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One 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.Published in