TV has swiped the cultural crown from movies – these days you can’t wade into an app store without tripping over a basket of epic small screen offerings. It’s a rumbling avalanche of on-demand box sets and we’re wearing binge-watching Panda eyes like badges of honour.
But RISING has noticed that storylines are getting darker, and sadder too. On Netflix, for instance, more melancholic and existential storylines have risen on the backs of millions of viewing votes for this kind of content. We decided to find out why, and what effect it’s having…
What Happens When ‘IRL’ Bleeds Into TV?
To understand why modern TV makes us so melancholy is to understand just how emotionally engaged we’ve become with it. Take crime documentaries: once fairly passive, now they actively seek to engage viewers in helping to crack a case, immersing those at home with enough gritty bag ‘em and tag ‘em detail that coverage can have a substantial effect on the present-day case. HBO’s The Jinx and podcast giant Serial are proof of that, though nothing can surely hold a vigil candle to Making a Murderer.
Arriving on Netflix with little or no fanfare at the end of 2015, the show revisited the grisly case of the rape and murder of Wisconsin photographer Teresa Halbach from ten years previous. It was a global hit, spawning thousands of armchair sleuths and generating such public interest that the man convicted of the crime, Steven Avery, now finds himself in the middle of an appeal. Needless to say, further glossy morbid murder mystery programmes followed, most recently with Casting JonBenet and The Keepers.
‘If dark storylines help you process something you’ve been grappling with inside, that’s a positive’
Compulsive TV Fuelled By Controversy
Earlier this year, the binge-watching meta was taken to new heights when 13 Reasons Why landed on Netflix. Charting the story of a bullied US teen, Hannah, who commits suicide and leaves 13 cassette tapes for her classmates to explain why, each episode saw a worrisome protagonist, Clay, listen to a new tape fearing what might be revealed – in turn mirroring the viewer’s own 13-episode odyssey, like a televisual form of clickbait. Imploring Clay to listen to the tapes faster but declining to give away spoilers themselves, ‘It’s what Hannah would have wanted’, the other characters would meekly offer, referencing the dead girl. But such are the binge-related hints offered by the script, the lines might as well be delivered with a nod and wink at the camera.
The headlines over 13 Reasons Why were not down to the twists, but for its darkly adult content – including a rape scene from the victim’s POV – and the show’s alleged glamorisation of suicide. The latter sparked a wave of debates across the US, leading to Netflix adding a warning message before airings. But, for most of us, what are the psychological effects likely to really be? As opposed to negative connotations, could storylines surrounding mortality actually work as a healthy processing mechanism, working through our own anxieties about death?
‘Sadness is a process mechanism’ says integrative psychotherapist Hilda Burke. ‘Many of my clients go out of their way to avoid the reality of death, it’s a real Boogeyman, but it’s one of the certainties of life. Like any phobia, the best way is to get up close and look it in the face rather than run in the other direction. No matter how dark the shows are, they can help, as tragedy on-screen has the ability to reflect events in people’s own lives. It’s healthy.’
Sad TV Is Even Getting Laughs With Sadcom
Another dark television trend that you may have noticed has been given a name: sadcom is now a thing. Coined by Vulture writer Jenny Jaffe in 2015, it’s a growing subgenre of comedy specialising in a shrewder brand of humour, riffing on more adult themes: everyday stresses, existentialism, mundane delves into the human psyche. Think Bojack Horseman, the cartoon about a talking horse celebrity who is also a suspect depressive, or Rick and Morty, another hit Netflix animation, where the main characters include a super-scientist alcoholic and a married couple who bitterly resent each other, but stay together regardless. Their worlds are wacky, the storylines ridiculous, but the subtle issues in the background are painfully real.
‘Worlds are wacky, storylines ridiculous, but the subtle issues in the background are painfully real’
The Guardian attributes the rise of sadcom to modern culture placing such a high value on humour: ‘Not only is the news increasingly consumed through a prism of humour – thanks in part to social media and memes – but we live in an age of complicated theoretical ideas, such as gender, sexuality and latent institutional racism and sexism,’ it commented. That could best describe half of the storylines of Aziz Ansari’s wry comedy Master of None and its ilk, such as Louis, or Inside Amy Schumer.
Burke sees no reason why we shouldn’t take this new stream of comedy as a positive, even if the darker parts are largely subliminal: ‘It may induce the opposite of Schadenfreude, where you start to see characters on TV doing badly so you feel bad, as you can relate. Beneath the surface you think: “Oh yeah, these people have it bad too.”’ Be it fiction or documentary, it’s healthy to get that perspective.
‘If dark storylines help you process something you’ve been grappling with inside, that’s a positive. It’s good to feel whatever you’re feeling. It’s healthy; be honest with yourself rather than distract yourself and suppress it. Shows with more taboo elements might secretly be doing us the power of good.’
So, there you have it: don’t shy away from dark TV – it’s what Hannah would have wanted – but exercise your self-discipline by resisting the producers’ manipulations to get you to binge-watch.
WHAT NEXT? Check out The Keepers, Netflix’s latest doc-buster, revolving around the murder (and possible church and state cover-up) of a nun in late 60s Baltimore. Your water cooler chat will thank you for it.