The term “guilty pleasure” has taken on a whole new meaning in the peak TV era. While some may still use it for “shameful” shows they avoid bringing up on a first date, it can also apply to just about anything not widely considered to be the best.
For instance, if you’re choosing to watch “Ballers” instead of “The Deuce,” you might feel guilty about that; or if you start the next “Lethal Weapon” season even though you still haven’t tried out “The Handmaid’s Tale”; or if you scroll through Netflix, mindlessly seeking out a new show, even though you know “Better Things” — a show promising better things right there in the title — is sitting, waiting, on your DVR.
All of these professionally ill-advised choices can turn guilt-free TV into guilty pleasures. We’re living in the golden age of television, which means there’s no excuse for watching anything less than the best.
Except, of course, you still do. Even if you have access to every show — including the critics’ picks, the Emmy winners, and the ones your best friends won’t shut up about — something inside you just can’t resist seeing Dwayne Johnson party it up in Las Vegas. And let me tell you, that’s OK. As someone who was raised Catholic and thus an expert on the subject of guilt, really — it’s fine. You’ve got to learn to embrace it, but more than that, you have to learn to appreciate it.
TV critics have mastered this trick out of professional obligation, and Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, answering a question on guilty pleasure TV, may have put it best:
Even when I become obsessed with some weird reality show, I like to think it’s giving me pleasure because there’s something in it worth engaging with.
Identifying that “something” is the key. Critics dial in on what fascinates them, good or bad, and break it down to assess a show’s overall quality. When presented with a show they know is, by typical measurements, “bad,” but they like it anyway, things get tricky — but they can also get really, really fun. Some of the best reviews come from writers who get so wrapped up in the show that every keystroke bursts with excitement. Brian Grubb and Caroline Framke come to mind, because of their brilliantly hysterical takes on the latest (and most?) bonkers CBS summer series, “Zoo.” IndieWire’s own Liz Shannon Miller has mounted a rousing case for select episodes of the “X-Files” revival, and, from time to time, I’ll talk about “The Ranch.”
So below are two case studies: “Lethal Weapon,” a Fox buddy cop procedural that starts its second season on Tuesday, Sept. 26, and “Ballers,” which just wrapped its third season Sunday night on HBO. For anyone out there addicted to either series, but struggling to explain why — like, say, this writer — this can hopefully provide clarification. For the rest of you, apply the process to your own shows, and then kick back, shrug off the guilt, and embrace the joy of TV at its most crucial form: entertainment.
The Easily Identifiable “Something”: Clayne Crawford
Anyone who’s really seen Clayne Crawford act only wants to watch Clayne Crawford act. Whether it was his soulful, tortured turn in “Rectify” or random scene-stealing turns across mainstream TV, Crawford is a charismatic performer who conveys depth with every look. He’s more than watchable; he’s gripping.
Plus, he makes a damn fine Martin Riggs, especially in the Season 2 premiere, which finds the suicidal cop on a one-way trip to Mexico in search of his wife’s killer. The Season 1 finale saw Riggs split with his partner, Roger Murtaugh (Damon Wayans), after taking things too far in his quest for familial vengeance, and Crawford is again asked to swerve quickly between smirky jokes and anguished sincerity.
In Season 2, he’s introduced in a festive sombrero and stereotypical Mexican poncho, cracking wise to a cartel lord right before he pivots on a dime and delivers an earnest death threat. Crawford takes Riggs from comic relief to imposing murderer so quickly it illustrates one of the series’ problems — the stakes are pretty low — but Crawford makes it work. And he does so every single episode.