Dystopian anxiety, or how I learned to stop worrying and love magical realism


My recent obsession with “Westworld” got me thinking about what sets apart a good television show from a show that will turn audiences into an obsessive horde. Of course, some basic elements must be accounted for, such as interesting stories, performances, and visuals. But beyond these essential ingredients, there is some secret sauce fantasy that might shed some light on to how modern television addresses our anxieties as a means to keep us engaged.

There has been a rise in the number of dystopian novels, TV shows and films over the past couple of years. In film, “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “The Maze Runner,” and “Mad Max” are notable examples, while television boasts of “The Walking Dead” (with all its imitators) and the comedic “The Last Man on Earth.”

Dystopian or post-apocalyptic narratives begin long after the collapse of society, and often present us a world where rules are simple and tribalistic in nature. “The Walking Dead,” for instance, often features characters faced with profound moral dilemmas, which they have to resolve without the help of society and laws. These kinds of narratives also play on apocalyptic anxieties, by having mankind itself be at risk every step along the way.

“Game of Thrones” and “Westworld” can also be classified as dystopian worlds. “Game of Thrones” debunks the idea of a romantic knight’s tale, and “Westworld” isn’t shy about showing how gritty and dangerous the idyllic wild west would really be “” or how nasty its “heroes” can be.

To that effect, Charlie Jane Anders of online sci-fi mag “io9″ writes “Game of Thrones captures the real anxiety at the root of our apocalyptic fascination “” the sense that disaster is coming closer at an almost imperceptible rate, and we can never really know when it will arrive.” In a similar vein, magical realism has come to the foreground within shows like “Stranger Things” and arguably, “Game of Thrones.” Although magical realism refers to a very specific style of Latin American literature of the 20th century, for our purposes we will use the term to describe a series which focuses on the realism of its context to explore human reactions to extraordinary situations “” while peppering in fantastic elements.

Whether the context is 1980’s Indiana or the fictional middle-ages Westeros, audiences and critics have celebrated “Stranger Things” and “Game of Thrones” for their realistic, uncensored portrayals of what it was like to grow up in the 80’s or what it was like to live (we assume) in the middle ages. All this to radically suspend our disbelief and get thrills from seeing a kid be trapped in a different dimension or see a princess ride dragons into battle.

It’s a blatant double standard, and one rooted in a sort of skepticism of fantasy and science fiction. It seems as if we can only enjoy “non-realistic” elements when they are snuck into the show inside a Trojan horse built from horrific drama and dead protagonists.

Both dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives offer an escapist satisfaction to the rising levels of anxiety in modern society. Whether it is based on reality or not, multiple studies allude to increased levels of anxiety and suicide rates, and a growing belief that things are generally worse than they used to be, and ought to be “made great again.”

On one hand, dystopias can help us cope by offering a reality so bleak that our problems seems small by comparison. On the other hand, the rise of magical-realist and apocalyptic narratives both reveal a desire for simplicity “” for an erasure of the social norms and regulations that repress and bind us. They offer escapist, impossible solutions, since many of Rick Grimes’ problems can be solved by shooting enough zombies in the head, and all is well whenever Daenerys scorches the earth on which her enemies once stood.

This, of course, is only a part of the equation. It’s impossible to ever address what makes a media product resonate as profoundly with its audience as these shows and films have. The ultimate point is not to create a cooking recipe for the next hit show, but to learn what our viewing habits tell us about ourselves. The next step would be to figure out what’s bothering us so much that we’d rather have zombies at our doorstep than face our current situation. Because that’s when you know things are bad.