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Video Essay: Nihilism in television

Nihilism in television. I don’t think a label like nihilism can be
avoided. At all. If your art is even slightly gritty or dark,
it will latch onto it, whether it’s a film, a TV show, or a book. All throughout history, nihilism has been
a slur. It’s been used to describe things that are
considered grotesque, anarchic, suicidal, and dark. And that’s left it murky and ill-defined. So, today’s topic is: how do shows employ
nihilism, and how does it manifest? The current wave of shows are all examples
of what I call character-driven nihilism. This is where the show’s themes of despair
and meaninglessness all hinge on one or more characters. The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t the search for
meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant
nonsense. And eventually, you’ll be dead. And it usually plays out the same way, too. Have the rebellious, nihilistic character
say or do something contrary to the conventions of their world, and don’t let it backfire
significantly. Jerry’s going to spend some time divorced. Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, sweetie. I hope I had nothing to do with that. Oh, God, dad, that is not your burden to bear. But the nihilism stops there because the shows
appeal to grander narratives. In Rick and Morty’s instance, the grander
narrative is family. Rick loves his family, even going as far as
to get imprisoned for their freedom. In the first season of True Detective, Rust
Cohle encounters compassion from his partner and the two engage in a constant struggle
between light and dark. But when you have nihilism clashing too much
with the grander narratives, it gets awkward. The rebellious character ceases to have any
worthwhile opposition and can’t proclaim the moral high ground either. For example, Rick fights off every antagonist
with ease. You never once fear for him because he’s able
to think up plans to get out of his predicament. Or, he’s invincible even though he’s sixty
years old. And when he says things like. Listen, Morty, I hate to break it to ya, but
what people call love is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. Then this reaching for nihilism, or radicalism,
becomes just as silly as the convention it seeks to undermine. But hinging nihilism onto the characters is
just lazy. Every screenwriter can write a nihilist character
and every screenwriter can express despair or contrarianism through snappy dialogue. So, how does a show successfully establish
nihilism outside the characters? To find out, let’s turn to … I think Black
Mirror has four aspects that makes it the perfect carrier of nihilism. Firstly, the overarching nihilism in Black
Mirror finds itself in the show’s formal structure. Black Mirror is an episodic anthology, which
means it switches cast and storylines at every new episode. And this is a different approach from a show
like American Horror Story where the same stories and characters appear throughout an
entire season. Black Mirror’s quick change in cast makes
the characters empty vessels to drive forward the plot. And it renders the characters useless and
arbitrary. The horrific thing happening to one character
could happen to anyone. It doesn’t make their story any special. Secondly, there’s a lack of redemption. The characters never catch a break. The house in “Men Against the Fire”, the penal
system of “White Bear”, the release of devastating information in “Shut Up and Dance”, the relationship
in “Fifteen Million Merits”. The nonredemptive nature of the story makes
it unimportant whether the characters are flawed or not, or to which degree. The lack of redemption from absurdity overshadows
their entire arc. All their actions are futile. And thirdly, Black Mirror isn’t sentimental. There’s no connection to emotions, and if
there is, it’s shallow. In “Playtest”, the lady is nonchalantly told
to make a note of the fact that Cooper called his mum before dying. In “Nosedive”, empathy has been reduced to
whose side a person is on after a break-up. In “The National Anthem”, the response to
the prime minister’s action is quantified into what will happen to his ratings. And lastly, the relationships become superficial
and diffuse, which happens as everything is medialised on the show. Human interaction happens through technology. It sets the stage for everything, whether
through grains, a generated world after death, or a virtual reality game. It renders traditional relationships so vapid
they can’t stand on their own. Black Mirror tears down the grand narratives
of society, and replaces them with futility and despair, highlighting the show as a great
carrier of nihilism. Thank you for watching.

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