When Bad Things Happen on Good TV

Fox image for Sarah Connor Chronicles TV is traditionally a protected domain.  It is governed by the convention that governs much of children's literature: bad things do not happen here.

When bad things does happen on TV, it is merely to give the protagonistic the occasion to triumph over an antagonist.  In this case, bad things exist only so that good things may flourish.  

This means TV can't ever entertain tragic knowledge.  TV can't ever entertain the possibility that some part of the human condition as flawed beyond the possibility of redemption or amieloration.  TV Land is benign.

But on the The Sarah Conner Chronicles, life's a nightmare, then you die.  There is something fantastically dour about this show.  The characters know they are doomed in the short term or the long. Even if good wins out over evil, the world will still be reduced to rubble.  But the hope of triumph is slender at the best of times, and incredible all the rest of the time.  

I don't remember this tone in the original Terminator films.  And this might be proof of Robert Thompson's argument that TV, once the bastard child of film, is able to take on bigger question.  It would also be an interesting study in Henry Jenkins' notion of transmedia. 

In a recent episode of House, Dr. Eric Foreman (Omar Epps) kills a patient in his effort to save her. There is a horrible scene in which he begs her forgiveness and she refuses it.  Normally, of course, this is an opportunity for the exercise of "human understanding and redemption."  On TV, generally this means quite a lot of string work and tears as we all take a moment to reflect on how much fundamental goodness there is in the human spirit.  Not this time.  In this episode, the patient says something like "You fucked up.  You killed me."

In general, this sort of thing says that not only is popular culture getting more complicated.  (See the argument of Steven Johnson here.)  But that it is now prepared to take up seriousness and even darkness that generally speaking never made it into any of the many episodes of Murder, She Wrote or those B movies that end with a monkey doing something comical while everyone laughs a rather too heartily.  

This would argue for the argument that says that popular culture is getting more like culture.  

Post script.  In a recent Conner Chronicles there was a reference to a tortoise that sounds very like the reference to the tortoise that appears in Blade Runner.  Can anyone confirm or elicidate?  

Post post script: The Sarah Connor Chonicles is on today at 8:00.  Please do check in out.  It's numbers are down and, as I say, it's really just tremendously good fun.  

Post post script: Anyone interested in what feminism means for popular culture must watch this show.  


See the Wikipedia entry on the show: here.

For a clip from the Fox website: here .


Thanks to Fox TV for the image of Sarah Connor as played by Lena Headey.  

6 thoughts on “When Bad Things Happen on Good TV

  1. John F.

    The tortoise reference was very much deliberate. At least one of the writers on the show confirmed it.

  2. niko

    is this not something that has been slowly growing ever since se7ev (movie) let evil triumph over good and shows like soprano’s, the wire, generation kill, and even the comedy hit californication have taken over the role of truth to power from cinema during the late 60’s and 70’s?

    Tv follows money and the back-end (dvd’s, reruns, webdeals) for quality is now growing. the lifespan/age of tv shows has grown (up), so it’s not just about getting laid and high schools proms, it’s about the harships of knocking up your highschool sweetheart and living the life you so wanted to avoid.

    a bit like when you listen to born to run(album) and then darkness on the egde of town (album)..

  3. Tom

    While I would agree that T:TSCC is a dark-themed show, there are still times when it displays human warmth and decency. (The scene in the season 1 finale when Derek takes John to the park to see his father, for example.) In addition, there is also humor, albeit of a dry, sardonic variety.
    It’s actually a good thing that series television is becoming more complex. Life is complex. People are complex. You don’t just reset everything at the end of the episode. Every decision you make, every person you meet, every action you take, changes you. This is what being human is all about. The fact that some shows are beginning to reflect this strikes me as evidence that TV as a storytelling medium is maturing.

  4. Sam Ford

    Good post, Grant, but I would point out that, in many ways, this has been the staple of television’s oldest genre: the soap opera. On soaps, because there is no central character but rather an ensemble community of 30-40 characters, the idea of antagonist and protagonist is obliterated. You’re left with someone potentially a protagonist in one scene and an antagonist in the next. And you’re often left to marvel at the pure agony of people’s situations. Because the soap opera is a never-ending story, even moments of happiness prepare us for misery. Nothing’s more hopeless than a soap opera wedding. More than likely, it will be interrupted and ruin, leaving bride in tears or groom abandoned at the altar. In the rare event the couple makes it through the ceremony intact, we know that the trouble will probably start the next day. Soap couples rarely get a chance to be happy, even for a honeymoon. Couples that want to have children will probably be unable to conceive, or at least have significant trouble. Couples who don’t want children, or who sleep together on a one night stand, have a high risk of getting pregnant in one shot. No genre out there is more fundamentally about misery.

    I believe that’s part of what has attracted viewers to the soap opera for decades. We admire the characters not because most of them are essentially good people or that we’re “behind them” but rather that we’ve seen them survive all that life’s had to throw at them for decades. If they can survive all that more or less intact, than any misery life throws at us might not be so bad.

    As a caveat, I think this is what Friday Night Lights accomplishes, and one could muse if this subject might be one of the reasons both soaps and FNL have struggled in the ratings. I bought my father and mother FNL season one for Christmas last year. Dad said that he liked the show but working for a company that makes wood products for home building has left him only working four days a week, and he found the show a little too depressing for his current situation. I think that, if he’d watched a few episodes, he’d realize that it has the same effect that soaps does in some ways: leaving you with an amazement that the town of Dillon, Texas, stands and even thrives in its own way, despite the dire straits all its characters are in…The recent story arcs on that show that gives two key characters somewhat miraculous send-offs as they achieve the unlikely was inspiring but a little outside the realm of what that show usually does, giving us not what we hope for but what we’re afraid will happen…Perhaps a little inspiration never hurt anybody, but I think it’s a show that thrives most when it demonstrates life’s imperfection.

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