“You’re putting me in a position where I’m feeling sorry for a whore who fucks you?”
– Carmela Soprano, The Sopranos
I used to think of myself as a good person. I hold doors open for strangers, I always make sure to say “Bless you,” “Please” and “Thank you” whenever the situation calls for it and I actually press the “Open Door” button on an elevator if I see someone running toward one, instead of just looking at my feet and letting the door slam shut as the person scurries down the hall in a desperate, but ultimately futile, attempt to make it in time.
However, I’m slowly discovering that I may not actually the nice guy I thought I was. Under and behind and inside everything I’ve taken for granted, something horrible has been growing. Television is slowly rotting away my soul. Prolonged exposure to that magic box has eroded my morals to a point where I find myself openly rooting for people who are reprehensible and wishing continued pain upon emotionally-damaged people who are trying to put their shattered lives back together.
I began to realize this fact when I recently plowed through all three seasons of Breaking Bad. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the premise, it’s a show about Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with cancer, begins cooking crystal meth to stockpile enough money to pay for his treatment and to provide for his family after he is gone. As the show progresses, Walter slides further and further down the rabbit hole, heading down a path of violence and corruption and making a series of appalling decisions that become harder and harder to rationalize. As a viewer, you are with him the whole way, rooting for him to evade police and to take out any rival drug dealers that get in his way.
Eventually Walt’s wife Skyler discovers his secret and decides to divorce him. There is a scene where she is sitting in her lawyer’s office telling her attorney that Walter is a meth dealer. Skyler is conflicted; she wants to protect herself and her two children, but doesn’t want Walt to go to jail. The lawyer tries to convince her that the best move is to go to the police immediately. It’s the right advice. It’s what any impartial observer would tell a mother of two whose husband is a meth dealer. And yet, while I was watching the episode, having Skyler go to the police is the last thing I want to see happen. I wanted Walt to evade capture so that he can could to manufacture and sell meth.
It only got worse from there. By the end of season three, the show had me rooting for a kindhearted and troubled character with qualms about murder to gun down an innocent man in order to keep Walter in the meth-cooking business. What the hell has happened to my moral compass?
And it’s not just Breaking Bad that has caused me to lose my way. AMC’s other big show, Mad Men, has me rooting for an adulterous, alcoholic liar who found a loophole that allowed him to screw over a company that generously bought out him and the rest of his firm. Don Draper is a horrible human being, but I still love him.
Of course, both of these shows pale in comparison to the other show Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner wrote for – The Sopranos. Walter White and Don Draper are bad guys, but they are practically Boy Scouts compared to Tony Soprano. Tony lied, cheated and stole at every turn. He murdered people without hesitation. He openly cheated on his wife, but came close to hitting her when he found out she cheated on him. He said racist things to his children. He threatened his own mother while she was being wheeled away on a stretcher after an apparent stroke. His own therapist eventually began to question whether or not he was a sociopath. And yet, I spent six seasons rooting for the guy.
I’ve cheered for 24’s Jack Bauer while he did things to suspects that I wouldn’t even wish upon Jimmy Fallon. When Major Bunny Colvin took it upon himself to legalize drugs in “Hamsterdam” and when Stringer Bell came up with a more organized and civil way to structure his criminal enterprise on The Wire, I rooted for them both to succeed. And, for four seasons, I’ve greatly enjoyed watching serial killer Dexter Morgan murder and dismember his victims.
Making matters worse, there are shows where I actually find myself rooting for things to happen to characters that are not in their best interest. I want Dr. Gregory House, who went to rehab and therapy, to continue to being a pill-popping, selfish, closed-off asshole because it makes for better television. Same thing with Tommy Gavin on Rescue Me – I want his sobriety to fail and his marriage to fall apart because it’s more fun to watch.
Why does TV do this to me? Why am I so willing to root for reprehensible characters who I would never want to run into in real life? Why do I root for failure and experience schadenfreude when fictional people’s lives fall apart? Why can I sign off on torture and drug trafficking and murder so easily when it’s presented in the confines of a fictional program?
Am I truly a bad person? Has TV completely dismantled my moral compass? Or is it possible that I watch these shows to vent my frustrations and cathartically let go of evil thoughts by focusing them on fictional characters so that I can continue living my life as a nice guy who opens doors and holds elevators for strangers?
I’m a columnist, not a psychiatrist, so I’m really not qualified to answer these questions. But either way, for the time being, I think I’m going to take a break from these dark places and instead focus my attention on the new season on Top Chef. At least on that show, the worst thing I’m hoping will happen is that someone overcooks a soufflé.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.