“America Hates Dark”

 

Fantastic_Four_2015_posterOne of the most successful network executives ever laid down this maxim to a producer who insisted that a new cop show be “dark” and “real:” “America,” he said, “hates dark.” He’s right, of course. When audiences sit down to watch something, they rarely want to be depressed. Gripped, thrilled, grabbed, amused, scared, any or all of those things (and more) are okay … but plunged into a depressing and dark vision of the world? Not so much.

Sure, yes, a few “Dark Knights” may achieve escape velocity and make some real money at the box office, but — for day-in-day-out television viewing — it’s hard to make money that way. And it’s getting harder to make money in the movie theater that way, too. I write a bit about this in my column for The National, the English-language newspaper of Abu Dhabi:

There’s more than enough dark and depressing content on the front page of the newspaper, and audiences – at least in the United States – are expressing their bad-news-fatigue by changing the channel.

Once promising, though grimly dark, shows like Hannibal have been cancelled, and the recently popular genre of the “anti-hero” – shows that depicted such complicated and morally compromised leading roles as Tony Soprano or Breaking Bad’s Walter White – now seem overly heavy and leaden.

It isn’t just a case of audiences demanding sunnier themes. It’s also clear that they’re tired of ceaseless controversy in general.

When former Olympic gold medallist Bruce Jenner announced that he was undergoing a major life – and gender – transformation, it was the kind of lurid and tabloid-ready news that garnered big headlines and seemed tailor-made for an eventual reality television series.

Which, no surprise, it was. Jenner’s series, I Am Cait, premièred a few weeks ago to a large audience, only to collapse in the ratings in the subsequent weeks. Call it “issue exhaustion” or “controversy ennui” or whatever you like, but it’s clear that when audiences get home after a long day at work and sift through their large and growing entertainment choices, what they’re looking for is a ticket out of the here and the now.

And then, there’s the summer’s box office disaster, “The Fantastic Four.” There’s a great summary of all the things that went wrong with the picture in the Hollywood Reporter, but this line stood out to me:

Sources say Fox believed in what one executive calls a “grounded, gritty version of Fantastic Four that was almost the opposite of previous versions” — and initially thought [the director] could deliver that.

Recall, for a moment, that the Fantastic Four includes a guy with stretchy arms and another guy who’s all rocky and stuff. It’s a comic book movie. Whoever suggested a “grounded, gritty” version should be dragged naked through the movie lot and then publicly whipped.

Because people have “grounded, gritty” lives. When they pay money, or crack open a beer and sit in front of the TV, what they want is entertainment. And that doesn’t mean it has to be shallow or stupid or comic-book light: it can be brilliant, and complex, and all sorts of smart. But don’t make a movie about a guy with elastic arms and try to make it all dark.

America hates dark.

Image Credit: “Fantastic Four 2015 poster” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Published in Culture, Entertainment
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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    When you cut the cable, get a TV tuner card for your PC and use it as a DVR. It has program listings and a one-click menu like cable systems do. There are tons of free, high quality movie channels and old TV channels that didn’t exist even five years ago.

    One of the leaders is headquartered in Chattanooga; I am always surprised that no conservative media outlet has reported on this interesting, far-from-Sunset Strip phenomenon.

    (well, until this minute!)

    • #61
  2. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Misthiocracy: Margaret Atwood has written pretty influentially about how the common theme of Canadian literature is survival (whereas the common themes in US literature are success and/or justice). That can be a pretty dark theme upon which to base a nation’s cultural identity.

    Which makes you “Jews with Moose.”  Or as a wag once summed up Jewish history and culture, “They Tried To Kill Us, We Survived. Let’s Eat!”

    • #62
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Misth, it sounds like this trolley went off of the track a few stops back. Fox had to produce something or they would lose the rights, and what they had was no good.

    There are parallels to software projects I’ve worked on in the past. Different end product, but similar dynamic.

