It’s been an emotionally draining, depressing, and frustrating few weeks in various fandoms. It seems TV show after TV show has been doubling down on the idea that shocking deaths make for good television, without thinking about what certain deaths might mean for large groups of their fans. And even if characters aren’t dying on your favorite show, chances are it’s still gone into darker territory this season. It seems almost every show I watch has dealt with heavier material this year. Even the usually light Brooklyn Nine-Nine ended with an atypical life-threatening cliffhanger this week. (Even though I think we’re all 99.9% sure Holt’s going to be fine.) And the offerings at movie theaters aren’t much better lately, with superheroes fighting each other all over the place.
In short, if you feel a little beaten down by the media you’re consuming lately, you’re not alone.
There’s a tendency to judge the quality of a piece of media by how serious it is. Most of the “prestige dramas” we hear so much about are incredibly heavy and often bleak. So people often stick with television shows that make them feel hopeless and upset more often than not because they think that’s what “good” television is supposed to do. They think that walking away from a TV show when it starts to feel oppressively negative says bad things about them as a viewer instead of bad things about the show that made them walk away. Because a good drama can never be “too dark,” right?
It’s not just okay to walk away from a TV show when it starts negatively affecting your emotions on a consistent basis; it’s smart. There’s nothing wrong with putting your mental and emotional health above a television show’s ratings or your reputation as a fangirl or fanboy. Even if you loved a show for years, if it’s making you feel miserable or triggering you in some way, you’re not less of a fan if you stop watching something that’s not good or healthy for you anymore.
This trend of prioritizing shock value above quality character development needs to stop. This is especially true when the shock value comes from killing or traumatizing characters simply to show that no character is safe and that the world they inhabit is awful. If a character dies, that death should mean something—and not just that anyone can die. And if a character is put through a traumatic situation, it should be treated with care not just in that moment, but in all the moments that follow it. Death, beatings, torture, and rape shouldn’t be added to stories only to get people talking or to show how horrible a person or a society is. They should resonate thematically; they should carry weight not just in one episode, but throughout the rest of the series. They should matter.
It seems that, all too often, TV shows are creating stories around moments of darkness. But as a viewer I’m always drawn to moments of light. I can handle dark television, but that darkness needs a spark of light at some point, or else it just becomes overwhelming. I can handle harsh and cold worlds, but they need some warmth or else I don’t want to visit them anymore. So I look for the hope. I look for reasons to believe in the basic humanity of a show’s characters and in the sincerity of the relationships they form—no matter how small they might be. And if I can’t find those things, I remind myself that it’s okay to stop looking and start walking away.
There’s a fine line between compelling dramatic television and “torture porn.” And it seems that line is getting finer every day. I can’t tell anyone what’s an acceptable threshold of darkness for them; while I might see moments of hope on The Americans, others may be too disturbed by its violence, and I can completely understand that. All I can say is that you don’t owe it to anyone to start watching or keep watching a show that makes you feel bad.
Many of the recent deaths on television have been so hard to take because of how deeply they affected people in groups that are already marginalized—groups that need more hope given to them instead of more hope taken away. If The Fan Mail Project has taught me anything, it’s that the deep connections we form with fictional characters matter and can help us learn to accept and love ourselves. So when a character we’ve connected with or feel represents us is killed or traumatized in some way, that isn’t something we can just ignore or get over. It hurts us on a deeper level than many people can understand—even many creators of media. But there are also many of us who do understand it. Look for the hope, and remember that sometimes that hope isn’t found on the show itself, but in the people around you who will help you work through what happened on that show.
There is light to be found in the darkness. Look for the hope. It’s not always easy to find—and it may not be found where you expect it—but it’s always there.
If you need a place to vent your frustrations about a TV show going too dark or a character meeting a fate that was too grim, this post’s comments section is a safe space for you to do exactly that. And please don’t hesitate to recommend more hopeful media for others to consume or to discuss shows that find the right balance between darkness and hope.