Television is better than it’s ever been, that’s both common sentiment and oft repeated phrase and in most ways that’s true. The acting is better, the writing is tighter, the concepts are more fully explored, and the constrictions have been removed. You can see a character change and grow, you can see a story evolve and broaden, you can have things go wrong, and you can even have an unhappy ending. Most of all you can wallow in the evil at the core of humanity’s existence. So dark. So ‘mature’.
And yes, there must always be a but.
Is that what television is best at providing? Is that what the audience wants? The critics love and laud those shows, the ‘mature’ shows, with the bad people doing bad things for bad reasons, exploring the depths of humanity, and the buzz that is generated by those critics can lead to those dark shows becoming popular. Not every dark show becomes popular but enough get critical plaudits that it’s definitely a trend. Often they’re not wrong, those shows are technically well done and deserve the acclaim. Of a sort. Is that what the audience wants?
Critics are jaded, high volume consumers of product (be it music, movies, or television), and often what they’re looking for is something different. Not original, no matter how much they tell themselves that’s what they’re looking for, but repackaged versions of old content. That’s because that’s what all of us are looking for in that there’s no such thing as an original story, it’s all repackaging. What spoke to humanity a hundred years ago will still speak to humanity today. Not in the same format, not the same words, not the same plays, but the themes that resonated in their souls still will in ours (a son trying to avenge his father’s death while being powerless-Hamlet, two young lovers separated by circumstances beyond their control-Romeo and Juliet, a miser who realizes he must change his ways-A Christmas Carol).
What about the light? Why are all these shows squelching through the muck? Is not light done right as worthy of praise and the critic’s attention as the dark? You watch a modern sitcom (not every one of them but enough to say there’s a solid trend), and you might get some laughs but you hate the characters and hate the reality they’re living in. Every character is venal, focused on themselves, and those focused outwardly are mocked for it. Awful stuff happens to them and they do awful stuff in response. Some of those shows were hits but many of those kinds of shows stayed on the air for years despite low ratings because of the critic’s praise. The hope being that the critics’ constant praise would eventually drive eyeballs to the show. Occasionally that happens but more often than not those shows limp along for a few years until their creator gets so frustrated they go even more dark. Sometimes for the shock laugh, but more often for the revenge.
Revenge on an audience that doesn’t like that kind of stuff and doesn’t watch that kind of stuff.
There are light shows, pleasant shows, and often they get much better ratings than the dark stuff but if you read or listened to the critics you’d never know they existed.
Dodge the Bullet could be an exercise in darkness. Rick’s been shot a dozen (or so) times, electrocuted, beat to death by his best friend, poisoned, stabbed in the heart, baseball bat to the back of his head, lost his wife to cancer, rejected from Heaven, lectured by Elvis, hectored by John Lennon, hated by Charles Carol Hardin, and yet….
Yet, it’s not dark. It has hopeful moments, essentially cheerful even when being cheerfully nasty. It is light. But that doesn’t mean it’s soft or unthoughtful. The light tone was a deliberate choice as contrast to the dark content.
Do critics, and do audiences assume that it’s easier to go light? Possibly but both are wildly wrong. Keeping that light touch is difficult, keeping a consistent tone is easier when the color you’re painting with is black.
The impulse to go dark is very adolescent and many say that modern society is trapped in a lengthy teenage fit. Maybe they’re right, but even if they are I’d rather dance in the sun of hope.
Even if my favorite Rolling Stone song is Paint it Black.
But I first heard that song when I was a teenager.
Edgy was cool. Black was cool. I was cool.
But I was never cool.
No matter how I wallowed in the dark.
Thanks for reading,