Television makes it so easy to indulge guilty pleasures.
Unlike going to the movies or to a concert, which are such public activities, no one needs to see you watching TV. You can tune in to your dirty little secrets at home, alone, and if you have TiVo or another decent recorder, at any old time you want. With the proliferation of cable channels for every hobby or interest, guilty-pleasure indulgence gets even easier.
So go ahead, stage your own "Real World" marathon at 3 a.m. on a Thursday in your basement rec room. We'll never tell.
“America’s Next Top Model,” UPN
There are those who wouldn’t deign to watch a reality TV show. Somehow, they’ve decided that preferring a moronic episode of “Two and a Half Men” actually makes them morally superior. To those people I offer my sympathies. Because, if they’re not watching “America’s Next Top Model,” they’re missing out on a TV show that has more laughs than the entire Monday night CBS lineup combined (and personally, I don’t love “Raymond”).
Led by master ringleader and shameless self-promoter Tyra Banks (whatever happened to that musical career, Tyra?), the show puts would-be supermodels through their paces. Naked photo shoots: Check. Makeovers that leave contestants in tears: Check. The show also features a collection of the bitchiest judges you will ever meet; the star of the panel being “original supermodel” Janice Dickerson, whose plastic surgery has turned her into a supermodel version of Jack Nicholson’s Joker character. Cat fights and tears fill almost every episode and both seasons have had their devilish delights.
In season two, we watched Shandi go from Wallmart wallflower to boyfriend-cheating vixen, while Camile bragged that her bizarre signature walk would make her a star. In season one, in a fit of frustration and complete honesty, the frighteningly thin Elyse went off on a hilarious rant ripping apart every woman on the show. Meanwhile, Robin toted her Bible everywhere she went — even to a fancy dinner out. The joys of this show are just too numerous to list. UPN has been rerunning season one, and will hopefully replay season two before the new season this fall. The rest of you, enjoy the canned laughter of your lousy sitcoms. —Paige Newman
Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster Documentaries
Is there a better way to spend a Saturday than stumbling across a double bill of documentaries on the Loch Ness Monster and Sasquatch — complete with grainy film stock, absolutely certain eyewitnesses, and high-tech, yet ultimately useless, scientific gadgetry? Get comfortable, butt, because we’re settling in for an afternoon of vicarious monster hunting.
Is the Loch Ness Monster a leftover plesiosaur from the Mesozoic era? Is a clan of benign hairy creatures living in the thick tangle of Pacific Northwest woods? Even when the latest footage of Nessie looks a little like a hand puppet, or when Bigfoot’s wearing tennis shoes, it’s good TV, plain and simple. Sure, the lack of evidence says otherwise, but I like to imagine that these two — who have eluded proof-hunters for decades — really do exist. Maybe they even know each other and compare notes about the quixotic crypto-zoologists on their respective tails. “Dude, did you see the face of that one Scottish guy when I popped up out of the water and looked him square in the eye? He totally saw me.”
But don’t get too cocky, Nessie and Bigfoot. Keep posing for blurry photos of fins and muddled plaster footprints. That’ll hold those pesky scientists. And me, too — as long as they bring a film crew along for the ride. —Brian Bellmont
"The Brady Bunch"
Here's the story ... of a true addiction. I had a 1970s happy family, but I still savor "Brady Bunch" reruns, and always test myself to see how many lines it takes before I can identify the episode. Hey, it's the one where they save Woodland Park! Or where Carol has the fender-bender! Now it's the one where Alice's identical cousin makes them all do calisthenics! Ooh, my favorite ... the one where they catch Greg smoking, but the cigs really belong to Tommy, the son of the militant anti-smoking mom! BUSTED!
My husband and I even once paid a visit to the Studio City, Calif. house that played the Brady house in the show's credits (it's a one-story, the second-story window shown on the outside was a fake). There's a comfort in watching this show, how it's always been there for us, much like how the Brady family always came together for each other.
