Joshua Alston: Five Dumb Shows That Smart People Love

by Joshua Alston

After Sarah's brave admission that she digs "Greek," "Lipstick Jungle" and "The Hills," I got to thinking about why smart people make foolish television choices. Super-smart, well-educated people watch terribly stupid shows all the time, but in my experience, there are five shows smart people tend to gravitate to the most:

"Family Guy"

I have a weird relationship with this show. I sort of like it, and I know lots of people who swear by it. But for some reason, I'm deeply suspicious of people who like it too much. If "Family Guy" is your favorite show, I think that doesn't speak well of your character. The writing just isn't that sharp. "Family Guy" is a Tommy gun spitting out jokes, most of which rely on the audience's knowledge of the most esoteric elements of pop culture. When those jokes land, they land hard, but it doesn't happen often enough. The show seems smart because it makes lots of references to other things, but they're not smart things. A recent episode referenced the "Iron Eagle" movie series, for example, whereas "The Simpsons" has worked in references to Robert Mapplethorpe and Robert Pinsky. "Family Guy" isn't a mix of high and low, it's all low. And too many of the gags are sophomoric in their conception -- most of them are supposed to be funny for no other reason than that they just go on forever. But my NEWSWEEK colleague Nick Summers, a smart guy by most any measurement, told me he laughs so hard watching it, he considers it aerobic exercise, so there you go.

OK, so there's the name, which is enough to prove the dumb part, and it has a ton in common with "Family Guy." Seth Green, who voices Chris Griffin on "Family Guy," created the show. Both shows air on Cartoon Network, where they're the first and second most-watched on the channel ("Chicken" is second). And "Chicken" is essentially a stop-motion animated version of "Family Guy." Both shows are built on random pop-culture gags, but on "Chicken," there's no effort to pretend they're anchored to a larger narrative. It's just one joke after another, with virtually no connective tissue. I find it to be funnier than "Family Guy," pound-for-pound, but man alive, is it dumb.

There's this weird double standard with "The Hills." If you were to talk to someone you consider smart, and were to ask them if they watch professional wrestling, they'd likely say no. But if you were to ask them about "The Hills," they might sheepishly confess that it's their guilty pleasure. There's really not much different between "The Hills" and pro wrestling; both are all about people fighting and are totally fake. In fact, I'd go so far as to say professional wrestling is better, because there's actual athletic ability being employed. On "The Hills," all Lauren Conrad and Co. do is pout and have awkward conversations that we believe are real just because we'd rather not imagine anyone being so bad at acting. But the explanation is pretty straightforward here: There's nothing smart people love so much as feeling superior to dumb people, and "The Hills" offers pretty, dumb characters and their bubble-headed adventures in spades.

There have been two YouTube clips circulated of "View" co-host Sherri Shepherd that reveal that she may be clinically brain-dead. In the first, Shepherd argues that she doesn't know whether or not the Earth is round and that she'll have to look it up. I actually defended her after she said this, because in context, it's clear that she's only guilty of being stubborn. The ladies were in the midst of a heated discussion about the relationship between science and religion, and Shepherd, a devout Christian, was willing to give no quarter. She preferred to say something ridiculous than to concede the point. In the second clip, though, Shepherd, during a discussion about Epicurus, basically shows that she doesn't understand the concept of a time before Christ's existence. When Whoopi Goldberg attempts to explain to her that the Greeks predated the birth of Christ, she's visibly confused by the new information she's been given. And that's just dumb. So "The View" takes what's so entertaining to smart people about "The Hills" and does it one better: Not only are dumb people talking, they're having debates about current events.

"The Real Housewives"

During the first season of Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," everybody was talking about the show, but I wouldn't watch it. It didn't seem like my kind of thing. Then, during a flight home, I saw a woman in the seat next to me watching an "Atlanta" marathon and thought I'd give it a try. Surprise, surprise, I was transfixed. I couldn't look away and demanded that my friends watch the show so I'd have someone to talk about it with. To my surprise, a few of them told me they were already watching and were glad I had the courage to tell them, so they could unload about it. The appeal of these series, which Bravo will apparently keep spinning off forever, is the Schadenfreude. These women are not just ditzy; they are ditzy and somehow still richer than we are for all our smarts. For that, they deserve to be miserable, and even though they're probably happy 90 percent of the time -- as you would be if you were rich and unemployed -- Bravo takes the other 10 percent and edits it together into a show. Good times.