Serious Television

2017/10/05 writing

An exchange that took place on Reddit, regarding the reason behind the popularity of mid-10s "prestige dramas".

Some people liked it so I archived it.

Why do today's general audiences crave serialized morally grey drama TV shows?

Right now our world is more peaceful that it's ever been, and technology is on its peak. Yet the popular TV shows are Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Expanse and similar, even the new Star Trek show is dark. Why? Where's something like the new Star Trek TNG? How long before we go back to more light-hearted shows?

I disagree with the premise of your question, which frames how you pose it, but I do have an explanation for the more general "why is TV the way it is today?". I'll give it a shot.

First of all, the world is not "more peaceful than it's ever been". This is a very controversial claim pushed by people with a very clear agenda, like Steven Pinker in "Better Angels of Our Nature", or free-market magazine The Economist, and has received a LOT of pushback in academic circles (ask r/AskHistorians or any related subreddit). The United States is currently waging war on several nations, has a lot of boots on the ground, and routinely carries assassination missions via drones. BlackLivesMatters is protesting in the streets because there's an epidemic of murders by cops. There's a massive Syrian refugee crisis, people feel incredibly economically insecure so "radical" candidates like Sanders and Corbyn did better than they have in decades, etc. A lot of stats tricks are used to make today seem non-violent, such as "talk about relative deaths over world population not absolute deaths", "only count death not imprisonment", "only count attacks from state actors against other state actors", and so on.

So, today is not more peaceful than it's ever been. That's a very controversial statement.

Second, I challenge your notion that today's moral drama is "grey". This puts a positive spin on what I think is a bad phenomenon. First, let's make sure we're on the same page. Shows and movies like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House of Cards, Wolf of Wall Street, Zero Dark Thirty, etc. are very popular and acclaimed. I wouldn't say that these shows explore "grey morality", I would say this is media where the heroes or main characters are very compromised and fairly evil. "Goody-two shoes" type characters get completely fucking owned routinely, and it sends a "cautionary tale" type of message. "How difficult it is behind the scenes, to wield power", is also brought up a lot. One message one can take form this is "it's not as easy as it seems to do the right thing". Another phrase that captures it well is "this is how the world really works, kid". Backroom-dealing porn, in a sense.

I think this is because most media we consume panders to american/western sensibilities, and it's becoming increasingly obvious that America does a lot of fucking evil shit. And so, people want to be told two things: 1) Most of this evil shit is justified, the world is a very difficult place, you just don't understand from behind the screen the kind of shots someone like Obama has to call, and 2) You shouldn't feel bad for not doing anything about it, since you're just a small person and you'd get fucked anyway, just watch out for yourself, it's all you can do.

People want to be told this, people want to believe this, and therefore the media, which has always played a large function as propaganda alongside its role as entertainment, echoes it gleefully. It's profitable and critically well-received. Everybody wins.

You can trace "America's Self-Image" through how its heroes were portrayed through recent history. Since I've been consuming media, though there's always been outliers, the dominant drama/action/comedy has seen a transition from being dominated by perfectly 100% underdog salt-of-the-earth good guys against the whole world (eg: Rocky), more into anti-hero type wisecrackers with personal issues but still mostly good (eg: Die Hard).

Things started to take a weird turn when America was exposed for torturing people IRL, and suddenly the old hero's "I won't cross that line, I will do it the hard way" became 24's "You've got to do what you have to do, sometimes". And today this has reached full apotheosis; Zero Dark Thirty explored the "grey area" of torture, making soft concessions to the anti- camp and large ones to the pro- camp, Breaking Bad portrays the internal stresses of a murderous asshole but as per his own creator he "goes out like a man". We were at the "At least we're better than the real bad guys" stage.

Nowadays, House of Cards and Wolf of Wall Street will stress over and over just how wild and ruthless things are "behind the scenes". They will pair up displays of unimaginable wealth and partying, with some maudlin dramatic scenes about the impacts thereof (oh see but his daughter is estranged, his health is faltering, that kinda thing). This is because of narrative technical constraints. When you have people stealing a tiny bit from a ton of people, it's hard to show the personal drama "on both sides".

