If you watch television these days or pay attention to many of the most well received movies of this past year, odds are you will notice a reoccurring trend amongst them. Shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Game Of Thrones” alongside movies like “The Wolf Of Wall Street” offer a much darker, disturbing and cynical point of view.
These shows and movies are not afraid of taking a touchy subject like creating meth or presenting characters who are outright douche bags, like Jordan Belfort, and showing the brutal depictions of their lifestyle. They are unrelenting, unforgiving and at times do not care about how they’re seen by others.
And this gets old very fast.
The main problem with cynical television shows and movies is the kind of mindset that it brings forth and how it is, believe it or not, cynical. When I watch “Homelands,” even though I’m enthralled in the story and the nervous-wreck characters, it does turn me off that these people are doing so many terrible things. They will torture and kill to get their way, even if they believe their way is best for everyone. After a while, that gets depressing and often leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
This wouldn’t be such a big problem if there wasn’t so much of it in entertainment these days. It seems like every time a new show has caught the public eye, it’s one that isn’t afraid of death, violence and darker side of our humanity.
For example, a recent one is Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” which features the Headless Horseman and Ichabad Crane being transported to modern times and the Horseman now having access to our weapons, including machine guns and bazookas.
Since when did the Headless Horseman become the Terminator?
Yet this show has become popular enough to warrant at least another season, so there has to be a fair amount of people watching it. Now, I’ve only watched a couple episodes, but I can already tell that it is not my cup to tea. It seems like they wanted to update “Sleepy Hollow” in a similar way to what the BBC is doing with “Sherlock” but they’re really overdoing it and making it far more complicated than it needs to be. It takes most of the fun and enjoyment out of watching the show when it comes off like they’re trying too hard.
Which is another problem with all the cynicism. It really comes like these shows are removing the fun out of watching a really good movie or television show. Sure, they can still captivate you with their stories and put you on the edge of your seat, but they will never quite leave you with the same affect.
When you watch Walter White have to murder someone just so that he can continue to cook meth, ruin the life of Jesse and all in the name of his family, try to ask yourself some questions.
What am I feeling? How do I feel about what I just watched? Am I comfortable with it? How am I going to look back on what I just watched?
Many of these shows and movies are going to leave you with the same answers. Occasionally, that kind of show can be refreshing and off up a change of pace. But when everything is like that? It gets depressing, stale and disturbing in no time at all.
Don’t misinterpret what I am saying here. I am not saying that shows like “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead” are bad. They are quite excellent programs. It’s just that you won’t find me watching these kinds of shows more than once and certainly not together.
There is a time and place for “Inside Llewyn Davis” or “Prisoners” but that is not the kind of place you should always be in. Cynicism leaves the mind unimpressed and dulled by everything, so it makes nothing look good by comparison. Optimism and a good attitude create an inviting and explorative environment, where anything seems possible. When something is truly good and impressive, it can bring a smile to your face and make anything bad melt away.
Look at some of the timeless programs and movies that have been around for decades and are still enjoyed today as much as they were upon their release. “The Wizard Of Oz,” “Rocky,” “City Lights,” “Toy Story,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the Indiana Jones trilogy, the Star Wars trilogy, the works of Hayao Miyazaki (“Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro”), “Modern Family” and “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
These are just some of many that not only tell intriguing stories with equally fascinating characters, but also make me feel good to be alive. These help me to appreciate everything I have in life and want me to hug and thank everyone I know.
The best example of this comes from the final scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” where the town of Bedford Falls has found out that George Bailey, a selfless man who has always chosen to help others before himself and he gets stuck with nothing, is in trouble. Without hesitation or even thinking, the towns people repay George for years of kindness and love with everything they had. They’re more than happy to do it and they did so without even asking George. They did it because it was the right thing to do.
"To my big brother, George. The richest man in town."
This ending never fails to make me cry. I could watch just the last ten minutes of the film on its own and bawl my eyes out. Not because its sad or depressing, but because it is so heartwarmingly happy. Those types of scenes leave a much bigger emotional affect than any other type of scene I can think of.
While you may watch something like “The Sopranos” and think about how good your life is, you’re really only thinking about it in comparison to the lives of these terrible people. You may be saying you’re lucky to be alive, but you are only doing it because some guy who didn’t hurt anyone just got sent upstate.
So ask yourself, what are you more inclined to watch? Bedford Falls repay George for years of sacrifice and selflessness? Or someone being tortured for information on “24”?
Yet, I also feel there is an interesting middle ground between cynicism and optimism. Stories that have darker and grittier elements to them and often use it to heighten the drama and danger, but ultimately come out of it with a positive attitude and thus makes the whole journey with it.
Movies that stand out with this approach include most of the works of Alfred Hitchcock and the Coen Brothers, especially “Fargo” and “No Country For Old Men.” The tales of those who live in a corrupt and unforgiving world, yet still have enough moral strength to fight for what they believe in, even if the world has given up on them.
Someone like Marge Gunderson from “Fargo” doesn’t let the worries and pities of others stop her from enjoying her happiness. She may not be perfect or live a glamorous lifestyle, but she is perfectly content with who she is and where she. Which is why throughout the movie, she fights to defend that way of life and give others the same opportunity.
"Heck Norm, you know we're doing pretty good."
In “Rear Window,” the two main characters (played by James Stewart and Grace Kelly) have many insecurities and don’t seem to fully trust one another. They want to be in love, but they just can’t be happy with one another. But, as they put the pieces together that eventually spell out “murder” the two realize the other is much stronger and wiser than they gave the other credit for.
In a weird way, films like these are able to be both pessimistic and optimistic at the same time and become fascinating examples that show the strengths of both sides. They have no problem bouncing back and forth because both are equally apart of life and offer up a balanced slice of life.
Part of the fun of cinema and television is that it is not just a source of entertainment, but can also be a direct reflection of our own lives. Showing either a darker or lighter side than what we are normally use to and offer up viewpoints and perspectives that we may have never seen otherwise.
Much like in these shows and movies, life isn’t all black and white. Everyone in their life time will experience happy events, depressing moments, awesome events, excitement, heartbreak and many other things in between. That is part of the reason we get such a variety of shows, ranging from “Breaking Bad” to “Modern Family” to somewhere in between like “The Twilight Zone.”
The way I see it, there are three types of shows and films: The optimistic ones, the cynical ones and the ones which walk the line between those two. Each of these categories has their strengths and weaknesses. They are all viable forms of storytelling, can all be as much thought-provoking as they are emotional and can offer a perspective that you may have never considered before.
It is when there is too much of one side that the flaws and cliches become intolerable. So perhaps that is why I prefer optimistic and kindhearted stories over the pessimistic ones. To see those shows and films dominate the publics attention is not disheartening in its own right. Just that there are so many of them and a real lack of anything in between.
Oh well, at least it is not entirely Michael Bay-plosions or lame and unfunny “parody” films all the time.
"The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty." ~ Winston Churchill