Why TV Shows Are Darker Than They’ve Ever Been


dark tv.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by HBO, AMC, and Netflix.

Inside the world of television criticism, there’s been a roiling debate since at least The Sopranos: Has TV gotten too dark? Is it too violent? Too intense? Are there too many male antiheroes? Not enough female ones? Are we simply not recognizing the female antiheroines we already have? Are Bad Fans fetishizing darkness for its own sake? Meanwhile, outside of the media bubble, audiences are asking a slightly different question with just as much passion and intensity: Has TV gotten too dark? Why can’t I see anything?

Watching Game of Thrones this season, you may have asked yourself: Is something wrong with my television? Surely there is some other setting that would brighten up the inside of Bran Stark’s cave, or heighten the contrast between Cersei Lannister’s robes and the shadowy chambers of her prison cell. But no, that’s just the way the show is supposed to look. And Game of Thrones is not alone: HBO has made a cottage industry of dimly-lit hourlong dramas—True Detective, Boardwalk Empire. And where HBO goes, other networks have followed, from basic cable (Better Call Saul) to streaming (Jessica Jones) to even networks: No show was as inky as Hannibal. So why, exactly, has this happened?

The look of television that we’re all familiar with—brightly lit, easy to read, low contrast—was invented, more or less, by Metropolis cinematographer Karl Freund in the fall of 1951 for I Love Lucy. Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz wanted a live studio audience but also wanted to shoot on film, which would normally have been too time-consuming to keep an audience in high enough spirits to laugh. As he explained in a 1952 interview with American Cinematographer, Freund devised a way to light the set so that multiple 35mm cameras could shoot at once, moving freely without spoiling the lighting. He further modified things to allow for a transfer from film to television that would accommodate the technical peculiarities of the new medium: The equipment that was available back then unavoidably exaggerated contrast, so the original photography had to be done with as little contrast as possible.

Freund hung heavy overhead lighting from catwalks instead of stands to hide the cables and put lights on the cameras themselves to remove shadows cast by the overhead lights. The result was a show where everything was plainly illuminated, with very little shadow, and characters popped cleanly from the gray background thanks to backlighting. Look how sharply Lucille Ball is outlined in this sequence and how few shadows are on the set:

Freund’s lighting scheme became the basis for the look of most television for decades, in both comedy and drama, long after the transition to color. Most television, but not all; of course, even in its infancy, some shows worked with shadows. (Take this 1956 episode of Studio One in Hollywood, which is positively stygian.) But as recently as the 1990s, explained cinematographer Arthur Albert—who shot three episodes of Breaking Bad and all of Better Call Saul—the ghost of Karl Freund was still hanging around. Back when Albert worked on the last two seasons of The Wonder Years, “the general approach was backlight, backlight, backlight—even when it wasn’t really motivated,” he said. “Where that came from was black and white, where the only way often to separate a character who was gray, and a background that was gray, was to give them a hot backlight that made them not just melt into the background. And it carried over when the push to color was made. It was just the way it was done in Hollywood.”

There was also little incentive to play with more complicated lighting on TV at the time: In the era of analog broadcast, there was no guarantee that the show Albert shot would be the one sent over-the-air. “When they broadcast it, the engineer who was sitting there would just turn a knob and everything would be blown out,” he said. “When we saw it on a standard definition TV, it was just horrible, and you wondered why you bothered. The only place it looked good would be in the color correction suite, and then after that you didn’t know what you were going to get.”

Over the next decade or so, as HDTVs became more common in the home market, the possibilities for television cinematographers exploded. The switch to digital broadcast (and digital cable) happened roughly concurrently—although broadcasters could still manipulate the images they received, it became more difficult to do so, and a cinematographer who shot in low light could have a reasonable expectation that the image they delivered would have the same colors they’d seen in post-production.

