On why so much supposedly great TV is so dark and nihilistic

Tom Burroughes's picture
Submitted by Tom Burroughes on Thu, 2013-08-29 07:29

Megan McArdle, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/... , writing over at Bloomberg, has this thought-provoking article (well, it is to me) about why so-much acclaimed television is so dark and depressing in its content:

We are in a golden age of television, I am told, where television shows are taking the risks, doing the interesting things that are no longer possible in movies that need so many tens of millions of dollars to cover the cost of production and marketing. I largely agree with this assessment. So what does it say about modern society that it considers shows about meth cookers, crack dealers and gangsters to be the finest mass market entertainment we can produce?

She goes on to this explanation for the trend:

We watch so many crime dramas because there are no big stakes in middle-class American life. The criminal underworld is one place where decisions actually matter -- and can be shown to matter, dramatically. You look at novels of the 19th century and they are filled with terrible, dramatic dilemmas that actually did face ordinary people. People lost everything, and risked starvation; they performed terrible, cruel, dangerous work for years on end in order to make a little money; they died from the risks of their job or the ordinary diseases that used to carry off so many people in their prime. Women had to choose between love and the economic security of a well-off suitor. The result of a regrettable night of passion could be expulsion from polite society, or a hasty forced marriage. People in the 19th century, and into the middle of the 20th, faced a lot of dilemmas wherein doing the wrong things could permanently destroy their lives.

She's got an important point: as our lives (in the West, certainly), have become more comfortable and the risks associated with making very bad decisions have fallen, it is possible to see how drama, to hold our interest, has to focus on the more extreme sides of life. I understand that. However, I think McArdle's assessment might let off the TV producers a bit too easily. Over half a century ago, Ayn Rand was already pointing to how, in the name of "realism", makers of films and TV shows increasingly focused on the seedy side of life. And this was not just because of a desire to fill a need for drama, but also reflected what she saw as the "anti-life" mentality of the producers of such works.

Rand also, to be clear, also realised that a lot of popular TV culture, books and films that were sneered at by the "high-brows" of the time contained a lot of what she called "Bootleg Romanticism", full of stories of cops, vigilantes and other characters (think Superman, think Dirty Harry, Bruce Lee or James Bond) dealing with the bad guys.

This "Bootleg Romanticism" issue has shifted. A lot of the most lauded TV programmes of today, such as "Breaking Bad" or "Mad Men" or "The Wire", are very stylish in different ways, and often very well acted, but apart from a few momments such as in Mad Men (it actually had a scene when reference was made to Atlas Shrugged), I tend to find such shows fall into the danger of becoming pretentious, or almost too much in love with their own hipness. For example, I am sure I am not the only person to have been bored by the dinner table companion trying to impress us all with his coolness by going on about "The Wire".

Of course, there is a varied pattern. For what it is worth, here are my favourite TV shows, past, present, and some of them British, and some, American:

24 (especially series three)
The Sherlock Holmes Casebook (Jeremy Brett version)
The remake of Battlestar Gallactica
Inspector Morse
Twilight Zone (the old one)
The Prisoner
Danger Man
Babylon Five
Spooks (the first series)
The Tom Baker Dr Who series
CIS Las Vegas (yes, it is dark at times but I also like its problem-solving dynamic, which I think celebrates Man as an efficacious being).

So, SOLOists, what are your favourites?

(BTW, I haven't seen a single episode of Downton Abbey).


RationalMan's picture


She is hilarious and I enjoyed the clip a great deal about her support for the troops. A very dry type of humor. I assume it took place in NZ but she is British. I feel so ashamed that I know nothing about NZ after a lifetime of being on this earth. The Aussies have penetrated the media in America but NZ almost nothing. I imagine your most famous alumni is LInz Perigo!

Good to see you back.

Saved by British manufacturing.

Shane Pleasance's picture

One of the few things I missed of the UK - other than my beloved Times (at the time) - was the occasional offering from Auntie.

"Have I got news for you?" was (is) intelligent, witty, cutting and at times gloriously unrelenting weekly take on politics and news. My son advises me it is probably the embryonic source of the moronic local '7 Days'.

