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TV So Good It Hurts: The Psychology of Watching Breaking Bad


After a five season run, tonight marks the conclusion of the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad -- one of the most tragic, stressful, gut-wrenching television experiences I have ever endured. Each excruciating, emotionally taxing episode made me feel like I was walking on shards of glass.

I know that many other people can feel my pain. Ratings for the show’s final season rank Breaking Bad as the most popular non-football program on Sunday nights with 6.4 million viewers. Why would so many of us voluntarily spend our leisure time, designed for escape, watching a show that can make us feel so emotionally exhausted?

This is not a new question for media psychologists who have been trying to understand why people subject themselves to entertainment that they know will elicit negative emotions.

Dolf Zillmann, widely recognized as the founder of entertainment psychology as a field of study, theorized that the answer lies in the emotional intensity these types of shows make us feel. His excitation transfer theory says that we can experience a wide range of emotions while we watch distressing shows, and that all the excitement from each of those emotions builds up while we watch. (For an example that might resonate with Breaking Bad viewers, think about how the intensity of your emotions built up when you watched the events unfold during the great train heist in Season 5).

Experiencing intense stress might not be very pleasurable while it’s happening, but according to excitation transfer theory, all that intensity can carry over to boost positive emotions like relief or happiness if the episode ends on a good note. In other words, enduring some emotional turmoil during viewing can actually heighten the rewards of a happy ending.

According to Zillmann, our feelings toward the characters are also an important ingredient to the enjoyment of suspense. According to his affective disposition theory, people enjoy entertainment when characters that they identify as the “good guys” win, and the “bad guys” get the justice they deserve. (This theory also works nicely to explain why people enjoy it when their sports teams defeat notorious rivals).

But there’s only one problem with both these theories when it comes to Breaking Bad: this show doesn’t have happy endings or clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys”. Excitation transfer and affective disposition theories do work well for explaining why people enjoy crime procedurals like CSI, or Law and Order, but they do not apply as well to the surge of television shows with morally ambiguous characters and tragic or cliff-hanging endings. Breaking Bad, The Wire, House of Cards, Lost, Sopranos, and Dexter, are part of a long list of shows that lead us to root for antihero protagonists who have done morally reprehensible things. And rarely do their episode endings reassure us, or leave us on a happy note.

So again, media psychologists are back to square one: Why do so many people subject themselves to shows that burn them out emotionally?

Studies have uncovered a few viable possibilities. Some communication scholars have found evidence that downward social comparison is a motive to watch emotionally draining programming. For instance, I’ve found that I enjoy watching a stressful reality show about a polygamous man with 4 wives, because it makes me feel better about the stresses in my own life.

Other media research suggests that we seek out hard-to-watch shows because it makes us feel more competent and in control during emotionally difficult situations. On that note, our meta-emotional experiences, or the feelings we have about our feelings while watching, could explain why we are willing to spend our Sunday nights watching the main character on Breaking Bad, destroy his family and countless other lives during his metamorphosis from a likable high school chemistry teacher into a depraved meth kingpin. Watching the gritty drama makes us feel sad, anxious, or aghast, but in reflecting on our emotional reactions (which often seem appropriate) we may conclude that we are very in-touch, sympathetic, and humane. This feels good. This can even make the experience of watching a fictional portrayal of terrible events somewhat enjoyable.

But in what is perhaps the most promising line of research on the psychological paradox of why audiences would deliberately spend their relaxation time watching bleak tragedies like ‘Breaking Bad’, Zillmann’s intellectual progeny question the premise that feeling good is the only reason we watch entertaining television. We often associate words like ‘fun,’ ‘enjoyment,’ or ‘escape’ when we think about our entertainment. These are all hedonic, or pleasurable, rewards of watching TV. But the work of Mary Beth Oliver, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University, has shown us that entertainment can offer more than enjoyment. In step with the positive psychology movement, Oliver and her colleagues have identified many eudaimonic rewards of watching depressing, stressful, or even horrific television. Eudaimonia is an experience that meaningfulness, insight, and emotions that put us in touch with our own humanity. Eudaimonia might not make us happy, but it can enrich us, leave us feeling fulfilled, touched, and perhaps even teach us something about ourselves.

So if the show’s track record is any indicator, the series finale for Breaking Bad will undoubtedly be long and painful. Masochistically, we will watch it, knowing we will probably feel even more distressed for the characters by the time the credits roll. But perhaps we can take some comfort in knowing that our agony isn’t necessarily in vain.

Photo: Courtesy AMC

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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