Thursday, December 16, 2010

Guilty pleasure

The term "guilty pleasure" is often used to refer to things we enjoy but are embarrassed about enjoying. It is something we like that, for some reason, feel we should not like.

The term is rather idiotic. I am going to let Chuck Klosterman take it from here in a piece he wrote for Esquire. The following will be tremendously paraphrased and may not do him justice, yet is all Chuck's.

The only reference to a guilty pleasure that makes sense is a technical one, something that makes you feel good while in the act but makes you feel bad afterwards. Examples of this are drinking five glasses of vodka before work or sleeping with your neighbor's wife. These are guilty pleasures.

However, when people give examples of guilty pleasures, those are not things being referred to. People use the term to describe eating chocolate or liking the movie Road House. Labeling these things as guilty pleasures is insane for two reasons. "It dictates that (a) people should feel bad for liking things they sincerely enjoy, and (b) if these same people were not somehow coerced into watching Road House every time it comes on TBS, they'd just as likely be reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

There's Chuck's point. People shouldn't feel bad for enjoying something that gives them pleasure especially when they wouldn't be doing something productive otherwise anyway. You're not listening to Britney Spears' new album in place of studying thermodynamics so why feel guilty about it?

I used to consider watching MTV's Real World/Road Rules Challenges a guilty pleasure. I felt like I shouldn't enjoy these shows because they are somewhat dumb. However, Chuck Klosterman has shined a new light on this. I don't watch these challenges to emulate the contestants or to see good acting or even for the promiscuity and rude behavior. I watch them because they bring me joy and excitement and I will no longer feel bad about this.

The most recent Challenge season just wrapped up this week. It was called Cutthroat and lived up to its name. Let me interject by explaining the actual reasons I love these shows. First, I do not watch The Real World. Perhaps oddly enough, I have no interest in that show even though it is the Cheers to the Challenge's Frasier. The Challenges are awesome because they are sports and strategy at their best. Well, not at their best, but at their most entertaining. Each Challenge season pits teams against each other, whether it be teams of one, two, a dozen, whatever. Each season has different rules but the overall theme is always the same. These people are competing against each other in events for prize money.

As the Challenge has progressed, it has been tweaked, not from the producer's side but from the contestants' side. There have been 20 Challenges (they run more than one a year occasionally) and in the beginning, the best players won. Not every event was athletic, but the cream rose to the top. However, as the years went on, the show began to be more about forming alliances and securing votes. The best athletes demanded the most respect, but did not always win, and were sometimes targeted.

I call these folks athletes with no level of sarcasm or irony. The players, especially the men, are monsters. They are huge, athletic, strong, imposing figures. They have to be to compete on what the Challenge has turned into. No more are there eating contests or funny, throw-away events. Cutthroat's final challenge this past Wednesday had the final teams running a half-marathon with checkpoints along the way. The checkpoints were not lines to cross, but rather giant tires to push, bodies to carry, puzzles to solve. Two players were sent to the hospital and only one team finished.

The enjoyment from watching these shows stems from my love of watching people compete, find loopholes in the rules, forming strategy, etc. The team that ended up winning Cutthroat's final and the largest cash prize was not the team who performed the best throughout the season. Instead, it was the team who was able to trim its worst players away before the end and was left with the best group to compete for the top prize. Being conniving is nearly as important as being strong and fast.

It was not one of the best Challenge seasons. Many of the heavy hitters were not competing this time around. There were also some rules in place that seemed a bit quirky to me. However, that doesn't take away from the fact that I find this show tremendously pleasurable to watch and I will no longer feel guilty about that.

As Chuck Klosterman would say, watching this is not my conscious alternative to something better. Were I not watching The Challenge, I would not be "working on logarithms, or studying the liner notes to out-of-print Thelonious Monk records, or searching for factual errors in The Economist. If we weren't watching...we'd probably just be going to the bar earlier."

I couldn't have put it better myself.

(Chuck Klosterman selections come from Esquire and his book Chuck Klosterman IV)
(Image taken from

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