For a while in the 1990s, it was cool again to love "The Brady Bunch." "The Real Live Brady Bunch" acted out old scripts on stage, Barry "Greg Brady" Williams published "Growing Up Brady," and two goofy movies with Shelley Long packed in the crowds. "Brady Bunch" fever has faded now, but always, somewhere, the show is playing, in beautifully faded 1970s colors, the Astroturf lawn as plasticky fresh as the day it was laid down. —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
There's a cable network for everyone — movie buffs, soccer fans, pilots — and there's also one for us true-crime buffs. Court TV is a crime junkie's dream come true. During the weekday, the channel shows actual courtroom testimony, in the evenings and on weekends it switches to both fictional and . The network's an eyeopener for those who think they'll go to law school because of all the nonstop excitement — often the trial coverage bogs down in interminable dull questioning or dry expert testimony. But for those of us who find all the detail embarrassingly fascinating, Court TV is the greatest use of cable television ever. —G.F.C.
Dating showsI admit to having a black-hole relationship with reality dating shows. These are televised junk food: good for about a minute, and then you feel gross and cheated later.
"Blind Date" is the clear-cut captain of the ship. Not only does host Roger Lodge have one of the dumbest names ever for an actual person, but "Blind Date" is all about mano-a-womano interplay. There’s the subtle nuance of that moment our strangers first lay eyes upon one another, camera crew in tow. Then it’s on to the flirty yet guarded awkwardness of ceramic-pot painting or tango dance instruction. And finally, there’s the bliss that comes with rejecting said stranger at the threshold of their home/hotel room. Toss in some emasculating "Pop-Up Video" snarkiness and Highlights-era graphics, and you’ve got yourself a warm sticky pot of unscripted gold.
"Elimidate" and "5th Wheel" punch it up to competitive levels. Both line up a handful of trashy, overbaked folk and pit them against each other for the hand of an equally trashy, yet somehow superior mate. "Elimidate" fiddles with the Surivivor-esque device of voting someone off, which would be fine, except those voted off end up back in the dating pool for Adult Swim. "5th Wheel" carts four contestants around on a six-wheeled bus to go on mini-dates with each other until the mysterious 5th Wheel arrives to "mix things up" and "turn the party out." (I have often dreamt of being this 5th Wheel. No lie.) Eventually, natural selection takes over, pairs are mated, and one person gets to leave with dignity, or possibly a screen-printed 5th Wheel t-shirt.
But what draws my gravity into these cosmic pits of TV despair is the idea that all this is exactly what you SHOULDN’T do when on a fresh date. I’d like to think that anyone who appreciates these kinds of shows actually knows better, and these shows prove it. Then again, I’m at home watching UPN while there’s Chet and Muffy doing body shots in Topeka. Who’s the sucker here, really? —Greg Perez
“Degrassi: The Next Generation," The N
Afterschool specials may have died out, but their watch-and-learn-by-terrible-example spirit lives in “Degrassi.” Watch Ashley take ecstasy at a party, proceed to insult all her friends and become a social outcast. Watch Terri — of the terminally overplucked eyebrows — be put into a coma by her possessive boyfriend Rick. Watch Manny seduce Craig by agreeing to be the little secret he keeps from his girlfriend. Oh, yes, “Degrassi” has everything: petty theft, child beaters, cancer, cutters — there are enough lessons here to make those wacky kids on “Seventh Heaven” seem like they haven’t been through anything yet.
The show is sort of a spinoff of the original “Degrassi Junior High” and “Degrassi High School” and even features characters from the original. Remember Spike and Snake? Well, they’re now married. Yes, the acting is pretty bad (especially my namesake: the popular yet bitchy Paige) and some of the lessons are groan-worthy — as in, did you realize that lying is bad? Well, now you know — but it will bring you back to the days when you sat in front of your TV watching one of those afterschool specials in which some pretty blond made the fatal mistake of hitchhiking. Won’t these wacky kids ever learn? —Paige Newman
Lifetime Television for WomenThey don’t call it “Television for Women” for nothing. After a horrific date, watching Meredith Baxter-Birney’s ire and twisted rage culminate in the murder of her ex-husband and his lover-turned-wife in “Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story” can seem oddly appropriate, maybe even justified. Sure she was a little loopy, but what the heck? At that point, all men were scumbags as flashes ran through my mind of the touchy-feely — and cheap — record-label lawyer trying to paw and kiss me in the cab. Bring on another wronged-woman tale!
