Misery Porn

I’ve noticed a trend in a type of television drama; putting characters through the ringer, and not just the odd obstacle either, but events that inflict massive emotional trauma. Recently watching Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers, and Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch, it hit me how much television is willing to subject its characters to.

But this isn’t something new. Shows that I’ve loved over the years have all experimented with despair in one way or another; loved ones dying, debilitating injuries, emotional break-ups, losing jobs or experiencing some other kind of heavy loss. Game of Thrones, Deadwood, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica have all done it.

Sure we read the news everyday about the atrocities around the world. We hear of tragic events like the 2011 earthquake in Japan and the tens of thousands of deaths and say ‘that’s terrible’. But it’s more sympathy than empathy. It’s plain journalism, just facts. It’s hard for us to connect with. Stories, fact or fiction, can help us cross that barrier to empathy, and come close to feeling what they feel.

I’ve come across the term, ‘Misery Porn’, also known as ‘Misery Lit’ used to describe stories, mostly memoirs, about people enduring tragedy and overcoming great adversities. I see it as not unlike torture porn, but rather than people getting dismembered, we just can’t get enough of seeing people endure and break through a deep soul crushing depression.

It’s an interesting phenomenon I’m going to attempt to put into words.

Why is it we like seeing people in pain, or overcoming pain? Or more rather, why is it so gripping to watch? Some of us watch television to escape the misery from our own lives. Why subject ourselves to misery of the fictional variety?

Is it because we can empathise with the characters in their suffering? We feel the loss of Danny’s parents, and how Danny’s passing deeply affects everyone in the small town of Broadchurch.

Is it because it makes us feel good that they are having a worse time than us? How about Nora Durst losing her husband and two kids in the rapture-like event in The Leftovers. Does her coping mechanisms and appearing calm make her brave to us, handling something we could never dream of handling?

Or do we watch misery porn simply to feel something? Could the main reason I watch television be to feel? Have I become so numb in my waking life that the emotion these characters feel and express is some kind of catharsis? Is this an individual thing, or is it a collective experience? People keep watching this stuff so it must have an effect on people.

So I’ve raised more questions than actually providing answers. What do you think?

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