Television

In Defense of Doing Away With Guilty Pleasures

The CW's excellent Jane the Virgin reminds us there is no such thing as a true guilty pleasure.

When people look back on whatever legacy Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House might have left, it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking of this: While fleeting, few and far between, there were these tiny moments in random episodes of the FOX series during which the story’s main protagonist was seen watching professional wrestling. He would spend 18 straight hours in a hospital, saving lives and pissing people off, but at the end of some days, he would sit on his couch, turn on the television, and watch over-muscled shirtless men jump off top ropes onto other over-muscled, shirtless men. 

The dichotomy between this brilliant mind and the perceived mindlessness that goes into being a fan of professional wrestling was a smart touch by the series’ creators. He’s painted to sometimes be quite literally the only doctor in the world who could solve a problem or save a life, yet he unwinds not by reading medical books or studying his craft. Instead, he prefers to get lost in predetermined outcomes, occasionally cheesy acting, and what some may classify as “low-brow” entertainment. 

It was, according to commonly accepted terminology, the character’s "guilty pleasure".

I have a hard time with that term. A very hard time, actually. Whoever said we have to feel guilty for liking certain things? Whoever said we should feel guilty for liking certain things? And more so, to whom are we referring in this equation, anyway? How does it fall on other people to tell us what we should and should not like? Why does it matter if I like something you think is small-minded or tasteless or a waste of time? Why should it matter if I think something you like is dumb, not entertaining or somehow indicative of what type of person you are? 

Each time I hear that phrase, "guilty pleasure" uttered, I can’t help but think: Nobody should feel guilty about these things. We like what we like. Even if that means you’re a brilliant doctor who has a secret affection for pro wrestling, you shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying it. Again: You like what you like. 

Which is why I don’t understand the reaction some people are giving the CW’s fantastic new series, Jane the Virgin. Whenever I share conversations with those who watch it, that phrase is constantly brought up. Guilty pleasure. It’s as though they can’t bring themselves to take the thing seriously. There’s this subtext to each time the exchange occurs: “Well, I like it, but … you know?” To which, I always want to reply: “Actually, I don’t know. I thought you said you liked it?” 

It’s unfair. Not only to Jane the Virgin, but other television series that dare use bright colors or absurd plot lines or kitschy aesthetics or soap opera tendencies or focused ethnicity or heightened drama or witty comedy. Or, in other words, it’s also unfair to a show like Ugly Betty which, for what it’s worth, was also a series I constantly heard people tell me was little more than a “guilty pleasure”. 

Me? I think Ugly Betty is one of the five most culturally important television programs of the last ten years. It brought a Latino family front and center. It not only showcased the many advantages of learning how to be yourself, but it also encouraged that you be yourself. It portrayed homosexuality in a way that had rarely been achieved in the mainstream, let alone on a network like ABC. And it gave a prominent voice to an entire race of human beings.

So, you tell me: Why should anybody feel guilty about supporting a show like that and declaring they like it without, you know, adding that phrase?

Yet, at least in the case of Jane the Virgin, viewers still find ways to label it as such.

Jane the Virgin is my new guilty pleasure,” a viewer posted on Whisper

“Its the guilty pleasure you want to brag about,” a commenter wrote on an A.V. Club review.

“This show looks like it could become a guilty pleasure for many viewers,” Cabletv.com’s Treva Bowdoin wrote in October. ("Jane the Virgin Isn’t a Show About Premarital Sex", cabletv.com)

Huh?

And before you roll your eyes at the thought of getting so riled up over a simple two-word term that’s as embedded in television consumption as “jumping the shark”, consider: How often have you seen widely perceived “guilty pleasures” survive with any amount of respect? The joke, in effect, is always funny until, well, until it’s not funny anymore. Giving something the "guilty pleasure" label almost immediately compromises any intellectual regard the series or work of art may have otherwise been capable of achieving. Just look at what appeared on the website TV Over Mind earlier this month, keeping the phrase “guilty pleasure” in mind:

"Jane the Virgin is a well-made show with a talented cast and a great hook for a core concept, but I worry how long it can be stretched out,” Paul Tassi wrote. “As a parody of telenovelas with ridiculous, unbelievable plots, the problem is that Jane has a ridiculous, unbelievable plot, which is now sometimes so absurd, with new, insane developments each week, that it’s hard to care enough to follow along. Why get attached to any one arc when something insane happens every twenty minutes? Again, this is a symptom of the genre it’s a parody of, but at what point does the show simply become a telenovela, and lose the effect of the ever-present wink and smile? That’s how we’ve moved into ‘comedy without jokes’ territory, and I worry the show could run out of steam and lose an interested audience unless it reels in its plotlines at least a little bit.” ("Jane the Virgin Is Suffering Because It’s Become the Thing It Parodies", 3 February 2015)

Ahhh, but you see, Mr. Tassi, that’s the point. Jane the Virgin works because it's as shamelessly absurd as it is. Yet it’s hard not to think that such is also why the series is dismissed as a guilty pleasure to some. The Wire never had to deal with this, for instance, because it tackled Very Serious Issues in a Very Real Manner. Jane the Virgin, meanwhile, is based on the story of a woman who has never had sex, but gets pregnant through an artificial insemination mixup. 

