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Are These TV Programs Really Destroying Society? Five Vilified Shows Critics Have Got Wrong

These are the worst shows on television. Or are they?

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Meanwhile, the most succinct analysis yet came from another television show, this one fiction. In a 2010 episode of “Bones,” the slightly Asperger’s-afflicted forensic anthropologist Dr. Bones Brennan, speaking in her typical hyper-literal, detached, completely un-condescending interpretation: “I stumbled across a compelling documentary... the anthropologist in me was fascinated. I’ve been studying their language and customs!” Maybe people like "Jersey Shore" because, even if we don’t behave like them, they are acting out human impulses at their most raw.

2. Skins

Second in the “we’re all gonna die” scare factor is a show so close to my heart: "Skins," the British-born show depicting Bristol teens in a mostly realistic fashion—which means they have sex, do drugs, curse, get their hearts broken, go a little crazy, have fights and do more drugs, in general. The UK wasn’t generally too out of control when the series debuted, and now five seasons in it’s as popular as ever. When MTV decided to translate it to American audiences, the controversy was raging before an episode emerged; we do not, apparently, like to see real teens doing real things (unless they’re on reality shows!), and after it aired, some conservative groups even investigated whether the show violated child pornography laws for the realistic teen sex on the show.

Those critics were quite wrong—the real travesty wasn’t the content, it was the terrible acting and the stereotyping of Americans. That apparently registered with MTV, which canceled the American remake after one season, citing its disconnect with American audiences. That said, watch the original! It’s amazing! Season six of "Skins" UK debuts on British station E4 in 2012. (For a full breakdown of MTV vs. UK "Skins" check out my piece, “ Conservatives Freak Out Over MTV’s Skins.”)

3. South Park

Unlike "The Simpsons," which has mostly made its progressive viewpoints known, Matt Parker and Trey Stone—the hapless creators of the sometimes-vulgar spoof cartoon "South Park"—do not reveal their political proclivities, which makes the content of the show sometimes ambiguous. Generally, they tend to ride the line between super-left and super-right, leaving you wondering what exactly they’re mocking; as a rule, nothing at all is sacred (as evidenced by their recent Broadway hit, The Book of Mormon). This doesn’t sit well with the hysterically conservative Parent’s Television Council, though, which has called "South Park" “ vile trash,” and with many Christian groups, which freak out every season, it seems, over some portrayal or another of Jesus Christ (a frequent guest star) or the Judeo-Christian god.

But here’s the great part about "South Park," and why it’s certainly not bringing down society: it's an equal-opportunity blasphemer, ribbing everyone with subtle, often super-on-point critiques. The show has targeted Islam, Scientology (famously), Catholicism, Hinduism and probably every other religion on earth. Of course, the religious cultural gatekeepers are always going to defend their gods, but the more they buck, the stronger "South Park" strikes. And in an age of Internet censorship, the show’s willingness to test the bounds of the First Amendment is admirable, whether or not they’re libertarians.

4. My Super Sweet 16

MTV’s neverending font of fairly exploitative reality shows doesn’t get more materialistic than “My Super Sweet 16,” in which scores of teens with well-to-do parents get to throw sumptuous parties, pay tens of thousands (or a million) dollars for their favorite celebrity musicians, and generally get first cars of the Lexus/Range Rover luxury variety. The opulence is insane, particularly when you consider MTV’s knack for locating the least grateful, most demanding 16-year-olds in the country. It normalizes grotesque capitalism for the young people in its target demographic, and gives rich kids an even higher social standing (which, if you’ve ever been a poor kid at a public school, is already out of control). The parents are often the worst kind of conservatives, and seem to spoil their kids rotten in order to avoid actually having to guide them through life. It’s gross.