It started with a curious text message from a friend, which stood out among the usual messages of congratulations coming through to my phone for the premiere of the third season of my Netflix show Indian Matchmaking: “To the devil w the NYT! You keep making, we’ll keep watching. Trust that your viewer isn’t dumb. You just keep slaying, Smriti!”
Devil to The New York Times? I ripped open my Sunday paper and there it was, smack in the middle of The New York Times Magazine. The headline blared: “It’s Time To Break Up With Indian Matchmaking.” Oof.
The article itself went on to repeat many of the same missives I’ve heard about the show since its debut in peak-pandemic 2020 — that it doesn’t do enough to interrogate the colorism and casteism within the Indian community, that the creators (me) let a 60-something woman spew patriarchal one-liners unchecked, that it only shows a narrow slice of the experiences of 1.5 billion people — but this time, I was bothered. Why? Probably because of something I spotted in the writer’s social media post sharing the article: “TO EVERYONE WHO HAS BEEN BADGERING ME TO WATCH THIS SHOW FOR THREE YEARS — CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ALL WON.”
It hit me: This article wasn’t exactly an unbiased cultural critique. It was a diary of a hate-watch.
Furiously, I started drafting a response, pointing out the inconsistencies in the author’s arguments and defending my show. That is, until my husband implored me to chill out. “Your show is in the Netflix top five and featured in The New York Times,” he pointed out. “What are you so mad about?”
He was right. Hate-watched or not, three seasons in, people were still watching. Bingeing, in fact. In today’s age of content gluttony, that in itself was an achievement. In fact, apart from some mean tweets and the occasional contrarian print headline, most of the feedback I got about Indian Matchmaking was how much people loved and related to the show. What dawned on me that day was that love-watching and hate-watching are essentially the same thing.
Indeed, hate-watching is on the rise. A study from Canvs AI analyzing over 3 billion tweets about various shows found that hate-watching increased 79 percent between 2021 and 2022, with steady continued growth at that rate through the first quarter of 2023. That feels bleak, until you get to the silver lining: Canvs AI’s studies also correlate social media posts with Nielsen ratings, and show that hate-watching drives twice as much viewership as love-watching.
You might be thinking, “This is all cynical AF. Who wants to live in a world where hate drives viewership and therefore inevitably drives content decisions?” But, in fact, there might be another way to look at hate-watching.
No creator sets out to inspire anger, hatred and cringe among viewers. We genuinely strive to connect with audiences through humor, emotional kinship and some degree of authenticity or wish fulfillment. Indian Matchmaking, for example, had the earnest purpose of showing a culture and community in all its nuanced messiness, while using humor and the universality of love and marriage to broaden the audience beyond the South Asian diaspora. Did we realize that aspects of the show would offend some people? Of course! Any film or show that breaks barriers will also inevitably draw ire. But isn’t there some joy to be found in the collective cringe? Isn’t the role of art, after all, to spark the conversations that will eventually shift culture?
As my friend who texted me pointed out, viewers aren’t dumb. Most can discern the difference between a reflection of reality and its endorsement. Most of us are able to watch and enjoy Succession, after all, without assuming the show’s creators endorse corruptive capitalism. Warner Bros. president of worldwide marketing Josh Goldstine recently used Barbie as an example of the power of harnessing so-called hate-watching: The first marketing copy line his team released for the film was, “For everyone who loves Barbie, and for everyone who hates Barbie.”
As for the haters, I don’t believe people actually hate the things they claim to. With the near extinction of the entertainment monoculture, we’re no doubt looking for a way to galvanize conversation and engage en masse with topics that impact our daily lives. Maybe critics of Emily in Paris mourn for a time when a job could lead to adventure, career advancement and creative satisfaction. Maybe Sharknado hits too close to home when it comes to climate anxiety. And maybe the haters of Indian Matchmaking are finding catharsis in hate-watching the show because real-world conversations about marriage and patriarchy with their own families can be fraught with triggers and trauma.
Or maybe some people simply hate the show. But as long as they keep watching, I’ll keep making.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.