Is TV All Out of Happy Endings?

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“You ain’t ready.”

“No one is safe.”

“You’ll never be the same after this one.”

This is now common lingo in promos and previews for a lot of television shows, at least the dramatic ones. As viewers, we’re no longer invited to come along on an adventure, or to become invested in something deep and meaningful. We’re basically warned…no it’s even more blasé than that, we’re informed, that the brown stuff will be hitting the proverbial fan. Again. This time for serious. No really, not kidding. It’s no longer a plot twist to have someone die (usually for ridiculous reasons), to see lives ruined and to generally have the world crumble into a big steaming heap. It’s just par for the course in television these days.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m by no means Little Susie Sunshine when it comes to what I watch. Syrupy sweet, cartoony endings make me throw up in my mouth a little. I despise when I’m moved/manipulated into happy tears when everything works out just right. I like conflict. I can take a little darkness in my entertainment. I am, however, worried that some producers (and maybe some viewers too) have abandoned the notion of a happy ending. It feels like one has to dig pretty far into a plot in order to find even a tiny nugget of hope, and even then, one must resign one’s self to the fact that said nugget will probably get stomped on as well.

Here’s why I think, even in the midst of ennui and malaise, television can’t be all corpses and thunderstorms:

  • People watch shows, at least partially, because of the characters. We see ourselves in them, even when they’re fighting zombies, developing telekinesis, or performing the world’s first brain transplant. We like them, and we get attached. The minute an audience starts to assume that their favourite personage could have a piano dropped on them at any second, the deal is off. If I’ve got one precious hour of quiet to spend on a show, I’m going to go for one in which players I care about are likely to be there again next week.
  • The whole issue of desensitizing people to violence thing-yeah, that. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t even watch fight scenes or gratuitous violence anymore, and it’s not because I can’t take them. It’s because it’s been done and it’s boring. I’m an adult with a pretty decent set of critical thinking skills, and a more than acceptable level of empathy, and I’ve still gotten to the point where someone getting blown up, run through, or squashed is just background noise to me. In real life, I’m appalled by human cruelty and misery, but on television, it doesn’t even register. I know I’m not alone in this, and it’s not only an unfortunate side effect of having the worst things happen in shows, but it’s a dangerous mindset to develop.
  • I’m not convinced that having everything go wrong is all that realistic. Admittedly, I’ve lived kind of a charmed life, one in which my safety and well-being isn’t up for debate on a regular basis. But even when I’ve spoken to people who’ve experienced thirty-one flavours of hell, they’ve still had stories to tell about things going right, about laughter and celebration, and hope. Perhaps life really is cruel, and we’re just wired to see rays of light because we need to get out of bed in the morning, but so what? If that’s what life is really like, if that’s how human beings function, then shouldn’t television plotlines reflect that?

In truth, the way people consume media is shifting constantly, and with things like alternative broadcasting, online viewing, and binge watching, television is becoming a meritocracy. Our behaviour as viewers is telling showrunners that we’re not willing to wait a week or sit through commercials unless there’s a really compelling story to be found. In my mind, the “everything is going to go wrong” approach to storytelling is not much more than a series of cheap parlour tricks. It’s using shock instead of creativity and careful planning. Really, it’s just sloppy and lazy, and I’m kind of done with it. My eyeballs shall be reserved for programming in which, just every so often, my favourite character isn’t used for target practice, not everything goes to hell in a handbasket, and once in a while, something interestingly nice happens.

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