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Hate-watching, explained

Allison Williams and Taylor Louderman.
Allison Williams and Taylor Louderman.

When NBC aired a live musical last year for the first time in decades, it probably didn't expect what transpired. Starring Carrie Underwood, The Sound of Music Live was meant to take a beloved holiday tradition and put a new spin on it for a modern audience.

And in the ratings, at least, it was a major success, drawing over 18 million viewers. But if you turned on Twitter while the musical was airing, it might have seemed like all of those people were watching just to mock it.

So when NBC aired Peter Pan Live last week, the cast and crew were amply prepared. In fact, according to this interview with Allison Williams, who played the title part, everybody involved knew throngs of social media users were just waiting for the curtain to rise, so they could start tweeting the Peter #puns they'd been preparing all month.

"People like to 'hate-watch' things," she says. "People are very cynical. That's a much more fun way to watch television."

But contrary to what many expected, Peter Pan Live wasn't a disaster. In fact, it was quite a bit better than Sound of Music Live. As Jessica Goldstein noted at ThinkProgress, that was kind of a letdown. "The biggest disappointment of the evening was that it just wasn't disappointing enough. This wasn't the kind of thing you could hate-watch. This was a meh-watch."

Granted, that didn't mean there weren't hate-tweets to be found (examples below). It just means that the hate-tweets were somehow different than last year's, as DC Theatre critic John Dellaporta notes.

If last year was venomous, this year was merely spicy. Haters are gonna hate, sure, but the overall timbre of the Tweets was lighter, like the kind of joking one would expect to read during an airing of the Tony Awards, or the Oscars, or an episode of Scandal. … there was a sense that this time it was all in good fun.

See, hate-watching, like a lot of things, is a continuum, from people having fun snarkily joking around about something, to genuine viciousness that retains none of the spirit of good criticism. Let us explain.

What is hate-watching?

Hate-watching is watching a show or movie you suspect you will emphatically dislike, for the purpose of being able to talk about how much you disliked it, either during the program (on social media) or afterward.

Hate-watching often serves as an added punchline to the thing being watched. It's performative — almost as performative as the hate-product. As TV critic Ryan McGee told me in an email, "It's meant to be consumed in tandem with the show as the exclamation, punchline, or lament to the thing that happened onscreen."

For example, the pun heard 'round the world during Peter Pan Live was a riff on "Walken the plank." That particular joke was only vaguely amusing when Captain Hook (played by Christopher Walken) was … walking the plank.

Can I see some examples?

Sure. Here are some of the most hate-watch-y hate-watch tweets about Peter Pan Live.

Are there different kinds of hate-watching?


One way is a malicious type of hate-watching where you tune in to a show really hoping it will suck. That's the way many hate-watched Sound of Music. To be sure, some tuned in out of sheer curiosity, wondering whether the country pop star could reinvent Julie Andrews' iconic role. But for the most part, the ethos on Twitter was OMG LOL WUT KILL ME.

There is another kind of hate-watching, though, where, even though you figure the show will probably be bad, you tune in hoping it will surprise you because you really, secretly, deep down want it to be good. The difference is that the second kind of hate-watching reserves its final judgment until the entire show — or at least a substantial portion of it — has been seen. In the end, it seemed like most who watched Peter Pan Live and found it either better than expected or just kinda boring fell into this camp.

Christopher and Allison

Christopher Walken and Allison Williams. (NBC)

Is that good criticism?

Hate-watching isn't really criticism — it's more like live-tweeting, as McGee noted. "Both are in-the-moment, performative reactions to a piece of pop culture that exist in parallel for a finite amount of time." A defining feature of hate-watching is its immediacy. "It's based as much around timezones as content," says McGee.

In contrast, he says, "criticism is inherently reflective, written out after an entire episode or series has aired." He also notes that criticism aims to judge a piece for what it is, while hate-watching, on the other hand, judges a piece for what it isn't. A prime example of this would be the many tweets rightly pointing out the brazenly obvious fact that Carrie Underwood is not Julie Andrews. A critic might offer this as a tossed-off observation; for a hate-watcher, it could be the subject of many tweets.

As for what good criticism is, it's even harder to answer that.

Many brilliant theorists have grappled with this question for as long as there has been art to critique. One of the writers whose thoughts on the topic are most well-known is Alexander Pope, who penned An Essay on Criticism in the early 18th-century. Here's how Pope begins his poem:

'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill

Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,

But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,

To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:

Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,

Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;

A Fool might once himself alone expose,

Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

In these opening lines, Pope asks his reader which is worse: creating a bad work of art, or creating a bad work of criticism? For him, the first is "less dangerous" than the second, because it's harmless. We look at a bad piece of art and go, "OK, that's bad." And then we move on from it.

Bad criticism, on the other hand, is harder to move on from since it has a way of informing our aesthetic sensibilities, which stick with us for life. In this way, hate-watching can function similarly to criticism.

For example, Peter Pan Live could anticipate the hate-watchers, because Sound of Music Live became primarily remembered for all of those who hate-watched it. It's hard to think about Sound of Music without also thinking about the hate tweets. The hate-watching is more integral to the legacy of the show than the actual show.

