Is Modern Television Escapism or Prophecy?

How our tragedy-fetishized viewing could be a dark fore-telling of our future.

In recent years, there has been a notable peak in interest surrounding the genre of dystopian/drama/thriller. Series such as The Handmaids Tale, Years and Years, Black Mirror and Chernobyl arecurrently rising speedily in popularity; and it begs the question of why.

Is it because we have become so desensitized to previously exaggerated dramas such as The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad, or is it because our fears and curiosities have shifted to a new lens, one that emphasizes predictions of what’s ahead of us during these times of uncertainty rather than distorted escapism?

The evolution of television genres has always reflected society, trying to adhere to our interests or deepest desires in order to hook us and retain viewers.

Television is associated with mindlessness, with switching off and relaxing after a long day. This mantra began with the likes of The Brady Bunch or Bewitched, followed by M*A*S*H and the A-Team, and then Friends and Seinfeld. It wasn’t until this century that there was a shift in demand.

‘Friends’ image from home.bt.com

Popular, light-hearted programs that one could relax to after a tough day at the office had been pushed out by burgeoning series like LostThe Wire, and Dexter. Television watching was beginning to evolve, it was moving from recreational to almost hobby-like, becoming regimented parts of people’s days, invading topics of conversation and social plans.

When we began to watch series that inevitably opened our gaze to other cultures, injustices and possibilities, that’s when the entertainment industry conquered.

They began with a simple ideology to exacerbate fears, to show what we are all collectively despaired. They stole techniques from the horror genre and manipulated our view toward man-made horrors that were occurring around the world.

Thus, sparked the age-old conundrum; which came first, the chicken or the egg? The televised version or the real-life scenario?

This concoction of visual fear is a depraved cycle, one that leaves us empty and craving more information, more insight, simultaneously favoring staying in and television binging, over heading out into the fear-worthy world.

The culture of binge television came with the rise and international expansion of Netflix around 2014 when content — without advertisements — was available to suit our schedules, and series were released on one day, rather than weekly airtime.

Now, we are saturated in content, ever genre is flooded with new series and films, each one trying to challenge the status quo more than the last.

More streaming platforms are available, Amazon Prime, HBO, and Hulu and there is so much choice that the competition for views is rife.

Then began the intensification of ‘Misery Porn’, our obsession and fetishization of tragedy and fears.


The first episode of HBO’s dramatic characterization of Chernobyl left me feeling nauseous, overwhelmed and scared. Though I had always known about the Chernobyl disaster, the visual dramatization was traumatic.

I was terrified not only that such a man-made disaster could occur, but that it really did. I was sick, at the thought of how fatally those in power had handled the situation and felt fear, that such a thing could happen again, and by how much we rest our lives in those higher in the hierarchy of life than us.

It was the first time for as long as I could remember, that I was kept awake with haunting snapshots of the scenes that had unfolded in the unnerving re-telling. Did that stop me from continuing with the show? Absolutely not.

‘Chernobyl’ image from Yahoo Movies UK

In fact, I awoke from my sinister night’s sleep, unable to banish it from my mind, and I sought out others to discuss it with. I was equally enthralled and disgusted with what I had witnessed, and I wanted more. Each episode kept me mesmerized even when certain parts led me to cover my eyes.

I’ve spoken before about my distaste for the ‘true crime’ industry, and how I believe it both insensitive and monstrous to dig up year-old cases of murders in order to profit from ten-part documentary or podcast series, and how by engaging, we are a cog in this capitalist, perverted industry.

And yet, I found myself doing that exact thing. Gushing over the dramatically created scenes, how gripping and interesting they were, disregarding at times the height of the death-toll and tragedy.

Hailed the greatest series of our time, I’m not sure if we can solely dismiss this as an interest in historical tragedy because there is something underlyingly sinister about the surrounding fandom.


