When Bad Shows Happen To Good People
In a recent scene from the CW show Life Sentence, lead character Stella and her husband Wes make out on the floor of an unfinished bar, rolling around in green paint and smearing it all over each other’s bodies and the canvas drop cloth beneath them. Later, they hang their spontaneous sex painting (which they’ve somehow had time to frame) behind the bar as a symbol of their love.
If this sounds awful to you, it is. On May 8, it was announced that Life Sentence was being cancelled after just one season, surprising no one. This is not a good show, but I’ve watched every minute of it so far and I will watch all the remaining episodes with relish.
Apparently, my version of “all my faves are problematic” is “all my faves are objectively trash.”
The show is about Stella Abbott (Lucy Hale), a twenty-something who finds out that she is not actually dying of cancer and has to figure out how to live life like there is a tomorrow.
Rotten Tomatoes gives it an underwhelming 37% fresh score and the critics' consensus reads: “Life Sentence avoids asking tough questions about serious issues, settling instead for a cloying sweetness.”
The Metric of Pleasure
In my defense, I don’t only like terrible things. I also like shows that could be described as objectively not trash.
Here’s how a typical conversation about The Good Place might go:
Me: "It's sooooo good."
Random person: "I know!"
Here’s how a typical conversation about Life Sentence might go:
Me: “It’s sooooo cheesy.”
Random person: “Never heard of it.”
But ultimately when it comes to TV or other forms of entertainment, we can’t fake enjoyment. There are certain shows I watch because I feel like I should. It’s like the homework you do so you have something to talk about at parties (*cough* Westworld *cough*). But there are other shows I watch for a completely different reason—genuine pleasure.
To paraphrase Romans 7, I have the desire to watch what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not watch The Handmaid’s Tale that I want to watch, but the Deception (RIP) that I do not want to watch—this I keep on watching.
The Ideal Viewer
Writer Zadie Smith has this wonderful concept of the ideal reader. In her essay “Dead Men Talking,” she introduces this idea that every person is the ideal reader for a writer that they do not choose. Although “[i]deal reading is aspirational, like dating,” you can’t choose your literary soulmate. You simply know them in a way that only a soulmate would.
I always imagine the ideal reader as someone who just gets it. When the writer goes on a self-indulgent ramble about pinecones or how toothpaste is made, this reader doesn’t sigh or roll their eyes. No. They squee on the inside, because they get it.
Our response to a TV show reveals something crucial about who we are. Even as we read a writer, that writer is reading us. Even as we watch a show, that show is watching us.
When you apply this idea to TV shows, you get the ideal viewer. And I get the sinking feeling that I am Life Sentence’s ideal viewer.
What does that say about me? That I have horrible taste? That deep down, I love predictable storylines and cringe-worthy dialogue? And most importantly, if I enjoy a garbage show more than I enjoy something like Breaking Bad, does that make me a garbage person?
It’s all very well and good to be the ideal viewer for, say, Madam Secretary or Queen Sugar. But to be the ideal viewer for Life Sentence is like being the ideal reader for a bottle of shampoo.
However, I think Smith hits on something that we all know but have not yet articulated to ourselves: our relationships to certain shows and certain writers can be like the most impassioned, inappropriate love affairs, that sometimes we find our soulmates in the most unlikely of places. We feel a resonance with things that, technically, we shouldn’t.
It reminds me of a having a crush. I shouldn't have a crush on this person, rationally speaking, but I do anyway. That’s how crushes work.
Why This Show?
I suppose Life Sentence is bad in a way that a lot of shows are bad, but that doesn’t concern me at the moment. Rather, I’m wondering, why this show?
It’s typical CW fare, a Unicorn Frappuccino of a concoction about a manic pixie dream girl trying to get her life together. According to Wikipedia, “The Unicorn Frappuccino was criticized by the Stratford Health Department for having too much sugar.” Exactly.
It finally hit me as I was watching the latest episode (for research purposes, natch): these are adult characters as imagined by a fourteen year-old. The greatest crisis in Stella’s life is that she has two incredibly good-looking men who both like her. (I’m not kidding.) The tone is light-hearted and good-natured, and you know nothing truly terrible is ever going to happen. In the end everyone will always come together as a family.
I suspect that I don’t like this show because I secretly want to be a manic pixie dream girl. I suspect I like this show because I was a young teenager when I functionally lost my family.
It’s like this show is peering into my soul, like it knows what I want even though I refuse to admit it even to myself.
I feel seen and attacked.
Called Out by Culture
There’s a concept in Marxist theory called interpellation. I think of it as a ritual of call and response that identifies an individual as part of something greater than themselves (such as the state, ideology, or social structures).
When we declare “it me” in response to a meme, a TV show, a piece of dialogue, or a Buzzfeed quiz, we answer the call of ideology and identity. Our response reveals something crucial about who we are. Even as we read a writer, that writer is reading us. Even as we watch a show, that show is watching us.
As a Christian, I used to believe in this idea of a calling, of being called by God to fulfill a specific purpose on earth. I can’t even begin to count the number of nights I spent thinking, praying, journaling, crying about this. So much angst.
I don’t know if I believe in that idea of calling anymore. But I still feel called or, more specifically, called out. I feel seen. Now all I want is to hide under the nearest rock, thanks for asking.
I get hints that my life as a reader and a writer is more circumscribed than I would like to believe. I start to write about wildly different topics only to realize that I’m walking down the same well-worn path, trying to tell the same story, re-working old themes, hammering out ancient steel. I am made, not self-made.
The path lies before me.
I’m going to end with a quote, a eulogy for Life Sentence, the little show that couldn’t. This is from Henry James because he is the writer I wish I were the ideal reader for:
"Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had?... The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have... Live!"