The 10 Guiltiest Pleasures of the Decade, From the Relentless Kardashians to Our True-Crime Obsession
The 2010s have been very long and very packed with pop-culture moments. These are the ones that have defined the decade in pop culture (though you may not want to admit it).
I hate hate HATE hate-hate-hate haaaaaate the phrase “guilty pleasure,” especially when it’s referring to pop culture.
I hate that’s it’s typically reserved to describe programming enjoyed by a largely female or sometimes homosexual demographic. I hate that these things are demeaned as slight or trivial or having no discernible value to culture because of who it appeals most to.
The phrase is inherently misogynistic and homophobic. Sure, spend the equivalent of a month’s rent on a bundled NFL package and devote an entire day of the week updating your seven fantasy football teams for a sport in which domestic abusers are paid millions to ruin their brains for your entertainment, but it’s having a glass of wine and watching Bravo before bed that’s a “guilty pleasure.”
A person shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about what they watch or listen to. Do you enjoy what you’re watching? Fantastic! You do you. You’re watching Real Housewives and having a pleasant experience, not murdering someone with glee. (Glee, by the way? Also not a guilty pleasure!)
But the truth is that, over the past decade, “guilty pleasure” is a term that took over the zeitgeist. You could argue that it was even a defining term in pop culture. It also became shorthand and overused over the same era that fandom, especially niche fandom of the kind one is meant to traditionally feel embarrassed or “guilty” about, went mainstream—proudly so.
So these 10 things are, yes, the biggest guilty pleasures of the last decade. But they are also 10 of the things that shaped not only pop culture, but who we are as a culture at large. No shame. (OK… some shame.)
There are still, inexplicably, people in the year 2019 who scoff at the idea of the Kardashian-Jenner clan’s fame. We get it—the sex tape, blah blah blah. But to not see how the massive celebrity and influence of these women has shaped our society in the last 10 years, and in turn shaped them—hello, Kim Kardashian, incarceration-reform warrior—is ludicrous.
Yet for all the Kardashian name has come to mean the last decade, it’s fascinating to revisit the product that brought them so intimately into our lives each week: their E! reality show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. It is such a slight show. Not much happens in any given episode. Yet the way it catapulted a family into a phenomenon, mundane moments into memes, and a certain image of femininity and family into, alternately, a celebration and an indictment of who we are as a people, is as impressive as it is bizarre—a dichotomy that underscored the 2010s completely.
There are pop-culture obsessions, and then there is Bravo. The channel has fostered the kind of intense fandom that approaches cult-like status, birthing its own brand of massively famous faces within its fandom circles (even with their own name: “Bravolebrities”) and producing an entire new language with idioms, catchphrases, and vernacular spoken exclusively on its shows. The climax of this growing fandom was the first-ever BravoCon held this fall, a mecca for the channel’s largely female fanbase.
Dismissing the drama of the Real Housewives or the Vanderpump Rules kids as distraction or fluff is as myopic as casting off the Kardashians as Us Weekly mindlessness. These shows, these reality stars, and our interest in them is as anthropologically interesting as anything going on in culture, with incredible insights into what feminism, wealth, privilege, and authenticity means today. That the clown show inside the White House and our government is so often compared to an episode of Real Housewives speaks to how relevant and embedded Bravo has become.
Growing up, my mother used to roll her eyes with disgust when Lifetime would air commercials touting it as “television for women.” “More like the rape and murder channel,” she’d say. The last decade cemented the fact that both are true. In the 2010s, true-crime series, TV movies, podcasts, and documentaries became a sensation that put the genre alongside comedy and drama as a third major tentpole and classification of entertainment. It turns out that catapulting its popularity was, in something that may surprise based on gender norms, women.
For several years over the past decade, Investigation Discovery, with its programming slate devoted entirely to true crime, was the most-watched cable network among women aged 25 to 54. That’s a fascinating stat! Some of the biggest watercooler series in pop culture were from the genre: The Jinx, Making a Murderer, Serial, Wild Wild Country. It’s not like true crime was invented in the 2010s. But we’ve developed an eerie obsession with it that seemed to spike, with the perception of the genre somehow elevated from “trashy” to “prestigious” along the way. We love a rebrand almost as much as, apparently, we love murder.
There was a time when rebooting a TV series was considered slightly pathetic and sad. The 2010s, apparently, forgot about that time. As new entertainment platforms sprouted like weeds and traditional networks struggled to keep up, the phrase “everything old is new again” became a development mantra. It’s impossible to keep count of the series and properties that scored reboots: 21 Jump Street, Roseanne, Will & Grace, Dallas, Boy Meets World, Charlie’s Angels, The Smurfs, Disney classics, and Spider-Man like 37 times.
Some were inventive (21 Jump Street). Some were lightning rods (Roseanne). Some barely registered (Charlie’s Angels). But what’s interesting is how fleeting nostalgia is. Its value is in marketing, not investment, as the typical trajectory of most of the revivals has been intense pre-release buzz, a celebratory sampling of its launch, and utter lack of interest in the long run. Still, the trend shows no sign of stopping, with new streaming services like Disney+ seemingly launching for the express purpose of nostalgia and rebooting old favorites.
