Sad songs, if you know your FM radio history, say so much. Elton John was right when he sang about the cathartic powers that come from a Top-40 wallow in all degrees of hurt and heartbreak — the satisfaction of recognizing one’s own pain in mainstream pop.
But as much as we’re willing to cry along with ballads, I keep running into viewers who don’t want to be brought low by watching sad TV. When they get home and plop in front of their screens, they insist that the material be lighter — if not necessarily happy, then not a burden on the brain or especially the heart. TV is, for them, an escape from their personal problems and their stress about the world. Why take on another show that is tonally gloomy or too difficult to think about?
Long accustomed to shows that exist under the large, catchall description of “dark,” viewers are willing to stomach a lot of unfortunate events, violent outcomes and fatal plot twists that define most of TV’s most highly praised recent classics. Antiheroes, massacres, dystopian struggles in post-apocalyptic settings and surprise deaths — all of these are routine occurrences. The sadness, however, is usually an afterthought and not a theme.
It’s much harder, I find, to get viewers interested in shows that feature a much more subtle form of darkness — the rain-cloud moods that are more about existential dread, universal loneliness and human grief.
There are several such shows premiering or returning this fall in which characters both living and dead find themselves trapped in low emotional ebbs and visually drab circumstances. It’s a surplus of sad TV, and not merely the two-Kleenex-per-episode kind practiced so skillfully by NBC’s Emmy-winning drama “This Is Us,” which returns for its third season on Sept. 25. ABC is trying its hand at emotionally similar terrain with “A Million Little Things” (premiering Sept. 26), in which three men try to cope with the suicide of their mutual friend.
Nearly two years into President Trump’s presidency, one might have expected Hollywood to roll up its sleeves and produce more directly confrontational shows about the American political mood (I see you, “Murphy Brown”) and the corruption that undermines democracy. Instead, the response from creators has been a far more subdued display of philosophical and psychological pondering: What happens when we die? Is eternity all it’s cracked up to be? Is sanity really preferable to madness?
Is there some other kind of reality that’s different from this reality?
Is there really such a thing as happiness in the face of so much sadness?
Amazon’s new series “Forever” (premiering Sept. 21), stars comic actors Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph as a married couple stuck in a pleasant but boring loop of routines. The streaming service has done everything it can to protect the show’s big twist (revealed in the second episode) from being spoiled. You’ll hear about it soon enough; for now I would only point out that “Forever” skillfully opens up a philosophical can of worms: What if our most mundane days really are our best days? What if ennui is eternal?
“Forever” makes an interesting companion piece to NBC’s hit comedy “The Good Place,” which returns for a third season on Sept. 27. It depicts an afterlife that is both surreal and disappointing to its inhabitants, who’ve long since realized they didn’t go to the Good Place when they died. The show’s sense of humor is fast and cutting, whereas on “Forever” it is slow and sure, but both shows capitalize on the existential dread that accompanies the concept of eternity. Despite the joyful gospel songs about going home, the notion of doing anything forever is not at all comforting to those of us who already struggle with the concept of an eternal plane. What could be so great that you’d want to do it for infinity?
Back in the land of the unhappily living, Facebook Watch’s “Sorry for Your Loss” (premiering Sept. 18) is a highly intimate portrait of a young advice columnist (Elizabeth Olsen) who is grieving the sudden death of her husband. As the title suggests, the series dwells in the zone where no amount of sympathy from others can do the trick; the hardest part of grief is the part that you go it alone.
Imagine “Sorry for Your Loss” as an elevator pitch to network execs: It’s about a really sad person who cries a lot.
Although “This Is Us” rekindled broadcast and cable interest in cathartic journeys for teary-eyed viewers, the streaming networks (Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, et al.) tend to take bigger chances on gloomier and more cynical material — fatal car crashes, suicides, older parents keeling over, hospital patients who don’t get better.
Shows like “Sorry for Your Loss” feel like the worthy descendants of independent cinema of 20 or so years ago, which thrived on stories of personal sorrow and angst (think Ang Lee’s 1997 film “The Ice Storm”). Take a sad, 100-minute indie film and stretch its gloominess out for eight, 10 or 12 episodes, lasting season or two (or longer), and you’re ready to compete in today’s peak-TV industry.
The aesthetic of such series prefers rigorously bland settings that feel antiseptic and/or claustrophobic, giving the viewer a sense that the characters are mired in their feelings. Netflix’s “Maniac” (premiering Sept. 21) stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as test subjects in a drug trial that seeks to cure mental illness. They live in a world that is futuristic yet depressingly retro (a place only hipsters could devise), and vaguely Orwellian. It almost goes without saying that their characters are both really down in the dumps.
Showtime’s “Kidding,” airing on Sunday nights, has Jim Carrey playing a man who is professionally obligated to cheer the world up (as the host of a beloved children’s show), yet he lives in a suspended state of grief over the loss of a teenage son. His suffering takes place amid happy puppets in make-believe worlds singing songs about feelings — an effective contrast to his personal meltdown.
It’s true that one can only stand so much of this sullen material. Yet I think it’s important to not shut out these shows simply because they don’t cheer you up or help you escape. TV will always have plenty of frivolous shows that can do that.
When it comes to describing this era we’re living in, I hear people talk about outrage and anger and violence. Underneath all that, I tend to agree with the creators of these shows: A profound sadness is in the air. We have a lot of unresolved worry and fear about loss, death and grief. It’s hard to watch sometimes, but I find it more depressing to think of viewers changing the channel just because they don’t want to feel it.