‘The Handmaids Tale’ Image from SBS

The modern television adaption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale crashed onto our screens with a horrifying bang. Now a critically acclaimed and highly recommended series, it’s rather unnerving to hear it being referred to as torture or misery porn when the series continues to strive and receive praise.

Despite it being brought under criticism, it has since veered off script and long-ago passed the final sentiment of Atwood’s words and continues to make episode after episode, with unwavering viewing numbers.

People discuss it with an undiluted equilibrium of fear and joy, imagining how they would react in such scenarios, delightfully tutting at the idea of it.

‘Black Mirror’ image from weeklystandard.com

The popularity of AI thrillers is also widespread, Black Mirror has been a topic of conversation since its Netflix commission in 2015. Each episode of this dystopian science fiction is stand alone, tapping into rising techno-paranoia and the collective unease that lingers around modern technology.

In ways, this television drama feels like a must-watch guidebook for potential scenarios that could crop up in the future, so we can learn from the consequences.

Could the fetishization of dystopia and true crime in the media be our self-created downfall?

Most recently, an almost copy-cat of Black Mirror is Years and Years, a similarly British futuristic/dystopian television series that chronicles the political, environmental and economic future of the world primarily through the eyes of a dysfunctional extended family.

Displaying more humor than the dark Black Mirror, it still invokes terrifying thoughts and creates chilling scenarios that could occur.

‘Years and Years’ image from inews.co.uk

It was only when watching this that it dawned on me, the most catastrophic ingredient in this rise of ‘misery porn’.

Even though we consider ourselves autonomous creatures, it’s true that our origin of thought isn’t always known

I watched as the family listened to the sirens and discovered that Donald Trump had detonated a nuclear bomb on an artificial island off China, following a trade war, with only four days left in office (until he got a second term).

“No!” I had shouted at the television, “Don’t give him ideas!”

And that’s when I thought, what is the real difference between a show like Chernobyl and that of Years and Years? They are both based in fact or possibility, and they both detail critical man-made outcomes. The difference is that one has happened and the other hasn’t.

But what if the difference was simply that one was the past and one was the future?

Perhaps misery porn and the surge in fear-based programs isn’t a problem due to growing anxieties of the general population, but because of the ideas it could plant in the minds of those that cause and cover up these disasters?

As I danced down this train of thought, while watching the fall of democracy, the deterioration of the environment and the collapse of the banks in Years and Years, my mind zoned in on Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons.

‘The Simpsons’ image from Time Magazine

An unexpected turn, you might think, but Groening has long been accused of being a time traveler. Because of his detailed predictions of world events, which two radio stars discuss in depth here.

A hilarious watch, it’s still quite concerning how accurately he predicted events such as Trump’s presidency, The NSA spying scandal, faulty voter machines, the Ebola outbreak and even 9/11.

Thus, sparked the age-old conundrum; which came first, the chicken or the egg? The televised version or the real-life scenario?

Could the fetishization of dystopia and true crime in the media be our self-created downfall?

It sounds childish and whimsical to assume that Trump decided to run for his presidency because of his representation in a Simpsons episode, and I doubt their mention of the Ebola virus necessarily caused the outbreak to occur.

But even though we consider ourselves autonomous creatures, it’s true that our origin of thought isn’t always known; be it authentic, subliminal messaging, a subconscious feeling or a dream.

‘The Simpsons’ image from Mirror

For example, one of the Groening’s predictions was that Lady Gaga would play the Superbowl half-time show, which doesn’t seem too farfetched. What was creepy, was the detail they had surrounding her performance and her outfit. Yet one could easily argue that she subconsciously or knowingly absorbed and recreated this content.

Could we argue that the same goes for all these science-fiction dystopian representations, that though they are intended to create fear and force us to live vicariously (what would I do in that situation?) they could also be planting seeds of ideas?

The controversy around modern-day misery porn and tragedy fetishization is a thorny and dense issue that we are only beginning to weed our way through, but we must not allow our beloved dystopian and futuristic dramas to become our prophecy.

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