Looking for a bright comedy or unambiguously good characters in a movie or TV show?
Such entertainment fare seems increasingly rare these days. Pop culture now favors dark, gloomy worlds filled with morally conflicted protagonists. For example, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” – now the network’s most popular program ever – takes place in a fantasy world where those who try to do the right thing are often punished, sexually assaulted, or killed for their actions. The “Hunger Games” film series, which takes place in a dystopian world where children are forced to fight to the death, is now one of the most successful film franchises of all time.
In what some have called the golden age of television, the “antihero” has become a byword for acclaimed TV – Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos,” Don Draper of “Mad Men,” Walter White of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” to name a few.
Even Superman, the DC comic hero who was traditionally the prototype of a clean-cut do-gooder, is now ethically challenged: In the 2013 film "Man of Steel," he shocked die-hard fans by brutally murdering the villain, General Zod.
Why are global audiences increasingly drawn to these dives into dark worlds populated by flawed and violent heroes – and are these tales helping to strengthen humanity's moral fiber or weakening it?
Jesse Klein, a sociologist at Florida State University, says viewers are drawn to these themes in entertainment because they're personally working through the disconnect they see between the ethically challenging world they live in and the moral guidelines and norms they've been taught.
“Terrible things happen to really good people and we see wars and conflicts and dictatorships,” Dr. Klein says. "I think people in America have a dissonance between their morality... we want good things to happen and when they don't, it confuses us."
“It makes us question humanity and that's scary for a lot of people.... It's presented to us as: You are either a good person or a bad person. Good people do these things and get these rewards and bad people do these things and get this punishment. And whether it's in a religious context, in an educational context, in our families, that's the message that we get as kids from really early on.
So when we become adults and we see that it's not like that, very much not like that, then it's like, what is happening? We have to cognitively restructure our ideas – what is good and evil and what is morality and who are moral people and is it really OK that that person got killed and saved?"
Some say that Hollywood is attempting to fill a vacuum left by religious leaders, as US church and synagogue attendance drops. "There’s been the dramatic rise of the so-called nones – those who no longer subscribe to any religious tradition, and who include increasing numbers of those who label themselves atheists and agnostics. This diverse group now includes nearly 1 in 4 American adults and 35 percent of Millennials, researchers say," writes Harry Brunius for The Christian Science Monitor.
In this climate, watching TV and movies could be an arena for some viewers to sort out moral debates, says Charles M. Brown, who has taught a course in religion and popular culture, among others, at Albright College in Reading, Pa.
"For some people, they're sort of working out some of these questions of morality out in their minds as they're watching some of these television shows and so forth, thinking, 'Oh, gee, what would I do in this situation?'" Dr. Brown says.
Some viewers simply see these entertainment properties with darker themes – and good people making bad choices – as inherently more authentic and sophisticated, says Junhow Wei, an instructor in the department of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It has something to do with the desire for audiences to have more complex and intellectually engaging popular culture,” Dr. Wei says.
Like other observers, Wei says people want morally complex characters because viewers themselves may struggle with moral questions. “People desiring complex characters reflects how people themselves are complex characters,” he says.
Most superhero films – arguably Hollywood’s most dominant genre right now – are now filled with moral shades of gray. For example, “Captain America: Civil War” (this year’s highest-grossing film so far) finds the Marvel team pondering the consequences of their world-saving, as heroes consider questions such as collateral damage – bystanders being injured and killed when they take out villains. It's a subject that arises in the real world when drones are sent to assassinate suspected Al Qaeda or ISIS terrorists.
In the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” Klein says viewers expect that good will triumph eventually, despite grim goings-on, and want to see it happen. “As a public, we yearn for the good person to win,” she says. “We yearn for virtue to be rewarded. And every time we turn on that show, we're like, 'There's got to be a reason, there's got to be a reason, there's got to be a reason,' and that's why people keep watching it, because they think Jon Snow is going to come back and this is going to happen and finally the Targaryens are going to come back and everything's going to be great.”
While some observers say there may be value in the moral wrestling or self-examination prompted by these portrayals, that's not why filmmakers or TV execs make them. This is a business, and controversy draws attention, especially in social media. Wei says TV shows in particular depict violent acts – or shocking choices by heroes – in an effort to stand out in a crowded marketplace. “If you have more complex, maybe dark shows with complex and morally ambiguous characters, that maybe is one way to cause more conversation,” Wei says.
One "Game of Thrones" storyline that particularly shocked fans – and drew wide media coverage – occurred in the show's fifth season, when young Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was raped by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon).
As the science fiction and fantasy genres have long done, some of these latest dark forms of entertainment serve to present cautionary visions of the future. Following the success of “Hunger Games,” franchises such as the “Divergent” and “Maze Runner” films have also shown a dystopian world.
Klein says that “Hunger Games” in particular ties into current political discussions about economic inequality. In the world of “Hunger,” the wealthy live in the Capitol and are incredibly rich, while most of those in rural areas toil. “People are being critical about money and about economics in a way they've never been before,” Klein says. “I think the ‘Hunger Games’ represents some of those ideas.”
Wei says the reality TV aspect of “Hunger Games” – the televised competition in which children are forced to kill one another – and viewers’ familiarity with the reality TV genre may also have played a part in the success of “Hunger.”
“This kind of very nuanced and critical and complex knowledge of the reality TV genre is now very commonplace among the public,” he says. “And that could have something to do with why they find pleasure in something like the ‘Hunger Games,’ which, in some ways, skewers reality TV.”