Darkness has been a core facet of storytelling in television’s prestige dramas since long before even “Hill Street Blues” premiered in 1981, but today’s television leans into the darkness in ways ’80s audiences never would’ve imagined.
From the graphic violence and rape in Westeros on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” to the constant (and frequently unsuccessful) battle to survive on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” TV’s biggest hits are more brutal than ever. And even a series as heavily comedic as Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” is classified as a drama by the TV Academy surely due in no small part to the way it touches on harsh realities in America’s prison system.
Talk to some of today’s top showrunners and you’ll hear why it seems that today’s dramas are darker than ever before. Hint: the emergence of digital outlets to rival premium cable and the current American psyche have a lot to do with it. And all the showrunners Variety spoke with also cite David Chase’s “The Sopranos” as the pivotal turning point that allowed for the type of dark-driven antihero now de rigueur on prestige drama.
Jose Padilha, the showrunner on Netflix’s “Narcos,” says the evolution of television and the medium’s continuing layers of complexity and darkness drew him away from a thriving career in features.
“The amount of subject matter being tackled in good television is so vast, so wide,” Padilha says. “These documentary-oriented, reality-based shows make it so there are fewer restrictions than ever with good television. Good television has become more interesting than good filmmaking. In general, movies are repeating themselves — a lot of superheroes and a lot of visual effects — and you don’t get a lot of interestingly-structured dramas.”
He was excited to explore the sort of authenticity in coloring, casting, dialogue and dialect vital toward achieving the level of darkness the writers and producers were aiming for.
Utilizing subtitles also offered a unique opportunity to boost the sense of realism. “By retaining the Spanish, we got, on average, far better than superior performances. Two reasons allowed for this — casting a broad array of Latino talent, and making the story original. The experience of being a DEA agent in Latin America includes having to listen to people talk to you and about you in a different language. That’s the power of modern television. That’s what keeps it dark and real.”
Making the show for Netflix also had an impact on the ultimate scripts, he says.
|Bloody Good: Netflix drama “Narcos” uses subtitles to increase authenticity in its portrait of Pablo Escobar.|
“The change here towards darker television is broader than just the medium — not just from film to TV — it also mirrors the business model. If you are a big producer, the film necessarily has to succeed to pay for itself. So the executives tend to be conservative in relation to the content of the movie — how dark they are willing to go — because they are afraid. So there is an enormous economic anxiety attached to the old, traditional studio model of producing films. When you get to Netflix, you have subscribers, the revenue is not based on the selling of one show, the revenue is based on the subscriber being interested in the whole slate. Because of that, we can run risks. As we veer towards this streaming model we can get bold, we can get dark, we can allow the business model, concurrent to the storytelling style, to be more free and rawer.”
“Better Call Saul” showrunner Peter Gould, who co-created the “Breaking Bad” prequel series with Vince Gilligan, says that intention, obstacle, and end result define darkness in characters on television today.
“People tend to think of darkness as being about violence,” he says. “Violence and sex both — they have very complex effects on the audience. Showing violence or sex can sometimes alienate audiences — you can’t stop thinking about them — but this is good. Darkness inspires creativity. It all has to be artfully done, you want to feel when you’re watching that there is an intention and a purpose being conveyed.
“Death is not off the table anymore. A generation ago, it certainly would have been.”
Louis C.K., whose series “Horace and Pete” was distributed exclusively on his website, notes there is a difference in writing in short form and that the distribution model does affect story. But he takes issue with the idea that darkness is new. American audiences simply receive story differently today, as a byproduct of the overall modern American psyche, he says.
“I think part of TV and all storytelling is that you can safely look around the darker parts of life and take your emotions for a ride without getting hurt,” he says. “In my case, I’ve gotten to laugh at dark ideas and also face them and both are fulfilling experiences.”
The intersection of light and dark provides a layer of authenticity, which American audiences demand, he says.
“I think some of the better television that I’ve seen, the better writing that is now on television, kind of ignores the line between light and dark. Being able to move from one to the other with the same natural arrhythmic cruelty that life uses when it writes is very effective. I see more and more people doing that, though please don’t ask me for an example.”
|“I think part of TV and all storytelling is that you can safely look around the darker parts of life and take your emotions for a ride without getting hurt.”|
The style of shooting and the straight-to-web distribution both allowed for a level of darkness that would not have been possible otherwise.
“(Digital distribution) played its part in that the show exists on its own almost private plane. It’s not in the mix with other programs and it was its own platform which I think makes the experience intimate.”
Sarah Treem, showrunner on Showtime’s “The Affair,” says pushing boundaries and allowing new formats — in both storytelling and distribution — have allowed for new forms of antiheroes.
“I definitely think that some of the SVOD providers are willing to take risks with their content that maybe some of the broadcast or cable nets are not,” Treem says. “I don’t necessarily think that streaming model itself allows for a greater push towards darkness, but the advantage is that you don’t have to create wheel-made episodes in the way that we have historically thought of them.
“For the great shows on television today, they’re getting braver in both their darkness and their light. I think that kind of paradox where you’re willing to look at a moment as honestly as possible and see both what makes it tragic and hysterical — even in ‘The Sopranos,’ the darkness being pushed is correlated directly to some of the lighter, funnier moments. The boundaries are being pushed in both directions.”
Damon Lindelof, showrunner on HBO’s “The Leftovers,” who also co-created and exec produced “Lost,” draws a direct correlation between American ideology — politically, emotionally, and otherwise — and the storytelling American audiences favor today.
“We don’t want darkness without relief. There has to be lightness and humor — a flicker of hope — or else audiences tune out if the show gets too dark. That was something we derived from the first season of ‘The Leftovers.’ I think the themes of the second season are just as dark, but if you go into unrelenting darkness and despair, American audiences will reject that outright.”
|Shadowy Figures: Clockwise from top: AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” Showtime’s “The Affair,” HBO’s “The Leftovers”|
There are acute differences in developing shows for broadcast, cable, and SVOD platforms, Lindelof says.
“ABC cared about ratings. If ‘Lost’ hadn’t been a ratings success in its first season, I don’t think it would’ve lasted. If ‘Lost’ had been on HBO, the show would’ve ended up a completely different animal, obviously, and who knows where it would be?”
The sheer volume of shows on a network alters the development and storytelling process, Lindelof says.
“The drama executives at ABC were overseeing something like 11 other shows simultaneously. At HBO, (it’s) three other shows. You’re also making fewer episodes. So the intensity of the creative conversations, the time that you have to build the season, is just so different. We had to write a script for ‘Lost’ every eight days — 25 episodes of the show the first season: generate material, get a notes call, three days later, next notes call.”
Lindelof believes one of the reasons the second season of “The Leftovers” generated a better response than the first is that American audiences desire empathy for the characters they watch on TV — especially as they have become more cognizant of their own internal struggles.
“Audiences crave a level of depth and darkness, but this kind of internal darkness — deep, emotional darkness — doesn’t settle with audiences. It’s read as depression and despair,” Lindelof says. “Audiences don’t want to see characters wallowing in misery — they want to see characters trying to dig themselves out of holes. They want people who are vying for inner peace; trying to get out of the tunnel. They want to see a light at the end of the tunnel — not extinguishing a light.”