I have a not-so-secret confession to make: I love American Idol.
Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm a shameless corporate whore who clearly lacks both taste and maturity, and every time I watch American Idol, I bring my country one step closer to becoming a complete cultural wasteland. I know. I can't help it. I love American Idol.
I love the delusional caterwaulers, who, when rejected, hurl obscenities and earnest promises of revenge. I love the infighting among the judges (especially when Paula's precarious mental balance, shoved off-kilter by a snide Cowellian remark, explodes in a fury of banshee shrieks and bitch slaps). I love Ryan Seacrest and his vaguely homoerotic couture: those shirts printed with entire Shakespearean sonnets too small to read; those jeans carefully ripped in inappropriate places; those haphazard black blazers, adding just the slightest touch of class. Oh, I love it all.
Why? What's wrong with me that I should take such pleasure in outright atrocity? As a decent human being, shouldn't I delight more in watching people succeed rather than fail?
At least I can comfort myself by acknowledging I'm not alone. Everyone has his own American Idol: that miserable, unredeemable, awful thing whose badness he freely admits, but that he loves anyway. We're loath to admit it, but almost universally, humans love things that go wrong. We love to see missteps, blunders, oopses, uh-ohs, bugs, boo-boos, and botches. It's like the story of the Prodigal Son: Daddy loved the son who did everything right nowhere near as much as he loved the son who did everything wrong. And while I'm not sure that story sends an admirable moral message, it sure does speak a greater truth. We like things better when they screw up than when they succeed.
I'd like to say this strange behavior arises because things that go wrong make things that go right look better in comparison. Or that, alternately, humans are sadistic creatures, reveling in the failure of others. Sure, that explains some of it, but not all of it. To some small extent, we just like bad things. Take Dragon Warrior, for instance; in my Dragon Quest VIII review, I pinpointed Dragon Warrior as the Worst Game Ever Made. Time to elaborate.
Objectively, the game is awful. Killing monsters reduces to mindless hack-and-slash. Leveling up is tedious, frustrating, and obnoxious, and the enemy difficulty level is so poorly scaled that the player can and will die at any time. Not to mention the poor planning of the in-game economy; you never have enough money, and therefore you waste hours killing monsters to earn enough cash, just so you can buy shoddy equipment at outrageous prices. And to top it all off, you must listen to that torturously weenie overworld music the entire game. (You know, I just killed a goddamn green dragon; how about a heroic overture, or a hard-metal anthem, or at least something with drums? Anything would be better than a ditty that says 'I want to go pick daffodils in the meadow'.)
And yet"… even though this game is terrible, I find something strangely heartwarming in the fact that Dragon Warrior sucks.
Oddly enough, I think our thrill for shortcomings comes as an incidental side effect of the mechanisms of human love. Love uses flaws as handholds, places to lodge grappling hooks so you can hold on for dear life. For instance: I love my boyfriend because his morning breath reeks. He loves me because my farts are like miniature nuclear explosions. We don't love each other in spite of these imperfections, or for the sake of the defects themselves, but the flaws give our love something to stick to; without them, you can't recognize the good stuff. We need to see flaws in something or someone to be capable of loving it. You can't love something that's perfect; you can appreciate it, you can respect it, but you just can't love it.
Loving anything--your boyfriend, your family, your croutons--trains you to respond to new people, situations, and objects in a specific way: when you spot a weakness, you automatically look for some counterbalancing strength. And sometimes, even if you don't find any, there will still be a positive reaction anyway--like with Dragon Warrior or American Idol. Think of it as a glitch in the system.
Now, I'm not saying we should settle for atrocious video games, or worse, that we should purposefully make bad titles. It's ludicrous to think that the only lovable games are the terrible ones. But, we should recognize that when games go wrong, sometimes we will love them anyway, despite ourselves.
At one point in Dragon Warrior, Princess Gwaelin asked me, "Dost thou love me?" and I bitterly responded, "NO". I was angry at her, angry at the developers, angry at the repetitive music and the indecipherable townspeople and at being asked if I wanted to go up the stairs. "NO," you idiot, I don't love you or this stupid game at all.
Ever so slightly she hesitated--I admit, I might have dreamt it--and she replied, "But thou must!"
Her desperation was oddly poignant, revealing something deeper buried in those simple three words. I heard the words she didn't speak. "C'mon Katerin," she pleaded with me. "I know the world I live in might be crazy, but baby, I didn't make it; I'm not perfect and neither are you, and after all this game has put you through, after all the failures and flubs and frustrations, I know, somehow I know, you've got to love me."
My anger melted away. To my surprise, I realized she was right; I did love Dragon Warrior in some small, unreasonable way. But, as Simon Cowell has taught me, just because you love something doesn't make it good. Sorry, Gwaelin. To me, you still suck.