In one show it almost completely ascended to the degenerative ribbing of the host who had, that week in the news, been caught courting outside of his relationship. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvs...

You tube has some coverage.

I rarely watch television. I confess to enjoying rugby and the occasional fishing show, but rarely am I captivated in the way programs like Cosmos used to.
Or perhaps Victoria Principal bouncing into the opening titles of Dallas.

Then again as a child I was a Wombles Groupie (saw them live).

However, Top Gear so heartily sideswipes political correctness - flatly refuses to anything but deride the average and ordinary - and, occasionally avoids buffoonery to give us shows like one I saw a few nights ago. Apparently the last show of the current series.

It culminated, gloriously, in row upon row of iconic ironwork (and carbon fibre, and aluminium etc) spread before an iconic British landmark.
Not Wimbledon Common.

I almost stood up.

I did applaud.


Hey Rosie. I find your post

Rick Giles's picture

Hey Rosie. I find your post ironic!

I think to contribute on the deeper level established here you need to do more than list your favourite TV show. You need to get into how it is so, what it is, what it might say about the culture of its viewers.

What I mentioned about juvenility and scaborousness reflected back to us in what we watch seems to fit here too. It's anecdotes and little stories told by celebrities rather than, say, intellectual debates or current affairs. It's celebrity reaction to internet memes about pets that look like owners or people caught with their pants down. To wrap up each time there's that slap-stick humiliation chair they flip viewers over backwards with.

I wish you'd say something about that and what it all means. And I feel annoyed, right this moment, that you are taking over a prime time media spot that could be used for thinking and philosophy and using it only to tag your favourite TV show.

Please do get into this topic some more if you like and do talk more about the show if that helps. Heaven knows I watch it too each Friday although I tried to resist for a long time against the combined powers of my family...

Greatest programme on TV in NZ is...

Rosie's picture

....The Graham Norton Show on Friday nights at 7.30pm on TV3.

In this episode we have dark! nihilistic! AND even a bit of speech improvement with a discussion of the word "like" (especially for Linz).

To give you an idea, here is an excellent excerpt from it:

Full show at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.... It is very, very funny and definitely worth watching - only 40 minutes long.
I fell in love with Will-i-am after this episode. Incidentally, Mir-i-am Margoyles just left NZ after performing her excellent play called "Dickens' Women". Some of you may have seen it.


Tore's picture


cookers, crack dealers and gangsters

Rick Giles's picture

Glad you brought this up, Tom. I was wondering about the same trend myself. In my case I marathoned Breaking Bad in time for the final few episodes now airing. This led to a friend lending me Sopranos season 1 on DVD which to my knowledge seems to have started this whole TV trend off.

I'm probably wrong about that. Not old enough to have seen Hill Street Blues but I get the feeling it could be a contender for early anti-hero TV.

It sounds like you think the risks of making very bad decisions need to be more punctuated for the modern audience. I agree with that. As a young person I couldn't connect with certain themes which I now can for having experienced more in my life. Death, job loss, hunger, jail, little lies..."big woop" says the youth. But a subtle touch of these themes, to those with more depth of experience, go a very long way. So maybe that means the TV audience, the culture, is having its juvenility and scaborousness reflected back?

I hear it's much worse than that in Japan where slapsick humiliating game shows have contestants being wiped out and humiliated all the time.

But I think there's at least one other big cause behind the trend. I think we're finding ourselves identifying with Walt or Tony or McNulty anti-heroes and going down the slippery moral slope with them. I think that experience of the audience, unconsciously of course, is the order of the day. It's the experience of signing on with their moral premises and then being confronted with the results is a healthy shake-up that part of our culture needs to work through.

The writer of these shows is Aaron Sorkin, and the particular shows I would endorse are The West Wing and The Newsroom

I loved West Wing too. But in line with what I've just been saying there is no way that could fly these days. Our culture is too much disenchanted with the powers that be to buy into that bullshit about noble politicians anymore. I think by watching West Wing that I was able to bottom out on the illusion of politics and others did too while it aired.

This is my first post here.

