Our emotional decline into everything being "dark and gritty"
i think there is an (erroneous) assumption in art that unhappiness = interesting, authentic; happiness = boring, phony. this has become a kind of feedback loop in entertainment and life. individuals no longer feel their lives are unique or worthwhile unless they suffer in some visible way, and artists no longer feel their work is worthwhile to an audience unless it offers a reflection of that inner turmoil or external oppression. which is ironic, because so much of the 'darkness' is dull, fake emo brooding that has become predictable. there is little room left for modeling or celebrating joy, the way earlier art often did.
i also think there is a disconnect between lived hardship and what is translated into 'darkness' on the page or screen. the roddenberry example is a perfect case. there was a man who suffered a great deal of hardship, yet rather than casting a dark gloom over his entire existence and work, perhaps it gave his life purpose and meaning... in other words, something like happiness. in the past, a heroic deed would have been understood in these terms. we assume hardship necessitates sadness when often people report just the opposite--they crave the purpose, challenge, or camaraderie of it. those who live sheltered, comfortable lives and write dark fictional stories are possibly the least equipped to understand genuine hardship like roddenberry's. yet, their 'understanding' continues to influence ours through their books and films.
Darkness became associated with depth and authenticity and happiness with shallowness, the false surface. That seems to follow the logic of Psychoanalysis.
Star Trek is an interesting show to track because I believe it represents the core self image of liberal America.
TOS was liberal post WWII, Cold War, Space Race idealism America, full of hope and idealism for the Civil Rights movement etc.
The Next Gen was post-cold war America is the boss of the world, The Federation is victorious, it had a mandate and America left its Cowboy past behind and embraced a new neoliberal European model with a know it all Earl Gray drinking Frenchman in charge. Truly cosmopolitan and liberal. The Prius model of Star Trek. Picard and the Federation will fix all.
DS9, maybe you can't fix everything, maybe some people are really bad guys. Maybe having the right beliefs isn't enough. Maybe sometimes you have to do some fucked up dark shit and when it's all over the Bajorans just want to worship the Prophets and don't want to be part of the "community."
Current ST is just liberal disillusionment with liberalism and the slow acceptance that maybe not everyone wants to join their club. It's ultimatly spiteful and self hating.
Great topic. The world flipped in the age of antibiotics. Life before that was nonstop fear, dread, and superstition whereas it's now stable and increasingly reliable. When the world is dread we tend to want cheer even if it's largely fake. We still live in a backlash to that.
Within recent scifi (the literary variety) there's been a growing backlash to 'grimdark' in the form of what's now called 'hopepunk': the guiding ethos being, yes everything will be mess but everything's worth fighting for and remaining hopeful within the mess is the way back up into daylight. And I think maybe that's going to percolate through to TV shows too? Certainly Star Trek is doing it with Strange New Worlds, which is resolutely hopeful - with Pike being a great example of acknowledging how bad things can get - ie. knowledge of his own terrible fate - and deciding to not let it derail his hopefulness.
(It's also why I've loved Kim Stanley Robinson's work for a while now, for its willingness to weave something from the mess of the present and carry it forward in a way that says "we'll muddle through, that's what we do". Again, maybe that'll start filtering through to more mainstream media as well...)
So I guess the question is: what do we want and need? Because writers and their readers certainly use storytelling as a form of emotional release, even therapy? But - how does it work generally? Some people seem to alleviate their existential dread using dystopian fiction, others need the exact opposite...
The author takes a more data-driven approach in trying to answer "why" than they do in actually validating the premise.
Are shows actually getting darker and grittier?? Or does it just seem that way?
Plenty of uplifting or whimsical shows come out all the time like Ted Lasso, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, One Punch Man, Extraordinary Attorney Woo. And there were plenty of gritty movies in the past too. Ben Hur, Seven Samurai.. Star Trek: TOS by the way may not have been visually dark, but people (redshirts) died left and right in that show. Side note: Books don't seem to be getting more miserable over the last 200 years: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0750-z
*If* franchises tend to get more miserable, maybe it's because you've gotta raise the stakes each season / movie in order to keep up the momentum.
I'd also be curious about how and whether censorship of movies has changed. Maybe it has become more relaxed, allowing stories to be told that we were already interested in hearing anyway.
My 2c is that we've been on an energy diet these last 50 years, and this has led to (effectively) declining living standards. We've not seen things get better, so we can't imagine them getting better.
I think it comes down to a pervasive nihilism. The roots of it can perhaps be traced by to the First World War and the shattering of the old pieties that came with it. Religion was out, patriotism was out; reason and individualism were in.
But it turns out that reason and individualism don't make us as happy or enlightened as it was supposed. Reason alone does not give you purpose or goals. Individualism makes it impossible to be happy for anyone but yourself, and, it turns out, it doesn't do much to make you happy yourself.
Can we imagine any modern person saying “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Yet without a cause or a person you are willing to die for, and in whose success you can rejoice even as you die, what is left except to put off dying as long as possible while having as much pleasure as you can in the meantime? And even that, it seems, does not make us happy.
Our unhappiness, of course, must be someone else's fault, but as nihilists, all we know how to do is to tear stuff down, so reason and excellence and competence must go too -- relics of the old order from which we allege all misery came. But that does not make us happy either, only more angry and aggrieved.
