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500 channels of Guilty Pleasures

TV's less glamorous corners: where Bob Ross meets the Olsen twins, and the Wookies have a reunion.
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There is no shortage of guilty pleasures on TV. After all, what's the appeal of 500 channels if you can't fill 499 of them with something utterly frivolous?

What separates mere boob-tube guilty pleasures from true Guilty Pleasures, then, is a certain abundance of the absurd.  This year's crop spans the decades, yet these aren't shows you admit to watching because they make you seem somehow a bit retro-hip. Whether it's the Olsen twins in their pre-toothpick days, or watching real cops , you're more likely to watch these under cover of darkness, with the shades drawn.

And that's why we love them all the more.

‘Pants Off Dance Off’I like watching people dance on TV. I like watching people take off their clothes. I like watching music videos. Therefore, I like Fuse’s It’s this show where people strip for cash to music videos. My favorite contestants so far have been the white guy who did the junk-flop in boxer briefs to a 50 Cent video like he was Jennifer Grey and Mr. Cent his Patrick Swayze; and the woman named Miss Tickle who gyrated in a head-to-toe latex sheet, wriggling around like a skinny Leigh Bowery before finally taking off everything but the rubbery helmet on her head. When I watch it, I glaze over. It’s like the train from Stupidtown stopped at my house, the conductor yelling, “All aboard! We’re going in a circle right back to Stupidtown!” But I get on anyway. It goes well with beer and Pop Tarts. So far I’ve only seen “hot” muscular and/or boobular contestants on the show, even though the opening credits show a fat guy dancing shirtless. And I especially love to watch fat people dance. If I ran the show, I’d go find more of that. –Dave White

‘Saved by the Bell’

Other generations are defined by “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” or “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Generation X gets: “I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m so… SCAAAAAAARREEED!” Thus spake Jessie Spano, terrifyingly hopped up on caffeine pills. This particular installment of “Saved By the Bell,” that ’90s NBC Saturday morning gem, offers a leotard-clad encapsulation of why, even as we move on to mortgages, non-neon clothing and children of our own, we cannot look away from Zach and his Montana–sized cell phone: Screech in drag. Slater in hair oil. Kelly Kapowski in those stupid, stupid Keds. Math-wheeling Jessie in caffeine detox, which apparently requires a major hospital stay, complete with IV. And Lisa, lovely Lisa, being … rich, I guess. Why did this school apparently only have twenty students and the same three teachers? Why was there only one classroom? Who would actually buy a Buddy Band? This, however, we do know: I have my TV comfort food, and it tastes an awful lot like a dastardly caffeine addiction. -Mary Beth Ellis

‘The Joy of Painting’

Life seemed much simpler when Afro-topped Bob Ross, host of “The Joy of Painting,” was busy painting a beautiful landscape. Little footy hills and happy little clouds abound in the utopias he created on canvas. Ross, whose TV show ran from 1983-1993, made painting itself seem so simple, only taking a half-hour to finish each of his masterpieces. His soothing voice, which carries on in public TV reruns, taught not only lessons in painting, but valuable lessons in life. “We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents,” was one of his favorite lines — and mine, because it could apply to nearly everything. He frequently reminded viewers, “You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.” With a little Titanium White and a dab of Cadmium Yellow, anything did seem possible with the help of Bob Ross — even for those lacking artistic ability, just like me. -Traci McMurray

Forensics shows“Whodunit?” you ask. “Who cares?” I say. The thrill of the crime isn't the revelation that the philandering ex-boyfriend did it. Of course he did. Nah, the payoff is learning how the perp did it, and how — even though he thought he'd covered his tracks with latex, bleach and careful alibis — the forces of justice inevitably catch up with him. Primetime dramas are a farce.

You won’t actually find the cast of the “OC” at the helm of an electron microscope or a crime lab designed by Michael Mann. Tough cases get solved by nerds in underfunded, overworked police departments, on the "The New Detectives" and "Forensic Files." On these shows, narrators Gene Galusha and Peter Thomas lay down hardcore forensic smack, revealing that dynamite contains microscopic identifiers and that police can trace tiny pieces of molten metal on a decomposed body back to the lathe in the metal shop where the victim’s murderous ex once worked. For geeks who dream of walking in the gumshoes of real forensic scientists, “CSI” can’t hold a UV wand to the offerings on the Discovery Channel, Court TV and A&E. -Josh Belzman

‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’

