The dark side of our swoon

Murky, unsettling landscapes. Damaged minds. Ghosts that need to be exorcised. AND Crimes that have no formulaic black-and-white answers. Why are we bingeing on a web of moral ambiguity being spun on our screens?


Sushmita Bose

Published: Fri 9 Apr 2021, 11:12 PM

Last updated: Fri 9 Apr 2021, 11:27 PM

It was Netflix’s House of Cards that set the trend for me. Bingeing on way too much evil, too many twisted back alleys. I remember a friend telling me how he and his wife had got up, on reflex, from their sofa — in front of their TV set — and screamed and pleaded with (an unhearing) Peter Russo to not fall for the trap laid out for him by Frank Underwood. “You will die, he’s planning to kill you, don’t leave the house!”

The script dictated Russo to fall for the trap, and so he did. Friend and wife collapsed on sofa set, paused the screen for a minute for the reel reality to sink in, and then resumed watching. The show had to go on. “Insidious, yes, but addictive,” my friend added. “Or maybe, insidious and, therefore, addictive.”

I didn’t subscribe to Netflix back then, but I had the House of Cards DVDs; I couldn’t stop till I finished each and every season at one go, each time realising that the wait for the “next season” (next year) would be a tortuous one. No wonder the word ‘binge’ had come home to roost.

By the time I got my Netflix and other web platforms’ subscription — over lockdown last year, when I had an awful lot of time to dwell on “dark matters” and doom-scrolling — I decided to only binge on complete shows or a series of mini-series that would not call for a waiting period. It struck me I would never feel tormented when I waited for the next season of Friends or Seinfeld or next week’s edition of The Bold and the Beautiful. But the new generation of web crime dramas had a certain involute routine that call for a constant state of unsettlement: each episode/season ending with a cliffhanger, every character peeling off yet another layer, the next twist holding out the terrifying promise to be murkier than the ones before… I was hooked.

These days, when I am about to embark on yet another binge and ask for recommendations, there’s always a litany of attributes. “Dark” and “twisted” and “slow burn” lead the list.

Back in the day, when plain vanilla crime shows were all the rage with the good guy nabbing the bad guy after a standard procedural operation, revisiting twisted noir such as Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice came in short bursts of breathlessness: one and a half hours, two hours tops. With web series, it’s a marathon run of complexities… seamlessness is the DNA of streaming.

A body is dredged up from either deep waters or from inside a forest. The lead detective usually has personal demons he (or she) is grappling with. None of the characters are what they seem to be. There are lines such as “The safer the street, the darker the secrets”, and “One thing you learn on my job: no one knows anyone.”

In a piece for, Kathryn VanArendonk writes, “We like crime stories because they’re full of all the things we’re not allowed to do, all the dark corners of the human imagination we know we shouldn’t indulge, all the scariest, most alluring, most sensational kinds of behavior we could never do because it’d blow up our regular lives, but which would make things so much more exciting if we did. They let us play out hypotheticals. What if I murdered my boss?

What if I robbed a bank? What if I were allowed to roam the streets with a gun, kicking down doors and arresting whoever I felt like with no impunity?”

Crime shows are making us relate to moral ambiguity’

As human beings, we don’t only have good thoughts — we have secret dark thoughts: the much-debated phenomenon of schadenfreude. And even though we may feel guilty about harbouring such thoughts, we can easily connect to an ambience of moral ambivalence, which is what dark crime shows encapsulate. “They somehow make things seem more real — let’s face it, modern life is like that: complex,” says Mayank Tewari, a former journalist, and scriptwriter of Newton — that was selected as the Indian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards — and the upcoming Season 2 of the critically-acclaimed Delhi Crime.

We live in strange times, and by that Mayank is not referring to Covid times per se. “This is the age of the Internet and social media, the cap is coming off everything, and we are witnessing a loss of innocence.” He gives an example. “When I was growing up in 1980s’ and 1990s’ India, I just believed — in good faith — that the government wants to do good things. These days, youngsters don’t think like that because they know everyone has their own motives, their own design.”

Popular culture reflects that. “Take ‘true love’: earlier, it would be portrayed as a romantic ideal, but these days you get to see that in real relationships there has to be constant engagement — not entanglement — and yet you have to give your partner space.” Space as a construct between a couple used to be an alien concept — on screen. “Not anymore.”

Consequently, we relate to moral ambivalence. “We root for the villainous protagonist in Breaking Bad. We cannot relate to the likes of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew — we need ambiguity to put characters in context.” When a crime show has a ‘damaged’ detective with dark secrets, it humanises him (or her). “The character has flaws, failings, problems… in fact, the ‘villain’ could, at some point, turn around and tell him/her, ‘Hey, you are just like me’, and we wouldn’t bat an eyelid.” He says he’s been watching the new series on serial killer Charles Sobhraj, and it’s incredible how his character — which is supposed to be ridden with moral turpitude — “is humanised and you end up relating to him”.

During lockdown, people — the consumers — stayed indoors for the most part, watching a lot of television. Obviously, they gravitated towards shows with equivocacy. Advocates of “wholesome viewing” could well ask why “dark matter” is finding its way onto “entertainment” platforms. “With streaming, there has been a democratisation of content in the real world,” points out Mayank. “Video-on-demand networks are open to experimentation, even if it’s for a small target group.” Conventional feel-food is making way for edginess because there are takers.

Women have a lot of agency in these shows, he adds, since myriad feminist themes are being brought out: they may be violent in format, but they get conversations going in areas that were always glossed over earlier. “I’d say it’s been an era of empowerment for viewers.”

