One of my favorite pop-cultural questions for anyone I’d like to know a little better: “What’s the worst TV show you’ve watched all the way to the end?”
It’s not the same as inquiring about your guilty-pleasure viewing, or the series you binged in a weekend, or even the thing you like that everybody else hates. It’s a matter of completism in the face of aggressively poor quality. Even you know it sucks, and you’re not actually enjoying it. Maybe you’re morbidly fascinated by the depths to which it might sink. You’ve become a sort of academic, honing in on an incredibly niche field of study. You begin to take ownership of it.
For many years, I could say that the worst TV show I watched all the way to the end — and what a fittingly terrible end it had! — was Dexter. Airing on Showtime from 2006 to 2013, over a span of eight seasons, the lurid, preposterous drama followed Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a forensic crime scene analyst who moonlighted as a serial killer with a code: He only murdered other murderers. As you might imagine, this got him into quite a few tight spots, especially with his sister Debra a detective in the same Miami police department where he worked. If you think this premise would strain under the weight of nearly a hundred episodes, you have no idea: It was basically off the rails from the jump. Viewers had to accept that the population of southern Florida was at least 60 percent homicidal maniacs (so Dexter had a suitable villain to chop up every week) and make peace with an ensemble of cop characters so clueless they wouldn’t be able to solve the case of who tied their shoes that morning. Absolute junk from top to bottom.
Long after its widely panned finale, though, Dexter has been resurrected in the form of Dexter: New Blood, a “limited series” that will inevitably lead to yet another season. While the comeback promises a fresh setting and cast of characters, it clearly promises more of the familiar schlock: Dexter philosophizing on the moral case for vigilante executions before butchering the “bad guys.”
I do not have time for this! So why am I considering shelling out money for it? Why am I tempted to start doing my impression of Michael C. Hall’s subdued-but-still-a-sociopath voice? Why do I believe, deep down, that another eight hours of this content will satisfy me at last?
I think it comes down to a form of masochism that presents as the sunk-cost fallacy. Same reason I’ll often power through and read the last hundred pages of a book that isn’t clicking at all. I’ve made it this far, there’s no turning back now. Somehow, quitting amounts to defeat, and I’m sure as hell not going to let a brain-dead, fake-deep, gore-service franchise like Dexter win.
Once I’ve committed the mistake of letting it into my life, I must have mastery over it, no exceptions. In fact, there’s a certain pride in telling friends I’ve seen the whole epic, the same way a college kid might brag about going to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. I like being able to recount the thematic arc and major antagonist of each era, and having meaningless opinions as to which seasons are the worst of the worst (people hated the last couple, but man, Season Three is laughably shitty). It’s almost a flex to reveal that I spare any room in my memory for this stuff.
Each reboot, spinoff and un-cancellation of a show like this is a challenge to our common sense. The dumber we get while watching garbage, the more complacent we grow in our sense of creative superiority over the hacks producing it — if we were the head writer, we’d cook up the riveting plots and delicious dialogue absent from the actual scripts. There’s a pleasantly numbing effect to such counterfactual reasoning, so that dumb dramas acquire the coziness of a silly sitcom.
I know a couple who started The Walking Dead and, freely admitting what a miserable trudge the zombie saga is, fell into a ritualistic devotion; they couldn’t wait to get home and stream the next few episodes, if only to shake their heads at what wrong twists the story took. They also liked the feeling that the series, which already has a voluminous back catalog, would drag on forever. Hey, that slop you keep eating? Always more if you want it.
There’s not much we can count on in this life. Perhaps we’re soothed and reassured to see Hollywood continue to churn out dreck year after year, spending millions to achieve an utterly disposable product — a habit we then validate by wasting our evenings catching up on nonsense we don’t care about. Which is to say, yes, I will find out how Dexter Morgan has adjusted to small-town upstate New York and an assumed identity in the decade since faking his death. It’s my destiny.
Besides, if I take a chance on a new bad show, I’ll have to finish that, too.