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So good it’s scary

Television’s fear factor increases as new shows combine prestigious casts, disturbing plots, commercialism

Once upon a time, we could turn our televisions on a particular channel and know whether we were going to be watching a comedy, horror or drama. Recent industry trends, though, have made this expectation unrealistic. As new genres and subgenres spring up left and right, much of what we see on TV has become unclassifiable. Despite the variety of programs available today, one key factor unites almost all of them: They disturb me.

Astonished? Don’t be. It seems producers feel they are running out of ideas for new shows and must instead take us to new extremes to capture and hold our ever-wandering attention. I went to TV Guide 2012 and looked at the most popular shows and came to some astoundingly troubling conclusions. Rather than the home-grown traditional TV that dominated our childhood viewing habits, from Gilligan’s Island to Cheers, today’s producers introduce programs with pervasive sex, crime, shock value and general ridiculousness.

Let’s start with the most obviously disturbing new and popular genre: reality television. Although it did not start off particularly upsetting, even the most seemingly mundane shows are not so innocent. Few argue that popular and grotesque shows such as Jersey Shore, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Teen Mom, The Biggest Loser and The Real Housewives of every large city ever are anything but a horrible display of poorly made television that, though entertaining, melts your brain into a big glop of unused mush. Even family-oriented reality TV such as American Idol, The Voice, X-Factor and Dancing with the Stars raises concern in my eyes. When you flip on these shows for family night, you are literally sitting your children down with popcorn and telling them it’s okay to judge people based solely off of qualities like their sex appeal and their singing or dancing ability. Instead of celebrating individuality and innovation, these shows trumpet particular norms and aspirations while disparaging others. This should give even cynical 20-somethings cause for concern, but it has the potential to prove even more destructive for children and young teens who struggle to find a voice in a confusing and judgmental world.

As if these shows are not enough, there are entire channels dedicated to reality TV that aspire to a whole new level of scary. TLC leads the pack. I have harped on this strange and sadly addictive channel for quite some time, largely because TLC shows tend to exploit disabilities, rough upbringings and personal quirks for the sake of nasty entertainment value. Just look at some of the titles: Toddlers & Tiaras, Breaking Amish, Hoarding: Buried Alive , My Strange Addiction and Strange Sex.

Even outside the realm of reality TV, shows have taken a turn for the sicker in recent years. Criminal Minds, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NCIS, Bones, Burn Notice and Dexter all center around either a murder or another vicious crime that usually takes place in the first scene or two. These shows do sometimes stimulate your mind in one way or another, but they are often bogged down in the most grotesque parts of human life — death, destruction and suffering. You can only watch so much of this negativity before you become paranoid someone will grab you while you walk 10 feet to your car at night.

As for shows that stray from the crime procedural model, Revenge, Grey’s Anatomy, Breaking Bad, every Vampire show ever, Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars do not exactly inspire warm and fuzzies when you watch them. One show revolves around exacting a particularly vicious form of vengeance, another says it’s okay for doctors to be more focused on their sex lives than their patients and still another sympathetically examines a science teacher who makes drugs. Then we have the scores of high school-centered dramas that sexualize teenagers and glamorize glitzy and unfeeling lifestyles. How inspirational.

This is not to say these shows are bad. Some of them make excellent and insightful commentaries on the human experience and others cast a critical eye on even their most central characters. But even a show that attempts to condemn nasty crimes or selfishness runs the risk of glorifying these sorts of attitudes and behaviors, and the most well-intentioned programs can still prove disturbing to watch. I’m just as guilty as anyone of taking in this sort of TV, and I fully admit such programs afford a fascinating view into the depths of the mind and the state of the human experience. But perhaps I should supplement this brand of viewing by watching shows that hearken back to the sweet-hearted sitcoms and quirky comedies of old, such as How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock, as well.