These are the moments we look forward to above all else. The expectation of what constitutes must-watch TV. If you’re an avid TV follower, there’s a chance you’re still recuperating from the last wedding slaughter in HBO’s flagship series Game of Thrones — maybe even from the wedding massacre before that. Nominated this year for a prodigious 19 Emmy’s and snagging 4 wins, Season 4 incorporated what fans have now come to expect each season: meaningful character deaths and lingering questions that leave you with an insatiable appetite for more bloodshed.
Despite an unparalleled variety of programming options, the similarities between TV’s most admired shows has become increasingly evident. While there remains a plethora of quality shows with which us to extricate ourselves from the current trend, TV has become the most depressing “entertainment” outlet available. So before you sit down and binge-watch the latest buzz-worthy show, consider the following:
TV’s most popular show is a post-apocalyptic nightmare where everyone you love dies
You love The Walking Dead. Apparently so do your friends. The Season 4 finale alone drew 15.7 million viewers, setting yet another record for AMC’s money-printing gore fest. Apparently no one is tired of watching this ever-rotating cast of zombie fodder corner themselves into absurd scenarios. Tank shootouts, cannibals, you name it! While The Walking Dead flourishes in an environment where no one is safe from death, the actors bringing this show to life are by no means disposable. The show shrewdly focuses on compelling character arcs to keep audiences engaged. Still, half the “fun” is anticipating who showrunner Scott Gimple will kill off next. It’s an interesting premise that has unsurprisingly resonated with people, but is this something to be proud of?
For the first time in a serialized drama, part of you is always rooting for someone to die because otherwise the show loses purpose.
The Walking Dead didn’t start this way. Longtime fans of the original comic book series understand that these stories aren’t so much about the shocking deaths or “cure chasing” as they are about a journey the characters take with each other. Luckily, the show is still inspired by many events from the comics and if those stories are any indication of what’s to come, your taste for TV despair will be quenched pretty much forever.
The evolution of the anti-hero
There was a time before Netflix when it was Tony Soprano, not Frank Underwood, who could declare himself “King of the Mountain” to TV anti-heroes. The first to elevate the term to new heights on TV, James Gandolfini injected charisma into a despicable character that would have otherwise been persecuted in real life. On The Sopranos, Tony was loved, hated and captivating all at once. It’s a legendary portrayal in the pantheon of TV icons, but a concept with historical precedence. While great characters are flawed in some fashion, the type of exaggeration that’s become typical of TV storytelling is equally present in the characters themselves. In 2006, Showtime turned that vision on its head with the controversial TV series Dexter.
Adapted from the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the show features its titular character speaking in first person and narrating his macabre impression of the world to the audience. He also happens to be a serial killer. While some questioned the nature of rooting for a vigilante that took his job a tad more seriously than say… Batman… viewers fell in love with the self-proclaimed “Dark Defender.” Today these ideologies have flooded the medium. Frank Underwood, of the Emmy-winning House of Cards, is only the most recent example of this trend. That Underwood (played entrancingly by Kevin Spacey) also narrates his actions is indicative of the psychology of today’s viewer. It isn’t enough to see these characters raise the stakes. Now we want to hear every way they intend to do it. Cards effectively plays upon this urge, pushing the envelope to almost comical levels and imagining scenarios that corrupt government theorists dream about.
Don Draper, Walter White, Ray Donovan… today’s list of anti-heroes is endless. All these characters have pushed the word to such extremes that viewers are left questioning who exactly it is they should be rooting for.
There is nothing funny on TV
When’s the last time you remember looking forward to a night of TV comedy? Take yourself to 1993 for a moment. You invited Balki Bartokomous and Steve Urkel into your home every Friday and had entire lineups of TV hijinks to be excited for. ABC had T.G.I.F. and NBC had Must See TV. Those lineups were so popular, networks competed by attempting comedy blocks of their own. Recently, CBS proved that sitcoms still have some legs by pumping out mediocre “hits” to corner the market while most networks have moved on. It wasn’t a dignified defeat, best evidenced by ABC’s 2012 experiment, Work It, a cross-dressing cornucopia of offensiveness that set TV… and women… and men all back about 50 years.
The cliche is true: they just don’t make them like they used to.
