Brutal assault. Murder. Betrayal and backstabbing. All of these grisly acts and more have been featured prominently on TV in the last few years. Some of the most popular series currently airing offer stories and settings that are gritty, dark and sometimes seemingly hopeless for the characters involved.
For the longest time, however, TV series – even the dark ones – were not so dark.
The old TV drama model gave us a story that wrapped itself up in one hour with the villain defeated and the hero victorious. Several shows now airing have turned away from that old standard, giving us plots that don’t clearly resolve themselves in the hero’s favor. In fact, it’s hard to tell who the heroes and the villains are in this genre.
The Fall, a British crime drama, is a great example of just such a show. Gillian Anderson plays Stella Gibson, a tough detective on the trail of a Belfast serial killer. This particular plot is nothing new – it’s been done dozens of times before. No, the presentation is what sets The Fall apart. Years ago, a serial killer hunt would have been depicted without showing too much of the brutal crime itself, aside from a few brief but suggestive scenes. The Fall, however, opens with a ten-minute scene in which the perpetrator slowly breaks into his target’s house and commits his evil deeds, all on screen. The rest of the first season follows a similar pattern. Despite its unusual sense of tension and its graphic depictions of terrible crimes, The Fall has garnered a large following both in Britain and in America.
Another dark show that depicts the main character as both hero and villain is the recently ended Breaking Bad. The plot focuses on Walter White, who learns he has stage III lung cancer with just two years to live. He wants to make sure his wife, as well as his teenage son who has cerebral palsy is secure, so he taps into his chemistry experience to make the best crystal methamphetamine in the world and plunges deep into the world of crime and drugs. His activity also draws the interest of his brother in law, Hank, a DEA agent. The series is an interesting examination of the desperation and determination that some patients experience after a fatal prognosis.
Another AMC offering, the creators of the hit show, The Walking Dead is based on the comic book series created by Robert Kirkman. Published by Image Comics, it’s about what happens after a zombie invasion, following a group of survivors for month and even years afterwards. The group and its leader, a police officer named Rick Grimes, wander the world in search of a safe place to call home. The plot centers on how each character adapts to the stress of living their lives in an environment full of zombies, examining the personal interactions that take place that tend to weaken their defenses against the dangers that surround them. The constant threat of death and the strong impetus of each character to stay alive help make this a relentlessly dark and gloomy drama.
If you want definitive proof that TV audiences have turned away from escapist fantasy and towards stark, depressing realism, though, look no further than HBO’s Game of Thrones. Based on a popular series of fantasy novels (ironically one of the most escapist genres, usually), Game of Thrones has just completed its third season. At the end of the first season, one of the cast members, a main character who had gained the sympathy of the audience, was killed off abruptly and brutally, and the shocks don’t end there. The third season featured an even greater tragedy that truly enraged some viewers. This wildly popular series also features dirty political tricks, betrayals and the absolutely brutal and merciless torture of one of the main characters for no apparent reason other than to satisfy the twisted desires of his captor.
In both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, in particular, there is the constant sense that anyone can die at anytime – a far cry from the old days of TV when audiences could trust that their heroes would somehow survive despite whatever hardship.
For the longest time, the television provided its viewers an escape from reality. So, if we watch TV to get away from the bitterness of the real world, why are series like The Fall, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones so popular?
Part of the reason may have to do with familiarity. We’ve had TV for six decades now, and modern viewers who use services such as DIRECTV to pick up HBO and other premium channels have been enjoying a wide variety of series for years. It may be that we’ve seen that nice, clean plot with the happy ending so many times that we’ve grown skeptical of it. Older TV dramas were, for the most part, afraid to kill off certain characters; they refused to take the sorts of dark turns that might upset their audiences. Modern TV viewers seem to be tired of that approach. We know that it isn’t real. We know that, in real life, good people sometimes suffer and die and evil people sometimes prosper.
Series like The Fall, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones obviously aren’t completely realistic. They’ll eventually tie up (or have already tied up) all their loose ends in a way that is hopefully satisfying to their viewers. Nevertheless, they do aim for a daring grittiness and realism that series before mostly tried to avoid, and TV audiences seem to be eating it up. These shows and shows like them might just create a new standard for future TV dramas to live up to in the future.
I’m not sure skepticism or familiarity of an old story formula is what drives this gloom and doom. 20th Century culture in Western Civilization has had its share of realistic doom and gloom between two World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam War as well as the possibility of the end of the world as we know it with one press of a button (aka The Cold War). And 9/11 kept the scare going.
But now, post-9/11, there’s not much D & G going on. But since we’re so used to it in our collective unconscious, why not parallel it on TV?
Thanks for the added viewpoint, Derek. You always bring valuable perspectives to the table. Speaking of table, Happy Thanksgiving!
You may have to pick a bone directly with author George R.R. Martin to get him to satisfyingly tie up loose ends in Game of Thrones as those who have read the series can testify to. : )