– by David Churack
Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, House of Cards, Hannibal, Boardwalk Empire – anyone remotely engaged with current television programming has heard these titles, and undoubtedly had their virtues repeated to an annoying extent by friends and family. They represent the pinnacle of modern television programs, lauded by critics for both their entertainment value and artistic quality.
They also have one further quality in common – they all feature immoral characters in morally ambiguous worlds where ethical standards are constantly slipping away.
A prime example of such a show could be given as the immensely popular and critically lauded series Breaking Bad. A summary of the focus of this show is doubtless unnecessary, but it is worth repeating that the overarching plot of the series is the transition of the protagonist from a meek and considerate chemistry teacher to a murderous, controlling drug lord. While there has of course been violence on television for decades now, the overt focus on watching a character descend into immorality, and the fact that Breaking Bad represents one of the most critically and commercially successful television show in years, cannot be considered a coincidence.
Similarly, Game of Thrones, one of the most popular and culturally identifiable shows still running, contains decapitation, incest, sex occurring without consent and the attempted murder of a child – all within the first episode alone.
These are just a couple of examples out of many; in the list of shows above, serial killers, corrupt politicians, drug dealers, mob bosses and murderers are all well represented. There is simply no denying the fact that the current trend of successful television programs seems to favour dark, sensationalist fare with a focus on immoral characters and unethical activities.
This is not a new observation – many cultural commentators and news sources have noticed this trend and supplied their own interpretations.
Some subscribe to the theory that the increasing popularity of cable channels is responsible, as these cable channels are not subject to the same restrictions in terms of content as free to air channels. This hypothesis may hold some weight – for example, many of the television shows listed above come from American cable channels such as HBO and AMC.
Another supposition entails that this public interest in immoral acts stems from a cultural shift towards pessimism and cynicism, caused by trends such as the ever-increasing threat of terrorism, the rise of mass shootings in countries such as America and increasing awareness of the dangers of climate change.
Whatever the reasons behind it, the darker televisual landscape we are left with today raises interesting and controversial topics for discussion.
Will the increasing representation of morally ambiguous content have a negative social influence on viewers at home?
If so, do programmers and show-runners have a responsibility to police their content, or are ideals such as freedom of speech and artistic integrity ultimately more important?
These are age-old questions, and there are no easy answers.
Many viewers may find solace in their ability to change the channel and ignore television content they do not agree with. However, the wide dissemination and intense following of particular shows may make ignoring these programs something of an exercise in social exclusion.
Whatever the effects and desirability of the ‘challenging’ nature of many of the shows on our TV screens, the best the average viewer can do is try to enjoy what has been labelled the ‘Golden Age of Television’.
Image credit: Still from Poltergeist (1982)