Are We Living in the Golden Age of Television?

Are we in the midst of an era when television is in its prime? Can it soar higher than it is now, or is it as good as it’s ever going to be? These are two questions that circulated through my mind after finishing the critically acclaimed first season of HBO’s Westworld (2016), a television show based on the 1973 movie of the same name. Westworld is about a fictional, western-themed amusement park where attendees (or “guests”) pay large sums of money to fulfill their darkest desires. In essence, the guests are permitted to murder or have sexual intercourse with the park’s “hosts,” human-like androids that occupy the park, while the “programmers” write the scripts for the hosts and control all of their behaviors.

Westworld is renowned for its thought-provoking examination of the relationship that mankind has with its own technology, and of key themes that include fate, free will, life, death, God, reincarnation, and the nature of human consciousness. I could spend hours—literally days—talking about these things, but keeping within the scope of this article, I will save that for another time.

I didn’t think Westworld could live up to the standards I’ve set for other shows that I hold such a high opinion of, but Season 1, Episode 10 (“The Bicameral Mind”) proved me wrong. In this 95 minute finale, the writers managed to deliver an unbelievably satisfying payoff to the preceding 9 hours I spent with the show, addressing almost every single inquiry into the world, characters, and narrative direction. Even better, almost every scene had its own “Shyamalanism,” a term I coined that describes how the revelation of a plot twist incentivizes an audience to re-watch a television show or movie to spot out the Easter eggs they didn’t notice the first time around. I won’t spoil anything here, but let’s just say that much like M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies, there are certain story bits in Westworld that you would easily overlook upon first watch, but would blow your mind upon a second or third watch. That is the mark of brilliant storytelling, because to truly deliver a satisfying payoff to any great piece of media, you have to display things in plain sight and subvert attention from them until they become relevant to the twists that you want to reveal.

I bring up Westworld because it’s one television show out of the dozens of high-grade shows that have come out in the past two decades. Between 1999 and today, we’ve gotten amazing shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Dexter, Prison Break, The Walking Dead, Black Mirror, Orange is the New Black, Narcos, Sherlock, Stranger Things, and my personal all-time favorite, Breaking Bad, which I consider to be the Mona Lisa of Television for its complex layered writing and exemplary character development. Let’s not forget the spin-off to Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, another show commonly considered to be golden entertainment.

So are we living in a golden age of television? As a matter of fact, we are. Don’t believe me? There is already a Wikipedia article aptly titled “Golden Age of Television (2000s–present).” Apparently, there was a golden age of T.V. in the 1950s as well, but the 2000s golden age is being dubbed the “New,” “Second,” or “Third Golden Age of Television” because of transformations in the way that we consume media. In addition, the critically acclaimed aforementioned shows have (each in their own right) changed the language of episodic filmography, effectively revolutionizing how stories are told on the small screen. After all, television is a language, and every good show has helped us see it as one.

But if film is a language and every language evolves with time, then what has modern television done to evolve the way in which it is being communicated? There is a long list of examples, but here is a condensed version: Breaking Bad was the first show to take a seemingly innocent and virtuous character, and transform him into a cold, calculating, and ruthless one. Dexter was the first show to make its audience root for, and empathize with, a serial killer. The Walking Dead was the first show to combine realistic human dramas with a zombie apocalypse. Game of Thrones was the first show to depict adult themes in a fantasy setting and regularly kill its lead characters. Stranger Things was the first show to successfully emulate ‘80s media. And finally, Orange is the New Black was the first show to make its side characters more interesting than the main character.

It might seem overly reductive to say that these shows were the “first of their kind,” and while that is true to a certain extent, they were unarguably the first of their kind in the modern era of television. That’s why we’re living in the New Golden Age of Television.

However, golden ages by definition don’t last forever, so when will we see television start to drop in overall quality? It’s hard to say, as it could be in another 10, 20, 40, or even 100 years. Nobody knows for certain, but what is certain is that if our beloved T.V. shows can continue raising the bar, they’ll never get boring.