You're being too tough on hate-watching!

Look, we're not saying hate-watching has no value, or that you should never do it. As James Poniewozik notes at Time, there is a case to be made for snarky television-viewing — especially when the big bucks behind the network launch an offensive against the anticipated hate-watching. In response to Williams's anti-hate-watching pleas, Poniewozik had this to say:

Spare me. ... I'm not going to blame anyone for going in skeptical of a production when NBC has cast the (very talented!) daughter of its news anchor as its lead, or when the network has been bludgeoningly promoting the musical across its specials, morning shows and talk shows for weeks.

By all means, try to love things, … [but] when celebrities and already-powerful corporations inoculate themselves from criticism on the grounds of "Haters gonna hate" ... snark is not just permissible but a duty.

Rather than try to inoculate themselves in advance from hate-watchers, Poniewozik told me networks should prove those critics wrong. "Don't give your audience orders! Give them a production of a show good enough that they'll appreciate it uncynically on its own terms."

McGee, too, thinks producers and networks should pay attention to hate-watching since it offers a valuable and "broader perspective beyond the writer's room or a production meeting." Sometimes a show's most loyal viewers are the hate-watchers, and it's probably a good idea that networks at least acknowledge them, says McGee.

I need a break. Can we talk about Christian Borle's biceps?

Good idea! Christian Borle, who played both Mr. Darling and Smee, caused quite a brouhaha on Twitter — or at least, his sleeveless wardrobe did.

But did you know you can use Twitter both to hate-watch and follow Borle's biceps? We're not kidding.

Christian Borle

Do shows that are widely hate-watched know they are being hate-watched?

Some do. Think about Sharknado, which celebrated its social media frenzy. Or most reality television. The producers funding these shows know people aren't tuning in to have their high-brow tastes appeased.

What they want, on the other hand, is to see Ian Ziering cut his way through a fake-looking shark while delivering mindless one-liners.

At the same time, a hate-watch product can't be too aware of its badness — it can't "be in on the joke," or else it's a camp product, which is a different thing altogether. Emma Brockes noted this at The Guardian: "To succeed, a tiny, delusional part of those responsible [for the hate-watch product] must cling to the hope that they've made something good."

So why do people hate-watch shows?

Tough question! Tim Goodman wondered the same thing at the Hollywood Reporter. How can you, he wonders, in addition to watching the shows that you actually like, "have enough time left over to hate watch a show that mostly annoys you?"

The answer is simple: because you don't actually hate the thing you claim to hate.

That's the irony of hate-watching, as McGee told me: If you actually hate a show, you turn it off. "No one truly hatewatches something they actually hate," says McGee. "What they hate is the execution, not the premise, which means that hatewatching is engaging with the potency of the idea versus the potency of its reality."

As McGee notes, not all hate-watching is necessarily motivated by malice. "Hate-watching is really about how a certain episode or show or genre isn't living up to the high standards a viewer fairly or unfairly places upon that piece of pop culture."

In other words, hate-watching exists because shows that have jumped the shark exist. Those that hate-watch their way through Smash or The Newsroom do so because they're disappointed by all of that squandered potential.

Madeleine Davies offers a different way to look at it over at Jezebel. Her hunch is that we secretly love the things we hate-watch, but, in order to "protect ourselves and our street cred," we feel like we have to "cloak our ... tastes in a layer of irony."

There might be another reason for at least some of the hate. According to Dellaporta, much of the backlash against Sound of Music and Peter Pan was voiced from within the theatre community itself.

People in the theatre community don't seem to respond well to "stunt casting", as it were. We're in a hard game, and I think it strikes a primal nerve when someone doesn't have to go through the struggle that we do.

Is there anything problematic about hate-watching?

In general, there's probably nothing wrong with hate-watching a show, so long as it's in good fun. But two notes of caution here.

First, people who hate-watch a show often make up their minds that the show is a disaster before it even airs. The question, then, is: are hate-watching audiences even open to having their minds changed?

Poniewozik told me he doesn't like this question, since it "depends on reading the minds of people who disagree with me. 'Those guys can't really believe this! They're just trying to hate it!' How do I really know that?" In other words, maybe all the people who hate-watch stuff genuinely, deep-down, for real despise what they're seeing.

At the same time, Poniewozik can see where that might be a problem. "If you approach anything in life, entertainment or anything else, mainly from the standpoint of 'I am not going to be a sucker,' and you're preemptively dismissive of anything in advance so you can't be proved a sucker later ... yeah, that's sad."

Second, hate-watching ought to be undertaken in moderation, lest it become our default mode for watching things — both on and off-screen. A mind that is trained to look first for what's bad about something will probably have an easy time of finding what's bad about something. On the other hand, a mind trained to spot goodness … well, you get the idea.

But, ultimately, Poniewozik told me, "I'm not sure that there's any less sincere enjoyment of actual good things in the world as a result" of hate-watching.

So have fun hate-watching, definitely. But don't forget to enjoy things in the process — and to realize that some deep, dark part of yourself that thinks it despises what you're watching right now might secretly love it. Like everybody else, you're complicated. Embrace it.

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