Ever since I got hooked on Lost, I’ve been a sucker for a well-produced, well-scripted TV series. In the age of On Demand and Netflix, it’s almost too easy to catch up on seasons past and get hooked into a television binge. Who doesn’t know someone who has watched every episode of Breaking Bad in a week?
Season 1 of House of Cards was a recent binge of mine. Shortly after it was released, I started poring through the season, plotting times in my day to sneak in an episode or two. But something happened to me watching that show. When Season 2 was released the following year, I didn’t watch it.
What was I thinking? Where did that decision come from? The first season was wildly successful and popular. Every episode sucked me right in. Yet, I didn’t watch season 2. I didn’t want to watch it.
Giving up the show was less about the show than it was about me. Since entering the Jesuits a few years ago, my media consumption tastes have become an increasingly love-hate relationship. I have found certain elements of a show to start increasing the “hate factor” and leave me abandoning shows I once loved.
Gone are the days when my focus was on popular shows with excellent cinematography, a talented cast, and a compelling story. Now, I’ve starting to react more to the content. What is the story about? What choices are the characters making? What are the results of their choices? And perhaps most importantly of all: how does it leave me feeling?
Season 2 of House of Cards wasn’t the only casualty. Despite the rave reviews of my peers, I have avoided Game of Thrones almost entirely. I went along for the ride watching The Walking Dead with fellow Jesuits through the first three and a half seasons, but then I gave that up.
I may have tuned out for some shows, but others have kept me watching. Every show has elements that I love, and elements that I don’t feel so good about.
So what’s the deal? Why did I stop watching some of the most popular TV shows?
The best way to summarize is to break it down into a love-hate calculus. (Don’t be alarmed – there won’t be any complex math!) It’s really a matter of strengths and weaknesses: the kind of analysis we use all the time for decision making. Below is a list of some of the shows I still watch and some that I’ve left behind and some of the reasons behind my decisions. I break it down with an utterly subjective scale from 1-10.
(Mild spoilers lie ahead with minimal warning. Proceed with caution.)
House of Cards
There’s a reason this show gets a 9.1 rating on IMDB. Season 1 received nine Emmy Award nominations, which made it the first online-only television series to receive nominations.
The acting and directing are top notch: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, David Fincher. The cinematography and editing are very well done. The story itself is compelling, with every episode grabbing your attention and leaving you wanting more.
If you have an interest in American politics and the workings of DC, this story portrays it in a dark and arresting manner. President Obama suggests the reality is a little more “boring” than the show suggests. Still, it makes for great entertainment.
Who am I supposed to be rooting for in this show? There seems to be a growth in television shows focused on an “anti-hero”: broken protagonists marked by a lack of conventional heroic qualities like idealism and morality. Frank Underwood, the “protagonist” of House of Cards, is clearly a flawed person. He is power-hungry and profoundly self-interested.
This anti-hero approach to a show doesn’t automatically kick up my “hate factor.” Some of the best stories in film and television take this approach. It can be compelling to follow a flawed character through choices as that character experiences the consequences. Think: The Godfather.
Here’s what interests me more: What are the results of a character’s choices? How do they affect the character personally and how well do they work? Every choice has consequences. Michael Corleone in The Godfather might have become a successful mobster, but it came at great cost. His family ends up in tatters: his wife has an abortion, he even kills off his own brother. Yikes!
The results in the first season of House of Cards are pretty stunning. Just about every devious move by Frank Underwood is successful at achieving his goals for political control. He might be the main proponent of the axiom: the end justifies the means. Moreover, his character shows a callous lack of remorse. From infidelity to murder, nothing is off the table, and these choice don’t seem to disturb him in the least. Really, Frank??
Is there a moral counterpoint? If so, it’s tough to find. Frank gets a surprising amount of support from his wife, Claire, whose nonprofit turns out to be more of a method for generating political leverage than sustainable development. His chief of staff, Doug, is remarkably loyal to Frank, yet also equally unimpeded by morality.
I found myself feeling angry about Frank’s character because of the choices he makes. I don’t want to root for him; I don’t want his maneuverings to work out. Is the show glamorizing his immorality, sociopathy, and callous disregard for others? Are we meant to cheer for him to succeed at his goals, regardless of the means?