Video: Why We Are Already Living in the Apocalypse: A Walking Dead Video Essay – Part 2 (Sanity)

Here is Part 2 of my 5 part Walking Dead video essay. Stick around for Part 3!

Video: Why We Are Already Living in the Apocalypse: A Walking Dead Video Essay – Part 1 (Power)

Here is Part 1 of my 5 part Walking Dead video essay. Stick around for Part 2!

Five Criticisms of “13 Reasons Why”

Note: Spoilers ahead for “13 Reasons Why.”

13 Reasons Why is a great show—possibly one of the better shows I’ve watched this year. However, I couldn’t help but walk away from it without expressing a few criticisms of the way it handled its subject matter. So what might these criticisms be?

Criticism 1: Too often, it ignores Hannah’s mental health problems.

I do not personally believe that the writers glamorized suicide, but I can understand both arguments. On the one hand, the show did an exemplary job at illustrating the long-term ramifications that suicide has on our relationships. On the other, it deceived the audience into thinking that Hannah’s suicide was a revenge ploy, when in fact it was the result of her deep-seated psychological issues (e.g.: depression, bipolar disorder, histrionic personality disorder, or PTSD) that went unabated.

Criticism 2: It makes it difficult to sympathize with Hannah.

It was difficult to feel sorry for Hannah when she wouldn’t speak up for herself. After being raped by Bryce, why didn’t she tell her parents, or anyone for that matter? If she had explained what happened to her, she could have gotten the help she needed and therefore turned Bryce in. Instead, she allowed her pain to consume her indefinitely, and that made it hard to root for her.

Criticism 3: It places undeserved blame on the other characters.

Clay and the guidance counselor did absolutely nothing wrong. Clay was punished because Hannah expected him to be a mind-reader, while the counselor was punished because he was unequipped to advise suicidal students. Both clearly overlooked obvious red flags that Hannah displayed, but that doesn’t make either of them responsible for her death. The same holds true for everyone else on the tapes, including Bryce.

Criticism 4: It overstates the unpleasantness of high school.

The fact that Hannah was unwilling to cope with petty interpersonal drama (something that we all put up with) means that she probably lacked the emotional resources to solve real problems. More importantly, the show implies that high school is the worst time in a person’s life when it isn’t. Life gets much harder after we’ve graduated high school, and thus in Season 2, the show needs to do a better job at depicting the challenges that we face beyond those relatively insignificant 4 years.

Criticism 5: It imposes unrealistic expectations upon its audience.

It seems that the main message of the show is to “be kind to everybody, because you never know what someone else is going through,” but you know what the fundamental flaw is with that logic? You can never be totally sure when you’re hurting someone else’s feelings. Sometimes, I treat people poorly when I don’t realize it, and the opposite is also true. I should not be expected to moderate my language at every moment of the day on the off chance that someone is going to commit suicide because of some stupid thing that I said.

Despite all of this negative feedback, I agree with the writers’ decision to ultimately display Hannah’s suicide on screen, because by not showing it, they would have downplayed its severity and taken away the whole point of the show.

Overall, I hope that 13 Reasons Why further encourages younger people to seek professional help by driving discussions on highly sensitive topics like suicide and sexual assault, and that Season 2 (if there is one) addresses the criticisms I’ve listed above.

Should The Walking Dead Have Toned down the Violence?

Disclaimer: This article is entirely opinionated, and will contain multiple spoilers from the Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. If you have not seen Season 7, Episode 1 of The Walking Dead yet, do not read this.

The extremely gruesome Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead set the Internet ablaze. Many long-time viewers withdrew their investment from the show, complaining that it went too far and perhaps crossed a point of no return. Following these complaints, the producers went on to tone down the violence for the rest of the season.

In a statement made by Gale Ann Hurd, he says,  “We were able to look at the feedback on the level of violence. We did tone it down for episodes we were still filming for later on in the season …  This is not a show that is torture porn, [we want to make sure] we don’t cross that line.”

