Emmys 2012 Preview: How Breaking Bad and Mad Men Killed the Age of Innocence in Television

It’s amazing how much you can learn about humankind from our pop culture.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the trend of epic adventure novels and the emergence of Science Fiction tell of a hopeful world looking into the future, excited about the paths we could take going on. After the World War I happened, though, things weren’t so cheery anymore. Civilization had a run-in with brutality of a scale never imagined before, and we found in ourselves a capacity for evil that we didn’t know was there. 

We started writing about grim detectives (Philip Marlowe, The Continental Op), shady vigilantes (The Shadow, The Spider), violent barbarians (Conan, Red Sonja), and technology suddenly didn’t seem to be on our side anymore, what with all the mad scientists who antagonized our favorite heroes (Lex Luthor, Dr. Silvana, etc). 

Then you had the post-WWII, where paranoia dominated our thoughts and The End seemed nigh. The new heroes were born out of radiation (Spider-Man), and battled not out of a sense of philantropism, but out of guilt.

Of course, it isn’t all that cut-and-dry. There was plenty of horror in the 19th century (The works of Poe, Shelley), and plenty of hopeful science fiction after the bomb (Star Trek), but, taking a gander at the most successful cultural tendencies of a particular time, one can have a pretty clear picture of what was going on outside the realms of fiction. Take a look at the contestants for the Emmy this year, for instance.

It wasn’t so long ago that sitcoms were mostly about wholesome families (Step by Step) or quirky friendship (Cheers) where nothing very tragic happened and it was all in good fun. The invariable rebel character wasn’t there to defy the status quo, but to convince the others to loosen up a little and enjoy life without worrying too much.

Now, every sitcom has a dark undercurrent about it, even the cuddly ones. Big Bang Theory, one of the series nominated in this year’s “Comedy” category, is about a group of social rejects that try to cope with life outside their limited boundaries of D&D and computer codes. Parks and Recreation is about a dysfunctional work environment of a small public department. 30 Rock is all kinds of screwed up, and even the bubbly New Girl centers around a school teacher who gets dumped by her boyfriend and has to live with complete strangers.

And don’t even get me started on the drama category. No more Xena The Warrior Princess, kiddo, fantasy now is dark and violent, with lots of backstabbing politics and female milk dispensers. Yes, I’m talking about Game of Thrones, the mega-hit from HBO. Sword and sorcery have taken a turn into the realms of gritty, and you can’t have your dragons and knights without a side order of bitter realism.

Breaking Bad? You better watch it hooked to an IV drip of Prozac if you want to get through an episode without having to resort to Crystal Meth yourself.

Mind you, I’m not saying any of these shows are bad. I had to cut off my aorta in order to make a big enough room in my heart for Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones ... Well, OK, I don’t like that one that much, but it’s still fun to watch.

What I’m saying is that the age of innocence is over. The kids who watched Xena growing up are now adults and have faced the grim facts of life. They still love medieval fantasy, but they can’t be disingenuous about the nature of man.

Mad MenBoardwalk EmpireHomeland. All of these series indicate we’re living in a period of deep cynicism and silent despair, of a feeling of powerlessness before an uncaring Leviathan of a world. We can’t crack jokes without spiking them with sarcasm or giving them a coat of the ol' “off-color” paint. The Simpsons has turned into Family GuyThe Rugrats have become South Park. We opened the door to adulthood and were met with a closed fist to the face. We aren’t in a good mood. But still, it makes for better television than goddamn Full House.