The Handmaid's Tale; Game Of Thrones; The Walking Dead (Photos: Hulu, HBO, AMC)


Why does “good” TV have to be “challenging” TV?

Suddenly, TV worth talking about has to be difficult and upsetting, says Caroline O’Donoghue. There’s enough violence, persecution and misogyny in the real world

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

A friend recently asked me whether I was watching season two of The Handmaid’s Tale.

“No,” I replied, with more feeling than the question necessarily demanded. “Because, honestly? Bit of a busman’s holiday, at this point.”

We laughed, which indicates that the statement was a joke, but truly? It wasn’t. The news is full of persecution, violence and misogyny. And I’m supposed to spend my leisure time devouring television about persecution, violence and misogyny? I’m supposed to watch Philip Green on the news and then enjoy a fictional TV programme about a gang of more advanced, unchecked, fantasy Philip Greens for fun?

A few years ago, TV critics started throwing around the phrase “the Golden Age of TV”. This Golden Age was intended to describe a rarefied time, where both Mad Men and Breaking Bad were airing at the same time, a kind of cultural renaissance for which we were all supposed to be very grateful. This, coupled with the newly tricked-out half-hour sitcom (like the Peabody Award-winning 30 Rock and the US The Office), came together to show us one thing: that, for the first time, staying in and watching TV was better, and more intellectually challenging, than going to the cinema. As one critic put it, TV was about “dark men in dark times doing dark things”.

And so, we hurtled into the era of “challenging” TV. Game Of Thrones, which started out as a fantasy epic with splashy, corn-syrup violence, slowly morphed into a show about humiliating its actors and finding increasingly bizarre ways to make its audience uncomfortable. Westworld, a show based on a pulpy 1970s B-movie, insists that it’s a sprawling, intellectual show about the nature of existence, and excuses its obsession with rape by telling you that the rape is deeply philosophical. The moment you find yourself exhausted by Evan Rachel Wood being dragged by her hair into a barn by Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins saunters on screen and explains to you that this is all a lesson about humanity and what humans do when their base desires are left unchecked.

Here’s a thought: why does every single fucking TV show have to be about what humans do when their base desires are left unchecked? Whether it’s Billions or The Walking Dead or House Of Cards or Patrick Melrose or Ozark, I feel like I’m perpetually being told that TV for smart people is TV for cynical people. That I should want to watch very, very grey television with stressful orchestral soundtracks. The kind of TV where a man is having a tense conversation with another man, and then it immediately cuts to one of those men shagging his 18-year-old mistress while the other beats a refugee over the head with a lead pipe, and it’s all obviously ART because there’s some lovely cello music underscoring it.

I think there’s this strange idea that by watching difficult, upsetting television in your leisure time, you are somehow facing up to the reality of how hideous the world really is

And, yes, I realise I’m being grumpy about this. “Just don’t watch it!” I hear one of you yell. “There’s loads of other stuff on!” I hear someone else say – and you’re right! There’s loads of other stuff on, stuff that is joyful and colourful and, yes, every bit as smart as the 50-minute long prestige TV we’re getting over on Sky Atlantic. Let me rattle off a few of them right now. There’s One Mississippi, a show about moving back to your hometown as a 40-year-old gay woman who has just lost her mother; there’s The Bold Type, a show about three girls navigating the magazine industry and an-ever evolving standard for wokeness; Fresh Off The Boat, a gorgeous sitcom about a Chinese-American family’s relocation to the Californian suburbs; The Good Place, a show about heaven, hell and morality. There’s Queer Eye and there’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, and there’s 10,000 good shows about people just trying to make nice food. If you want positive TV, there’s plenty out there for you.

But, for some reason, it’s not the TV that gets talked about. Fresh Off The Boat will never have a watercooler moment the way Friends so often had them. The Bold Type will never touch the hem of Sex And The City’s popularity. At parties, when people ask you what you’re watching, they will not want to eagerly discuss how marvellous Mrs Maisel is. They will (and maybe this is just the parties I’m invited to, who knows) want to talk about whether another dead sex worker has been found on Who Killed The Sex Worker? or another murderer has been caught on I Can’t Believe There’s Another Murderer! Which is fine, I suppose. At some point, you have to accept that the kind of stuff you enjoy is not currently the stuff that captivates the nation’s attention, and I can get over that.

I have just one niggle left, though. I think there’s this strange idea that, by watching difficult, upsetting television in your leisure time, you are somehow facing up to the reality of how hideous the world really is. That, by watching The Handmaid’s Tale and murmuring, “wow, it’s like a documentary, except, y’know, it isn’t”, it’s interchangeable with understanding what the real-life women who really do suffer under oppressive governments go through. That, in an upsetting, serious time, it is natural to want to watch upsetting, serious television. At what point do we get burned out, though? At what point does it become impossible to do anything productive for the aforementioned upsetting serious world, if there’s no lightness or comedy letting the cracks of light in? Ultimately, is an entertainment cycle full of grim stories and a news cycle full of grim news more numbing than it is enlightening?


The Handmaid's Tale; Game Of Thrones; The Walking Dead (Photos: Hulu, HBO, AMC)
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