The Best TV Is Other People Watching TV

I’m too lazy to have my own reactions to entertainment — so let someone else do it

I’ve never seen an episode of HGTV’s House Hunters. (Where it comes to “reality” TV, I prefer something about food.) I gather, however, from any number of posts and memes, that the people on House Hunters are a specific kind of annoying that makes for addictive hate-watching. That is, you end up rolling your eyes and yelling at the screen a whole lot.

Apparently, HGTV has cottoned on to this and sees a chance to expand the franchise: The first week of June, they’ll air four nights of House Hunters: Comedians on Couches, in which actors and writers Dan Levy and Natasha Leggero will host Whitney Cummings, Eliot Glazer, John Mulaney, Chris Redd and J.B. Smoove for a teleconference roast of the show.

Smart play!

I never would have been on board with this series unless you had Leon from Curb Your Enthusiasm making fun of it. Now my curiosity is piqued. I love watching other people watch TV. One of my favorite things growing up was when my dad muted the commercials and did his own voiceovers. Way better!   

Of course, it’s easy to ridicule something like House Hunters independently. On the other hand, why not let the professionals do it? That’s the idea behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, in which a group of wise guys provide color commentary on cheesy B-movies and blockbusters. At their best, they make excruciatingly stupid movies hilarious and notice the silly trivial details you’re likely to miss.

Close attention, however, is not the point of Viceland’s Traveling the Stars: Action Bronson and Friends Watch Ancient Aliens, a docu-series where rapper Action Bronson and his entourage attempt to get through episodes of the History channel’s preposterous Ancient Aliens while getting powerfully stoned, ordering Chinese food, busting each others’ balls, playing basketball on set and exploring the outer limits of philosophy.

Again, I could happily chain-smoke joints and watch Ancient Aliens — in fact, I’m sure I have — but I will never master the art as Bronson and his buddies practice it. I feel the same affection for Beavis and Butthead when they idiotically narrate the music video for Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice,” with Beavis doing his best to claim that he, too, is from Compton, and used to hit up the swap meet there. Butthead’s devastating retort is one for the ages: “You’ve never been to Compton, you’re never gonna go to Compton, you’re gonna be here for the rest of your life, you’re stupid, you don’t have any money and you’re never gonna score.”  

And how satisfying it is to see Homer Simpson gasp with laughter as he enjoys the routine of a black stand-up comic mocking how white people drive, finally catching his breath to declare, “It’s true, we’re so lame!” 

After a few decades of television, it seems we needed a meta-frame for processing our relationship to it. Characters on shows from Better Call Saul and Mad Men to 30 Rock and Married… with Children are shown idle in front of a flickering screen to signify what a shambles their lives have become. But in order to judge them as losers, we must watch them watching — and that’s as close as we get to the reflexivity of watching ourselves watching.

This impulse may also explain the YouTube trend of “reaction videos,” where the original content is secondary to the response of a select observer: Old people are surprised by young peoples’ trends, and kids are baffled by stuff like typewriters and rotary phones. Their experience is our entertainment.

Yep, if you want me to care about your TV show from here on out, I’m going to need to see someone else — real or fictional — digesting it first. I watch by proxy now. Having a filter to determine what’s good or bad or dumb or smart is the only way to go.

Except, sooner or later, I’ll want to watch someone watching someone else watch something else… ah, what a dream.