through three “Teen Paranormal Romance” books over a 36 hour period.
I’m not talking about Edgar Allen Poe guilt; this isn’t going to torture me in the long term or give me an ulcer. But I spent last weekend sick in bed, and instead of reading a novel or catching up on season four of Breaking Bad, I chose to barrel through about 30 episodes of Pretty Little Liars. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, the show is equal measures fun and ridiculous, but there’s a little part of me that knows I had other options, probably better options, and I chose to watch a poorly scripted, teen-oriented ABC Family drama instead.
Scripted dramas are my acknowledged weakness. No matter how bad, I’ll watch pretty much anything so long as it’s not boring–and even sometimes if it is boring, I’ve stuck with Ringer all season, and for no good reason–and I’ll probably have a lot of fun. I realized, eight years ago, as the first season of One Tree Hill came to a close, that it was not a very good show and I should probably find something else to watch on Tuesdays after Gilmore Girls–a realization that lead me to Veronica Mars the following fall, and therefore the best realization I’ve ever had–but I’ve still seen every episode of the series, many of them more than once, and I can’t pretend I haven’t enjoyed this final, absurdist, almost unrecognizable season.
There are things I watch or have watched that other people might consider guilty pleasures: Psych and Vampire Diaries and The OC, among many many others, but they’re not shows I feel any regret over. Psych is fun and self-aware and best watched with my friends, the way we watched it in college; The OC is like a time capsule, not representative of my actual life, but of a time when I was evolving into myself–it ran for half of my high school years and half of my college years–and though its middle seasons were not especially strong, they’re the valley–get it, get it, The Valley–between two incredibly smart, incredibly funny, sometimes incredibly moving seasons of television to anyone willing to look past the soapy teen drama genre; and, at its best, I will stand by The Vampire Diaries as one of the strongest shows that’s currently airing: tightly plotted, well-acted, and sliding its characters back and forth along a carefully balanced morality scale.
When I talk about guilty pleasures I’m not talking about liking things “ironically,” I legitimately enjoy everything I’d list under the classification. And I’m not talking about liking things that are carving away at my (probably nonexistent anyway) indie cred–I don’t feel guilty over my undying love for Taylor Swift, for example. I’m not even talking about pleasures I wouldn’t want to admit to in public–it took two pints of cider and a great deal of prodding from my friends to get me to admit my greatest pop culture secret: I still watch Glee. (Though I wouldn’t exactly call that a pleasure. I don’t actual enjoy the viewing experience so much as the anger I feel over the show’s existence.) I’m talking more about the things that I enjoy with the full knowledge that they add nothing to my overall cultural experience.
Pretty Little Liars is fun. There’s a nice story about friendship at its core, and a couple of decent mysteries that keep on twisting out from under the audience–one of which could probably do to be properly solved already–but it’s not a show that makes me think all that much. It’s a show with a lot of potential that it’s probably never going to meet, much like Gossip Girl and Ringer. The writing, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the premise.
And that’s not a bad thing, not really. Any story that can be enjoyed serves a purpose. But a guilty pleasure show is not unlike ice cream. No matter how good dinner tastes, there’s always the temptation to skip ahead to dessert and fill up on that. But, like sweets, a guilty pleasure show is best enjoyed in moderation, not by the tub-full.
Now someone remind me of that, please, before I start this marathon rewatch of One Tree Hill.