BRAMPTON, Ont. - Walter White is back for a few final episodes before — presumably — heading toward the light. Will he bring television along with him?
There was plenty of talk on the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles about the upcoming "Breaking Bad" finale and about whether TV has become too dark.
"I can't imagine a protagonist darker than Walter White," said FX Network president John Landgraf. "The nuclear arms race for darkness is over."
Landgraf was half kidding. In a decade of programming FX, he's never ordered a scripted comedy or drama which didn't wind up with a mature audience rating. His network's No. 1 series is "Sons of Anarchy," one of the darkest, most violent shows on TV today. His "American Horror Story" is heading into a third season. He's just ordered US$100-million worth of programming to be shot in Canada, including "The Strain," a Toronto-based vampire saga. It won't be for kids: "What 'The Shield' did for cop shows," he says, "this will do for vampire shows."
Still, other network executives voiced the opinion at the annual summer gathering of critics that the pendulum may be swinging in a lighter direction. David Nevins, the president of Showtime network, told critics he sees the hero of his new drama "Ray Donovan" as more of "a guy in the middle," nowhere near as hair-trigger evil as serial killer Dexter Morgan, mob boss Tony Soprano or drug lord White.
"I sort of felt it was necessary to have a little bit of a correction of the pendulum swing back to the middle," Nevins told critics. "I don't think you can keep going further left of what Bryan Cranston is doing on 'Breaking Bad.'"
Dark lead characters aren't just on cable. Kevin Bacon's grim serial killer drama "The Following" was one of the top new network shows last season in the U.S. and Canada. "Hannibal," a shot-in-Toronto prequel to "Silence of the Lambs," will be back on NBC. One of the most talked about shows for fall, NBC's "The Blacklist," stars James Spader ("Boston Legal") as a creepy and charming most-wanted criminal.
The business of pushing the boundaries of how "anti" a hero can be seems firmly entrenched. If there was any doubt, one need only look at the commercials which played through that final season premiere of "Breaking Bad."
Seen live, the Sunday night episode seemed part of some dark and relentless pop culture assault. The episode started with a recap showing the murder of a central character, shot dead in his car. At the first ad break, there was a commercial for the violent cartoon "Kick-Ass 2" followed by a spot promoting a video game rated M for mature. "I will become what you fear most," boomed a voice-over for "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist." "I will find you and I will silence you."
During the rest of the "Breaking Bad" episode, there were two ads in the Toronto market promoting a home security system, a plug for AMC's "Mob Week" and an ad for the upcoming movie "Paranoia." AMC also ran spots flagging their upcoming Detroit-based drama "Low Winter Sun," a series about murder and police corruption.
Scared yet? Basically there was plenty of proof that there are advertisers who welcome the opportunity to present products in a dark, scary TV environment.
Especially when viewers show up in record numbers. The season premiere of "Breaking Bad" drew 5.9 million U.S. viewers to AMC, a record audience for the series.
Still, even Morgan and White have their lighter moments. Peter Raymont, executive producer of CBC's "Cracked," says his drama about a special police crimes unit will have a lighter tone next season. The Toronto-based series returns Sept. 30 on CBC.
Raymont, who has sold the series to cable channel Reelz in the U.S. as well as to networks in France and Germany, says he got notes from the networks suggesting some season one episodes were too dark.
"It's always tricky when dealing with mental illness and mental health," says Raymont of "Cracked." His main character, Det. Aidan Black (David Sutcliffe), is dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and many of the crimes he investigates involve people with mental illnesses or psychiatric disorders.
"I don't know if lighter is the right word, but I think it's important to leave people with a sense of hope," says Raymont.
The lightness is also achieved through the banter between Black and new character Dr. Clara Malone, played by Brooke Nevin, who brings a "light spirit" to the proceedings.
"There are definitely bits of angst and anguish in each episode, but at the end of the day there should also be a sense of resolution, of accomplishment and helping."
That might be too much to expect from Walter White, who seems headed for a Tony Soprano-style fade to black.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.
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