I’m Not In It For the Giggles: Why Almost Nothing I Watch On TV Leaves Me Smiling
By E. Max Bonem, Esq.
I haven’t had cable at home since college and although this has greatly reduced the number of hours I waste on re-runs of Sportscenter or whatever variety of eroticized food-stuffing is being shown on the Food Network at any given time, I’ve found myself forming much deeper connections with the TV shows that I watch now (by completely legal means I assure you). When once I would surf the channels or skip through the guide until I landed on something that I could devote approximately 25% of my attention to, with the other 75% being split amongst my phone, computer, and something happening in nature (outside the confines of my domain, of course), I have now devoted myself to a seasonal selection of shows, most of which I am forced to binge watch (by penalty of death or pop cultural alienation) in order to catch up with and upon being up to date, I am then deeply saddened when I have to wait an entire week in order to get my next fix (see: The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Homeland, Parks & Rec, New Girl, How I Met Your Mother, etc.).
Starting with The Sopranos and The Wire a decade ago and continuing on with the likes of most shows on AMC, HBO or Showtime, a golden age of television has arrived as more and more writers and directors have taken to the small screen for better opportunities to tell their stories with fewer limitations and seemingly infinite time. As a TV viewer, I have thoroughly enjoyed this and I’ve never really found anything wrong with the shows I become devoted to. Most of my friends watch at least one of the shows that I find irresistible and even my parents have attempted to watch almost every show I recommend (I think they’ve started watching Downtown Abbey though and homeboy can’t hop on that bandwagon. Sorry England.).
At this point in my life, I’ve realized that everyone has their own TV-related escape, whether that be a sports obsession, singing/dancing competitions, anything with a laugh track, or Bravo, but the other night I made a realization after someone who I happen to share a large number of interests with made a comment regarding the shows I watch and how none of them make you happy. It took me aback and as she walked out of the room to go watch whatever it is she wanted to privately, I started to think about my favorite shows and why I watch them/have watched them in the past (Note: this does not include any of the comedies I enjoy, including How I Met Your Mother, Parks & Rec, Happy Endings, New Girl, or The League. I suppose I actually watch these to balance out the content found in the following list):
Lost: A bunch of people land on an island and have to learn to live with each other while stranded in paradise. Oh and there’s a smoke monster, a polar bear, a slew of strange residents, time travel, and mystic spirits at play. Also, did I mention the island moves?
The Wire: Arguably the greatest show ever created. Through five seasons, the show highlights a different aspect of Baltimore crime life each season (drugs, the port, schools, city government, and the local paper) while weaving in a huge number of interlocking stories amongst cops, drug dealers, assassins, city officials, and reporters. Essentially it’s the cop show that other cop shows aren’t allowed to be.
Breaking Bad: A junky and a cancer-ridden high school science professor join up to become the largest producers of crystal meth in the southwest. Cartels, the DEA, internal family drama, and a hell of a lot of murder are all significant aspects, not to mention Jesse’s incredibly limited vocabulary.
Game of Thrones: An incredibly over the top fantasy drama consisting of approximately 47 different story lines occurring at any given moment. Such fantastic aspects of the story include dragons, sorcery, many things you’d see at a renaissance festival, vast amounts of cursing and nudity/sex (including some very prominent incest), and an outstanding performance from the best actor under five feet tall in the business.
Mad Men: A 60’s-era melodrama focused on the life of one the most questionable TV characters of the past 50 years and the lives that he affects on a daily basis. Oh and it takes place at an ad agency on Madison Avenue. Drinking, adultery, more drinking, more adultery, a smoke here and there, rampant sexism and racism, and one or two more drinks/screws for the road.
Homeland: A bipolar CIA agent’s quest to capture the most notorious terrorist on Earth, all while attempting to stay sane and keep her job. More common themes including adultery, murder, torture, everyone lying to each other about everything, spies, and one spunky redhead. I was hooked five minutes into the pilot.
By looking at these descriptions, it’s obvious that I’m not watching these shows to laugh, smile or even relax. Each of these shows is designed to suck you in to their own little universe and make you care about the characters and their lives as if you knew them all personally. You want to see how Walter White will get himself out of a life or death situation or what lie Nick Brody will tell next to any number of people, but even more than that, viewers enjoy these shows because they get to watch people be put into situations against incredible odds that they know absolutely nothing about and never have/will experience anything similar to personally. And none of these shows succeeds in this more than my most recent obsession, The Walking Dead.
To many, including myself just a few days ago, The Walking Dead was simply a show about people killing zombies. I’d watched the pilot a few years ago and didn’t really think much of it, but after giving it a second chance, not only am I completely taken by it, but I’m also completely in awe of why I’m taken by it. I hate scary movies. Anything gory or horror-themed just does nothing for me, but when you take that away from The Walking Dead, what you’re left with is a story about a group of people put into horrible circumstances and what they’re willing to do to survive.
Just like Walter White in Breaking Bad or various characters from Lost, we watch The Walking Dead in order to see what lengths people are willing to go to or what decisions they’re willing to make to ensure their next breath. These shows make us question what it is to be human and at what point do you lose what it is that truly makes you a “civilized” member of society. Are there zombies in The Walking Dead? Yes, lots in fact. And do they get smited in a number of gruesome ways? Oh you betcha, but that’s not why I watch the show (although Matt’s reactions to each stabbing/blasting/shanking is just great). They play the same role as rival gangs in Breaking Bad or “the others’ on Lost or Don Draper’s decision making abilities on Mad Men – the zombies just happen to look a bit more gnarly.
When you strip away all of the story elements and settings that make the best shows on TV different and look at what makes them the same, you quickly see that the shows we get hooked on and follow most intensely are the ones built upon people finding ways to survive and what they’re willing to do in order to succeed at that. It’s not the gang violence or the cheating or the drug dealing or the beheading of the undead that draws us in, rather it’s the feeling that we all experience when the credits roll and your adrenaline begins to subside and you suddenly think, “Holy shit, what would I have done in that situation? Could I have pulled the trigger? Could I have (literally or metaphorically) thrown that person under the bus? Could I have made Walt Jr. breakfast?”