The expression car-crash television, also car-crash TV, designates television programmes that are gratuitously shocking or sensational, or of embarrassingly poor quality in terms of dialogue, acting, etc.
Those programmes were so named from their eliciting in the viewer a similar horrified fascination to that experienced by people watching scenes of cars crashing.
These are the earliest occurrences of car-crash television and car-crash TV that I have found, in chronological order:
1-: From For local teenagers, New York brutality kindles the feeling of fear and loathing, by Donna Larcen, published in The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) of Monday 22nd May 1989—the journalist interviewed the “members of The Courant’s Student Advisory Board, a group of junior and senior high school students that meets monthly”:
All acknowledged we live in a more violent world, fueled by car-crash television, Uzi-pumping movie heroes and news headlines about satanic cult sacrifices.
2-: From the Daily Mail (London, England) of Saturday 16th January 1993—as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2011):
He knows that millions of TV fans […] love the tackiness of this so-called ‘car crash television’, although he’s not entirely sure why.
3-: From a self-portrait of the U.S. actor Craig Bierko (born 1964), published in The Daily Times (Salisbury, Maryland) of Wednesday 7th December 1994:
I stay home to watch:
Late-night infomercials. I love what I call car-crash television, with people who are ill-equipped to perform. I’m still mourning The Chevy Chase Show. It was entertaining on so many levels, none of them, unfortunately, comedic.
4-: From The Herald (Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland) of Thursday 8th June 1995:
‘Car-crash’ television has drawn censure for a late-night show, reports David Belcher.
Channel 4 was yesterday reminded that car-crash television is not without its drawbacks when The Word was issued with a formal warning by the Independent Television Commission, who urged the station to impose stricter controls on the content of the items it broadcast.
The regulatory body objected strongly on grounds of “taste and decency” to a number of “debasing stunts” staged during the most recent series of the late night, youth-targeted programme, which is currently off the air.
Studiedly controversial, The Word earned its “car-crash TV” soubriquet, when it became clear that it based much of its viewer appeal on the same ghoulish and voyeuristic impulses which draw gawking crowds to road traffic accidents.
There were three such specific film sequences to which the ITC objected, all of which were broadcast last December. Chief among the ITC’s complaints was the edition of The Word which featured a kilted strongman, the self-styled, self-evident Mr Powertool.
He was seen pulling a chair, on which a young woman was sitting, across the studio floor by a rope fastened round his penis. During the course of this endeavour, it became plain that Mr Powertool favoured wearing the kilt au naturel.
In addition, the ITC was unhappy with the treatment meted out to two victims of one of The Word’s weekly feature strands, The Revengers. Vengeance befell one victim in the form of Santa Claus vomiting over him. Another victim was sprayed with the contents of an elderly man’s colostomy bag. […]
The Word has discovered the most painful truth about car-crash TV. When you’ve deliberately taken the traffic lights away, the resulting collisions lose their power to shock and outrage, eventually becoming a crashing bore.
5-: From Can’t take your eyes off Car-Crash TV: Dreck so bad it’s like a freeway wreck, by Vance Durgin, The Orange County Register, published in The Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta) of Monday 13th October 1997:
The TV academy doesn’t want to face the fact that most TV shows are, well, bad. Or that some shows go beyond bad and cross over into something Rod Serling might have called another dimension of terrible (“That signpost up ahead—you’re watching Hee-Haw”).
You know these shows. You’ve watched them, hummed their theme songs, seen them in reruns. They live on in cableland reruns today. Bad when they were first aired, bad now.
Call it car-crash TV. The effect on viewers is just like that of a bad freeway wreck on motorists. Try as you might, you can’t look away from the twisted metal splayed along the interstate. And with these shows, it’s tough to stop watching the poorly executed concepts, insipid dialogue and annoying characters.
These shows exert a compelling force that makes you watch, then wonder how did something this bad ever get on the air? And how did it get renewed for 18 seasons?
Car-crash shows are bad, but not necessarily unpopular: Happy Days, for example. It was never good, but Nielsen families loved it. Compellingly awful is what it really was.
Car-crash shows don’t have to be sitcoms. Dragnet looks so bad today it can actually elicit groans. […]
They don’t have to old. One of the truly great contemporary examples of the genre is Family Matters. The Urkel character is so bizarre he elevates an otherwise-mundane sitcom to car-crash level.
Like any art form, TV is made up more of time-filling quantity than NYPD Blue quality. That’s a given. What isn’t a given is a show like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet staying on the air for five generations. By the time ABC gave up on it in 1966, weren’t Ricky’s and David’s grandkids regular cast members? Ozzie and Harriet is pioneering car-crash.
Consider that these “adventures”—all 435 of them—are pretty lame. In one episode, the cast goes in search of tutti-frutti ice cream. In another, David retypes the work of a temp secretary he shouldn’t have hired (Joe Flynn, later of McHale’s Navy, is his finicky boss). And of course Ricky sings. And sings some more.
There wasn’t much in the way of acting, drama or humour on Ozzie and Harriet, and nothing much ever happened. But it stayed on the air for 14 seasons, proof of its mesmerizing car-crash quality.
All-time Top 10 Shows of Car-Crash TV
It can be difficult to pick out the all-time greats of car-crash TV. That’s because the real car-crash shows tend stay in your memory banks forever—unfortunately—making it hard to focus on individual shows. Still, we had to draw the line somewhere and go with the all-time prime examples. So we did.
Here’s a top 10 list of the best of the worst (or is it the other way around?).
In alphabetical order:
■ Charlie’s Angels: Has it all. Bad acting, poor plotting, insipid dialogue, low production values and such odd guest stars as Rat Packers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Plus the “jiggle” factor that made it must-see for male viewers. From the master, Aaron Spelling.
■ The Dukes of Hazzard: Car-crash TV that actually features car crashes, near-crashes, or just general mechanical abuse of the ubiquitous Dodge Charger the Dukes tool around in. Stupid dialogue, voiceover work by Waylon Jennings that’s even worse and some of the lamest plots around, plus Catherine Bach in cutoffs. Not to be missed.