Why Is the Golden Age of Television So Dark?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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The Official Blog Spouse and I are nothing if not loyal members of our television-watching demographic. "The Wire" is our favorite show of all time. We watch "Boardwalk Empire," "Game of Thrones" and "Homeland" together; I also watch "Mad Men" by myself, as Peter finds it too dull. We are working our way through "Breaking Bad." I really do like all these shows, and yet, when I watch this list I have to ask myself: Why does almost everything we watch involve criminals and violence? No, not just involve them, but elevate them to the center of the story?

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?

Gangster art is not new, of course; it was one of the earliest staples of the talking picture. But the gangsters in those films were not allowed to be the heroes while continuing to be gangsters; the film was required by the code to cast judgment on them (and deliver a comeuppance, or a conversion, or preferably both, in the end). I'm not saying that Vince Gilligan approves of Walter White's descent into sociopathy, but that's not the main emotional action of the series. The main investment we have in this show is seeing whether -- and how -- Walter White will get himself out of his latest career-induced predicament. Where is the moral alternative effectively dramatized? His hapless wife? The endless, pointless dithering of Jesse? The latter became so annoying that I'd rather have seen him joyously return to cooking meth; that would have been more entertaining, and more plausible.

Hank is probably the closest thing we have to a moral compass. But Hank's quest seems more personal than moral. We know that he is determined to win, to destroy Heisenberg, even if it means destroying his sister-in-law and her family. But we don't know why. Is it because Hank cares about the damage that all those drugs are doing, or is it because he can't stand to lose?

What is the attraction of these sorts of stories? At first I thought that it was sheer novelty; here's one world we don't know anything about. But that can't be right, because there are other types of stories, like historical dramas, that would be quite novel if done well. Eventually I decided the truth is this: 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.

America has less drama because compared with the 19th century, our economic and social systems are basically risk free. Don't get me wrong: Being poor is still really terrible. But almost no one who is poor in modern America (with the exception of a few drug addicts and mentally ill people) is seriously at risk of spending an extended period of time without heat, food, clothing or shelter. The ordinary poor do not starve to death, and they do not freeze to death. Those were real things that could happen to, say, a middle-class family without close relatives whose bread-earner died. They were real things that did happen to a lot of people, not one random case that made the news because it's so unusual.

Or consider a relatively common dramatic trope of the 1920s-1960s: the light-skinned black woman who "passes." (It was usually a woman, presumably because audiences would have been too uncomfortable at the thought of a black man potentially marrying a white woman.) Occasionally, there'd be some other variant, such as secret Catholics or secret Jews. None of these stories would make the slightest bit of sense today, unless you set the dramatic action at a Stormfront rally. At which point it still wouldn't make any sense, because why is our secret minority trying to pass as a white supremacist?

Similarly, with the exception of pedophilia or mass murder, we have nothing that is as socially life-destroying as any number of things in 19th century America, notably out-of-wedlock pregnancy, divorce and adultery. Adultery is still dangerous, of course; it might cost you your marriage, a few friends and some embarrassment. But you can't picture people having to move to another continent because they hadn't managed perfect, lifetime marital fidelity.

But you can't dramatize pedophilia the way the 1940s dramatized an extramarital relationship. Having sex before, or outside, of marriage was viewed as wrong, but an understandable kind of wrong -- it was giving into a temptation that many people felt. That's why it made for interesting drama. To belabor the obvious, you're not going to get the same sort of audience identification with someone who is sexually attracted to 6-year-olds. In fact, you're not going to get an audience at all; they'd be too repulsed.

This leaves us with murder and related felonies. Crime and war are the only two places where the stakes are still life and death, or exile. War has been, um, done to death, and it's expensive to shoot well. So what makes the perfect television drama for the novelty-seeking sophisticate? A crime drama -- told from the point of view of the criminal, often a criminal with a surprisingly ordinary, bourgeois domestic life, which serves to heighten the novelty. Not to mention the dramatic tension offered by a secret life.

Don't get me wrong -- I don't wish that we could go back to 1930 because it would give us so many more sympathetic dramatic plots. Obviously, it is better to have progress on race relations and infant mortality than it is to have another "Showboat" or "Uncle Tom's Cabin." But it does leave a bit of a hole in our storytelling.

These shows are well done, very well done. They are novel. But they do raise a question: What do you do for an encore? We are perhaps approaching a time when the criminal underworld will feel as, um, done to death as the hard-bitten World War II sergeant and his platoon of wise-cracking but basically patriotic all-American boys. I think back to films such as "Peyton Place" and "A Summer Place," which sort of shamefacedly argued that while premarital sex might be a bad idea, the people who engaged in it were after all people doing something natural and even understandable. And then the movies of 30 years later that celebrated premarital sex, and condemned the senseless prudery of earlier generations. What will crime dramas look like 30 years hence? Will we be celebrating meth dealers too? I know that seems totally incomprehensible -- but then, imagine trying to explain to your grandmother, in 1950, that 60 years from now, mass entertainment would be celebrating the beauty of gay marriage -- and not as a gag.

I don't really think that this is the most likely outcome. But still, it worries me that this is the moral and emotional landscape where so many of my peers seem to feel most comfortable -- one that forces them to suspend, at least for intervals, their judgment of people who are outlaws and ruthless murderers.

Of course, that worry is not enough to make me stop watching the shows.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net