The other meme that stands out clearly in my mind, is that "there's no real good guys or bad guys". Perhaps the funniest movie in terms of recent propaganda is The Dark Knight Rises. Batman has always been a bit of a fascist fantasy, since he's a billionaire who takes violence into his own hands, but in TDKR we are treated to an OccupyWallStreet type situation that happens to be run by the evil mastermind Bane. And further behind the scenes, pulling the real strings, is an environmentalist greenpeace type chick. "Both sides are bad" to the max. If you're in a western-society setting, such as USA or the UK, as soon as you show some unfair ruling class overthrown, you immediately have to show several scenes of the revolutionary regime being "just as bad". It's like clockwork. As soon as there's a revolution, the next scenes all have to do about the violent factions of the revolution fighting with the good moderate ones, and how really the evil regime had some sense to it after all.

Not all shows are like this, obviously. I'm talking about era-defining media, what dominates the conversation. Some shows are amazing and do it, as far as my sensibilities are concerned, right. I'm a big fan of Starz for example, since both Spartacus (people complain that the slave-owning Romans are portrayed "too evilly", lmao), and Black Sails (cowardice vs. heroism, civilization vs. radicalism is a big plot point) push a very different message indeed. For something with a more modern storyline, The Shield still is and may forever remain the best exploration of a "Walter White" type figure. Unlike Breaking Bad, the finale feels appropriate, and really gives a much better impression of the impact of his evil deeds. In terms of movies, Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer both come to mind as movies with fairly good morals and some degree of optimism. The Wind That Shakes The Barley and Three Kings also come to mind.

I'd be happy to continue this back and forth. I'm still developing my views as I go along.

Some extra reading, sometimes only vaguely related:

When I pass a newsstand and see the saintly, bearded, intellectual Kubrick on the cover of Saturday Review, I wonder: Do people notice things like the way Kubrick cuts to the rival teen-age gang before Alex and his hoods arrive to fight them, just so we can have the pleasure of watching that gang strip the struggling girl they mean to rape? Alex's voice is on the track announcing his arrival, but Kubrick can't wait for Alex to arrive, because then he couldn't show us as much. That girl is stripped for our benefit; it's the purest exploitation. Yet this film lusts for greatness, and I'm not sure that Kubrick knows how to make simple movies anymore, or that he cares to, either. I don't know how consciously he has thrown this film to youth; maybe he's more of a showman than he lets on — a lucky showman with opportunism built into the cells of his body. The film can work at a pop-fantasy level for a young audience already prepared to accept Alex's view of the society, ready to believe that that's how it is.
Pauline Kael on Kubrick's Clockwork Orange
Even as I watched it and shuddered with revulsion, I had to admit it — Fincher’s got our number. He’s figured out how to regularly wow contemporary audiences, to present us with the appalling truth of how despicable we are in a way that never really strikes home, by alternating coldly disapproving, feel-bad effects with conspiratorial smirking ones that remove any real sting. He so often uses the trappings of film noir to showcase our “badness,” but since we’re all perverts together, it’s just the “badness” of S&M sex-play, so who cares?
Eileen Jones reviewing David Fincher's Gone Girl
There is something deeply disturbing in how, later, he changes from a torturer in jeans to a well-dressed Washington bureaucrat. This is normalisation at its purest and most efficient – there is a little unease, more about the hurt sensitivity than about ethics, but the job has to be done. This awareness of the torturer's hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: the psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty. This is why Zero Dark Thirty is much worse than 24, where at least Jack Bauer breaks down at the series finale.
Slavoj Zizek reviewing Zero Dark Thirty, "A gift to American Power"

Do you have any evidence to support the claim that in the long term perspective the world is NOT at it's most peaceful (or most prosperous or best to live in)?