First off, here’s how I feel about the episode. I loved “The Day Will Come When You Went Be” so much that I ranked as #2 in my Top 5 all-time favorite episodes in the series. I commended the three minute teaser of Rick pledging his allegiance to kill Negan, with Negan responding by dragging Rick into the R.V. to go on a road trip. Almost the entire Internet forgot the fact that directors like to play around with their T.V. shows’ timelines, and that they are fully entitled to do so. Are we going to pretend like this is a new trend? Plenty of episodes throughout the series have opened with flash-forwards. The most notable example that I can think of is Season 4, episode 16 (“A”), where the first minute shows a battered Rick covered in somebody else’s blood. Fifteen minutes later, Rick gets into an altercation with the Claimers and rips out a chunk of their leader’s neck with his teeth, leaving us right where the episode began. So no, flash-forwarding definitely isn’t a new trend.

While violent, Season 7, Episode 1 served a purpose in driving the show forward. It established the character of Negan as a ruthless, cruel, sadistic, depraved, sometimes comical, unrelenting authoritarian leader who uses violent coercion tactics to bend people to his will. That’s precisely who Negan is. The scene where Rick almost cut his son’s arm off was intent on getting him as well as the audience to obey Negan unconditionally. Despite that Rick didn’t actually chop Carl’s arm off, the sequence demonstrated that in an apocalyptic context, it’s people like Negan who resort to extreme measures in the name of survival.

When it was finally revealed that, indeed, Abraham took the beating, I wasn’t all that surprised, yet I also hated to see him check out. The only complaint I have here is that Abe’s death, well, wasn’t as violent as I expected. It would have been nice to see Lucille convert his head into nothing but ground-up meat, but alas this is television and you can only get so violent before you create serious psychological problems for your viewers.

But Negan’s second victim really struck some emotional chords, and this is where things became controversial. Daryl, in a fit of blind rage, got up and punched Negan in the jaw, who then exacted further punishment on the group by turning around and striking a clean blow to Glenn. Here, what disturbed the audience so deeply was not Daryl’s blatant stupidity in trying to fight back, but the uncompromising reductive and degrading nature of Glenn’s termination. Glenn, one of the few remaining moralistic members of the group and a character that has been present in the show since the first episode, was reduced to nothing but another piece of meat, with his skull caved in and his left eye popping out. That’s messed up–really messed up. I was amazed at how AMC was allowed to get away with displaying such morbidity, yet at the same time, the ultra-violence didn’t bother me because I understand that this is supposed to be a horror show.

I’m infuriated that the producers toned down the violence. This is a show where people get torn apart and eaten while they’re still alive. It’s proven itself to be a lot more graphic in the past. Why should a few complaints ruin it for the rest of us? I’ve tried explaining that the reason Glenn’s death was especially traumatizing was because he had been in the show for so long. To watch him struggle to utter his last few words to Maggie with his left eye popping out of his skull was, and should be, scarring, but it shouldn’t necessitate a scaling back in one of the most fundamental elements of the show: the violence.

Am I just desensitized to gore and carnage at this point? Most likely. Either way, I’m looking forward to the second half of Season 7. I’m always excited for what Negan will do and say next.

Are Multiplayer Videogames Dehumanizing?

“To rend one’s enemies is to see them not as equals, but objects—hollow of spirit and meaning.”

―Destiny (2014), In-game description of Exotic weapon Thorn

Thorn used to be one of the most loathed Exotic weapons in all of Destiny’s multiplayer. The Hand Cannon was so detestable that people felt offended whenever they were killed by it, complaining that it was a “noob’s weapon” that took no real skill to use. They would send you hate messages, rant about it on the forums, and even use the weapon itself to stoop to the level of its offenders. You would know when you were killed by Thorn, too, as getting hit by it twice to the head or three times to the body would cause your screen to turn into a mucky greenish color while your character slowly died from the weapon’s damage over time effect.