‘This train wreck will never personally affect us’

“We are generally intrigued by crime that is convoluted,” says Maria Waqar, US-based scholar of gender and politics. She recently started rewatching Breaking Bad, and admits she’s “hooked” all over again. But for a very different reason than Mayank’s. According to Maria, there’s a certain comfort in watching complex crime stories unfold behind the screen, from the safety of your home. “Given that the pandemic, with its apocalyptic overtones, made people feel insecure and unsafe, they binged on thrillers showcasing deviant crimes. Amid so much uncertainty and distress, it may be psychologically comforting to know that this ‘trainwreck’ will never personally affect them.”

In a way, she echoes a snatch from Kathryn VanArendonk’s gripping exposition: “Turning crime on and off feels powerful and soothing. It is a way to see the darkest parts of humanity while also being assured of your own safety. Because when you watch crime on TV, you’re not out there being murdered or robbed or violated by some terrifying, unknowable evil. You’re at home, on your sofa, sitting in front of your television.”

But, here too, there are nuances — at times, complex, gritty ones.

Whatever you experience through your senses reflects in your nervous system, explains Sarah El Nabulsi, clinical psychologist at Cambridge Medical Centre, Dubai Healthcare City. “You watch something anxiety-provoking and dark, your physiology reacts to this. For sure, we do have filters and we know we are only watching it” but there is an injection of heightened cortisol levels. “More and more people are consuming dark content on streaming services, these shows are highly addictive, they are designed to be highly addictive, they are played back to back, very seamlessly, and before you know it, you’ve been watching for many hours.”

But that’s really the last thing you want to do, “increase your consumption of such content because we are much more vulnerable when we are anxious, so our bodies and minds will be much more primed and more deeply influenced”. The imagery and storytelling impact our views. “It will, of course, not happen from watching one episode every few days, but whatever we overexpose ourselves to end up playing a role in forming our worldview even if we are not conscious of it.”

This is a time when we are avoiding socialising, we are isolating, working from home — most times, under tremendous pressure — we are already in high-anxiety states, says Sarah. So, why are we letting our defences down? Her solution: “Something inspirational, uplifting, or maybe a comedy show — you know laughter is great? — could be a way out. There is healthy content to indulge in if we have to!”

RAK Hospital’s psychologist Prateeksha Shetty co-relates this trend of twisted tales to us getting bored easily and seeking constant thrills. “This kind of ‘addictive’ behaviour is filling up a vacuum in our life — which, we are made to believe, is not exciting enough.” We believe we live “vicariously” through “grey characters” instead of simple black and white ones, and we begin to identify with “complex” realities. “Producers [of such shows] are being able to milk it as much as they can.”

‘Watching dark shows in the dark’

Prateeksha’s also observed another fallout. “Earlier, we would watch television together, with family, friends, loved ones. These days, we are perfectly okay watching something alone — in fact, at times, we prefer it that way.” She knows people who watch shows in the dark (“lights turned off for maximum impact”), phones in silent mode, food close at hand. It’s like they create an entire eco-system of self-containment. “Obviously binge watching dark content alone is even more dangerous — so this is where I call for them to ‘modify physical settings’.”

But a lot of them would rather welter in the murkiness than address the issue at hand.

While speaking with Prateeksha, I am reminded of a Reader’s Digest article titled ‘Netflix cheating is on the rise — and chances are you’ve been cheated on already’ by Claire Nowak. “People have probably been ‘Netflix cheating’ as long as Netflix has been around. But a new study directly from the company shows that almost half of couples who stream together have cheated, meaning they secretly watch episodes ahead of their significant other (or whomever they watch shows with). Of these cheaters, 44 per cent have done it three or more times, and 60 per cent said they’d do it more often if they knew they wouldn’t get caught. Nearly half never confess to their misdeeds.”

While this “infidelity” is being tomtommed as a quirky, almost lovable, transgression, it does set into motion walls being pulled up around social settings. One should not be in denial about being “addicted”, offers Prateeksha. “Motivate these people and help them understand what the problem is… and maybe help them set boundaries, limits.”

“In the genre of noir, right and wrong are unclearly defined and protagonists are often self-destructive and morally questionable,” notes Alfred Gull, clinical psychologist at German Neuroscience Center, Dubai. He compares the “landscape” to that of the pandemic. Despite precautionary measures, we often do not know what will happen next or even what is right or wrong. “As in the movies, unexpected changes/shifts like mutant viruses happen and the world needs to adapt.”

“There are some theories that try to explain the fascinating phenomenon of the dark genre. One of them says that these kind of stories with unexpected shifts and seriously flawed protagonists teach viewers resilience and how to live with fear. Further, they illustrate that life isn’t always easy, and it’s okay to be scared.”

And in the meantime...

A former colleague — who had presented me the DVD of the first season of House of Cards — and I used to have frequent discussions about Frank Underwood. “He’s so evil, but I love him,” we’d both say. “How will they ever manage to justify his exit?”

That used to the refrain some years ago. In April 2021, I’ve just binged on a surreal show titled Behind Her Eyes. A current colleague pops by at my desk and mutters, “It’s insanely good, I finished the series in one go”, while I am meticulously checking out all social media discussion boards where a debate rages: does Behind Her Eyes have the most unbelievable twist or not?

It has taught me a new contextual terminology. “Mind bending”. I’m planning to add it to the creepy list of attributes for future shows to binge on.

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