    • #63
  4. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Notso

    • #64
  5. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    EJHill:

    Misthiocracy: Margaret Atwood has written pretty influentially about how the common theme of Canadian literature is survival (whereas the common themes in US literature are success and/or justice). That can be a pretty dark theme upon which to base a nation’s cultural identity.

    Which makes you “Jews with Moose.” Or as a wag once summed up Jewish history and culture, “They Tried To Kill Us, We Survived. Let’s Eat!”

    Well, I’m not personally convinced that Atwood’s thesis actually holds all that much water. I think pleasure and disappointment is another (and perhaps greater) common theme.

    There wasn’t a lot of existential angst in the Anne of Green Gables books. Mordecai Richler’s stories are jam-packed with hedonists/epicureans. Margaret Laurence wrote about women disappointed in the (objectively pretty easy) lives they’re stuck with. Etc. Etc.

    But, I don’t want to hijack the thread completely.

    • #65
  6. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    EJHill:Notso

    I would change that to “From the studio that brought you X-Men: The Last Stand”.

    • #66
  7. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Misthiocracy:

    Valiuth:

     The Civil War plot line is a fight between freedom and security.

    They can’t really use the Civil War plotline from the comic books, since it depended on there being way more superheroes that what we’ve seen so far in the MCU. So, instead of a conflict over superhero registration, it’ll have to be a conflict over the Avengers’ continued cooperation with the US government.

    I don’t know they can easily just make up the idea that there are all sorts of new super powered people popping up all over the world, because of reasons. Then basically you can just do the original plot. If they do have it the way you are imagining it I don’t really see Iron Man as Mr. Government given his already established distrust of SHIELD, and Cap America also has given up on that too. I think it would be a hot mess to make it what you say it will be. Of course I think odds are good it will end up being a hot mess anyway.

    • #67
  8. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Misthiocracy: But, I don’t want to hijack the thread completely.

    Too late.

    • #68
  9. carcat74 Member
    carcat74
    @carcat74

    Isn’t that why we have ‘the Pit’ & the ‘Chix Pit’? To leave the dark & talk cooking, flowers , gardening, cheerleaders, insult Dime (or anyone, for that matter!), cats, giraffes—anything not dismal!

    • #69
  10. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Percival:Misth, it sounds like this trolley went off of the track a few stops back. Fox had to produce something or they would lose the rights, and what they had was no good.

    Fox is contractually obligated to make a FF movie every seven years (I believe), or else the rights revert back to Marvel.

    Rise of the Silver Surfer was released in 2007.

    It’s not just the FF they’re holding on to. They also get all the characters related to the FF.

    That means, no Skrulls in the MCU (which is why we got the “Chitauri” instead). No Doctor Doom in the MCU. No Silver Surfer in the MCU. No Galactus in the MCU. No Uatu/The Watcher in the MCU*. No mention of the WWII version of the Human Torch (even though he appears briefly at the beginning of the first Captain America movie). Etc.

    I’m not sure how Marvel gets away with using the Kree in the MCU movies. They first appeared in FF #65.

    (* I maintain my conviction that Stan Lee is secretly The Watcher of the Marvel movies, which is how he can appear in every single one of ’em.)

    • #70
  11. FridayNightEcon Member
    FridayNightEcon
    @FridayNightEcon

    Real Jane Galt: Speaking of which did anybody see the last season of “True Detective”?  The “good guys” were not really good.  Just less bad than the “bad guys”.  They were all emotional cripples that insisted that you take the trip with them into their emotional disabilities.  Not fun or enjoyable at all.

    Have you seen the series “Blue Bloods”?  I love it, largely because it’s _not dark_.  Sure, it deals with dark themes, since it’s a cop show.  But the Catholic family loves each other, prays, has four generations around the table every episode, etc.  They work hard not to compromise their morality.

    It’s only as predictable as a good-guy show has to be.  Good acting.  Can’t recommend it enough.

    (Gotta run.  Have to convince my wife (again!) not to develop a crush on Tom Selleck)

    • #71
  12. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    carcat74:Isn’t that why we have ‘the Pit’ & the ‘Chix Pit’?To leave the dark & talk cooking, flowers , gardening, cheerleaders, insult Dime (or anyone, for that matter!), cats, giraffes—anything not dismal!

