Recently BBC3 aired Murdered By My Boyfriend, a drama based on real-life events which presented domestic violence in a frank and harrowing manner. This was television on a mission; its moral compass was fixed and it ran with it.
It was, of course, brilliant that it did so. That television can portray events to a mass audience with such a clear moral direction helps send a message out to a great deal of people. However, there’s another facet to look at: the prevalence of bad-moral programming.
Count ‘em up: Dexter, Nurse Jackie, Breaking Bad, the list goes on. In just these programmes you’ve got a serial killer, an addict with a habit of forging legal papers, and a meth-cook extraordinaire. Not really the kind of people you’d be looking to meet on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon.
Despite that, these programmes are really, really popular. Breaking Bad in particular has had a huge impact (you can’t go far without seeing yet another Heisenberg themed t-shirt); we’re talking repeated viewing figures of millions. Millions of people desperate to see another bad guy murdered, another pill popped, another pot of crystal meth cooked.
Some have stated that moral ambiguity in the characters is what makes programmes like these so damn popular. By taking the role of “villain” and applying it to a mother-of-two nurse, or a terminally ill high school teacher, the stereotypical evil villain cackling into their cape in their secret lair is destroyed, and is replaced by something more normal. It allows the viewer to see their actions differently, and we sympathise with these characters as much as we scream at the screen asking them what they’re doing.
With the characters as normal as your Aunt Jean from Cockermouth, the link we make with them allows us to not only empathise with the person, but guiltlessly indulge and enjoy them. In the same way that soap operas allow fans to cast judgement and criticism on the lives of the characters without any real responsibility, these dark programmes allow us to entertain the notion of “going bad”. How would you go about a drug addiction with two kids in the house? What are the difficulties of being a serial killer when you’re trying to maintain a good job and relationship? Now you know! These programmes spark our imagination, and let us escape into a world where, for half an hour, you could be that guy. Then the credits roll and you realise starting up a meth factory in your student bedroom is probably a bad idea, so you’ll stick to that essay you’ve been meaning to do.
These kinds of programmes tend to have a different tone to their more moral counterparts. Take Canadian comedy-drama Being Erica. It had its fun parts, it had the character we related to; but it just felt preachy. With the plot lines about fixing wrongs in her past, and ending on a moral voiceover after conveniently solving the problem at hand, it was fine. Just fine. Compare this to the hilly texture of Nurse Jackie. Problems arise that don’t always get sorted; the tension that gets created is much more than just fine.
Ultimately, when we’re looking for entertainment, we want something that grabs our attention and questions what we know. Moral dramas have their place, and deservedly so, but everything fits into the landscape of television as it stands. We’ve not seen the end of the Walter Whites, and we never will.