Bungie’s Hell spawn that was the Thorn was unarguably the most obnoxious weapon to ever plague the fronts of competitive multiplayer, but I couldn’t help but think that this obnoxious quality was what made it so enjoyable to use in the first place. During the five months when Thorn was in its prime, the time when everyone used the weapon to their sadistic pleasure, I too derived profound enjoyment from the poison effects and inevitable slow and humiliating deaths that would follow.

The widespread abuse of the Thorn brought to mind a broader question regarding the nature of online competition: do multiplayer videogames unknowingly cause people to lose touch with their more compassionate sides? In other words, do they diffuse empathy to where people become indifferent to the pain experienced by their virtual opponents?

Multiplayer videogames practically dominate the market right now—Halo, Battlefield, Call of Duty, TitanfallDestiny, and Overwatch are among the most popular and widely recognizable of the bunch. To answer the question of whether these types of games decrease empathy and increase indifference, I inquired as to why they’re so popular and how they affect perceptions of human emotions beyond just the immaterial game world. I arrived at a couple of interesting conclusions.

First, multiplayer videogames have gained traction as both an entertainment medium and as a way of relieving stress because they satisfy a primitive urge to compete against and weed out the weaker members of our own species. They appeal to man’s darker qualities such as greed, selfishness, and aggression.

If you are unfamiliar with Skill-Based Matchmaking, the idea is that if you adjust matchmaking parameters enough so that weak players get matched up against other weak players, and the strong against the strong, you appeal to a more generalized audience of casual players and thus sell more copies of your game. From a business standpoint, this makes sense. However, SBMM is actually counterintuitive to the principles of intraspecies competition (competition that occurs within a species as opposed to between two species) since the strong will always prey on the weak. In evolutionary terms, this is comparable to killing a weaker member of your own hunting tribe just so you can eat that extra piece of meat and stay alive yourself. It’s an intrinsically motivated act of selfishness.

Another explanation for why people are so drawn to multiplayer videogames as an outlet for aggression is that, plain and simple, they don’t have to worry about the consequences of murdering people in cold blood. Think of it this way: when you defeat an opponent in a multiplayer match, to you they are nothing more than an avatar stripped of virtually all human qualities. They are a cheeky and elusive moving target, or a bundle of pixels generated by your television screen. They are a virtual punching bag that you can slam on, beat, stab, humiliate, demean, and degrade to your heart’s content, and all without a single consequence to bare. Who wouldn’t take sick pleasure in that? I know I certainly have.

Yet when we give it a second thought, we start to realize that in control of that avatar, that cheeky moving target, that bundle of pixels, is a real person. A living entity with thoughts, feelings, memories, goals, dreams, aspirations, and heartbreaks. Have you considered that, beyond all of that bloodshed and mass chaos in Battlefield’s “Conquest” mode, someone is feeling a little hurt, even if they’re thousands of miles away from you?

By now, you probably think this article is a glorified criticism of multiplayer videogames. It’s far from it. Personally, I’ve invested hundreds of hours into Halo Reach, Destiny, and the Modern Warfare series. I have no qualm with these games; I love them. At the same time, I do have a few regrets about how I’ve treated my opponents over the years. I have tea-bagged, viciously wailed on corpses, and shouted vile obscenities over the microphone. Even today I display these behaviors out of compulsion but not intent. Nonetheless, I’m writing this article to attest to how our treatment of strangers over the Internet, despite the anonymity, still matters and that we should practice better sportsmanship. Just because they live halfway across the world doesn’t mean they deserve to be treated any differently from you or me.

And so, coming back to the question of whether multiplayer videogames decrease empathy and increase indifference, the answer is yes they do, but only if our behavior is left unrestrained. We can easily lose touch with our compassion, but we also have to remember that we can activate it when it’s needed.

I think I’ll just stick to RPGs.