    The giraffe is nature’s darkest monster.

    • #72
  13. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    FridayNightEcon: They work hard not to compromise their morality.

    So did Superman in Man of Steel.

    He stumbled in his struggle, of course.

    Do the characters on Blue Bloods never stumble?

    • #73
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    EJ’s double-plus-good poster parody, with its shift between small type “starring some chick who’s not (Big type) JESSICA ALBA” reminded me of of an old Mad Magazine gag about classy-looking dust jackets you could place over embarrassing books:

    i’m terribly embarrassed by all

    THE NAKED

    girls

    AND THE DEAD

    bodies on the cover of mickey spillane thrillers, so i’m pretending to read something

    BY NORMAN MAILER

    • #74
  15. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Percival: Fox had to produce something or they would lose the rights, and what they had was no good.

    Because…

    Spiderman

    • #75
  16. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    EJHill:

    Misthiocracy: But, I don’t want to hijack the thread completely.

    Too late.

    pirate-skull-cross-sabres-flag-3294-p

    • #76
  17. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    EJHill:

    Percival: Fox had to produce something or they would lose the rights, and what they had was no good.

    Because…

    Welllll…, the deal does predate Marvel being bought by Disney.

    • #77
  18. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Percival:

    EJHill:

    Misthiocracy: But, I don’t want to hijack the thread completely.

    Too late.

    pirate-skull-cross-sabres-flag-3294-p

    More like:

    british_pirate

    • #78
  19. Real Jane Galt Coolidge
    Real Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Gary McVey:I’m beginning to think Fake Jane Galt just doesn’t like us.

    (signed)

    Hollywood

    Oh Gary,  I so much wished that Hollywood cared how I felt about them.  But they don’t and let me know they really don’t like me either.

    • #79
  20. Real Jane Galt Coolidge
    Real Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    FridayNightEcon:

    Real Jane Galt: Speaking of which did anybody see the last season of “True Detective”? The “good guys” were not really good. Just less bad than the “bad guys”. They were all emotional cripples that insisted that you take the trip with them into their emotional disabilities. Not fun or enjoyable at all.

    Have you seen the series “Blue Bloods”? I love it, largely because it’s _not dark_. Sure, it deals with dark themes, since it’s a cop show. But the Catholic family loves each other, prays, has four generations around the table every episode, etc. They work hard not to compromise their morality.

    It’s only as predictable as a good-guy show has to be. Good acting. Can’t recommend it enough.

    (Gotta run. Have to convince my wife (again!) not to develop a crush on Tom Selleck)

    Blue Bloods are on my to binge list.  Currently I am going through all the NCIS episodes that just hit Netflix.  It is a little formulaic but good stuff.

    • #80
  21. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    Somewhere Rob is rocking himself under his desk because his thread on the marketability of darker fare versus lighter fare morphed into a comic book hero thread.

    • #81
  22. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Whiskey Sam:Somewhere Rob is rocking himself under his desk because his thread on the marketability of darker fare versus lighter fare morphed into a comic book hero thread.

    Ok, let’s get back to brass tacks.

    If America prefers comedy to tragedy, does that mean tragedy has no value?

    • #82
  23. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    Misthiocracy:

    Whiskey Sam:Somewhere Rob is rocking himself under his desk because his thread on the marketability of darker fare versus lighter fare morphed into a comic book hero thread.

    Ok, let’s get back to brass tacks.

    If America prefers comedy to tragedy, does that mean tragedy has no value?

    They both have value, but tragedy works better as a contrast.  If everything is trying to be dark and edgy it becomes oppressive.  The dark versus light is more a matter of tone than tragedy versus comedy.  You can do a show like Magnum PI or Monk which have varying degrees of seriousness without being outright sitcoms.  NCIS:New Orleans and Blue Bloods are two I watch currently that are serious but don’t have a dark tone.  I loved the Daredevil Netflix series, but every show can’t be that for me without wearing me out.  I like my escapist TV.  When I think of the “Blue Skies” USA programming for example, they had varying degrees of seriousness, but they were all fun.

