What makes bad culture bad? And more importantly perhaps, what makes bad culture good? It's something I’ve had cause to consider over the past year.
One of my jobs is to write reviews and round ups of Netflix original film releases, so I, perhaps more than most, have suffered through the worst of what the streaming service has to offer. I have seen every sub-par Adam Sandler release (his contract with them ensures there is one every few months). I have watched each Mills and Boon-lite romantic comedy about horse riders who become paralysed and find love despite it all. Hell, I sat through the entirety of The Package, an execrable supposed comedy whose humour relies on a penis being cut off a teen boy and then repeatedly lost.
So there are bad films and television series, which I hate sitting through, which make me feel real despair at the thought of the millions of dollars and the hours of labour which went into making them. But there’s another kind of bad. There’s the kind of bad which viewers sincerely love consuming, the bad we stay up until dawn to devour every last bit of, even though we are totally aware that it is, indeed, bad.
Of course taste is subjective but I’m talking about the kinds of entertainment that nobody could really consider to be intelligent or original, the kinds of things which lean into their shameless lack of nuance and depth. A curious trend has begun on Netflix of producing things which look to be intentionally bad in the manner I’m describing. Two of the breakout success stories of the last year were the shows You and What/If. You was a twisty sarcastic thriller following Joe, played by Penn Badgeley, a man who seems to the outside world and his new girlfriend to be simply a sensitive bookshop clerk but who transpires to be a psychopathic stalker. What/If was an erotic psycho-drama starring a deliciously demented Renee Zellwegger as a conniving CEO who destroys an innocent couple with her sexual games.
Both You and What/If were lapped up by eager audiences who were fully aware that their new favourite show was actively stupid, poorly written trash. What, I’ve been wondering, then separates a bad show which we love and a bad show we feel annoyed by? How does a bad bit of entertainment transcend its badness and become so-bad-it’s-good? Sometimes it’s through sheer absurdity- the attempt to make something good or at least passable fails with such spectacular aplomb that it becomes hilarious.
The Room, the legendarily bad movie which became an international viewing party sensation, falls under this bracket. Susan Sontag in her Notes on Camp elucidated the appeal of bad culture by describing their "failed seriousness". In the case of The Room and other cult classics like it, this is certainly the case. But in the case of Netflix, their bad-bad products and their bad-good products seem to me to be something else. They seem divided by the presence of intention. In the bad-good, like You and What/ If we can clearly feel that the makers were aware of the hoary old tropes they were drawing on, and more importantly, aware that we the viewers were also aware. They were aware of how farcical the plot twists, how meaningless the character developments, but, so were we. The audience then feels included in, not patronised, by the production of trash.
What makes a bad production, then, what makes a bad film irredeemable, is the total lack of this reaching out to the audience to include them in this way. Any film or show I have watched which leaves me feeling dispirited and annoyed at the waste of my time has tended to have a veneer of totally transparent aspiration to be a genuinely good film. This veneer becomes insulting when the actual result is so lacklustre, so poorly scripted, with performances by actors you can see are counting down the minutes until they get paid. Adam Sandler, the crowned prince of Netflix, is the perfect example. His worst films are those with attempts toward unearned sentimentality, while all of his best are pure comedy- stupid, crass, certainly, but earnest and honestly made.