Guilty pleasure shows still strike emotional chord

The late Andy Whitfield played the titular role in Starz' "Spartacus." (Courtesy of
The late Andy Whitfield played the titular role in Starz’ “Spartacus.” (Courtesy of

Watching the sporadically entertaining telecast of the Emmy awards on September 18, I was shocked by two personal discoveries. First of all, I’d never thought that I would actually care about the best movie/miniseries categories until Kate Winslet managed to become one Tony shy of the prestigious Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony (EGOT) combo.

The other realization was that for the first time since I’ve tuned into the Emmys, I had only regularly followed one show in the category of best drama. If it weren’t for the compelling yet visibly aging “Dexter,” my attachment to that entire genre would have consisted of the snooze-worthy pilot to “Boardwalk Empire”.

Now with past nominees like “Lost,” “24” and “The Sopranos” off the air, “House” and “True Blood” virtually forsaken by critics, and “Damages” banished to DirecTV, a distinct void has emerged in my roster of shows. If there’s a question as to the amount of television I watch, I assure you that it borders on the unhealthy, so it’s not as if I’ve grown more selective in my viewing habits over the years.

Instead, I’ve just had to accept that some of my regular shows aren’t all that good, critically speaking.

While there’s still a small part of me that feels a twinge of guilt for not watching the awards leviathan that is “Mad Men” (although I’m gradually becoming convinced that winning the best drama Emmy for four years in a row is a sign of voters’ laziness rather than an indication of the show’s greatness), I actually feel comfortable admitting to my occasional indulgences.

After all, even some of the worst dramas can’t touch the sheer unpleasantness that characterizes a great deal of the reality television programs out there. I’m still holding out hope that “Toddlers & Tiaras” is just an elaborate hoax designed by the Parents Television Council to scare misbehaving children straight with the threat of spray-on tans and collagen injections.

In contrast, the mediocre shows that I allow myself every now and then (a dosage that tends to be increased during particularly stressful work periods) function similarly to the analgesic wonders of comfort food. So, rather than consume a sleeve of Mallomars before bed when finals week rolls around, I sometimes choose to take the relative high road and watch an episode of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand.”

Broadcast on the cable channel Starz but available on Netflix instant play, “Spartacus” tells the familiar story of a Thracian general sold into the slavery system of the Roman Empire as a gladiator. At first glance, this description may evoke the swords and sandals atmosphere that also defined the classy HBO series “Rome.” However, the word “classy” really shouldn’t be attributed to any of the events in “Spartacus,” unless one sees the decadent displays of wine and sex to which corrupt government officials are treated as classy affairs.

Instead, “Spartacus” has all the appropriate qualities of a true guilty pleasure show. Battle scenes that rival “Kill Bill” in terms of outrageously stylized violence? Check. Boundless sexual scenarios that would make even the actors in “True Blood” blush? Check. The wonderfully wicked Lucy Lawless as a social climber in the vein of Lady Macbeth? Check.

On a more fundamental level, though, “Spartacus” functions so well as a guilty pleasure because it shrewdly structures itself around the viscerally charged emotion of revenge. Defeated, enslaved and robbed of his beloved wife, the character of Spartacus (formerly played by the broodingly intense Andy Whitfield, who passed away last Sunday) instinctively gains the audience’s unwavering support. As he gets closer and closer to his goal of vengeance with each passing episode, the viewer becomes just as intimately involved in his quest for justice.

Simply put, we want the good guy to punish those responsible for his unwarranted misfortunes. If that necessitates the occasional decapitation and/or drunken orgy, I’m not one to complain.

The rousing sense of satisfaction that accompanies an episode of “Spartacus” remains noticeably distinct from the emotions associated with another guilty pleasure show, “Nip/Tuck.” Running from 2004-2010 on FX but now available on Netflix as well, “Nip/Tuck” chronicles the exploits (and I use that word quite literally) of two Miami-based plastic surgeons.

While the show degenerated into absurd sleaze after the second season (in one episode, for example, a man requested that his nipples be removed in order to please his Ken-doll fetishist of a wife), I still find the first thirty episodes to be immensely rewatchable.

Ryan Murphy, the show’s creator who is currently continuing his trend of wild swings between greatness and mediocrity as the showrunner of “Glee,” manages to combine soap opera theatrics with a keen sense of dark comedy to create a surprisingly affecting viewing experience.

In times of listlessness, I turn to the guaranteed excitement of “Spartacus,” whereas “Nip/Tuck” reliably provides some degree of emotional catharsis. Although many of its main characters are immoral, callous studies in solipsism, their infrequent displays of humanity become all the more meaningful as a result.

Take the scene when Christian (Julian McMahon) finds out that his former girlfriend, the bitter, angry, self-centered Gina (Jessalyn Gilsig, who plays the bitter, angry, self-centered Terri on “Glee”) has contracted HIV.

While he initially reacts to the news with the trademark douchebaggery that has defined his character, Christian eventually pays her a visit in the hospital. There, Gina tearfully reveals that he’s the only person who has come to see her, saying, “It’s not that I’ve burned bridges. I just never built them.” As he reassuringly lies down beside her, this moment perfectly encapsulates my love for the guilty pleasure show; sure, it’s obvious emotional manipulation, but somehow that doesn’t make it any less effective.

Johnny is a senior. You can reach him at

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