Television has always served as a means of escapism.
At least, that is true of scripted programming. Just as Americans chose fluff at the cinema during the 1930s, preferring frothy urban comedies to help them escape the Depression and Hitler’s march across Europe, so too have audiences made similar choices when it comes to their TV viewing habits of the last 60 years.
In the 1960s, the USA may have been consumed by important issues like Vietnam, Civil Rights, and the Generation Gap, but when it came to their televised entertainment, most Americans favored silly sitcoms populated by hillbillies, castaways, and caped crusaders. In the 1980s, nighttime soap operas helped take the citizenry’s mind off of the recession, a widening wealth gap, and the Iran-Contra scandal. Colonel Oliver North’s impact was notable, no doubt, but it paled in comparison to those made by fictional characters J.R. Ewing and Alexis Carrington Colby.
But in the years after 9-11, the trend of escapism shifted towards a willingness to accept more of the collected angst we were all feeling in our television programming. Shows became darker, grittier, even more so than they had been trending towards since "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere" in the late 1980s. Heroic leads were starting to be replaced by antiheroes, tremendously compromised characters we cheered despite their flaws. In shows like "24," "The Shield," "The Sopranos," "Dexter," "Breaking Bad," and "Mad Men," we started to relate more and more to scoundrels. They were more interesting characters, and they certainly reflected some of the less than desirable traits of America that most audiences were now willing to accept.
The sugar-coating became less and less as even sitcoms strived for more reality. Such shows even moved away from the typical three-camera presentations in front of a studio audience to single camera productions that allowed for a more realistic, filmic look.
Television started to aim less for the comfortable and more for the surprising, even shocking, eschewing escapist coddling that so often served as an antidote to the real world out there. The psychology of escapism had always been a natural reaction to stress, danger, or adversity, but now television was choosing to echo life’s harsher realities to become more of a mirror to all the nastiness. And in the last few years, it’s almost as if the small screen has become a virtual extension of our national angst via all of the reality shows, true crime documentaries, and series so dark and violent that they can compete with any R-rated horrors in the Cineplex.
And audiences are eating it up. This year, despite the remnants of the pandemic, headlines of treason and insurrection, not to mention stifling inflation, Americans are not shying away from darker programming. Look no further than the various scripted miniseries that have captured audiences’ attention since January. "Under the Banner of Heave" dramatized the 1984 slaying of a young mother and her infant by Mormon fundamentalists. "The Staircase" examined the trial of author Michael Peterson who was accused of killing his wife Kathleen at the bottom of their home’s staircase. Both shows were bleak and unrelenting, with nary a moment for any relief, comic or otherwise. Instead, each series seemed to absolutely wallow in their case’s gruesomeness. On "The Staircase," viewers were even subjugated to watch Kathleen die horribly in three different, drawn-out scenarios at the bottom of those stairs.
The miniseries "Black Bird" was another one ripped from real headlines, but at least that one had a crackling cat-and-mouse vibe to it. Anchored by superb performances by Taron Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser in the leads (pictured in my illustration), it played like brilliant fiction even though it was mostly all true. Indeed, convicted drug dealer James Keene (Egerton) did go undercover in prison to nail other murders to serial killer Larry Hall (Hauser), making for an edge-of-your-seat thriller that, nonetheless, still managed to disturb exponentially even as it entertained. Especially chilling was Houser’s sing-song, matter-of-fact vocal delivery as Hall, boasting of all the grisly details of his murders of young girls. Ultimately, Keene succeeded in ensuring that Hall stay locked away for good, but the ugliness of the miscreant’s actions were laid out crystal clear.
No matter its ugliness, Americans made "Black Bird" one of the most-watched streaming series this year, even earning a 95% audience approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
So, what else has made so many of us almost immune to such horrors, leading to a trend in scripted series rejecting Tinsel Town’s classic mode of escapism? What does it say about American audiences that even our sitcoms have boldly started to march into such darker places, as the success of "Only Murders in the Building" will attest. Heck, even "Ted Lasso" went much darker in its second season.
Such evidence suggests that no matter the subject, audiences will always gravitate towards great stories, no matter how dark they might get. Additionally, wonderful books make for sharp source material. (All three of the miniseries I mentioned earlier started as true crime books.)
International programming, found on most streaming services these days, has also hardened our Pollyanna viewing habits as overseas programming is notorious for lacking sentimentality. And we’ve all gotten used to a steady diet of TV for decades now and will therefore reject any cliché too egregious or familiar. The more surprises, twists and turns, the better.
If some of those turns lead down dark alleys, who’s to complain?
And yet, even with all those easily identifiable reasons, there’s still a lot more to the darkening of both shows and their audiences. Writers in Hollywood have realized a journalistic truism that applies to scripted dramas, too. If it bleeds, it leads.
In other words, murder and mayhem are always good for catching eyeballs and have since the days when newspapers couldn’t print new editions fast enough to keep up with Jack the Ripper’s murders in London of 1888. Should it surprise anyone that we’re just as curious about skullduggery today? Death is the ultimate ending for all of us, so why shouldn’t it be a reliable go-to in scripted programming?
Fear is also good for grabbing audiences, just ask Fox News as they’ve convinced a large chunk of the nation to tune in nightly to hear Tucker, et al expound on who the bogeymen is this week, be it the FBI, the DOJ or AOC. And speaking of politics, the case could certainly be made that when candidates cannot only survive scandals but thrive despite them, the world has gotten to a place where dark passengers aren’t as scary as they once were. You’ll remember that Bill Clinton’s numbers went up after Congress tried to impeach him, and Donald Trump became president despite a laundry list of scandals.
To that point, perhaps the biggest reason that the small screen has become a darker and darker place to tune into is that we, as a collective people, have become darker and darker.
If 9-11 was a bellwether moment for the nation, look at what the fallout says about us. Rather than coming together as a nation to heal, we divided further, becoming more tribal, more prejudiced, and more unapologetic for our sins. We can’t recognize escapism any more when hard truths are staring back at us every morning in the mirror.
Our entertainment is darker because we’re getting more and more comfortable living there.
It’s a dangerous place to be, too, best to be avoided, but we continue to burrow. And well, that’s something that those in Hollywood have been onto for sometime now. Write what you know, as they say.