Does ‘quality’ television really have to be so morally arid?

Does "quality" really have to be so dark, so morally arid?

Does “quality” really have to be so dark, so morally arid?

This is by way of following up on a brief exchange Kathryn and I had yesterday about the dearth of appealing characters in the TV shows that currently compel our attention.

Bryan sent me a link to this piece, headlined “The Moral Relativism Of Serial Television.” It’s actually several years behind the curve, with this observation:

The sweet spot for serial television drama right now exists on non-premium cable channels. After decades of dominance by the broadcast networks, followed by a period in which the premium cable channels broke the mold with hits that reached mainstream culture like OzThe Sopranos, and Dexter, non-premium channels like the Fox property FX, BBC America and AMC have rushed in to, at least temporarily, hold a lock on the highest volume of compelling drama on the small screen today.

That’s something I might have said two or three years ago (think “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead”). What I sense happening now, or about to happen now, is a shift beyond non-premium cable TV, and on to series made for streaming and bingeing, such as “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black.”

But the general observation of the piece is that there is a seemingly deliberate lack of characters to root for, or even care about, in the most compelling recent dramatic series.

It ends, as do so many episodes of these popular series, on a dark note:

It is at least marginally troublesome that as a society, our most compelling entertainment increasingly eschews the concept or even the ideal that good exists in the world and ultimately should prevail. An artistic criticism of this view can legitimately point out that life is rarely so neat as to allow for the inevitable victory of the white knight. However, the rejoinder to this point is that we are not considering real life but rather television, which exists because we would rather watch it than real life. The entire raison d’etre of the medium is to idealize real life interactions into conclusions that are satisfying on at least some visceral level. If our television tastes are any guide, America increasingly takes satisfaction from a muddled mess of emotional responses which are provoked by disorderly and sometimes directly contradictory stimuli. Perhaps, if a society can be judged by its entertainment, what we are witnessing is the leading edge of the end of America’s desire to collectively be the good guy, or even to support the good guy in his efforts to be good. Or perhaps we don’t need television to tell us this; perhaps we need look no further than the ballot box.

Do we really not want to find good in characters and root for it? I don’t think that’s the case, although there’s no doubt we are living in a more cynical world than the one I grew up in.

I think we are still human, and there is still good in us, and within us lives a desire to perceive good, and embrace it — however many times we’ve been disappointed. I think the dark, moral emptiness of these recent entertainments is a function of writers and directors who are trying to produce high-quality material, and who buy into the insidious notion that moral clarity is lowbrow and insufficiently “artistic.” So they steer clear of it.

But does “quality” really have to be so dark, so morally arid?

I think if someone would come along and produce similar series, but with the humanity-affirming characteristics that marked “The West Wing,” the world would joyfully cheer, and reward the effort with their loyal patronage.

Think of that — a new series with the cinematic quality of “Breaking Bad,” but with characters like Jed Bartlet and Leo McGarry and Josh Lyman — characters you want to see succeed. As I watch the series for the first time, each night as I work out, I simply don’t see any characters who are utterly lacking in appealing characteristics. Even the adversarial figures who try to thwart our heroes have understandable, sympathetic reasons for taking the positions they do. While there are occasional digressions from this approach (one of the weakest scenes I’ve encountered was the one in which Jed Bartlet humiliates a character based on Dr. Laura with what he seems to imagine is a clever manner, but which is painfully trite — by asking her whether she literally supports all of the strictures in the Old Testament), by and large there is an appealing understanding of everyone’s motives.

Which is the way we should all live our lives. We should take strong stands based on what our discernment has taught us to believe is right, but strive to appreciate the convictions of those with whom we disagree. It could serve as an antidote to the default mode of today’s partisans, which is to demonize opponents, and scoff at their motives.

Imagine that — television that not only gives us heroes to root for, but which shows us ways to be a better society.

Now that would be television worth watching.

19 thoughts on “Does ‘quality’ television really have to be so morally arid?

