Almost everyone enjoys something that’s “so bad it’s good” from time to time. It’s a common activity everywhere, including in the anime community. This season I’m watching a show like this myself, sitting down every week to mock Eromanga-sensei with a friend. Making fun of bad shows is a good way to get enjoyment out of something that is otherwise unenjoyable. It serves a valuable role in expanding the amount of content you can consume, while also giving you a different way to enjoy media. Unfortunately, not all bad shows can be made fun of.
Enjoyably bad shows have one central element: a feeling of true failure in their production. These shows go beyond bad writing or bad visuals; when you watch this kind of show, you wonder how it even got made. We expect competency in our shows, and what we find funny about bad shows is the gap between that expected competency and the result, which is utter incompetence. Boring shows on the other hand are not incompetent, but merely uninteresting, and so they gain no value from humor.
To illustrate this point I’ll be looking at two popular shows that I dislike: Sword Art Online and Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash. These two shows come from the same genre and I think both are bad, yet my reactions to them couldn’t be anymore different.
SAO is a show that does a lot of really dumb stuff. The creepy, rapey elements are bad, but they’re so bad that they sometimes become amusing. The writing is awful, full of deus ex machinas and poorly thought out characters, and yet there’s a sort of charm to it all. I would never in my life call SAO a good show, but it can be very fun to watch. This is best illustrated by my experience at the movie: it was a bad movie, but the moments I saw as awful were made even funnier by the fact that the audience around me loved it wholeheartedly, creating an even bigger gap in my expectations. SAO is my favorite example of “so bad it’s good” because if I were to take it seriously I would hate everything about it, but when treated as a comedy I love watching it. I would call it a guilty pleasure if I felt any guilt from enjoying bad things.
Grimgar on the other hand is a show I can’t stand watching. I tried, and I made it 10 whole episodes in, but I was never able to finish it, because while it does many things wrong, none of that stuff is actually funny. I couldn’t bring myself to care about the characters because they had either no personality, or shitty and annoying personalities. The characters looked awful on the show’s wonderful backgrounds, and none of the emotional moments hit me at all. Worst of all were the constant montage scenes that clearly didn’t fit. It was a show that I just could not enjoy, and that was only amplified by the love I saw it get from everyone else. Almost everything about it got on my nerves, but I could never find it “so bad it’s good”. It’s far too competent at what it was actually doing: I just have no interest in that.
To put it in simpler terms, shows that are enjoyably bad are trainwrecks. Everyone loves watching a good trainwreck show: Code Geass is popular for a reason, and I certainly enjoy watching it for the wacky stuff it pulls in its second season. Shows like Grimgar that are competent but uninteresting are far worse in my opinion, because they lack the interesting element that is incompetence.
I’ve noticed that shows I consider “so bad it’s good” tend to get more criticism. This makes sense of course, since it’s easier to criticize things that fail spectacularly. On the other hand, shows that I dislike but don’t enjoy tend to be fairly well-liked. Grimgar was one of the most popular shows of its season, and other shows that I straight up can’t stand such as Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom are also fairly beloved, at least in certain circles. SAO on the other hand gets tons of criticism, though it remains popular.
The fact that these boring shows find their fans mean they have some value, even if they’re not for me, and I don’t mean to belittle anyone who enjoys them. It should go without saying that laughing at bad shows shouldn’t extend to laughing at the people who enjoy those shows, and I have nothing against those who like Grimgar or SAO.
I suppose that unenjoyably bad shows are somewhat unavoidable if everyone’s trying to make great shows. After all, they result from some level of competence, which you would hope for in the production of most anime, so I can accept the existence of these shows even if I can’t enjoy them. Still, I’m going to continue watching shows that baffle me with their incompetence while ignoring the shows that merely fail.