Darkness rising: How Millennials are shaping modern television

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Author: Mike Cosimano

Television has gotten dark. I am not the first person to make this observation, nor will I be the last. But I’ve recently started in on HBO’s widely acclaimed “True Detective,” the final nail in Western TV’s very bleak coffin. It is a well-made show, to be certain, but it’s also oppressively grim. We can’t seem to get enough of darkness, and I think I understand why.

First, let’s take a look at the current landscape. Somewhere around the time “Breaking Bad” violently assaulted the public consciousness, we – the viewing public – decided that “drama” meant “tonally dark.” Once everyone decided they wanted a piece of the antihero pie, the current state of American drama became inevitable. There’s “House of Cards,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Following,” “Hannibal,” the recently-cancelled “Dexter,” “The Walking Dead,” “Game of Thrones” and now “True Detective,” just to name a few. Even some comedies now have a twinge of grit to them, like the long-running “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”.

Television has made dalliances with the anti-hero before the rise of Heisenberg, but HBO seemed to be the only place for those characters. “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Oz” – none of these shows are particularly upbeat. Now, we have a show where one of the main characters kills and eats people.

And we are to blame. Not “we” in the larger sense, like I said earlier. This time, when I say “we,” I refer Millennials: The coveted 18- to 24-year-old demographic is the reason Frank Underwood rose to power.

Before you tune out, I don’t think this correlation has anything to do with the regular criticisms levied at our generation. “Hannibal” doesn’t exist because we’re lazy or entitled, or any of the other things older adults call us. These shows are popular because our generation has redefined the water cooler.

“Watching the Super Bowl is like going on safari in the monoculture. Even if you couldn’t give less of a shit about football or whatever, turn on the Super Bowl. Our shared moments are rare, share the bullshit,” the late, great Ryan Davis once said.

With the diversification of media, there are so few things we experience as a whole culture. For a few years, if you mentioned a TV show offhand, you were more like to get quizzical stares than a genuine reaction.

Now, everyone wants to talk about shows like “House of Cards” and “Breaking Bad.” Even if you don’t actively watch either, it must have been nearly impossible to escape the season premiere of the former or the series finale of the latter. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime make catching up on these shows easy, and the ease of piracy means even anarchists can enjoy their favorite dramas.

Social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook have made it easier than ever to start a conversation. Use the right hashtag at the right time, and you could be discussing the implications of “that scene” from the season two premiere of “House of Cards.” But the social media aspect is a mere accelerant.

Millennials flock to their social media platform of choice to immediately voice an opinion not because of narcissism. It’s because they want aforementioned conversation since – for the most part – these shows are interesting to talk about. “True Detective” is thematically dense, its characters are well-established and it’s also a compelling murder mystery. Take your pick; any one of these aspects could lead to a worthwhile discussion.

Our generation doesn’t really want shows like “The Big Bang Theory” or “NCIS.” Older adults – the same people who write articles calling Millennials “entitled” – like those shows because they fill a void. They can laugh or be entertained without having to think too much. This is why “Community” so often struggles in the ratings. It is a show that rewards active viewing with some of the sharpest wit on TV right now.

Do you know which demographic is keeping “Community” alive? That’s right: 18- to 24-year-olds. A small group of Millennials watching a show can save it from cancellation. Sure, there are crossover hits like “Breaking Bad” that everyone seems to enjoy, but our demographic is the most coveted among advertisers. When a show becomes a hit with the Twitter and Facebook crowd, it keeps going.

Marketers want our advertising money, so when they see a trend amongst Millennials, networks begin to ape it. And the trend de jour? It is quality drama with more than a hint of darkness. That’s why “Hannibal” exists. Before this shift, executive producer Bryan Fuller would have never been able to execute his vision for the “Hannibal” that exists today.

Our generation has power over the airwaves, even if we don’t actively realize it. “Dexter” was cancelled as it started to decline, “Community” might just reach six seasons and movie, and “Breaking Bad” actually got to end in a satisfactory manner. Networks have noticed that we like good television, and have responded in kind. Sure, a couple bad shows like “The Walking Dead” have slipped through the cracks, but the best stuff on TV right now is genuinely some of the best television ever made.

Older adults may decry us for reasons I don’t feel like refuting in this particular article. But for everything your mom says about Millennials, keep this in mind: “Community” got to do an episode centered entirely around parallel timelines, and it was absolutely stellar. We did that. And in my book, that’s something to be proud of.

To paraphrase “True Detective,” old men have always complained about change…but old men die.

Mike Cosimano is a first-year psychology major. He can be reached at cosimanowhite@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyMCosimano.

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