Nobody’s reducing Stringer Bell’s drug ring to a mockery of organized crime. Yet as soon as Sin Rostro is revealed, cement mixer and all, the tendency for some — or, at least Paul Tassi — is to roll their eyes. Even though, all things equal, whining about Jane the Virgin being wacky and unbelievable is sort of like complaining that The Wire’s plot is too complex or intertwined. You know what you’re getting into. Embrace what it is or turn the other way. 

Which leads me to the somewhat scary future of embracing something like Jane the Virgin. Going back to the parallels the series appears to share with Ugly Betty, its “guilty pleasure” brethren of sorts, have a look at the latter show's trajectory. When the ABC dramedy burst onto the scene in 2006, it averaged an 11.3 in Neilsen’s ratings system for the first season. America Ferrera won both the Emmy and the Golden Globe for her performance, and the series itself enjoyed a slew of nominations in a wide range of awards ceremonies. 

Yet by the time the series was canceled in 2010, it sank all the way to a 5.5. rating and the abundance of trophies dried up. Was it because the novelty of it being a “guilty pleasure” wore off? Was it because the later seasons could never live up to the standard its first run set? Or, as Tassi pointed out, did the plotlines become too unbelievable and did the audience that once adored it for its wackiness turn against it for the same reasons? 

My guess is it’s probably a combination of all three of those things. Which is a shame, because if Jane the Virgin follows suit — and lead actress Gina Rodriguez winning the Golden Globe recently only furthers that hypothesis — that means it’s only a matter of time before people start bailing on such an increasingly entertaining and consistently important television series. 

Oh, and about the whole “important” thing …

“Rodriguez chose Jane instead of a role in Lifetime's Devious Maids because she didn't appreciate the way the latter show represented her people,” The Huffington Post’s Lauren Duca wrote in January. “Representation is important. This feels obvious. Although, apparently it isn’t since American TV is the whitest and most homogenized thing since homogenized milk. In general, just seeing people who look like you on TV (or, as she put it, as ‘heroes’) is a big deal. And Jane provides that visibility in a realm that is severely lacking.” ("What The 'Jane The Virgin' Golden Globe Win Could Mean For The Future Of TV", 15 January 2015)

Need proof? Check out these numbers, taken from Bloomberg’s Claire Suddath while writing about the show earlier this year: “Although 17 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic, their political issues and personal struggles rarely show up in prime time,” she wrote. “According to a 2014 Columbia University study, only 3 percent of supporting film or TV roles go to Hispanic men. Less than 10 percent go to women.”

Rodriguez used the word “heroes” in her Golden Globe acceptance speech while referring to how the culture from which she came wishes to view itself and I don’t think that was too strong a word. You don’t need to look much further than this year’s Academy Award nominees to see how non-diverse the current landscape of peer recognition in the mainstream seems to be. There are entire races of people who feel entirely unrepresented in American popular culture, especially on television and in the movies. 

Jane the Virgin, much like Ugly Betty, provides a platform for a voice that is criminally underrepresented in America’s modern day entertainment industry which, in truth, makes it all the more imperative that this series strive with both longevity and trust. It didn’t take long before the Ugly Betty cancellation rumors began to swirl after its third season, and rarely did it feel as though anyone was taking into account the relevance of the series from a cultural standpoint. It wasn’t entertaining anymore, people argued, and it was just too crazy to fully invest in. 

I hope that the same doesn’t happen with Jane the Virgin. With half a season behind it, the series has proven its worth as a story with endless charms that feels both fresh and honest. Honest not only to the story it’s trying to tell, but also to the culture it represents (can you even name another CW series that occasionally uses subtitles?). It deserves a fair shot at longevity and it deserves the opportunity to stand its ground as one of the few Latino-based series the current slate of TV offers. 

Plus, where else are you going to find a series with the chutzpah to call out immigration reform as blatantly as it did when Jane’s grandmother was in the hospital? Now, that’s what it means to be an imperative television series, no?

“She revolutionised television,” Jane the Virgin showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman told The Guardian while talking about Shonda Rhimes recently. “When she cast Grey’s Anatomy, it said: ‘This is America. Black, white, men, women, Asian, Latina.’ And from that we got Scandal and we got How to Get Away With Murder and we got everybody realising that we have to look at casting in a different way and that television should look like America.” ("Jane the Virgin's Minority Themes Make It a Serious Sitcom Hit", by Claire Suddath, Bloomberg News, 15 January 2015)

Indeed. Jane the Virgin has brought to the forefront precisely how imperative it is to give each voice its own opportunity, to give each voice its own fair play. You can call it a telenovela rip off. You can call it absurd. You can call it over-the-top. You can call it a fun series filled with whimsy and intrigue and diversity. You can call it a cheesy play on a television genre that is reserved for middle-to-low-brow tastes. You can call it whatever you want.

But whatever you do, just don’t call it a guilty pleasure. For the amount it’s been able to accomplish — both from a cultural standpoint and a strictly entertaining standpoint — in such a short amount of time, Jane the Virgin has set itself above its peers and stepped forth as one of the most promising and essential series on contemporary American television. 

Thus, it needs to be said: No guilt ought to be attached here, and there’s no need for anyone to pull a Dr. House whenever they return home from work on a Monday night. For in the world of Jane Gloriana Villanueva, watching the trials and tribulations of her life unfold on the small screen, well, that’s nothing but pleasure. 

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