“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. FridayNightEcon Member

    Misthiocracy: Do the characters on Blue Bloods never stumble?

    Oh, they stumble every episode, and fall occasionally.  The one brother is always bending the rules, and they regularly argue around the table about rule-bending, law, etc.

    They help each other when they stumble, and hold each other accountable.  Good balance.

    • #91
  2. Ryan M Inactive
    Ryan M

    I’m with you there. When I write, it sometimes feels kind of dark… But it is generally real life. For entertainment – no joke – the only TV I watch is pretty much cartons or things like the 1980s Sherlock Holmes. Right now I’m reading through Horatio Hornblower and playing pokemon (don’t knock it… It’s a ready little rpg) on my 3ds.

    I do real life professionally, so I’m sure not going to pay money for a dumbed up liberal preachy version of that…

    • #92
  3. listeningin Inactive

    The desire for positive outcomes in stories isn’t merely American, and it certainly isn’t a sign of a lack of sophistication…there is a deep, intrinsic, moral component to narratives because their power is in the way they act as an imitation of life.  According to Aristotle, when the resolution for a noble protagonist is negative, it is a form of injustice, just as when an ignoble character meets a positive end.  This is the classic understanding of stories and is fairly pervasive across cultures.  I suspect that the bent towards fatalism in stories as a sign of sophistication is yet another one of those western cultural biases, and I would suspect that it stems from the hopelessness of a world without meaning that many moderns and postmoderns have attempted to survive.  The biblical narrative is very realistic, with bald portrayals of war, genocide, and rape that make realism of modern writing pale in comparison.  The difference is that in the biblical metanarrative, it is assumed that humans are depraved and hopeless, but it is also assumed that God is both holy (perfect goodness) and abounding in love, and since he is the ultimate protagonist, he wins in the end.  This gives the reason for meaning and purpose and hope even in the darkest circumstances for those in the Judeo-Christian tradition…from that perspective, hope resonates with the human soul because it reflects the deeper reality of the universe.

    • #93
  4. Chris Campion Coolidge
    Chris Campion

    Douglas:F4 failed because the movie stinks, and the audience may be finally getting to a point Rob has been predicting for a couple of years now: superhero saturation. Look at the slate of major films coming up. Seems like half of them are comic book flicks. Hollywood found a winning formula in super flicks, and as it has always done, then proceeded to mine that shaft until there’s no gold left.

    Another problem with comic book flicks is the reboot thing. In 15 years, we’ll have had three different Spider-Man franchises, with three different actors, all telling the same story three different times. We’ve had two F4 franchises in 10 years. And we’re starting to hit bottom of the barrel for characters.

    True to a degree – but Ant-Man was a pretty good movie, pure entertainment, and it’s a much more obscure character.

    It doesn’t matter the source.  It matters the execution.

    • #94
  5. Real Jane Galt Coolidge
    Real Jane Galt


    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?

    Of course not, Look at Trump, comedy that is going to turn to tragedy.  Fun stuff.

    • #95
  6. Misthiocracy Member


    Misthiocracy: Do the characters on Blue Bloods never stumble?

    Oh, they stumble every episode, and fall occasionally. The one brother is always bending the rules, and they regularly argue around the table about rule-bending, law, etc.

    They help each other when they stumble, and hold each other accountable. Good balance.

    Sounds pretty dark.

    • #96
  7. carcat74 Member

    I remember from my drama class in high school a method followed by Charlie chaplin—follow tears with laughter. Too many of today’s movies have forgotten that.

    • #97
  8. John Stater Inactive
    John Stater

    Personally, I don’t care much for grim/gritty. But I guess that’s the point – personally, I don’t like that stuff, but there are billions of other “personally”s on the planet, and many them love grim/gritty. It’s like trying to guess why a particular candidate did or did not do well – easy to suggest reasons something failed, but hard to ever know for sure.

    • #98
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