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    Orange Is the New Black has appealing characters. Sons of Anarchy and Justified do, too. They are not flawless characters; they are realistic, multi-dimensional ones, unlike the fairly unalloyed goodness and decency that was most West Wingers.

    And, apropo your disbelief at the number of ops The Americans do, what drama could remain interesting if it stuck to wholly realistic situations in terms of quantity? Most of us have some true stories drawn from work or personal life, but maybe enough for a movie or a handful of episodes. No one, not even POTUS, could animate a whole series with realistic levels of drama. Same with dramatic characters that are too likeable.

    Mad Men is probably the only plausible quality drama.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      But here’s the thing, Kathryn — in real life, I find lots and lots of people to like, in spite of their flaws. Not so on “Mad Men.” Not even Joan. Roger is a hoot, but not as likable as half the people I know in real life.

      If there’s a “flaw” to “West Wing” — and I don’t think it’s a flaw at all — it’s that I like ALL of the characters (with the possible exception of those two awful GOP friends of Ainsley’s in the episode when she’s introduced — but they are there just to show us how awesome Ainsley is).

      And her little speech in that scene is like the moral of the whole show:

      I said don’t say that. Say they’re smug and superior, say their approach to public policy makes you want to tear your hair out. Say they like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders, but don’t call them worthless. At least don’t do it in front of me.
      The people that I have met have been extraordinarily qualified, their intent is good.
      Their commitment is true, they are righteous, and they are patriots.

      And I’m their lawyer.

      Ainsley has seen, and affirmed, the good in her political adversaries in the White House, while at the same time retaining her integrity and ability to eviscerate some of their arguments.

      This whole show does that, most of the time, enabling us to have perception like Ainsley’s.

      This world would be SO much better if we were all like that, if we could all see the good and the noble even in those with whom we disagree.

      And why shouldn’t art, whether low or high, challenge us to be better people, and build a better world?

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, and “Orange is the New Black” has characters that are initially appealing and then… wait for it… wait for it… eventually appalling…

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Nope, it is to speak truths, and the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation….to make it interesting, you have to make the desperation less quiet. Plus, everybody has a dark side. Everybody. Some just keep it more hidden than others.

      The people you interact with, and the level of that interaction would make for some really boring TV. These people probably have some bad things under the superficial, Cap City Club persona, like, say Tom Sponseller, Mark Sanford and Randy Scott have been revealed to have.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        I mean, would The Truman Show last for many episodes? “Reality” TV has repeatedly been shown to be faked.

      2. Mark Stewart

        What I think both West Wing and the modern bleak dramas miss is that it isn’t just whether people can be good, just and fair, or that they have dark shadowy recesses of unappealing unpleasantness; the thing we all want to see in drama is the way that these forces of idealism and pain are – or are attempted to be – reconciled within a character and within their social interactions. That’s the human condition. Having shows where everyone turns out to be ruled by vileness isn’t any more realistic than the dudley do-rights on West Wing (who succeed as compellingly likeable due to snappy script-writing).

        As with all things, I tend to think a little dramatic moderation would spark a more fully articulated pathos. We all have limitations, setbacks and self-destructive moments. Yet we all wake up every day yearning to achieve. The real drama is in the dissonance – where the characters are operating as if cylinders firing without benefit of a common crankshaft; or even a common engine block – will a smooth firing order rumble off smoothly, and if so, for how long can it stay in sync before faltering into entropy once again? The drama is in the search for synchronicity.

  3. Bart

    “Justified” …. flawed main character who knows he is flawed yet he continues to do the right thing and sometimes does bend the law to the breaking point. One of the best shows on cable and it is a shame it will be around for just one more season. Another decent cable show is “Longmire”. Over the years, some of the best television has been on cable. Still watch a few network shows but not many.

      1. Bart

        Did try to watch Sons of Anarchy a couple of times. Good cast and Perlman is one of my favorites. Katey Sagal has proven to be a very good actor, much more than the wife on Married with Children.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          She’s married to the show runner, who also plays Otto. It took us a while to figure out who everyone was, and we still could use subtitles for Chibs, the Scot.


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