I feel unsettled following Frank. (And from what I understand, the first episode of Season 2 won’t make me feel any better!) I don’t need to feel unsettled or upset at a protagonist every time I watch an hour of TV.
The verdict: Love 7 / Hate 8
It’s close, but I gave it up. Sorry, Frank- please don’t take it personally.
This British period drama series produced by Masterpiece is set in the fictional country estate of Downton Abbey, where the show depicts the lives of an aristocratic family and the servants of the estate. The show takes place in the 1910’s and 1920’s and includes a background of historic events, starting with the sinking of the Titanic and later the first World War and the Spanish influenza.
Downton Abbey has earned the most Emmy nominations of any international television series in history, including a win for Outstanding Miniseries. Plus it’s the most watched television series on PBS!!!
With a large cast of characters, the plot jumps back and forth among storylines, and back and forth between what’s going on in the house above and what’s taking place down below. Characters are faced with challenging moral decisions, and the repercussions are felt by them and those closest to them. There are lovable characters, unexpected plot twists, romantic moments, and quotable one-liners.
Who does Mary love? What else can go wrong for Lady Edith? What’s Bates’s next secret? What will happen at dinner tonight??
I’m going to stay away from the controversial ending of Series 3, which was apparently influenced more by an actor’s decision to leave the series than any intentions of the show’s writers. Still – I hated that ending!
James Martin, S.J., reflected on his own guilt about watching the show for some of the themes that it celebrates or glosses over, especially the income and lifestyle divide between the family and their servants.
With its large cast of characters, quick cut segments, and perpetual drama and emotion, the show is basically a primetime soap opera. Although I’m not typically one to follow soap operas, this show has kept my attention. Intriguing storylines abound, so there is always something of interest and new developments to uncover. Themes like equality, social structures, race, and political ideology run as undercurrents throughout the show. They might be treated politely, but isn’t that the British way?
The verdict: Love 7 / Hate 2
There’s too much to like. I’ll take Downton Abbey with a cup of tea, thank you.
Game of Thrones
This HBO behemoth has attracted record numbers of viewers, with the average gross audience of Season 4 beating out The Sopranos for a new HBO record. The show has a large and active fan base: people are even naming their children after characters on the show.
The production quality is extremely high, as evidenced by the numerous Creative Arts Emmy’s it has won: visual effects, sound, makeup, costumes, etc.
Based on a series of fantasy novels, the show interweaves several plot lines among a broad cast of characters. Actors come and go from the cast quickly, and sometimes quite alarmingly (#DontKillSeanBean). With no character safe, the show always has you on the edge of your seat and unsure who will suffer the next violent death.
The object of criticism for the show shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even Wikipedia has a section on the show called “Critical Response: Use of Sex and Violence.”
Graphic violence, explicit sex scenes, and sexual violence against women have all figured into the show. I won’t rehash the arguments over whether shows should or should not include this manner of content, nor the degree to which they should. Suffice it to say that this is a controversial topic worth some reflection.
From my perspective, these contents rarely contribute positively to my viewing experience of the show. They seem overused and overly graphic in a way that I find distracting from the more engaging elements of its narrative.
Since I can deliberately choose the media that I ingest, I would rather choose something with less sex and violence. This leaves me out of a lot of GOT-driven conversation among peers, but I usually don’t get a reaction of shock when I say I don’t watch it for these reasons. Usually the response is something like, “Yeah…it IS pretty graphic.”
It’s as though its a concession made to watch a show that is otherwise entertaining for a variety of reasons. Why should we have to make that concession?
The verdict: Love 5 / Hate 9
I’ll choose not to make that concession. #DontKillBrian
The Walking Dead
This post-apocalyptic horror story of a world filled with zombies (called “walkers”) is the most popular show on television among adults 18-49. The October premiere of Season 5 set viewership records, and the show has become the most watched series in basic cable history.
Drawing from a comic book series, this story tackles zombies better than anything else in the genre coming out of Hollywood. The show offers a scientific, rather than supernatural, explanation for the zombies. An ethos of the creatures develops, including their impulses, how they multiply and how they die.
