*Disclaimer: May include spoilers on your favorite TV shows*
When we’re young, we’re taught that our actions have consequences: quid pro quo, cause and effect, or karma, the lesson is the same. It is supposed to ground our lives in reality by appreciating the weight and alleged ‘lasting impact’ behind our actions (#woke).
This can be thought to make TV more fascinating and exciting: where every action is freed from reaction, a world of absolute exemption. The showrunner controls not only the narrative, but also the world in which the show takes place, thus attaching as much or as little weight as they wish to any character’s actions. A simple example of this would be the character of Kenny in South Park: he is killed off in a variety of ways each episode and yet always comes back in the next one like nothing happened, the show not bothering to address the fact of his resurrection. Thus the viewer does not attach any importance to Kenny’s death other than the casual chuckle as he gets blown up or run over.
Some could say it’s TV’s impunity that makes it such a great form of escapism for viewers. To get lost in a world (or a series of worlds for the Netflix binge-watchers out there) where characters face no consequences for their actions. A world that looks like our own but is detached from the logic and gravity that operates in ours.
However, taken to its fullest extent, one realizes that TV is not totally free of consequences. Trends can be seen in viewer habits which imply that people are more interested in shows where actions carry lasting effects/repercussions;there’s nothing interesting in watching hours and hours of a show where nothing really happens, at least nothing of permanent effect. Take The Walking Dead for example: running for almost 10 years now, the show has given us a full education on the zombie anatomy and how you can use almost anything as a weapon. However in this past decade its viewership has gone down, it’s latest season premiere being reportedly the lowest in series history.
The truth is, The Walking Dead isn’t interesting because it rarely kills off any character of importance, so whenever we find our protagonist Rick Grimes surrounded by a horde of hungry zombies or Darryl Dixon up close with a walker, we have no reason to care simply because we know that they are too ‘central’ to the show to be killed off. For this same reason we lack any empathy for the group of new characters brought in each season, knowing all too well that they are to be this season’s fresh zombie meat. Aside from a lot of shooting, switching from different places which seem like but are definitely not safe havens, and melodramatic arguing, The Walking Dead is so out of touch with reality that it’s hard for us as the viewers to care.
Instead, part of what has attracted such great viewership to shows like Game of Thrones is volatility. As showrunners have shown,just because a show is based on a book series doesn't mean that any character on the show should be considered ‘safe’. Volatility introduces unpredictability, which is the excitement we get out of binge-watching and staying up to date with these shows. To have one of your key protagonists killed off in your first season and still manage to have viewers tune in every week not only shows creativity, it shows courage.
A common argument that could be raised against this shift against shows with impunity is sitcoms. Characters in sitcoms generally escape the consequences of their actions from episode to episode. You can start watching The Big Bang Theory or The Office at any point in their multiple seasons and, truth is,you won’t miss much at all. It’s part and parcel of the genre that sitcoms aren’t trying to develop narratives but instead expose characters to absurd circumstances or record the characters’ absurd reactions to everyday circumstances for comedic effect.
But once again, it would be wrong to say that sitcoms are completely devoid of any consequentialism in the long-run of the show. Take How I Met Your Mother, a show centered around one narrative spread across 8 seasons within which many mini-stories take place for comedic effect. A source of great frustration for many viewers was the show’s repetitive teasing of Robin being Ted’s bride-to-be, something all too obvious to the viewer but still fitting to the narrative the showrunners attempted to build. And yet, despite all this teasing, the showrunners decided to whip up a last-minute actress to be Ted’s bride, someone totally absent from the previous 7 seasons and with little to no backstory, only for her to then die and cause Ted to go running back to Robin for another chance. In effect, the show's impunity allowed it to be entirely circular, ending right where the viewer started and making for an incredibly frustrating finale. We can see sitcoms featuring consequential junctures in the show’s run -- not so much in terms of developing a narrative, but for character development. While nothing has really changed in The Big Bang Theory’s storyline, one can notice the character development in Sheldon and the gang, exiting their deeply geeky and introverted shells and becoming more social with the help of romantic interests introduced throughout the seasons.
All in all, impunity in TV is a funny thing, and if what we watch tells us anything, it’s that the attraction to a world freed from liability of our own actions is nothing more than skin deep. We appreciate the weight attached to our actions and the meaning we derive from those actions. To this end, one could argue we watch shows with those same constraints to further our understanding of liability and of the human condition.
In the words of English philosopher Alan Watts, if we had the ability to dream our life for the next 75 years, we would end up ‘dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today’ simply because a life where you have total control over what happens next or are freed from the effects of what happens is no fun life at all.
Because life would be no fun at all if everything was planned and controlled, or if every action was freed from reaction. When watching TV, some of us look to turn our minds off and be entertained, others look to gain a better understanding of the world around them, and then there are those who watch to learn more about the human condition. It is true that no viewer is the same and this article does not refute that truth. However, if we look at the shows that keep us tuning in every week, whether they be set in a world filled with dragons, or zombies, or cartoon characters, and why they keep us coming back for more, we find our involvement in a pursuit beyond cheap gags and action. We find ourselves on a pursuit for understanding and meaning beyond that what we have by our own circumstances and that which we share with our environment around us.