There was once a time (last year) when we were obsessed with apocalypse TV. Back when more of us went into actual offices, we eagerly discussed the flesh melting off people’s bodies in HBO’s critically acclaimed “Chernobyl.” “The Handmaid’s Tale” was so popular Kylie Jenner devoted a friend’s 22nd birthday bash to it (to much confusion on the part of anyone who thought a dystopian world that enslaves fertile women doesn’t make for the best party theme).
But now it’s hard to watch any dark futuristic television in the age of COVID. We don’t need to look elsewhere for a world full of horrors. We can just turn on the news and watch its harrowing reports — so far, the coronavirus has claimed more than 700,000 lives worldwide — and any fictional portrayals of an approaching Armageddon have become a big turnoff.
HBO’s marquis show “Westworld,” which depicted robots forced to entertain human customers in a futuristic, Wild West theme park, debuted its third season on March 15 right when New York’s lockdown began, and left many critics unimpressed. USA Today found the season to be “as soulless and hollow as the corrupt theme park it portrays.” Meanwhile, the second season of Netflix’s “Altered Carbon,” imagining a world where the wealthy can buy bodies to secure their immortality, received similarly lackluster reviews for its Feb. 27 debut: “A soap opera with a whole lot of gratuitous punching, kicking, and bleeding,” Salon.com sniffed. (So far, it has yet to be renewed for a third season.)
The new season of “The Twilight Zone,” which premiered on CBS All Access in June and promised plot lines inspired by the #MeToo movement, might have been a hit with a bored public looking for fantastical stories to liven up an everyday existence. But it was also met with tepid reviews, and though viewership figures are hard to estimate, it doesn’t seem to be creating much buzz in Season 2. The same can be said of Peacock’s upcoming “Brave New World,” a supposed “dystopia” in which Londoners are fed an endless supply of pharmaceuticals and pornography to keep them happy. (Many of us would happily swap that dark existence for the one we’re currently experiencing.)
Meanwhile, comfort TV has got people talking. The top ten Netflix shows currently include “The Baby-Sitter’s Club,” a very sweet retelling of the Scholastic series from 1986; “The Umbrella Academy,” a plucky show about a dysfunctional family of superheroes who travel through time to save the world; and “Eurovision,” a ridiculous Will Ferrell comedy about aspiring pop stars. On network TV, the top-rated prime-time broadcast show for the week of July 15 was “America’s Got Talent,” according to Nielsen.
“The Masked Singer” remains a big ratings draw on Fox (Season 4 starts this fall) and the soaring epic “Yellowstone,” which airs on Paramount Network, is cable’s biggest scripted hit. Fans are still chattering about comedy “Schitt’s Creek,” which ended its run in April (and was nominated for several Emmys this year). Animation is also a sweet spot, with Comedy Central reviving adult ’toons “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “Ren & Stimpy,” and “South Park” still luring huge audiences worldwide in Season 23. And people love “Judge Judy,” which averages upwards of 8-10 million viewers a week (even when it’s in reruns, which is remarkable).
The withdrawal from apocalypse TV has become an issue for creatives, like Bruce Miller, a producer of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has won 14 Emmys.
Miller tells The Post that it’s hard to know how to depict “what it would look like at airports with men with guns, at a time when we can’t leave the US and there are men with guns at airports.”
Jen Ponzer, author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV,” said, “By the time you’re knee-deep in crisis, then watching trauma porn is no longer comforting at all. Watching ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ right now would feel like swallowing a firecracker.”
Meanwhile, Charlie Booker, creator of the dystopian “Black Mirror,” another multiple Emmy winner, is taking a pause before filming a sixth season, because he’s “not sure if audiences could stomach another season at the moment.”
He’s not wrong. On June 2, a series of mirrors appeared throughout Madrid, with the inscription written on them: “Black Mirror. 6th Season Live Now, Everywhere.” It turned out to be a stunt, mounted by the advertising collective Brother. Tito Rocha, who conceived the ad, told The Post, “Everything that’s happening in 2020 makes us feel like we’re in a very long episode of ‘Black Mirror.’ So we were just reflecting what people had thought.”
(Rocha also noted that, personally, he enjoys watching “Pokemon.”)
Perhaps by this time next year, newly vaccinated, we’ll be back to a place where horrifying universes seem novel and exciting. But, until then, most of us will likely stick to “Parks and Recreation” reruns.
Additional reporting by Michael Starr
Source: New York Post
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