I get that violence swings in the relative short term, but I can't see a metric where the world is "worse off" than another period in history. Yes, there is war, torture, and other horrific stuff. But there's less and trending towards less, and there are stats to back it up.

You point to a lot of news stories/headlines (drone strikes, terror, etc) but a lot of the argument is that actually, while we may hear about that a lot more, it's a lot less than in the past, and even war itself results in fewer casualties than it used to. Meanwhile, yes, racism and police violence is high up in the headlines right now, but it's not like it was LESS before, it was just less visible - see how shocked people were with Rodney King for example. So again, it looks bad if you just read the headlines but it's actually the painful path of progress - in the long run, it's a good thing that it's being caught on cell phone cameras today.

I'm genuinely curious I guess if you have something you can point to that supports your claim with any data or material evidence.

Sure. Professor Bear Braumoeller at OSU has a bunch of research showing that the "long peace" we're currently living in is actually full of violence, just out-of-sight-out-of-mind. Juliet B. Schor discusses how a lot of our vision of the past, such as the "short violent brutish life" we ascribe to our peasant ancestors, over-relies on eg: life expectancy statistics heavily affected by infant mortality and birth rates, and was actually fairly leisurely. The US incarceration rate is the highest in the world, quadrupling since the 1980s, another fact hard to reconcile with this idea that violence is gone. In fact, the entire criticism section of the Better Angels of Our Nature Wiki is probably worth perusing, particularly Herman & Peterson's Steven Pinker on the alleged decline of violence.

How does Pinker get around the seemingly large numbers of wars and militarization process that bother so many ordinary people and specialist observers such as Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, and Winslow Wheeler? One Pinker method is to confine his focus to post-1945 wars among the great democracies, which have not fought one another in this sixty-seven-year interim, and to ignore or downplay the numerous wars that the great democracies have fought in the Third World. He calls this the “Long Peace,” while the other wars have no name. Pinker contends not only that the “democracies avoid disputes with each other,” but that they “tend to stay out of disputes across the board,” an idea he refers to as the “Democratic Peace.” This will surely come as a surprise to the many victims of US assassinations, sanctions, subversions, bombings, and invasions since 1945. For Pinker, no attack on a lesser power by one or more of the great democracies counts as a real war or confutes the “Democratic Peace,” no matter how many people die.

This is not to say the exact opposite — that things have gotten worse. It's also not to say that I want to be beamed to a middle-age to resolve disputes via club duels. I guess you could say "well I'd rather be a western-european today than anyone ever before", but then again, you could also say "well I'd rather be a middle-class white dad in 1950 than a middle-class white dad today", too.

The most important question that you need to answer before you embark on stat-gathering is "what is violence?". If death rates go down but incarceration goes up, are we removing violence or adding it, or keeping it constant? If people used to get killed for stealing food, but today they just starve quietly because stealing is unthinkable, is that a reduction in violence? Income inequality is the highest it's been in history, and we live in systems in which money is power, and how you get people to do your bidding. Rich people can't have "slaves", but people need to work else they'll starve, so you can reliably get desperate people to do certain kinds of jobs, like go fight overseas for the military putting their lives in danger for $$$... is this a form of violence? It gets philosophical.

I think the fact that Corbyn and Sanders did so well in the last anglo elections, not to mention Trump's own brand of "radicalism" winning, is symptomatic that "the people" feel a lot more desperate than "the experts" are willing to admit.

There's an "enlightened" meme going around, along the lines of "people only get upset because they pay attention to fear-mongering headlines". It's kind of ironic, because it is precisely via headlines that a ton of well-to-do people are informed that everything is fine and there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Climate scientists are sounding alarm bells, but people feel that some whiz like Musk will figure things out. Nobody is more clueless about the american fentanyl epidemic, or the lack of access to potable water in Flint, MI, or what's going on in Palestine, or why BLM is protesting, or what's actually going on in Syria, than affluent well-to-do people whose media keeps telling them that everyone "whining" is exaggerating.