    • #83
  24. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Whiskey Sam: When I think of the “Blue Skies” USA programming for example, they had varying degrees of seriousness, but they were all fun.

    Yabbut, Burn Notice very much blurred the lines between genres. Action-comedy, yes, but since Michael remained burned at the end of each episode there was also an element of tragedy.

    • #84
  25. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    Misthiocracy:

    Whiskey Sam: When I think of the “Blue Skies” USA programming for example, they had varying degrees of seriousness, but they were all fun.

    Yabbut, Burn Notice very much blurred the lines between genres. Action-comedy, yes, but since Michael remained burned at the end of each episode there was also an element of tragedy.

    The tone wasn’t dark, though, not until the last season which was controversial because it differed so much from the rest of the series.  Most of the series still had a lighthearted quality to it.

    • #85
  26. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    EJHill:Notso

    If it starred Jessica Alba they’d have to title it the Fantastic 2.

    • #86
  27. Rob Long Editor
    Rob Long
    @RobLong

    Tuck:

    David Sussman: …It was dark, gritty and disturbing… and for my money, the best written series I have ever watched….

    Yes. Watching that series was a necessary evil, I think. I hated doing it at times, not because it was bad, but because it was so well-done it was hard to take. And I was delighted to have finished watching the last episode.

    But it was fantastically well-done as a drama. And I’m happy that I saw it.

    But I’ll never watch it again!

    But it wasn’t “dark” — at least not the way I mean it.  It was deeply moral.  You knew the guy was crossing the line — his family and wife knew it too — and you knew that even though he was doing it for the “right” reasons that it would end in disaster.  He lived in a world where there was good and evil, light and dark.

    • #87
  28. Rob Long Editor
    Rob Long
    @RobLong

    Misthiocracy:

    Whiskey Sam:Somewhere Rob is rocking himself under his desk because his thread on the marketability of darker fare versus lighter fare morphed into a comic book hero thread.

    Ok, let’s get back to brass tacks.

    If America prefers comedy to tragedy, does that mean tragedy has no value?

    Tragedy is great — and has huge value.  I don’t mean to say otherwise.  I just mean that tragedy, in the formal sense, only really works if you start from the premise that there’s good and right in the world.  A lot of these movies and shows that celebrate the “dark” presuppose that the world is basically dark and evil. And who needs that?  Sad, tragic, all okay.  Nihilistic darkness?  Gonna have a hard time making the rent.

    • #88
  29. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Rob Long:

    Tragedy is great — and has huge value. I don’t mean to say otherwise. I just mean that tragedy, in the formal sense, only really works if you start from the premise that there’s good and right in the world. A lot of these movies and shows that celebrate the “dark” presuppose that the world is basically dark and evil. And who needs that? Sad, tragic, all okay. Nihilistic darkness? Gonna have a hard time making the rent.

    a) Is that not the basic Christian understanding of the world, that it’s inherently dark and evil?

    b) In Fantastic Four, their problems start when they leave this world to explore an alternate dimension.

    c) Superhero movies do not take place in our universe. They take place in a universe where the laws of physics are very different.

    Therefore, even if you believe the real world is inherently good it really has no bearing on the inherent goodness of a universe where men can stretch, burst into flames, become giant rock monsters, or turn invisible.

    One could easily argue that any universe where humans can turn invisible at will is inherently (more) evil (than our universe).

    THAT is the ultimate lesson of superhero movies: Be Careful What You Wish For.

    I do not get how one can interpret nihilism to be the lesson.

    • #89
  30. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Miffed White Male: If it starred Jessica Alba they’d have to title it the Fantastic 2.

    She was in the first two movies. But she lost me when she said she grew up in a conservative household but decided to become a liberal at age 5. Although age 5 is pretty much where liberals peak in development any way…

    • #90
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