Tore's picture

Name's Tore. I'm a 30 year old Norwegian. I've been studying Objectivism for some time now, even though I'm not an Objectivist. I agree with Perigos disagreements with it, and I'm looking forward to Authentisism. I love Rands body of work, and also Peikoffs, but not so much anything written by other Objectivists, with the exeption of the writings by a Norwegian Objectivist called Vegard Martinsen, who runs a political party in Norway based on laissez-faire (!)

Why do I now post here? I've been looking for an "online home" for ages, and even though I'm definetly skeptical about some other users here, I'm going to give it a shot. Apologies for my lame English.

TV has been abysmal for ages. The TV shows of this age are all filled with pretentious narcissistic crap, reflecting on the tastes of the horrible young generations today. And i can't be bothered with TV shows in love with its own navel-gazing. This goes for all the shows today. And HD sucks; it somehow makes all people on-screen move like Benny Hill. Almost anyhting modern is completely unwatchable. The one good show that i've enjoyed in ages, is House. And I never even watch that show. I try to check out QI whenever i can, however. Educational and funny. Arrested Development was actually pretty funny. Michael Bluth = Hank Rearden? Smiling

I'm sticking with (relatively) old, funny stuff. I can't be bothered with emotionally draining stuff after a hard day's work. I just want to laugh.

Here are my favourites:

Seinfeld. It was always funny, and always extremely well written. It was like Looney Tunes with real people. Jerry Seinfeld was Bugs Bunny, essentially. George Costanza was Daffy Duck.

Tom and Jerry. Slapstick at its absolute best, executed perfectly. Tom's screams are the funniest thing.

Red Dwarf. Very funny, quotable, lovable characters, etc. However, leaves out slapstick almost completely, being a part of the stupid trend that says "adults should only laugh at verbal humour". Still, got that lovely dry British humour. If you don't like this, you're almost certainly a smeghead.

Poirot. Not a comedy as such, but Poirot (Suchet) is such a great character that it just makes me smile. They made all the god-damn books into a show, so buy the DVD collection and you're set for a while.

Duck Tales. A bit childish, I know, but they go on all these insanely imaginative journeys, it's like Indiana Jones transformed into a colourful cartoon. And it's based on the comics of the mighty Carl Barks, who sure as hell understood economics way better than Karl Marx. Uncle Scrooge is a god-damn hero in the spirit of Rand!

Bootleg Romanticism

Sam W.'s picture

As a young person who has yet to take the time to explore a fuller range of romantic fiction due to a commitment to school in the time since I read The Romantic Manifesto (fortunately, it seems I will have less schoolwork this year and will therefore maybe be able to pick up some of the great literary romanticists), I am a major lover of bootleg romanticism. I think it's incredibly interesting how, though it seems to be slipping, the American cultural sense of life continues to hang on in certain areas even in the face of horribly malevolent philosophy.

I like what you said about drama going to the extreme sides of life and the line between going this and embracing an anti-life mentality. Bootleg romanticism is often as engaging as it is because it portrays men and women who embody the same ideas that romantic heroes do, while at the same time often existing in a different world or having abilities that human beings do not.

As you implied by mentioning Superman, superhero stories are a fantastic example. Before comic book writers became obsessed with the gutter during the 90s, superhero stories used to be about individuals who either invented things that do not exist or had physical capabilities that normal human beings do not. In these stories, these heroes would embody positive values like justice or honesty or defense of the innocent in their battles against villains who embodied things like sadism or insanity. And, at least in the early days, the hero would always win. It is true that many of these comic books were written fairly poorly, but there are some definite exceptions. Look no further than the 1965-66 Amazing Spider-Man story arc "If This Be My Destiny," (issues #31-33) written by Stan Lee and Objectivist Steve Ditko. In this story, Spider-Man must simultaneously fight to protect New York City from the evil Doctor Octopus while trying to find a way to save the life of his beloved Aunt. This was definitely one of the times when comic books reached a status of classic bootleg romanticism.