So what is there for modern literature to do but to explore this unhappiness?
My own little pet project it to try to revive what I call the "serious popular novel". Contemporary literary culture has a hole in the middle. On the one hand, there the is dark and gritty literary fiction written by and for the academy. On the other, algorithmically defined genre fiction designed to push the buttons that release endorphins in the reader -- the literary equivalent of a diet of fat, salt, and sugar.
High culture had become nihilist and low culture has become hedonist, and there is a hole in the middle. Serious popular fiction is an attempt to fill that hole. But it is fundamentally incompatible with nihilism. It needs something to believe in, some cause and some value outside the self. Then maybe we can have a happy literature again.
I'm in my fifties and yet before Netflix picked up Seinfeld during the pandemic, I had never seen the show—not one episode! This is like finding a juror for the OJ Simpson trial who hadn't seen or heard about the car chase leading up to his arrest. Or like finding an American adult without a strong opinion about Donald Trump.
The Seinfeld characters have their foibles, they're sneaky, mildly manipulative, sometime underhanded, all too willing to tell white lies. They burn down a home inadvertently and cause other problems, mostly unintentionally, without accepting responsibility. And yet it struck me that they were happy. They meet up frequently and chat and have fun together. Kramer chases women but there is nothing creepy about it and the ones he gets want to be got. Sure it's a sitcom but people really did meet up face to face and enjoy each other's company in that era. And they generally arrived on time. Standing someone up was a social faux pas, not one excused by a lame text message.
The Wire is a great show, a sprawling examination of the drug traffic, policing, justice system, education, and political system of an entire city. But it's relentlessly dark. Finally, though a long series of unlikely events the one truly good cop almost ends up running the department but of course a small thing from the past trips it up. You know something like this will happen and yet it is heartbreaking. House of Cards (American version) is similarly bleak. Francis Underwood has one seemingly real, if far from equal relationship, with the owner of a barbecue joint. And yet he managed to eventually screw over this little guy, and that for me was just too depressing to continue with the series.
The endless series of superhero movies does nothing for me. If I knew nothing about the Marvel Comic Universe, so much the better. But I have a theory that the dearth of real life heroes is behind beating these franchises to death. We are escaping reality.
Ted Gioia wrote an interesting substack presenting the posiiton that we are living in society without a counter-culture.
If there is no counter-culture, then perhaps the artistic presentation of our unhappiness is scripted. 'Grittier' is a look. What if the actual situation is that most people are not all that unhappy, but are also not all that that joyous. Unfeeling -- not as being callous, but as somehow not able to experience the depth of feeling our grandparents did?
One hypothesis - the 12th grade happiness largely tracks perceived economic opportunity (see also the dip following the dot-com burst). As someone who graduated high school in 2006, even though I was a nobody from a nowhere town, I felt like the world was at my feet. This doesn't require 12th graders to have a particular awareness of macroeconomic factors, but it's reflected through what you see your slightly older peers accomplishing. Everyone I knew who had bothered to go to university got a great job. On the cultural level, technology seemed net positive and like it would drive continued growth and progress (also true for late-90s / pre-dot-com-bust).
I'll admit my bias here - I think we often reach for abstract cultural explanations for things that could have, alternatively, pretty straightforward material causes (I think a *lot* of millennial angst can be traced back to the housing market, and would love to see studies controlling for homeownership when surveying millennial attitudes).
The piece of writing I’ve been trying to verbalise for years now. We don’t have a tv, but we do have access to Netflix (UK). Whenever we come across something like More4 at a friends’ house it’s just shocking, infuriating, and frankly fucking SO depressing all the programmes with that grey filter, and gritty realism. Christ you’d think people would want CHEERED up. Not thrown further into the pit of despair.
Misery loves company. And that where the ££££s are, too.
Me? I fall back on staples like Frasier, Taxi, Cheers, until the gloaming lifts.
I like kpop because it has a happier vibe than western pop, but even kpop is getting darker which annoys me. When I want dark music I listen to atmospheric black metal, not pop.
Sad art is not only higher status but also easier to make. It's harder to write a smart comedy than to kill some characters in a tragedy and it's harder to write a catchy melody than to create some harsh sounds.
In a way you could lay this at the feet of the death of Modernity's grand narratives, which we had all the way up through Clinton in the form of neoliberalism-- which a lot of liberals liked, until they didn't. It's also in the 1960s when this "bad faith" aspect of postmodernity raises its head in Hollywood with films like Two Lane Blacktop, Easy Rider, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Vietnam didn't help to restore faith in our mission, but instead left us reeling. I think that we also have arrived at the end of the future where we are stuck in a loop until someone or something invents a new myth we can all trust in.
My guess is that "place" determines more than we know--even in the case of a pandemic. Although Eudora Welty refers to "Place in Fiction" in _The Eye of the Story_, I find her words on target. See what you think: "Location pertains to feeling; feeling profoundly pertains to place; place in history partakes of feeling, as feeling about history partakes of place."
it will stop being like this by the end of the century (tho the "culture" will stop being truly inventive and art/"culture"/media will keep recycling its previous works/symbols and combine them in different ways).