Tentatively Thinking Aloud About Some Great TV Shows I Adore and Despise

I’m getting ready to re-watch last night’s season premier of Justified. I got hooked watching the show after the first season had already aired. I was visiting a friend in the Finger Lakes region of New York for a couple days, and she and her partner introduced me to the show. I was hooked. After my road trip, I managed to pull a marathon of the first season.  From then on, I’ve been completely taken by the show, with multiple watches of each episode standard.

This isn’t about Justified, though. Instead, it’s an initial inquiry into questions about what kinds of deviance/crime/evil we find appealing in televisual (in particular) entertainment. I started thinking about this issue earlier this fall. I pulled a marathon viewing session of The Wire after seeing this video with members of the cast. I am a HUGE fan of The Wire, and re-watching it brought up so many thoughts about the show, both as sociological exploration and cultural masterpiece.

At the same time, my sister was doing a marathon re-watch of Breaking Bad. I had done a similar marathon the previous summer. Here’s the thing that got me thinking, though: while I recognize both as exceptional televisual entertainment. They both have amazing acting, writing, and production/editing, at the same time providing intense intellectual fodder on a variety of sociological and psychological levels.  However, while The Wire leaves me exhilarated, Breaking Bad leaves me in depressed despair. I can’t re-watch Breaking Bad because I know what kind of mood it will put me in.

I hated every single character in the program. We might call them “complex” but I thought they were all terrible, selfish pieces of shit. At the same time, the characters in The Wire could be seen as terrible, selfish pieces of shit. But, I see them as complex characters.

I’m not sure what to think of that. It’s not that Breaking Bad is necessarily more violent than The Wire, and it’s not as though The Wire lacks egomaniacal sociopaths. But, there’s something in one I find enticingly watchable, while the other is utterly repulsive. Perhaps it’s the difference between a sociological and psychological exploration. Whatever it is, I have no desire to revisit BB, but I know I’ll go back to The Wire.

A similar thing occurred while starting to watch House of Cards (again, my sister got me started). I made it through several episodes before the cynicism of the characters made it unwatchable for me. I have a special contempt for striving, cynical elites (which is almost all of them), so this tapped into those feelings. Again, though, I could recognize the high quality acting and production/editing, but I found no characters worthy of caring about. Indeed, I wished ill on them all…but not enough to care if it happened.

This is an initial exploration. I’m putting together an Honors seminar on mass media and popular culture this semester, so such audience concerns (and I am an audience member, after all) will be a significant feature of my thinking for the next few months.  I’ve got a lot of thoughts just wandering around, none of them actually connecting to each other. I’m curious about those aesthetic decisions, though. Looking at the three main crime dramas I’ve discussed here, each has “complex” characters, all capable of doing intense evil while caring deeply about other people (and even animals). All include a lot of violence, which is generally a big turn-off for me. All provide a hell of a lot of opportunity for analysis. But, I find some of those opportunities enticing, even seductive, while one repulses intensely.

For now, though, back to Harlan:

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