Hotel TV Hits Different

It just does. Even if it’s bad—sometimes especially if it’s bad—hotel TV is a friend you can count on, and asks almost nothing of you in return. An ode to the must-half-watch shows that make even holiday travel worth enduring.
Lucky bastard enjoying some hotel TV
Leonard McLane

When I’m in a hotel, I know exactly what to do. The door closes, I’m greeted by a room I’ve never been in before but lots of other people have—which provides both an intense privacy and a feeling that’s a tad unnerving—and it’s time to engage my creature comforts. After unpacking (I know, I know, I’m one of those divisive people who uses the dresser and closet in hotels, sue me), I will immediately turn on the TV, both to familiarize myself with the remote and television interface, but also to find my go-to hotel show. I pull up the guide and start sailing the seas in search of my lighthouse. My eyes glaze over as I skip through stuff I’ve never heard of nor care about, scanning for two words of serotonin. Then, invariably, because this show is somehow always on, I find it. Nine simple letters tell me that this is going to be a good stay, that I’m safe here. Bar Rescue.

The most important thing about Bar Rescue—as well as the other two shows that round out my hotel-TV holy trinity, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and SportsCenter—is that I would never watch it at home. That’s the whole point of hotel TV. It brings back the childhood memory of television being a little treat, not something that’s completely inundated all of our lives. Most of us have gotten rid of cable too, so that feeling of surfing the channels again is a drug in itself, like the potent touch of an ex-lover. (For full transparency, I actually do have cable, but pretty much exclusively for live sports, so the sensation of channel-surfing is still pretty alien.) Whether you’re nice and tucked in between the endless layers of sheets that drape every hotel mattress in the country, or perhaps have your feet kicked up on the little couch in the corner, an indelible part of the hotel experience is flicking on the TV and going, What do they got for me?

Of course, the television content itself isn’t the intoxicant here. You’re not being swept away by the best show of the year. The point is actually the opposite. You want to be dealing with some real mids. Prestige TV is for when you’re at home; hotel TV is for when you’re in a hotel. That’s why this exercise is limited strictly to the cable box. Not having to figure out if the TV in your room has your preferred streaming services is a massive liberation. You don’t want to be doing that thing where you jerry-rig your laptop to the TV, either. (I don’t know what “Chromecast” is and you can’t make me learn.) This is about going back to basics and sitting through a 22-minute episode that was new in 2007, including three ad breaks. At home, you’d riot. In a hotel, this is the only way to live.

But back to Bar Rescue. When I watch it at home, I’m sad. “Be nice to those people!” I plead with Jon Taffer. “It’s not their fault they’ve never heard of refrigerators!” When I watch in a hotel, though, I’m a willing voyeur. That’s what makes a hotel show— the chemistry completely changes based on setting. If you’ve ever had the thought, Oh, watching that might make me too depressed, try watching it in a Marriott instead. Trust me.

There’s also the Fieri effect, which is that the inimitable host of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives is even more pleasant—his glowing hair an even warmer welcome—when offset by hotel decor. (Why is there always some basic black-and-white photography disguised as art?) If I have room service? Forget about it. We’re crushing multiple episodes, because you already know at least four will be playing in succession. The at-home problem with that show usually lies in its unmatched ability to make you crave, to bite through the screen and taste whatever delicious small-town monstrosity Guy is fawning over. That problem ceases to be one when you can pick up the phone and get some grub swiftly sent up to the room.

For SportsCenter—a show that, even as a documented sports enjoyer, I’ve left in the rearview—I still feel an instinctual pull when I’m lodging. The peculiar thing with SportsCenter, though, is that I’m only compelled to watch it as a conduit to sleep, or right when I wake up but don’t want to get out of the comfy, manicured bed yet. I need to respect the time-honored male tradition of drifting off to sports highlights, and then check in again the next morning like it's the morning news. Any other time would feel fundamentally wrong, hotel or otherwise. But from years of experience, I can tell you that SportsCenter is a viewing experience exponentially enhanced by being in a hotel. And if you’re fortunate enough to get the carbon-copy rerun immediately after the first episode ends, oh boy! Childhood nostalgia doesn’t hit much harder than that.

I’m sure some of you have a similar version of this, just with different shows, or maybe even certain movies. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a movie in a hotel room. (The movies you watch in the family living room while you’re home for the holidays are a different discussion entirely.) If I have dabbled in hotel cinema, it was probably Talladega Nights or something of that ilk, digested in fits and starts between TBS commercial breaks. It was definitely not something that required real attention.

That’s really what makes hotel TV: it needs to be something you can hang out with as though it were an old friend, but doesn’t require full-eared listening, because obviously the possibility of a nap looms large. As so many of you gear up for the inherent nightmare that is late-December travel, remember what salvation lies in wait at your hotel. Nothing helps wash off a cross-country flight like some hotel TV, the best gift of the holiday season.