From the first game show and the first rerun on, television has always been fruitful ground for guilty pleasures. Recent years have only added to the bounty. Hundreds of channels! Reality show mania! Lifetime TV movies! TV shows on DVD!
And with the advances in technology, we can now watch even the worst shows on crystal-clear high-def sets that are larger than many homes. Because really, if you're going to settle in for a nice long "CHiPs" marathon (not that there's anything wrong with that), you're going to want to see every pore on Erik Estrada's face.
"America’s Funniest Home Videos"
Watching people accidentally hurt themselves makes me laugh. Not severed-limb hurt. Just bruised from, say, a spontaneous half-gainer off a roof or a bike/sled/drunk vs. tree/shed/grandma incident. Is that a Slip N’ Slide? Trampoline? Piñata? Oh the humanity. And yet "America's Funniest Home Videos" has never realized its true potential: a rogue chimp popping some oblivious zoo ogler in the grapes. I’ve been waiting 15 years for that, suffering through Bob Sagat’s seven-year reign as America’s most hated host (Tom Bergeron, left, is now host) and countless studio audiences crowning "baby blowing a snot bubble" the show’s best clip. Guilty pleasure? Sure. How else do you come to terms with helping to perpetuate a system that disproportionately victimizes mulleted middle America by exploiting their dignity for the chance to get on the TeeVee and win $10,000? "America, America, this is you ..." indeed. —Ashley Wells
‘Beverly Hills, 90210’
By my best estimate, the amount of time I have spent watching "Beverly Hills, 90210"is 2 gazillion hours, or at least as much time as it would have taken me to read all of Proust. I don’t consider this time wasted, though. "90210" is more than just a television show for my generation — it’s a touchstone, a shorthand, a way of life. We went from giddily catching up outside our own lockers (“Did you see Brenda tell Dylan she was late? And I don’t think she meant late for class.”) to gathering with drinks as adults and mocking the characters' career choices. (“Now Donna’s a fashion designer?”) My friends are all, like me, Valerie fans. I’ve never meshed well with Brenda or Kelly fans and I don’t think there are any Donna fans. Thanks to Tivo and daily repeats on SoapNet, it may be the seventh or eighth time I’ve seen Dylan’s intervention, or Kelly’s time in the cult, or Brenda’s trip to Paris, but I know it won’t be the last. Give me a megaburger at the Peach Pit over a madeleine any day. —Hannah Meehan Spector
‘CHiPs’Every so often, my TiVo grabs an episode of "CHiPs," and I just have to sit back in wonder and amazement that the 1970s really happened. I know Erik Estrada's Ponch was supposed to be the eye candy, but he was a bit too toothy for me. I had a minor crush on Larry Wilcox's Jon, a Wyoming boy who played his part like the gentle cowboy he was. (Check — sadly, he hasn't done much since, except for sad copycats like "The Little CHP" and "CHiPs '99.") When I was growing up in the Midwest, the show screamed California to me, from the palm-lined streets to the universal tans to the oh-so-tight uniform pants. It should have stuck to car chases and crashes, though, its few attempts at hipness were as embarrassing as finding your dad in a mosh pit. Once Ralph Malph from "Happy Days" played a Gene Simmons-like character in some weird attempt to lecture kids against rock and/or Satanism and/or ugly face makeup, I'm not sure which. And it was delightfully obvious that Ponch and Jon's bikes were being pulled on a wheeled trailer. I loved it anyway, up until they replaced Jon, but really, the long, long before that. —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
‘Date My Mom’
I like to picture the boardrooms of television studios having big magnetic poetry whiteboards with words like "date, marry, bachelor, mom, dad, millionaire, midget, Rick Santorum" and every once in a while the execs shuffle the phrases to come up with the next reality flop. It's the only way I can explain the existence of "Date My Mom," MTV's latest foray into that most vile subgenre of guilty pleasure television, the dating show. "Date My Mom" puts a deliciously Oedipal twist on the concept: instead of trying to hook Mom up with some hot doctor stud, the show pairs some virile young buck with three different moms to decide whose daughter he should then ask out. Just when you thought MTV had lost all shame.