Closer to your topic, isn't it interesting that while television focuses on the sewer, the dominant trend in American film is superhero movies? While some of these are darker, sometimes seedier interpretations of classic heroes, many of them still stand proudly as works of bootleg romanticism. Look at the Iron Man trilogy where we see Tony Stark wage a single-handed war on terror, while, in Iron Man 2, arguing to prevent the US government from seizing his brilliantly innovative technology. If you've not seen this scene, you really must. The moment when Stark says "You want my property? You can't have it!" is one of the philosophically best moments in modern film. In addition, many of the modern superhero films are very well written and well acted.

On television, I agree with you that there's a split between bootleg romanticism and gutter-staring shows. I also agree with you that even a dark, seedy show like a detective show can be benevolent if it points to the gutter and denounces it by presenting a heroic contrast.

My favorite modern television show (I have not seen many shows from the past, so my entire list will be modern shows) that I can endorse almost unhesitatingly is Burn Notice. This show is currently in its final season, and in the later days it has taken a turn for a somewhat darker, less benevolent point of view (the jury is still out for another two weeks until the series finale comes out to determine whether it ends well or poorly). However, the first 3-4 seasons are excellent bootleg romanticism. The show is essentially about a spy who has been cast out into Miami by the CIA. With help from his friends (all of whom have a fairly strong sense of morality, particularly Sam Axe who is played brilliantly by Bruce Campbell), he tries to find out why he has been spurned by his government, all the while helping local civilians with problems that cannot be solved by the police (for example, he might use his talents in espionage to help get back money that someone lost to a scam artist and to put the scam artist in prison).

I would also endorse, on the comedy side, Modern Family. This is not a typical sitcom, and though it follows the lives of relatively normal people, it often produces some story arcs of a romantic nature, though it is run through with comedy.

I have occasionally gotten something out of good police procedurals, such as Law and Order. Though these show very seedy things (which is why I can only watch them rarely), they denounce these things in favor of police detectives with excellent problem-solving skills who care about justice and protecting innocents. I particularly enjoy it when a detective becomes obviously impassioned about a case, which is why Special Victims Unit is my favorite of those shows due to its superior characters.

The last television shows I would like to mention before I conclude this lengthy post (brevity has never been a strong suit - fortunately, I would guess that this forum does not consist of people who have short attention spans) are as close as it comes these days to genuine romantic realism. As great as this sounds, there is a major drawback, which is that the explicit philosophy of the shows (because of their author) is malevolent. He is a liberal who generally endorses growth of government. But, if one focuses on the romantic aspects of the storylines and not the endorsement of the Democratic Party contained therein, these shows can be a real treat. The writer of these shows is Aaron Sorkin, and the particular shows I would endorse are The West Wing and The Newsroom. The first is "behind the scenes" of the senior staff of a fictional Democratic president, and the second is "behind the scenes" of a cable news network that decides to produce intelligent content about relevant news rather than the gossip that pervades modern news. The first, as you can imagine, is more explicitly liberal than the second, but both have that bias. Still, I would recommend them. Having to sit through some pro-liberal speeches is a small price to pay, to me, for the amazing romantic plots, characters and dialogue contained in these shows. I would recommend giving the first season of The Newsroom, which was on HBO last year, a try to see if the romanticism rises above the liberalism for you, too.


Lindsay Perigo's picture

Great topic! I find there's a wealth of terrific television still, in spite of the ascendancy of pomo-nihilism.

I'm a sucker for all the detective series. I can't get enough of the likes of Midsomer Murders, George Gently, Father Brown (on now—wonderful!), Poirot, Miss Marple, Lewis, etc. And yes, Jeremy Brett was the best Sherlock Holmes (I don't bother with the current pomo-Sherlock). I even love Heartbeat! Outside of such fare I enjoy all the adaptations of Dickens, Jane Austen, et al, and there've been gratifyingly many over the years. Then there's Downton Abbey, of course, which you say you haven't seen??!!

Looking at my list, I see it's all British! Well, I guess I could add House to it, though I waxed and waned on that.

UKTV-NZ is repeating Waiting for God at the moment. Glorious. And Keeping Up Appearances. Hilarious piss-take of social metaphysicianship! Then they play the soaps, Holly Oaks and Doctors, which are compellingly awful for about five minutes, then just plain awful. The worst soap by far, though, has to be the Ozzie Home and Away, of which I believe I wrote in Total Passion. The worst—and most popular!

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