The story develops drama very well and keeps you on the edge at all times. Tension builds over potential zombie attacks that can come out of nowhere: it has you jumping out of your seat. Characters have a depth and history that links from the time before the zombie apocalypse to their life and choices in surviving after it.
The easy starting point is the gruesome amount of gory violence. The show prides itself on the amount of ways you see zombies die. There has to be some limit, no?? In the fight for survival, even children are trained in the best techniques for killing zombies (straight stab to the head!).
But what’s the biggest danger in the show? While the zombies do plenty of killing, it’s really a story about the people who survive. As they learn more and more about the zombies, the survivors develop sufficient survival tactics (see above for zombie killing) and establish places of safety (prisons: good for keeping people in…and zombies out). Should be good enough, right? It doesn’t last.
Why not? Because other people survived, too. The drama of the show principally comes from the conflict between characters and their competing interests. This can be done well, while challenging our thoughts about human nature and our flaws, à la Lord of the Flies.
The show started to lose me when characters entered who were portrayed as irredeemably evil with shallow or uncompelling motives. Take “The Governor,” a principal character in Seasons 3 and 4. He’s a hard character not to hate entirely. The show takes some efforts to depict a more sensitive and caring side of him in the early part of season 4. Those episodes were some of the most compelling episodes of the series for my taste.
Not to give it all away, but the caring and sensitivity doesn’t last. Worst of all, his motivations are constantly suspect, and his recourse to violence and hatred strikes me as petty and pointless.
Does his character have to make evil choices?? Is that more interesting than a changed man seeking reconciliation? The villain was given character depth, which was then stripped away from him, as though it was all just a tease to string you along.
The verdict: Love 4 / Hate 7
I’ll leave this show to the masses of 18-49 year olds. Goodbye, Atlanta!
This American period drama follows an advertising agency through the tumultuous 1960s. It was the first basic cable series to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, an award it won each of its first four seasons. Major movements of the decade, like Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and the Kennedy assassination, all play out in the background of characters’ lives and the story’s plot.
Don Draper is the intriguing advertising genius who serves as protagonist. Everything seems to work out for him: he’s good looking, successful, rich, and always has the perfect pitch for an ad campaign. As the show progresses, Don is given increasing depth: a mysterious background, a more fragile side, and (gasp) even weakness.
Principal female characters like Betty, Peggy, and Joan portray the challenges of living in a chauvinistic world. These women make different choices for how to cope, survive, and exert themselves amid frequent experiences of sexism.
The show serves as a brilliant period piece. The set, costumes, and hair and makeup capture the decade to perfection.
The show portrays the rise of modern day advertising and the power it has to persuade consumers and it does so without much of a critique. Don contends that advertising is not about selling a product; it’s about happiness and the reassurance that everything you’re doing is okay.
“But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
Promotion of unrestrained consumerism is worth critique and reflection. So too are many of the other themes included in the “Mad Men.” Alcoholism, smoking, adultery, racism: these are all recurring themes of the series. The show straddles the line between portraying the darker sides of these themes and glorifying this lifestyle.
As the show has progressed, I have found the show to toe the line well, and avoid glorifying the vices. The characters face consequences for their actions, for their sexual exploits, for their greed and ambition. It’s not always pleasant, which sharpens the critique.
The verdict: Love 9 / Hate 7
With only seven episodes left in the series, count me in to see how things end up for Sterling Cooper Draper Price.
Series 5 of Downton Abbey is airing on PBS every Sunday night. Season 3 of House of Cards is being released soon (February 27th for all those living under a rock!).The Walking Dead will wrap up its sixth season in March, and Game of Thrones and Mad Men both return in early April. Are you tuning in?
There is a lot to love about these TV shows, but there are also things to hate. Sure, we might feel differently about a given show, but the important thing is to be attentive to how these shows leave us feeling.
Every show on TV has good reasons to watch it, but there’s no show that’s so important that you have to watch it. I still find myself conflicted over abandoning popular shows and admittedly weak in my resolution. Could Season 3 of House of Cards suck me back into the world of Frank Underwood?? It’s certainly possible.
Why do you watch your favorite show? What do you like about it? Does anything bother you about it? What are your sensitivities? What do you find desensitizing?
Give it some thought. And don’t be afraid to use a little dose of love-hate calculus.