In 2003, Fox tried their hand at the blue ocean strategy by signing off on a documentary style, single camera comedy called Arrested Development. The show was a critical hit but underwhelming on Nielsen. Two years later, NBC’s reimagined version of the quirky British series The Office aimed to both inspire and reinvent our perception of comedy. This new formula led to NBC’s Office follow-up, Parks and Recreation, and on ABC the critically acclaimed hit Modern Family. This is the new face of TV comedy. The Big Bang Theory (another over-rated CBS show) only proves the exception to the rule. In reality, the TV sitcom is dead, laugh tracks and all. While there may be an audience for this new era of comedy, we will fondly remember what was once an important part of TV nights in America.
The rise and fall of Heisenberg
There will never be another Breaking Bad. Get over it. Until the upcoming spin-off series Better Call Saul debuts next year, AMC’s world of drug lords, meth cooking and breakfast is no longer a part of our weekly lives. In one fell swoop, the Outstanding Drama Series winner gave us a double whammy of TV depression. First, we found ourselves rooting for a high school teacher to go on a five season killing spree. Second, it had to end. Here’s the problem — there are shows just as good, ready to satisfy your dismal urges on television right now. At Ten Pens, we champion the outstanding story arcs and art direction of shows like Hannibal, True Detective and the aforementioned Game of Thrones for taking TV to new heights.
The irony is Breaking Bad became the dreary, tour de force it did because it was destined to be cancelled.
Low ratings forced its writers to create a densely packed series with a short life span and well executed conclusion. That won’t happen again. If AMC could predict the ratings of the final two seasons, Walt and company would have dealt their signature blue meth to the citizens of Albuquerque for a few more years. Thankfully we were spared and Breaking Bad demonstrated to network execs that less is more, paving the way for more cable inspired, story driven television. Like the source of Walt’s fortune, if TV is going to continue on this path better it be in small, high quality doses.
If no one dies, this show sucks
I remember thinking this around Episode 4 of the Netflix mega-hit Orange is the New Black. Looking back on that comment now, it’s a ridiculous expectation. This new, depressing age of television places the viewer in a constant state of angst while eagerly waiting for the next shocking moment.
Today’s most successful shows have perfected a formula: long periods of gestation followed by a show-stopping event.
When I realized OITNB was missing that formula, I bowed out. Yes, the show is very good, but this is the world we’ve created. Don’t simply blame it on The Walking Dead. Most critically adored shows perpetuate this stereotype to an extreme, all to have you talking around the water cooler. Okay, I’m not sure anyone really does talk around a water cooler, but overhearing conversations start with “HOLY CRAP I CAN’T BELIEVE BLANKITY BLANK BLANK DIED!” is a testament to what TV has now become. Thrones made an actual party of it by deciding to kill off half the cast in one episode. That’s impressive.
The world as viewed through CNN
News is everywhere. It’s on your phone, laptop and every other channel in your current cable package. Living in a major city, it’s common to have a 24-hour local news network as well. Or three. However, the likelihood of this news ever being good news is probably non-existent.
The notion that TV news is typically distressing isn’t exactly a revelation. The concern is more about accessibility. Social media drives us to an extreme desire for instant gratification, a process increasingly joyless due to the content we’re presented with. Still, television is the de-facto source when it comes to the most effective way to process these momentous events. When you read it on Twitter your first reaction is to find a television. Live news gives us instant human reactions, video coverage and commentary all within the same sitting.
The manner in which TV news networks decide to broadcast these stories is still the primary way we interpret the world around us.
And these networks aren’t doing us any favors in optimism. Raging fire burning down an apartment building in your neighborhood? Check. Homicidal maniac on the loose in the subway? Sure. If you really want to start the day right — grab a cup o’ joe, turn on Murder News On the Ones and prepare yourself for the horrific reality that is your neighborhood waiting beyond the front door. Or here’s a better idea: lock yourself in your apartment and just watch TV… oh wait.
So — after we consider these points and acknowledge the increasingly bleak changes in television, how are we rewarded? With The Leftovers.
The most depressing show in TV history.
Too new for Emmy contention, Leftovers imagines a scenario where 2% of the world’s population instantly vanishes, leaving friends and family behind in a state of mourning. HBO’s latest series is a collaboration from Lost show runner Damon Lindelof and novelist Tom Perrotta. This is the same show whose ending left an entire fan base unequivocally frustrated. The writers have done a better job setting expectations this time around; early press releases made clear that Leftovers would not be about a major reveal. Instead, it’s built upon an open-ended premise that has been described in interviews as “an exercise in grief.” That’s right, these f’ing guys decided to do an endless character study on how we react to death and want to see how long you’ll actually watch. Well, good work America. You deserve it.