Have you ever finished an episode of television and felt confused about the message you were supposed to take away? Sometimes, the message is a depressing one, and other times it’s one that feels morally questionable at best. Every time we watch television, we internalize something about what it is trying to tell us. Sometimes audiences completely misinterpret what the showrunners are trying to say, and others the actual message that's being delivered is completely messed up.
Of course, the underlying message of a television show is always up for interpretation, and there will always be debate about what any given show is trying to tell us. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to engage with what a show seems to be saying, and try to figure out what that message means for us as we live our lives. All good art is designed to communicate something, and sometimes the thing being communicated is kind of messed up. Here are 15 TV Shows With Messed Up Messages.
15 Arrested Development
Arrested Development can be hard to watch. Part of that’s intentional. The show is designed to make the viewer feel as uncomfortable as possible, and it pushes the boundaries of comfort in that pursuit. None of its characters are really likable people. The show’s aware of this, and actively works to make the characters more loathsome for audiences.
Because the characters tend to be fairly awful people, they regularly break many of the taboos and social norms that govern polite society. Like Seinfeld, the show derives much of its humor from watching these awful people be awful.
At least in Arrested Development’s case, the show feels self-aware. It knows that these people are rude and vulgar, but it also asks us to laugh at them. In some ways, these rude characters are pitiful, and the fact that the show forces us to laugh at them suggests a reliance on humor at the expense of human beings, even if they are awful.
14 Bojack Horseman
Bojack Horseman is about a man/horse who is dead-set on ruining every good thing about his own life. This isn’t a conscious desire he has, but it’s what’s motivated him through the show’s first three seasons, and it’s made watching the show emotionally taxing. The overriding message of Bojack seems to be based around the idea that depression is crippling, and escaping it can prove to be nearly impossible.
While Bojack often attempts to provide rays of hope for the audience, these hopes are all inevitably dashed by Bojack himself, a character who seems almost incapable of escaping from his own worst instincts. Many of the show’s supporting characters are more together, but even they have neuroses that keep them from being truly happy.
Bojack Horseman is about people (and animals) who are searching for happiness and fulfillment, and the show suggests those things are almost impossible to come by. Binge watch, anyone?!
When you first watch Pokemon, it seems like a harmless kid’s show. It’s about young people who capture animal like creatures called Pokemon and force them to battle against one another. As soon as you think about that for even a minute, you realize how deeply disturbing that idea is. Essentially, it’s dog fighting by a different name.
Of course, it’s hard to square that idea with the image the show presents. After all, the show’s central characters are children, and it often seems like the Pokemon enjoy their relationships with the humans who have captured them. Of course, that reasoning is flimsy at best.
For one thing, it could be a version of Stockholm syndrome, or for another, it could be that the Pokemon have simply adjusted to their every day reality. Whatever the case may be, it’s almost definitely true that the Pokemon should by all rights be free, and that holding them in captivity and forcing them to fight is wrong, even if they seem to enjoy it.
12 Breaking Bad
While Breaking Bad may be one of the great television experiences of the 21st century, that doesn’t mean that its morals aren’t questionable. After all, the show follows a rather average chemistry teacher who gradually descends into the heart of the world of meth dealing. This move on its own is one that has been executed on TV before, but the problem with Breaking Bad’s message is the way many seem to have received it.
Instead of seeing Walter White as a deplorable figure who abused everyone around him in order to get what he wanted, many fans actively rooted for Walter and were upset when other characters interfered with his grand plans. The hatred of his wife Skyler was particularly toxic, and suggested that some fans didn’t understand how horrible Walter was being to his family. Even if he claimed to be doing it for them, we should all have known that wasn’t really the case.
11 Black Mirror
It’s easy to see why sci-fi fans would enjoy watching Black Mirror, but there’s no denying that the show’s vision is incredibly dark. Black Mirror sees the evolution of technology as a terrifying development, one that has already fundamentally changed our relationships and the way that they operate. Whether each of Black Mirror’s isolated episodes take place inside of a strange dystopia or within a world resembling our own, each one of them has something familiar in it, some quality that makes them seem deeply true and terrifying.
The way Black Mirror operates, it often seems as though the show is pointing out that humans have interacted with one another the same way for hundreds of years. With the introduction of social media, television, and a new level of interconnectedness, things have fundamentally changed, and it’s not clear what the end result will be just yet. Black Mirror imagines the darkest possible future, and serves as a warning for those of us who take technology lightly.
The protagonists of Seinfeld are not nice. They’re mean to most of the people they meet, and often feel entitled to things that are completely unreasonable. The show points this out ironically during its series finale, when it parades a treasure trove of characters that Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer were cruel to over the course of the show as witnesses against them at their trial. Still, this acknowledgement of the terribleness of the show’s central characters doesn’t go nearly far enough to address the show’s central problems.
It turns out, we like to laugh at people who point out things that should never really be said out loud. The characters on Seinfeld are willing to say things that poke at and sometimes breakdown the social niceties that define our culture, but in doing so it becomes clear just how rude they really are. We grow to love this quartet of misfits over the course of the show’s run, but that in and of itself is problematic, because they’re pretty terrible people.
9 Horace and Pete
Louis C.K. has always had a nihilistic streak, and that was never more true than it is in Horace and Pete, which strips away most of his comedic tendencies and lets him create a much more depressing world. The show follows two brothers who run a bar together, and uses that simple device to examine the way people treat one another in the 21st century.
Unfortunately, the things Horace and Pete discovers about modern humanity are rather dire. Most of the show’s central figures lead fairly miserable lives, and most of them realize this. The central question of the series is whether these lives are worth living, and while the answer seems to be yes, the show’s bleak ending suggests things may not be so simple. Horace and Pete exists in a world where people live lives in search of hope, even as the audience understands that they may never really find it.
