Bloomberg View | Megan McArdle | Why Is the Golden Age of Television So Dark?I think this is why high school dramas remain and will remain popular. To adolescents — even the ones who see through the ridiculous facade to the vapidity and impermanence underlying — everything is vitally important. You might realize on some level that who makes the baseball team or who you go to the dance with or how well you do on you History final isn't actually that important, but that's not the way it feels to you. Adolescence gives a story-teller built-in stakes.
Crime and war are the only two places where the stakes are still life and death, or exile. War has been, um, done to death, and it’s expensive to shoot well. So what makes the perfect television drama for the novelty-seeking sophisticate? A crime drama -- told from the point of view of the criminal
I think McArdle is definitely on to something here. Stakes matter a lot. I'd also endorse the end of the 'graph I quoted above:
... often a criminal with a surprisingly ordinary, bourgeois domestic life, which serves to heighten the novelty. Not to mention the dramatic tension offered by a secret life.I'd add another factor to the explanation though: television's inferiority complex. The TV industry has spent decades as "the idiot box," "the vast wasteland," etc. At best TV has been Film's idiot little brother, and Film itself carried the stigma of being "not really art" into my lifetime. I don't think it's a coincidence that HBO got the modern TV renaissance off the ground and that this was their tagline:
They wanted to distance themselves from TV, the "chewing gum for the mind." Hence the enthusiasm initially for shows which are "gritty," "dark," "morally ambiguous," "ethically uncomfortable," etc.
Throw on top of that the follow-the-leader way that media is developed, and you get an (almost) self-sustaining crop of dark shows.