Despite the existence of Internet comments and the fact that some consider “rape humor” appropriate, I like to believe in the innate goodness of people. As someone who sees popular culture in all its forms as both a mirror to reflect the world and a tool to shape it, I tend to prefer art that inspires rather than that which darkens. The brief, momentary thrill of a character placed in danger is so fleeting compared with a fictional being you keep close to your heart, either because they are something to aspire to or someone you relate to. We build relationships with the characters in ongoing television series. Countless psychological studies have shown this. The comfort of reruns stimulates the same pleasure areas as interacting with old friends.
Why are we in so many abusive relationships with our entertainment?
When my friends told me to watch “Breaking Bad,” they sung the praises of the show’s artistry. After I watched it and asked them why they would recommend something that goes to such awful, dark places, they said “It’s like I don’t want to watch, but I want to watch…” They’ve been watching the show white-knuckled out of a sense of addiction, they have a form of Entertainment Stockholm Syndrome. In a way, their asking me to watch with them is like saying “ugh, this smells bad; smell it.”
I don’t think a person has to be “bad” or dark or troubled or flawed to love a show that’s full of bad, dark, troubled, and flawed people and situations. I believe it’s no different than people who love roller coasters and people who would never set foot on one. It’s the difference between people who love haunted houses and who would never subject themselves to the fright. It’s a matter of taste, not a matter of “right and wrong.” But it got me thinking…
Why are we seeing so many shows that are crazy dark right now?
“Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “Dexter,” and on and on. These shows kill characters left and right to shock us. Like I said earlier, the psychologists tell us we develop relationships with these characters. They are our friends. So why are we entertained that all our friends are dead?
For me, it’s easy to separate why I enjoy “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” from why I had trouble with “Breaking Bad” and won’t watch “Dexter.” Zombies and dragons. No, it’s not just that I like nerd stuff, which I do. It’s that they are perpetual reminders of the fictional nature of what I’m watching. “The Walking Dead” can’t be real because zombies aren’t. “Game of Thrones” can’t be real because dragons aren’t. They are reminders that pop up throughout the episodes as if to say “it’s not real!” And so I don’t find myself troubled in the same way. Plus, it helps that there are kind, smart, loving characters trying to do right in both shows.
Contrast that with “Breaking Bad,” which strove for reality even if it constantly broke from what reasonable people would do. Consider “Dexter,” which asks you to sympathize with a serial killer because of his choice in victims. Those could happen. Meth is sold and people die because of it. Serial killers do exist and their motives are crazy. There’s no easy reminder that this is “not real.” “Mad Men” falls in between, because the reality is offset by the distancing of the show’s setting in our past. I don’t like that one because I think it’s boring, but that’s beside the point.
I’ve known sweet, timid people who feast on dark fiction, be it movies, books, or TV. Soccer moms who devour novels about mass murder or office-drone dudes who are liberated by playing a video game with savagery in it. It’s about release, I suppose. But when it comes down to art… I guess I’ll never truly understand someone who would rather be scared than inspired, who would rather feel terror than the thrill of watching a character achieve greatness, who would rather be stunned by an unexpected death than revel in redemption. In a world seemingly obsessed with inventing new ways for people to hurt each other, I can’t wrap my brain around spending time voluntarily inflicting heartbreak, fear, or pain onto myself.
Pain-tertainment is not my cup of tea. I can’t dismiss it because so many damn talented people make it and so many damn smart people appreciate and love it. But unlike how I hate costume dramas or the Green Bay Packers, I also can’t just write this off as a simple “matter of taste and opinion” thing. There’s something more here. There’s something about us as people if we are or aren’t attracted to this. Again, it’s not a matter of “bad people like dark stuff” and vice versa. That has been proven false in my own life time and again. But I will continue to struggle with the innate thing that lets people experience fictional and narrative pain for fun. Having subjected myself to the entirety of “Breaking Bad,” the only thing I’m sure of in all this is that pain-tertainment isn’t for me.