Despite the the world we live in being all kinds of messed up at the moment, we still love to watch fictional narratives that portray the relentless suffering of people we'll never meet. Often, these characters reside in universes that are drastically worse off than ours. In some cases, they're eerily similar to our own world, almost foretelling what might be.
If we're so inundated with misery and suffering, why do we still love to be reminded of it when we turn our attention to our screens? Do we really relish in the demise of others? Well, there's just a little more to it than that.
It's Like Reality TV, But For Hipsters
Let's be honest: Dystopian narratives are the intellectual's socially acceptable alternative to watching trashy reality TV. There's a certain stigma (and shame) that comes with an invested interest in the Kardashians. Since reality television hasn't quite reached the point of being acceptably ironic yet, hipsters have to get their drama fix elsewhere.
Lucky for them, most dystopian TV shows are rife with drama. Case in point: that whole storyline on The Walking Dead with Carl attempting to win the affections of Enid, possibly the last non-zombie teenage girl left. Or Orphan Black's soccer mom Alison Hendrix's triumphant rise to become school board trustee. Forget about deep cultural discourse! These minor subplots are where it's at.
The Protagonists Are Just So Damn Relatable
While your own daily struggles with lagging internet connections or creepy Tinder matches may not compare to being oppressed by a tyrannical, militant government, there's still one common element between the two: people. The horrible events in these storylines are tragic because they're happening to characters with personalities and emotions. While not every protagonist is an "everyman," it's undeniable that viewers are going to see parts of themselves reflected in at least one pertinent character.
What introverted nerd can deny relating to Elliot Alderson's socially awkward nuances in Mr. Robot? Is The Walking Dead really a show about zombies, or is it a larger comment on human relationships? Orphan Black's many clones provide viewers with a diverse range of realistic, strong female leads, each experiencing the same endless battle in their own unique way. We don't just watch these tragedies for the doom and gloom; we watch them to find ourselves represented on screen.
Fictional Universes Are A Miserable Escapist's Best Friend
Your girlfriend dumped you. You just found out your boss is a Trump supporter. You came home to find your roommate drank the last of your expensive hipster "mylk." Do you think tuning in to watch some modern-day schmuck cope with his mundane office job is going to help you forget your troubles? Aw, hell no. What you need is to be immersed in a world that's drastically more horrifying than your own. Look, they're abusing robots on Westworld! Is that ethical? What does this abuse say about our intrinsic human nature? What if the hosts become sentient?
Shows like this don't just entertain us, they provide us with an escape from our own chaotic lives — a glimpse of a world that is unimaginably worse than ours, putting our own problems into perspective.
If the success of shows like Utopia and Westworld have shown us anything, it's that the dystopian trend doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. With Black Mirror Season 3 less than a week away, you'd better get ready to buckle in and and feel, well, the despair.