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Hollywood’s cynicism is breeding disconcerting cultural standards

- - Wednesday, October 3, 2012

When did television become so unbearably macabre?

Consider "Breaking Bad," AMC's hit show about the tragic downfall of high-end meth cook Walter White. Over the course of five seasons, he transforms from meek high school chemistry teacher to ruthless Shakespearean villain, obsessed with money and power at the expense of all else — family, friends, innocent lives.

In last month's midseason finale, Walter orchestrates the massacre of nine jailed conspirators whose potentially loose lips could lead to his undoing. Within a period of two minutes, these nine men are demonically hacked to death with shivs by other inmates. Their agonized screams pierce through the sweet voice of Nat King Cole singing "Pick Yourself Up." Pools of blood and corpses litter the ground.

A writer for Rolling Stone described this scene as "literally nauseating." He meant that in a good way.

It's been worse. Last season, Walt had drug kingpin Gus Fring killed off with a bomb that blows off half of Fring's skull, exposing his brain on screen. This season, one of Walt's criminal schemes led to the death of an innocent child. Throughout the series, such collateral damage has been handled by dissolving the corpses in hydrofluoric acid — a gooey, bloody process, as we learned in season one.

"Breaking Bad" is among the best shows on TV — its story, characters and drama are all completely captivating. But lately, it's become too grim to watch. Another day in Walter's life, another scene of death and gore that is laid bare on the screen for the audience to see.

"Breaking Bad" is hardly alone.

From AMC's "Hell on Wheels" to anything directed by Quentin Tarantino to the Fox News Channel's shocking, accidental airing of a carjacking suspect's suicide, violence is an omnipresent feature of the media landscape.

By the time they are 18, American children — who watch an average of four hours of television per day — will see 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

The consequences of this exposure to violence, which only increases with age, are not insignificant, as the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry points out: Such exposure not only desensitizes viewers to violence, but it leads to more violence in the real world. When it comes to violence, life imitates art.

The past season of "Mad Men" also had moments that went too far, like when Lane, a partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, hangs himself in his office after getting caught embezzling money from the firm. The suicide, as a plot element, was not disturbing. What was disturbing was seeing his lifeless body — face bloated — dangling from the makeshift noose in his office.

The movie "Arbitrage" is another story about a man undone by rapacious ambition. Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is a morally challenged hedge-fund magnate trying to sell his company before his financial fraud is revealed. But things get complicated. During a late-night road trip with his mistress Julie, a French art dealer, Miller falls asleep at the wheel. The car flips and Julie dies. Or, rather, her neck gets sliced, blood pours out of it, and Miller — within moments of processing it all — plots the cover-up.

In each of these cases, immoral actions leave a great deal of human suffering in their wake. Highlighting the blood and gore is meant, probably, to emphasize the extent of human suffering — which is a lot. That is certainly a powerful message, but it borders on nihilism when all that's there is evil and suffering — and no redemption, no good, that comes out of it.

That message, repeated enough times, can be seriously demoralizing. It takes a toll on the psyche, as psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, a leading emotions researcher, has pointed out. In her 2009 book "Positivity," she writes, "Audiences clearly enjoy being pushed to the edge of what they can comfortably take." But there are costs. Referring to scientific studies, she notes that media violence leads to an increase in real-world violence and a decrease in the ability to empathize with others.

To be happier, she writes, you must get rid of the gratuitous negativity that fills your life. Instead of watching "Breaking Bad," watch "Modern Family."

Producer Lindsay Doran would agree. Ms. Doran, whose producing credits include "Nanny McPhee" and "Sense and Sensibility," is on a mission to change Hollywood's mood. Against the bleak and violent movies that dominate the big screen and take home the big awards, she is pushing for more inspiring films to be produced.

That a "movie is only art if it ends badly, and that you'll only win an Academy Award if you write or direct a movie about misery or play someone miserable" is pure myth, she told The New York Times earlier this year. Rather, the stories that audiences truly love are about the things that give life meaning — especially relationships.

Along those lines is a film called "The Impossible," which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and is scheduled to open in U.S. theaters in December. The movie stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the parents of three boys vacationing in Thailand in 2004 when the massive tsunami strikes, killing 200,000 people. In the wake of the disaster, the family members are torn apart, and the film follows their journey to find each other. "The Impossible's" tag line is "Nothing is more powerful than the human spirit."

The trailer was immensely moving, but to a critic at Slate that's a bad thing — "deeply troubling," in his words. You see, rather than focusing on the hundreds of thousands who died in the tsunami, the movie is the "uplifting story of five well-off white people." Such facile cynicism echoes Stanley Kubrick's comment about another elevating film: "The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. 'Schindler's List' is about 600 who don't."

Despite the cynicism of the cultural establishment, we need more inspiring stories on the big and small screen. If Ms. Doran gets her way, maybe one day we will.