8 Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones is often a fun show, and it’s often funny as well, but both of these things hide a much darker truth about the world that the show exists within. While it may seem like Game of Thrones contains many of the trappings of a typical fantasy story, these trappings are used here to examine the reasons humans are often so violent to one another.
Even as the show follows the human story of each of its characters, it also works to suggest that their focus on each other is a mistake. There’s a more existential threat coming; one that some of the show’s main characters don’t even believe exists. Instead, they’re focused on one another, even if the conflicts between them seem rather petty. Of course, that’s the point. People kill each other for dumb reasons. Sometimes, it seems like they do it just to stave off boredom.
UnREAL is about as jaded as TV gets. The show follows the production team behind a show reminiscent of The Bachelor, and it uses this device to show us just how screwed up and manipulative these producers have to be in order to produce the kind of drama that viewers crave. Without even mentioning how casually sexist the show is, it becomes abundantly clear that the characters on UnREAL are terrible people.
Over the course of the first season alone, they’re responsible for a suicide, and the destruction of girl after girl who dares to defy them in any way. The characters at the show’s center argue that all this manipulation and pain is for the good of the show, as if that somehow justifies the horrible decisions they make. What makes UnREAL so twisted is that we come to understand these women, even as we see the damage that they leave in their wake.
6 The Wire
While there are moments in The Wire that seem to offer hope, the show as a whole is much more interested in the way local institutions fail the people they are ostensibly there to serve. Even those who promise meaningful change are unable to deliver, and that’s because The Wire suggests that the systems of government are broken in a way that’s almost impossible to fix.
Everything on this show is cyclical, and every character works to explain a particular aspect of life in Baltimore, Maryland. As we learn about how corruptible every day people are, we come to understand how impossible it is to make any sort of lasting change. Everything from our schools to our police department is filled only with people who are doing their best, and that’s rarely enough to fix the problems that plague the city.
The Wire doesn’t offer any solutions. Instead, it points to a problem and simply argues that somehow, some day, it needs to be fixed.
5 13 Reasons Why
There’s some controversy about whether 13 Reasons Why is problematic, but there are some out there who argue that its mystery plotline, which revolves around the suicide of a teenage girl, actually glamorizes suicide. The argument stems from the idea that this girl’s suicide becomes something of a mystery for the show’s central characters, one that gives it the same kind of allure that often accompanies other mysteries.
Of course, in this case, the mysteries are much more personal. It’s a series of events that led to instability, and 13 Reasons Why sometimes turns it into something less intimate than it should be. Of course, there are those that argue in favor of the show’s depiction, claiming that it’s an exercise in empathy that allows us to understand the mind of someone who was horribly misunderstood while she was still alive. It’s created something of a controversy, and as with most controversies, people on both sides of the argument have some points, but depicting the suicide of a teenage girl on screen definitely sends a strong message.
4 House of Cards
Politics has always been a struggle for power, but that doesn’t make House of Cards’ depiction of Washington D.C. any less depressing. The Underwoods, the power couple at the center of House of Cards, are out and out criminals who do whatever they must in order to attain more power. They destroy everything in their wake, and don’t really care about the number of lives they have ruined.
The worst thing about House of Cards, though, is that Frank and his wife Claire have gotten away with almost every evil act they’ve attempted over the course of the show. The picture the show paints, one of a Washington D.C. ruled by the worst of the worst, isn’t exactly one that encourages normal people to pursue active roles inside of government. Instead, it suggests that those inside government are more interested in power than anything else, and will do almost anything to get their hands on more of it.
When Hannibal Lecter was first introduced to audiences in Silence of the Lambs, it was strange to see how likable he could be, even as we understood that he was a truly despicable person. Hannibal, the TV show that followed in that film’s footsteps, only made understanding him easier, which made the experience of watching it even more disturbing.
On the show, Hannibal teams up with Will Graham, and the pair work for the FBI finding serial killers, all while one of the world’s most notorious remains hidden under their nose. Hannibal often uses vivid imagery to suggest that its central characters, one a lawman and the other a mass murderer, are actually much closer to one another than audiences might expect. In fact, the show’s end even establishes that the pair are in love, in spite of all of the horrors Hannibal has committed. In the end, it becomes fairly easy to root for him, which is terrifying in and of itself.
2 Rick and Morty
Rick and Morty initially seems like a fairly wacky show about a kid and his genius grandfather taking strange adventures all over the universe. When you look a little closer, though, you realize that Rick’s alcoholism isn’t a quirk, it’s actually a character trait that reveals exactly how he views the world. Because the world of Rick and Morty is one where there are an infinite number of parallel universes, each with their own Rick and Morty, the show suggests that nothing our central Rick does is important.
Rick is a lonely, depressed man, and that depression stems at least in part from his inability to find meaning in any aspect of his own life. By his own account, nothing we see on the show matters, and he himself doesn’t really matter either. Nothing we do has any impact, and we are endlessly replaceable. Rick and Morty wants its audience to know that they aren’t special. After all, even the super smart scientist at the center of the show isn’t.
1 Every Reality TV Show Ever
Reality TV shows are unpredictable. That’s almost the point. Whereas scripted television can often fall into a number of prescribed categories, reality TV is ostensibly without formula, even if it is always filled with drama of one sort or another. With this penchant for drama comes a certain level of immorality that leads to a number of fairly messed up messages.
Whether it’s the rampant sexism of The Bachelor, the horrible way contestants are taken advantage of on shows like American Idol, or the way men and women are worshipped for their vanity on shows like The Real Housewives and Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Almost every reality TV show either exploits its subjects or glamorizes them to a fault, and all of them deliver some sort of message about the way people should be treated. Unfortunately, almost all of them are sending the wrong message.
What other shows have twisted messages? Share in the comments!