Unlike more prurient dating shows (I'm looking at you, "Blind Date"), our hero doesn't have to deal with three catfighting moms all at once, but rather gets some time with each to try and learn some more about their daughter. It's fun to watch the bachelor try to tease out some of the more shallow details without actually coming out and asking "Is she hot?" While I have to admit to rubbernecking this trainwreck, the show's production quality is pure trash. Is it too much to ask that the contestants at least try to deliver their lines with some grace? Some of the bits of dialogue are so obviously canned as to be cringeworthy, especially when bachelor and daughters meet. Of course, the embarrassing quality of such an embarrassing concept is what keeps this show in the closet with my other skeletons, buried even from my own mom. —Jim Ray
‘Elmo’s World’I grew up watching "Sesame Street," but before Elmo became a character on the show. So my first exposure to the little red monster came this year, when I discovered the joys of both fatherhood and the Noggin cable TV channel. I didn’t really expect to like Elmo. All the toys you see in Toys 'R' Us make him seem cloying and annoying. And he is all that, but ... “Elmo’s World” is also pretty darned funny. Every show, he asks a baby how to do something. And the baby doesn’t answer, and Elmo laughs. He teaches that laughing at a baby is OK! (If he tries laughing at mine, though, the fur will be flying so fast that even the other monsters won’t be able to save him.) He sings songs at the end of every show that repeat one word over and over to the “Jingle Bells” tune (like “The Feet Song.” “Feet-feet-feet. Feet-feet-feet. Feet-feet-feet-feet-feet.” Try getting that song out of your head now.). And even the really dumb jokes, like “it’s Mr. Noodle’s brother, Mr. Noodle” crack me up. Of course, that could be the sleep deprivation talking. —Craig Berman
Makeover showsOn those weekend days when I need to veg, nothing gives my remote control more of a rest than finding a marathon of fashion makeover shows: “What Not To Wear,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “How Do I Look?” or “The Look for Less.” Watching lost souls discover some sense of style — and self — never gets old for me. I sit on my couch and pretend like I know my silhouettes and my cuts. Each subject has a personal drama. The soccer mom who wears only sweats suddenly realizes there’s a sexy woman hidden inside. A teenage girl whose boyfriend was deployed to Iraq and needs a last-minute prom gown ... can she pull together a J. Lo-esque outfit in one day? Of course, there are the entertaining moments at the subject’s expense: The Fab Five will poke fun at the straight guy’s bathroom, kitchen, and closet. In “How Do I Look,” friends will throw out one’s favorite clothes. And I often wonder whether or not the subject can really stop buying culottes and oversized plaid flannel shirts. Then again, now I have a reason to look forward to the inevitable reunion shows. —Jesamyn Go
"Lace" is, hands down,the worst made-for-television movie of all time. And yet, every time it’s on, I cannot leave the house until it’s over. Phoebe Cates is Lili, an international movie star who apparently got to the top doing softcore porn. Now she's on a mission to track down her mother — who is either a cancer-curing doctor, magazine editor, or a French aristocrat. Lili travels several continents as she searches, attempting to seduce the Frenchman who may or not be her brother and the Arab prince who may or may not be her father, all in the hope that her mother will stop her. I suppose in the days before DNA testing, flirting with incest seemed like an OK way to figure out one’s paternity. It’s not until the very end of the movie that Lili utters the film’s most (and only) famous line, but for that moment, I will sit through all five dreadful hours. I just don’t think there is a more exquisite trashy moment than when she gathers all three women together and asks, “All right. Which one of you bitches is my mother?” —H.M.S.
I’ve never been a big fan of ‘70s retro-chic, but there’s something about the delirious kitsch of the original that’s hard to resist. Watching “The Match Game,” now in endless syndication on GSN, is like taking a time capsule back to the land of bright orange carpet and wide polka-dotted ties. The rules of the game hardly matter — the contestants are merely a foil for host Gene Rayburn and a roster of B-list celebrities to throw sexual innuendoes back and forth. The clothes are a kaleidoscope of improbable colors: When JoAnne Worley shows up as a guest, she fits right in. It’s not just the women, either. A typical Rayburn outfit consists of a checked suit worn with a brightly colored striped shirt and a clashing tie in a third, completely different pattern. And then there’s Charles Nelson Reilly, whose flamboyant style makes Uncle Arthur look discreet. Reilly’s putdowns of fellow celeb regular Brett Somers (and if you just said, “Who?”, get used to it — most of the guests are the ‘70s equivalent of Kathy Griffin) are another highlight. Put it altogether and you have a hallucinogenic marvel of a show. —Lori Smith
Digital cable guide
Ever since I subscribed to digital cable, I've been fascinated with one thing: the on-screen program guide. Now, through the miracle of interactivity, I can see what's coming on next, or what just ended. I can look to see who directed "Gremlins 2," or find the next showing of "The Surreal Life." And since I upgraded to a DVR, I can record any show I see with just two button pushes. While browsing, the show I'm watching stays on the screen, reduced to a quarter of the set. If the current show is boring, my microcosmically short attention span causes my finger to press "Guide" on the remote, and I start browsing. Now, I do it constantly, flipping to Saturday night to see what film HBO will debut, looking for episode repeats, or exploring prime-time lineups. I'm so obsessed with what I'm going to watch in the future that I sometimes I forget to watch what I'm watching now. —Andy Dehnart
‘Pimp My Ride’
So I’m visiting a buddy and he pops my collar like X-to-the-Z. “Whaa-whaaaat?!” says his wife, as if surprised. But I’m the one confused. They’re aping something. Probably that MTV. Turns out "Pimp My Ride" is on. And these two late-twenties white suburbanites — one an accountant, the other a doctoral candidate in divinity — are as excited as they get. We watch as the West Coast Customs crew transforms a rat-infested Pacer into … a Pacer with a juice bar, shag carpeting and a bunch of TVs?! How could they …? Why spend …? Isn’t it just gonna get broken into? During the reveal the owner nearly collapses in giddy disbelief as if on cue, sputtering “Whaa-whaaaat?!” This rapper-guy host, Xzibit (X-to-the-Z, apparently), mugs for the camera and you can tell even he thinks it’s totally insane. My buddy turns to me and says “Dude, they even put monitors in some guy’s bumpers!” Seriously, they did. I saw. It’s ridiculous. But I’m hooked. —A.W.
Forget reality shows, forget soap operas: “Starting Over” combines the best and worst of both. This syndicated show is on for a glorious five hours every week. Women seeking help with various personal problems move in to a Los Angeles mansion where they’re assigned to kooky “life coaches” (shown at right). The coaches hand out assignments that sometimes seem more like Girl Scout craft projects from hell. (Sommer, who wasn’t dealing well with her gastric bypass surgery, had to shovel pounds of fat equaling the weight she lost.) Some of the women are inspiring. Watching young Sinae, an albino who’s slowly losing her vision, learn to use a cane and realize that she could live independently, was heart-warming indeed. Still, many of us watch this show for the meltdowns as much as for the build-ups. The fact that the women all have to live together creates the juiciest fights — my favorite was when Kim, who’d been forbidden to wear makeup, was accused of stealing Sommer’s eyeshadow, and the war was on. Steal my money, take my car, but hands off my cosmetics! —G.F.C.