Image courtesy of HBO.

Where Did All the Joy Go?

I just came off of catching up on season three of The Magicians. I was really digging it because it was the least depressing season so far – at least until it ended. Now that I’ve finished that show, I’m looking for something new to watch. Unfortunately, most everything on TV nowadays is depressing as hell and I can’t seem to get away from it. A dark remake of the kid-friendly comedy Sabrina the Teenager Witch, I mean, really?

I like a good tragedy, I really do. But the world has seen a crappy last couple of years. We could use a laugh or smile. Instead, we get a bunch of dark television shows that just keep reminding us of how terrible everything is. Why is that?

Grim Stories Are More Interesting

What do you think are the most popular TV shows in recent years? According to Business Insider, in 2016 this was the top three:

  1. Game of Thrones
  2. The Walking Dead
  3. Pretty Little Liars
The Walking Dead. Image courtesy of AMC.

So, a show heavy on murder and incest, a show based on fear and death, and a show about lies and murder. See a theme here? These stories are all driven by darkness. We are more interested in conflict than we are in happily-ever-afters. It’s cruel cliffhangers that keep us coming back, not satisfying resolutions.

Why we are so drawn to the dark? Exploring the dark side of things has become a “fetish” of sorts, claims Kevin Tucker in an article for BBC. Do we like dark stories because we feel safe in knowing the stories aren’t real? Are we thankful for not ever having known such evil ourselves?

Breaking Ground on Pushing Boundaries

Boundaries are being pushed more and more frequently. Topics that used to be taboo – such as showing LGBTQ relationships on television – are now rather commonplace. We can now talk about topics like suicide (13 Reasons Why) and sexual abuse (Jessica Jones) and show people what those really mean.

On the flip side, the more we break boundaries, the more we are desensitized to it. The more blood and gore we see, the more we beome accostumed to it. If you thought something was heartbreaking before, they’ll find a way to make it hurt more.

Jessica Jones. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Tucker also claims that “the most reliable way for any maker of TV to prove he or she is serious, ground-breaking and taboo-busting is to produce grim, dark and – that most overused term – ‘edgy’ drama.”

Now that people know it can be done, and that it is successful, many creators are flooding the market with these dark stories. They are all searching for that critical acclaim, to know that their story speaks volumes or in some way changed the world.

Where Did it All Begin?

If I were personally to point to a specific time when dark stories started to arise, I would pick the release of Wicked; the story of the Wicked Witch of the West from her own tragic perspective. I also would point at dystopian young adult fantasy stories, such as The Hunger Games, that have driven dark television with their big screen adaptions. Written stories need that extra darkness to bring them to life, but film does not.

Stories like Wicked started a snowball of “the other side” tales in the mainstream ever since. It’s not enough that the bad guy is evil, we want to know why, and this creates some very dark stories.

Suddenly we want to sympathize with the bad guys. Something terrible had to have happened to them to make them that way, right? Christian Grey, Maleficent, Captain Hook, Dexter Morgan, Martin Chatwin, Walter White, on and on.

Tragic lives, many of them stemming from sexual abuse or desperation, turn ordinary people into monsters. We’re fascinated with evil.

The Magicians. Image courtesy of Netflix.

It’s Becoming Too Much

I’m not going to get into the argument that violent shows make people violent (one, because I don’t believe in that). However, I will argue that all these dark TV shows are really becoming too much.

In a world where there is real tragedy, we need something to cheer us up, not bum us out. I can appreciate the twists that many dark stories have – that maybe there isn’t really a happily ever after. It’s fresh and new.

Or rather, was. Now, I’m starting to miss the old formula of “good guy gets the girl and saves the day and everything is hunky dory,” so that maybe for a moment I can believe everything will be all right, too.