Whenever I start to feel as if everything I write is utter hooey, a certain bootlegged videotape cuts through those feelings of inadequacy faster than a lightsaber through an aging Jedi master. “The Star Wars Holiday Special” calms the nerves, reinvigorates the spirit, and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that even creative geniuses can stink worse than bantha poo every once in a while. I’m not proud of the fact that George Lucas’ most notorious misstep makes me feel so good, but damn, does it ever. Shot on videotape, it aired just once, in 1978, then sparked widespread revulsion for its nearly unfathomable craptasticness. The show (written by, among others, Bruce Vilanch) follows Chewbacca’s family as they wait for the Wookie to return home. There’s Chewie’s wife; his unfortunately named son, Lumpy; and Itchy, his horribly disfigured — and, no doubt smelly — father. The original “Star Wars” gang makes perfunctory appearances, including an overly made-up Mark Hamill and a stumbly Carrie Fisher. And it all spirals even further into surreal territory when Bea Arthur, Art Carney and Harvey Korman start stepping in shtick. It’s terrible, and I love it — schadenfreude of intergalactic proportions. –Brian Bellmont

“Stargate: Atlantis”

I know, I know, the new “Battlestar Galactica” and “Doctor Who” are reinventing the sci-fi genre, exploring new levels of … blah blah blah. I don’t care. Sometimes you want popcorn, not a four-course meal. Give me a pretty boy pilot, a snarky scientist (picture Dr. House with nuclear weapons), a ridiculous premise to explain intergalactic travel and I’m happy. “Stargate: Atlantis” (not to be confused with its progenitor, the long-running “Stargate SG-1”) also comes with equal-opportunity alien eye candy, a woman commander who is neither a bitch nor secretly in love with a co-worker and a Big Bad whose motive is no more complex than wanting to eat the humans. This is classic sci-fi in all its finest, cheesiest glory, complete not only with “Star Trek” in-jokes but “Star Trek” (and “X-Files”) guest stars. Just don't take it seriously. The medical ethics alone are enough to make you crazy, not to mention the xenocide and rape featured in recent episodes. Hopefully, the creators will get over their ham-handed "Galactica" envy soon and focus on what's really important: more jokes about Sheppard's hair. -Lori Smith

Multicultural ‘Super Friends’They were at best borderline inappropriate and at worst ragingly racist, but there was something about the three multicultural “Super Friends” that kept me tuning in. Samurai, Black Vulcan and Apache Chief were added to the 1978 Saturday morning cartoon “Challenge of the Super Friends” (now out on DVD), no doubt, to balance the lily-whiteitude of original heroes Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman. Admirable intentions; cringe-worthy implementation. How can you not wince when you watch this culturally diverse trio try to battle evil as they embody every racial stereotype in the book? Samurai “summons his ancient powers” and defeats an out-of-control video game. “I never knew you were so skilled in electronics,” Wonder Woman beams. Apache Chief speaks in broken English and touts his “Indian tracking abilities.” Black Vulcan, like all the other non-original Super Friends, is saddled with a superhero name based primarily on his ethnicity. (Why wasn’t he just called “Vulcan”?) I know I shouldn’t get a kick out of how politically incorrect and one-note they were, but God help me, I do. It was like tuning in to an animated version of “Crash.” –Brian Bellmont

Jane Fonda workout videos

A lot of people ask me: Paige, how do you maintain that incredible physique? At least, I imagine someone will ask me this one day, so I keep an answer ready. It isn’t some fancy ball that works my “core.” It isn’t Pilates and it doesn’t involve Billy Blanks. It’s workout tapes by Fonda. Jane Fonda is so good, she has an opening act in her own video. Before Jane appears, a young gym bunny bounces back and forth and sings, “You’re much more than meets the eye.” This inspires my inner fat kid, and whets my appetite for Fonda. I also love the back-up exercisers’ ensembles. Imagine Care Bear hides stretched over the taut bodies of 12 poofy-haired women and one buff but effeminate man. Best of all, the dated exercises, synthesized music and pervasive use of scrunchies as hair restraint devices mean that I get to combine the endorphin surge of physical fitness with the adrenaline rush of: “What if I get caught?” So laugh all you want. Summer’s here, my Jane Fonda videos (yes, videos) are out, and soon everyone will be begging to bounce a quarter off my glutes. -Paige Ferrari

‘Full House’

The other day, I watched “Full House” three times and was thrilled that none of the episodes overlapped with the ones I own on DVD. I pay for enhanced cable primarily so I can watch the reruns on Nickelodeon. Yes, I admit, I’m a die-hard fan of the heart-to-heart moments, the sister rivalry and the moans when Kimmy Gibler walks into the Tanner household. Sure, my habit makes it tempting to spend days on end figuring out how to nourish the Olsen twins. And it is a little weird that Joey and Uncle Jesse never left after moving in to help Danny raise the girls. But who can resist the corny music, Bob Saget’s acting, or the predictable plotlines that always end with a hardy life lesson? Through the seasons, the house got fuller. Cousins, boyfriends and pets were introduced, each with their own set of terrible ’80s clothing (even Comet the dog was occasionally stuck with a brightly colored bandana). The quality had nowhere to go but up — and yet somehow, “Full House” proudly maintained its mediocrity until the bitter end. -Elizabeth Chuck