Bad Christmas Movies
The Hallmark Channel officially launched its “Countdown to Christmas” programming slate in 2011, a decade after it made its first original Christmas movie, and the holiday season—hell, the entire fall at this point—has never been the same. This year, between the Hallmark Channel, Lifetime, Netflix, and even broadcast networks like ABC, there are 472 new original Christmas movies. We must not act as if that number is not absolutely insane.
These movies are not good, and that seems to, aggressively, be the point of them. They have familiar beats and tropes, and typically star the same actors year after year, which is good for Lacey Chabert and Candace Cameron Bure. As their popularity blossomed, they also have become triggers for larger cultural debates about the responsibility of entertainment, particularly as the films were historically not diverse, not LGBT-friendly, and often reflective of uber-conservative values and gender norms. And you thought you were just watching the lady from Wonder Years flee the big city for a small town, open a bakery, and fall in love with her real estate agent over some hot cocoa.
Once upon a time, “couch potato” was a derogatory term. Now people talk about the amount of time spent in front of the TV like it’s a badge of honor. Netflix launched its first original TV series in 2013. Making every episode of House of Cards available for consumption all at once was a revolutionary move at the time. Now bingeing TV seasons is such standard practice, it’s considered edgy to put episodes out on a weekly basis, the old-fashioned way.
Binge-watching TV hasn’t just changed the way television is made and storytelling is structured. It’s changed the way the industry looks at the medium—it’s no coincidence that A-list movie stars and directors have flocked to TV series at the same time bingeing became popular—and the scope of the industry altogether. When a series can be shot all at once and exists, at most, for a month or so in the zeitgeist, it means more and more shows can and do get produced, to the point that the idea of #PeakTV has crested into #TooMuchTV. In turn, how we interact with each other about pop culture has changed completely, too—and we’re not just talking about the concept of “Netflix and chill.”
There are dozens of things that are the byproduct of the social-media surge of the 2010s that could be on a list of “guilty pleasures,” including the amount of time spent on feeds and timelines, the fact that any of us still have a Facebook, or following Donald Trump on Twitter. (Though that last one might be better classified under masochism.) But, in some respects, the rise of influencers might be the wildest phenomenon born of our decade’s social-media obsession.
The name and idea itself is outrageous, just the naked obviousness of it all. They are “influencers” because their purpose is to influence us and we follow them because we want to be influenced by their influence. What a ridiculous hall of mirrors! And who are these people? How does one graduate to influencer status? The questions aren’t just unanswerable, they’ve become downright existential as our society has progressed and their, uh, influence has grown. Or has it? Who can say?
We resisted the idea of adding a third reality-TV-themed entry to this list, and, generally, didn’t want to single out one particular show or movie and focus instead on broader trends and ideas. But it would be negligent to discuss the past decade in guilty pleasures without mentioning The Bachelor or its sprawling world of spinoffs and the cottage industry of celebrity it spawned. (These people are both so prominent and so obscure at the same time that the Who Weekly? podcast was basically birthed around the phenomenon.)
The show is maybe the truest example of a traditional definition of guilty pleasure, in that the people who watch it do so at this point knowing the amount of it that is fake, knowing that few people from the show actually find love, and knowing the litany of problematic elements of the franchise. These viewers are, of course, largely female and largely judged for delighting in the escapism of the show in spite of these things. It’s remarkable how long The Bachelor has stayed relevant—a rare mainstay in the otherwise turbulent pop-culture landscape. That in itself is worth exploring.
Does Lin-Manuel Miranda get all the credit for bringing musical theater back into the mainstream? Or does that go to Wicked? Or Glee? Or the High School Musical franchise, or The Greatest Showman, or The Sound of Music Live!? Let’s face it, it’s probably all owed to Smash.
The “nerds will rise!” ethos is behind most of the biggest pop-culture trends of the last decade, with the mainstreaming of Comic-Con, the rise of superhero movies, and the mass obsession over fantasy properties like Game of Thrones. But there’s something about the “let your freak flag fly” emancipation of the theater nerds into all facets of broader pop culture that’s felt in line with what the decade stood for, and probably had a lot to do with how much musical theater there was in the mainstream in return. Or maybe it just really was all about Hamilton.
This was the decade the royals became interesting again, and the speed and feverishness with which Americans jumped to fawn over them and the media rushed to capitalize on the attention speaks to how much, whether or not we’ll admit it, we’re attracted to the British crown. It helped, of course, that the goings-on in Buckingham Palace were tailor-made to grab our attention. There were royal weddings and royal births and juicy scandals. (Prince Andrew, man, what are you doing?!)
Not to be too morose, but it’s probably also the last decade we’ll have with the Queen, and it’s interesting to consider how our relationship with the royal family has changed over her time in the public eye—the first monarch to wear the crown in the age of television—and how it might change once she’s gone. At the very least, it will make one helluva episode of The Crown Season 7.