I probably should have gotten off the sofa and at least showered when noon rolled around, but got sucked in by some other flick like “The Burning Bed” or “Rage of Angels,” almost certainly starring Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, Cheryl Ladd or Kate Jackson. (Charlie must have been calling the shots at Lifetime, too.)
Two o’clock came and went. Then four, then six. At least I didn’t have to look at the clock since I knew the day was being measured in two-hour movie blocks.
After a full dozen hours of man-bashing movies, there's nothing like a great girl-power flick to wind things down at 10 p.m., and “Steel Magnolias” is my all-time fave, airing on Lifetime at least once a week. Of course I watch it every time it washes up when I'm channel surfing. Who can resist lines like, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me?” —Katie Cannon
When I was a kid, we had four televisions in our home — one was broken, but it still counted because it tuned to one channel. So, when I got married, we agreed to have just one set. Our strategy: cut down on our daily dose of idiot box. This worked for years until my wife recently started watching extreme makeover shows. Here’s the rundown of some favorites in our home. Uh, not mine, of course.
"The Swan": I really hate watching this show. Viewers feel degraded along with the women when they're ridiculed as "ugly ducklings" before the makeovers. But hate aside, I always wait until the end to see the melodrama when the (sometimes amazing) makeovers are revealed to the audience and the contestants.
"I Want a Famous Face": As the title says, these folks want to look like famous people. One big problem: The makeovers don’t even help them come close. In one infamous episode, twin 20-year-old guys supposedly wanted to look like Brad Pitt. The makeover surgery did clear up their biggest problem — horrible acne. But Brad Pitt? Please! MTV should change the show title to, "I Want a (State Your Name) Face."
"Monster House": Unlike other extreme-makeover shows, the focus of this reality series is to redo someone’s house. The contractors are pretty creative with some of their ideas, but I get the impression that some of the stuff they build — like a huge remote-controlled Mardi Gras mask that opens up to reveal an entertainment center and karaoke machine — doesn’t work or would fall apart. —Paul Buckman
I don't know when it started — during the first season of "The Sopranos," perhaps, when Christopher Moltisanti toddled out of the hospital wearing a cervical collar and tube socks. Or maybe it was the sight of him in a bathrobe, during his SoHo Grand tryst with D-girl Alicia Witt, that did it. I don't know when, and I don't know how, but I developed a gigantic crush on Michael Imperioli.
The crush, it cannot be killed. The horribly tacky sweatsuits he wears, the outdated Q-tip coif … well, I grew up in Jersey, so you could say I'm immune to the horrors of that look. But even the behavior of the character he plays can't dampen my ardor. Christopher sat on Adriana's little purse dog and killed it, and I spent the scene admiring his sideburns. Christopher wound up in rehab, and I groaned, not because I didn't think he needed the help but because Imperioli wouldn't get as many scenes.
"Bu t… but his nose! It's huge!" I know. And that's the most embarrassing part of this crush, because I think his nose is awesome. Sexy. Imperial, even, if you'll forgive the pun. A big nose gives a face character, and if Imperioli didn't have that regal schnozz, I don't think I'd find him attractive. But he does, and I do, and he's married and too short for me but I don't care, no ma'am. —Sarah D. Bunting
Oprah “After the Show”
OK, Oprah’s regular show is far from a guilty pleasure. She has an audience of millions who tune in each day to hear about her latest book club selection, how to achieve personal fulfillment and to watch her interview Hollywood’s A-list. The real guilty pleasure is watching Oprah’s outtakes on “After the Show” on the Oxygen Network. If you think she gushes over Mike Myers and Brad Pitt during her regular show, she’s positively Old Faithful-like “After the Show.” This is where we find out where Oprah and Brad went for dinner with Jen last time she was in L.A. and how much Nicole Kidman really digs Steadman’s dance moves.
