In its heyday, Dexter was one of my favorite television shows. A serial killer with a code of honor to only kill “really bad” people? I’m captivated. I mean, my love of Dexter wasn’t really surprising; most popular television shows of late are probably going to draw me in given their care for the complexity of their characters. How about Breaking Bad, for example? A chemistry teacher with late-stage cancer turned meth cook? Sign me up! Or maybe there’s House of Cards‘ league of narcissistic politicians that have every power-hungry hack in Washington wishing he could be as cutthroat and evil as Frank Underwood? And then in this season of the Walking Dead, our post-apocalyptic zombie-killing friends (who have – until now – mostly been “the good guys”) appear to be slowly going down a really dark rabbit hole. I won’t give away any spoilers there, but let’s just say the zombies are starting to look like saints. So, what’s this about? When did the whole of entertainment become obsessed with making us love and crave seeing murderers or meth cooks or Machiavellian politicians sink deeper into depravity? And don’t even get me started on Mad Men or Game of Thrones. Is there something ethically “off” that we’ve come to care so much for such, well, awful people – even if they are mere fiction?
Maybe this is a good place to point out there’s important nuance in all of these shows. Whether he’s right or wrong, Dexter wants to believe he’s still good, that his “code” keeps him in check. So, too, our meth cook Walter White tells himself the majority of the show that he does what he does for his family in an America with a broken healthcare system that breaks the bank of the American dream. And, of course, most characters from the Walking Dead start off as goodhearted people driven to make awful choices in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s not their fault they had to kill to stay alive, right? I’m not so sure. Dexter’s code is a lie convenient to justifying his psychosis; so is Walter White’s conviction that the American dream was stolen from him; so, too, have the characters of the Walking Dead justified horrific acts in returning to a world where “eye for an eye” is the only rule of law. And Frank Underwood? I fail to see a single redeeming quality in him at all. He’s pure narcissism, and that I – and we – have come to somehow “love” him should probably scare or at least concern us a little.
Of course, I suppose you could point back to the height of the Roman Empire’s desire for blood in the Colosseum and say, “See, Phil, this is nothing new; humans are depraved and so they seek to empathize with the depravity of other fellow humans.” And there’s long been this ongoing debate about us wee beings and whether we are “totally depraved” as much of religion has suggested or whether we are innately good at heart. Someone like Anne Frank, “despite everything,” the horrors she at that point witnessed from Nazi Germany, believed people were still good. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and others were less sure long before then. In today’s entertainment, I don’t think we have yet answered that question, but we seem to be trying. You almost get the impression that modern entertainment carries a maxim of, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” with every character consumed by their belief and hope that they aren’t quite as awful as they feel like they are. But then, there’s Frank Underwood again, breaking that mold: he knows he’s terrible, and he doesn’t care. Even with the new season’s picture of Frank as “weaker” or even “humanized,” as some critics have suggested, his weakness is evidenced by a lack of the power he craves and is not a turn to a desire for good or any kind of change of heart. So, if I can justify finding something good in the other characters of today’s entertainment medium (and not sure I can), I’m especially having a hard time rationalizing why it’s okay for me to like watching Frank be frank. Then again, he is definitely a character, if maybe we all are, whose harm for others is fed by his own self-hatred, his own self-destruction. I suspect in more ways than one we’ll see that story play out profoundly in the next few seasons.
At this point, though, I guess you could say, “It’s not reality, Phil. It’s just escapism – similar to playing a video game,” and in that sense, I agree. I don’t want to jump to assume we are all going to pretend to be Frank Underwood in our everyday lives just because we so love how he takes control and manipulates everyone to get his way on a thirteen-episode television show. While there may be psychotic folks out there influenced by such media, I’m worried far less how we react to such entertainment and far more about why we get sucked into it in the first place? Or, perhaps, what is it about our culture that would have screenwriters writing this sort of thing for us?
I take our fascination with this kind of entertainment to say a ton about our culture at this moment in history. We’ve become a culture that is beginning to crave complexity. We’re slowly but surely starting to desire the painful truth that all of us are neither wholly good nor wholly bad but at times can be both. I take that as a win for our culture. If we can find good in Dexter or in Walter White, can we also learn to find good in real humans who commit horrific acts of violence? As the debate over capital punishment rages on, that might be an important question to ask right now. In the world of entertainment, we watch what we relate with, so in some scary sense, we find ourselves relating to, say, Dexter. Not because we’re about to go kill anybody, but because we know what it is to carry a “dark passenger,” to be overwhelmed by the question of our goodness the way Dexter is. We love this kind of writing in television because it’s honest and poetic, and frankly, it allows us to live out a kind of honesty on the screen that we can’t or won’t live out in reality. Because honesty is scary. That’s why the alcoholic or the drug addict, too often, remains an addict. Confronting ugly truths around the culture of fear that lead us into escaping ourselves is too painful, but we can appreciate that honesty we don’t offer ourselves when it plays out on the screen.
Still, whereas there’s truth and empathy to gain from these ugly portraits of human depravity, there’s another aspect of our culture embedded into these shows that’s dangerous, too. And that is, sometimes, we like to love our brokenness a little more than we hope to become whole again. It’s kind of like Clem Snide’s song, “Made for TV Movie,” written about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In the song, Eef Barzelay details watching one of those “true-story” dramas which depicts the ugly side of Lucy’s life from spousal abuse to popping pills, and he then sings: “Well, maybe it was different; you know, my facts aren’t always straight, but they would never make a movie if everything was great, because happiness is boring; it’s always black and white. The good times never last; the chocolates move too fast for us all:”
I believe it. Because I’ve been there. I believe very much it’s tempting to fall into the trappings of being in love with our problems and the drama that surrounds them. So, while I’m probably not about to stop watching some of my favorite television, I think how much we learn to love these depraved characters – along with our own depravity we too-often love – is something we have to have an honest conversation about. Because I don’t want for us to be carrying our dark passengers without getting help any longer. I don’t want the people I love to have to ask questions about whether or not they are the “walking dead.” And I don’t want us to get stuck in a culture that sings that “happiness is boring.” In a sense, the beauty of today’s entertainment is that it presents such honest depictions of the complexity of humanity, but we need not also be sold the lie they sell us that there is no hope or that we are totally depraved. In large sum, that was the message of Obama’s speech in Selma. As long as there has been a future to look to, he suggested, there was something to improve (and, therefore, something broken), but as long as there was something broken – whether it was racial injustice or war and terror or inequality – there was still something to hope for and a reason to remain optimistic. From modern entertainment to our local news stations, we’re constantly fed a different message, but I think that’s why Obama felt it so important to reach back to the words and actions of our past American brothers and sisters from John Lewis to MLK to Sojourner Truth and Langston Hughes. Trials much bigger than fictional zombies and meth addiction and serial killers and evil politicians have been met and faced head-on in America’s heartlands, and they have been and are being overcome little-by-little, day-by-day. More stories like those need to be told and held up. More hope beyond depravity should be our mantra, and maybe in time, we’ll see more of it on the television screen, too.