The Importance of Leaning Into Dark Dramas During Dark Times in History (Column)

Some of the strongest television dramas are cautionary tales — giving viewers tools to stop our future from becoming a dystopia. As tough political, racial and social issues continue to divide the country and darken news headlines, it is imperative that audiences don’t look away from equally dark television.

Sure, after being bombarded with Trump tweets and reports of mass shootings, ICE raids and another rollback on healthcare, the temptation is often to just kick back with something lighthearted and escapist. There’s nothing wrong with a good cathartic cry over the loss of Jack Pearson on the more sentimental drama “This Is Us,” for example. But there is a danger in burying one’s head in series that don’t offer anything in the way of enrichment.

Zone out for too long and terrible things can happen around you. Case in point: “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Hulu’s “Handmaid’s Tale” is the darkest of the dramas, expanding in its second season to show that the horrors inside the walls of Gilead are far from the worst atrocities of its present-day timeline. But it is the show’s flashbacks that are the most chilling — because it is there that the seeds of the new world order are being planted, in a world that looks eerily similar to our own. First they came for individuals’ healthcare rights, then they came for individuals’ rights to be in love and marry whom they wanted to, then they came for individuals overall.

Voting is important, and not just on Emmy ballots.

The active, engaged, thinking viewer is the most important viewer — and human being. And this television season has certainly delivered a plethora of things to ponder and from which to learn.

Netflix’s “Mindhunter” explored the psychology of serial killers; Hulu’s “Hard Sun” solved crimes against the backdrop of the looming end of the world; Netflix’s’ “13 Reasons Why” season two was still centered on the bullying, sexual assault and low self-esteem that caused a teenager to commit suicide; Showtime’s “Homeland” depicted the president as a fascist and messed with its lead character’s bipolar medication so she would unravel; and the entire premise of Lifetime’s “Mary Kills People” is built on terminal illness and assisted suicide.

The second season of HBO’s “Westworld” picked up (at least in one of its timelines) in the aftermath of the season one finale bloodbath when the theme park’s android hosts became self-aware and took out their human oppressors. Even those that were designed to be sweet and symbols of hope were corrupted, offering invaluable lessons not only about the dark side of humanity but also the destructive power of artificial intelligence and emerging technology.

Over on CBS All Access, “The Good Fight” has gone all-in on politics this year, reflecting our own world of fake news, the infamous “golden shower” tape and discussion about impeachment. Robert and Michelle King, who co-created this series, do what they can to mix humor into the more gut-punching moments, but they don’t shy away from the latter either. They’ve also put the audience in the middle of a resin scare as well as the debate over gun control.

Perhaps some of these series should come with trigger warnings for the amount of trauma they inflict upon their characters and the audience by extension (but that’s probably a whole other column for a whole other time). Diving into such dark tales can be an escape of its own — of the “at least things aren’t that bad for me” variety. But they can also be therapeutic, a way for the viewer to work through some very complex emotions through the safety of a screen.

Series such as Showtime’s “The Chi,” FX’s “Snowfall” and the CW’s “Black Lightning” shine a light on issues of race, class, drugs and gang violence in predominantly African-American communities. Audience members fortunate enough not to have to face such hardships themselves can certainly expand their world views by watching reel lives deal with them — even if what they learn is “just” compassion.

The more an audience goes through with characters, the more connected they feel, the more invested they are, and the more parallels they are likely to draw to their own lives and the world around them. And then the future should look a whole lot brighter.

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