You need an extra dose of insulin to watch this sticky-sweet lovefest. But what really makes it worth watching is Oprah's interaction with the audience. She banters, she coaches, she jokes, she cries and she preaches to the converted who fill her audience. She personally was handing out the smelling salts to the sobbing masses after her “My Favorite Things After the Show.” OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration but she could have, and it would have been all good. —Denise Hazlick
Police-video shows with Sgt. John BunnellOnce upon a time, the only way you could show film of horrific traffic accidents to the general public was to package them into a cautionary social-hygiene film. Today, we have “World’s Wildest Police Videos” and “World’s Scariest Police Chases.” Producers collect footage filmed from police cars, cut them together, and air them in the family hour. (Thanks, Fox!)
While “COPS” tends to focus on the amusing banter that can occur between peace officers and their drunken constituents, “World’s Wildest” and “Scariest” are all the cheap thrills with none of the subtextual class commentary: guy steals car, cops give chase, and an awesome crash ensues. In order for the hour not to devolve into a near-snuff film, producers intersperse the road footage with interviews with the cops involved, who sternly tell us exactly why we shouldn’t try to elude the police. (Although this lesson is probably lost on those of us so square that we’re at home on a Friday night watching grainy footage of teenagers joyriding in their dad’s Celica.)
Presiding as our host is retired cop Sgt. John Bunnell, he of the leathery visage, silver coif, and tasteful traffic-related pun. Bunnell (or “Bunny,” as I would never, ever call him to his face) has no patience for the jokers and chuckleheads who snarl up America’s roads with their irresponsible and dangerous behavior. However, he is not above humiliating them on television for our entertainment…er, I mean, “edification.” —Tara Ariano
"Powerball: The Game Show"
"Jeopardy" aside, TV game shows can be tawdry affairs, half-hour doses of cheap materialism and greed. And "Powerball," a tie-in to the multi-state lottery game, is the pinnacle of that kind of show — a sad, can't-look-away sensation that reminds me of the time I was trapped in a restaurant with two guys from high school who turned out to be Amway salesmen.
It wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve never heard of the show — it’s only on in the 10 states that participate in the Powerball lottery. That fact leads also to the show’s bizarre practice of giving each state its own contestant, who play both for themselves and all the scratch-ticket players from their home state, who can win prizes if their state’s player does well.
Having 10 contestants appear together makes them look like a lost and befuddled tourist group that's waiting for the bus to Graceland. Combine that with host Bob Eubanks' huckstery manner and apparent lack of interest in learning their names ("and now the nice lady from Kentucky, spin that wheel!"), and you’ve got a show I could not take my eyes off.
I lost touch shortly before Eubanks left in 2002 and was replaced by Todd Newton. Yet I’ll always think fondly of the Eubanks version, the perfect marriage of the world's most unctuous host with the world's tawdriest show concept. —Christopher Bahn
"The Real World"
I've , about how MTV's "The Real World" has gone downhill since its 1992 start. Yet I can't turn away from this pioneering reality trainwreck, in which seven young people are chosen to live in a freakishly gorgeous house and be filmed constantly. Viewers should get a combat medal for tolerating the Las Vegas season alone — that season featured the "seven strangers" living in the Palms casino, where they threw parties in the Rain nightclub, got drunk, and engaged in threesomes in the hot tub.
The most recent season, San Diego, was only marginally better — punk poseur Frankie even managed to whine about the group's free vacation to Greece. Yet I can't stay away. I've been following media reports on the cast currently filming in Philly, and I even know their dumb group job involves working for Jon Bon Jovi's arena-football team. And when the dang new season premieres with seven new bubbleheads, I'll no doubt be tuned in. —G.F.C.