Dystopia is the new sitcom: why dystopian drama is taking over TV

If you haven’t been living in a bomb shelter you’ve probably noticed the proliferation of dystopian drama shows on cable and streaming channels. Not only are there more dystopian themed shows than ever before, they are more popular than ever before.

Look through the top 10 cable and streaming shows and you’ll see names like The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead, The Handmaid’s Tale, Colony, The 100, Orphan Black, and American Gods. Millions of fans from all walks of life are tuning in to shows that depict a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar. Why has the general TV watching public turned away from traditional TV programming to embrace these dark apocalyptic shows?

There are several reasons why we, as a culture, are embracing the apocalyptic. Look at the state of the world today. Wars, pandemics, and a terrifying political climate have left people constantly on edge. But shouldn’t that mean that people want shows that are light and fluffy as an escape from the grim reality of the times we’re living in? Not necessarily.

The Worst Case Scenario

Most of the popular apocalyptic shows portray a world that has survived, in some way, the current threats that culture is facing taken to the worst case scenario. It’s comforting for people to see on screen the end game of some of the bigger threats that they are currently facing every day.

The Last Ship shows a world where the threat of constant world war has been realized. Orphan Black is set in a world where eugenics, biotech and gene editing have all been taken as far as they can go. The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead show a world where a pandemic has truly gotten out of control. Colony is set in a world where alien life has not only been found, it’s taken over. And The 100 show what it would be like to try and navigate the Earth after a nuclear holocaust. The Handmaid’s Tale shows what it would be like to live in a true religious totalitarian state.

Seeing what a picture of the world would look like if these threats that we already face were taken to the extreme is one way of dealing with the uncertainty of the world we live in today. Nothing is more terrifying than the unknown.

By constructing these model worlds that amplify the threats that are already here it gives us a clearer picture of what those worlds might be like. And if we can picture that scenario it becomes less frightening. By picturing it in hour doses of TV it becomes easier to compartmentalize that fear and manage it.

The Survival Of Humanity

These shows also provide comfort in how they portray the humanity of the survivors that exist in those worlds. The protagonists are almost exclusively idealized versions of ourselves. They are ordinary people who rise above the dire circumstances of the world to become better people.

They value love, loyalty and their commitment to each other. Even when they are faced with terrible choices and a fight to survive they retain and elevate the principles of humanity that as a culture we cling to. And if they can do it then we can do it too. When the end comes we can become better versions of ourselves, instead of worse. We watch to be inspired and reminded that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. We need that reminder on our screens because we’re not getting it anywhere else. The hope that we can beat the monsters without becoming the monsters. That ultimately it’s our faith in each other that is going to save us when the government, the military, and the other agencies we’ve constructed to give us that illusion of safety can’t.

Recovering A Sense Of Connection

Society, stripped down to the barest elements, is about personal connection. While technology has made us in some ways more connected than ever before it’s also increased the sense of personal isolation. Seeing groups of survivors who have never met band together to become a tightly knit community that will fight and die to keep that community going gives people hope that the sense of personal connection that they crave is still possible. And that they won’t be left to face the apocalypse alone.

There’s also a lot of connection that comes from joining the fandoms of these shows. Joining a fandom is like joining a clan. Fans join a worldwide community connected by their devotion to a show and technology. So they share the experience of visiting these fictional worlds. That creates a strong bond. Even though people in the fandom may sometimes disagree they will stand shoulder to shoulder against anything that threatens that community.

Dystopia Is The New Sitcom

Networks and streaming platforms are rushing to bring dystopian dramas to the screen . It’s very lucrative for them to tap into the current cultural fascination with the apocalypse. But as long as they continue to reach fans dystopia will be profitable. If networks can give fans strong storylines and characters that personify the drive for community and survival those shows will always have huge audiences.



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