The proliferation of large digital televisions receiving digital broadcasts changed the cost-benefit ratio for experimenting with television cinematography, but they didn’t make TV darker. The most important technologies that enabled low-light work were digital color correction and digital cameras, which made dark TV far easier to shoot. David Franco, who has worked on Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Vinyl, shot the Game of Thrones episode “The Wars to Come,” which has this extraordinarily dark sequence:

Working in digital, Franco explained, means that “you see the end results right away, so you can push it as far as you can without having to do tests and figure out exactly how low [the lighting] can get.” To shoot that dark a sequence on film, he explained, he would need to do a series of tests—half a day, he estimated, of filming and pre-lighting to test out how each shot looked. Financially, this would have been prohibitive, especially since they were shooting not in a studio but in an actual underground catacomb in Croatia.

Albert, who is doing gorgeous low-light work on Better Call Saul, put it in terms of risk as much as time and money. The show has, as a recurring location, a house lit only by lantern at night. On film, he said, with “something as simple as is the actor holding the lantern at face level or has he got it down by his knees when he’s walking, so he’s not lighting himself at all, you’d have to somehow get a light on his face. With digital you could see what you could get away with.”

But just because something appears to be low-light doesn’t necessarily mean it was shot that way. The other great change that’s made dark-looking television possible are the leaps-and-bounds advances in digital post-production. The lanterns are something of an exception in Albert’s work; he’s more likely to manipulate the image after the fact. So in the last decade or so, television production has undergone a technological sea change that made low-light cinematography, whether shot in low light or simply finished to look that way, both possible and cost-effective. Meanwhile, television broadcasting and display made changes that gave television cinematographers a reasonable expectation that their work would be preserved all the way to viewers’ eyeballs. Dark TV was something that could be done. But why did cinematographers decide to do it?

As with most trends in recent television, the answer is largely The Sopranos. As a mob show, its look was naturally modeled on Gordon Willis’ famous low-light work on The Godfather, as creator David Chase and cinematographer Alik Sakharov told American Cinematographer before the show had ever aired.

Over the ensuing years, as The Sopranos succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams, that very specific visual callback to a thematically similar film sometimes got conflated with the relatively new idea of “prestige television” in much the same way as the show’s antihero did. “I kept hearing, you know, make it darker, make it darker, make it darker,” said cinematographer Manuel Billeter about his work on Jonathan Nolan’s Person of Interest, which premiered in 2011. (Billeter also shot the very dark Jessica Jones.) “They wanted it to look more noir, to look more stylized. I started playing a lot of scenes in silhouette, with no light at all on the actors and just light in the backgrounds.”

Even with Better Call Saul, ostensibly a comedy—in which, Albert said, “you would expect things to be brighter and more open”—Vince Gilligan wanted to push boundaries “in terms of silhouette and half-light and keeping it dark.” The Blacklist, which Albert also worked on, is similarly dark. “And people loved the way that looked,” he said, “so you get rewarded for going dark, to a certain degree.”

Correction, June 29, 2016: This article originally misstated the title of the Batman film favored in Magnolia showrooms as The Dark Knight Returns. It is The Dark Knight. (Return.)

But one problem with the wave of technological change that has made dark lighting easy and cheap for filmmakers is that it doesn’t translate to all television sets. Old televisions did a better job of rendering dark colors than modern ones. Detail that’s visible on an expensive television disappears on a cheap one, and suddenly Game of Thrones is indecipherable. The same is true when a television is viewed in a brightly-lit room or from an angle: Dark scenes lose more detail than bright ones. There’s a reason Best Buy doesn’t have The Godfather playing on their wall of TVs show. (There’s also a reason they were running The Dark Knight in their more dimly-lit Magnolia showrooms for years, directed at people willing to buy their most expensive models.)*

No cinematographer wants to return to the era of shooting to prevent worst-case scenarios—worrying about broadcast engineers mangling the color or TV manufacturers cropping the edges. “There’s nothing really I can do to make it look better on your iPhone,” Albert said. Billeter agreed: “I can’t change my approach to satisfy the consumer that chooses to watch something on a screen the size of a saltine cracker.”

So has TV gotten too dark? It’s definitely gotten darker, but if you think it’s too dark, that’s a problem you can probably solve without dropping a fortune on an expensive television or professional calibration. The first and most important thing to try if you’re having trouble making out what’s on your television is to dim the lights in the room where you’re watching it. The golden age of television may sometimes seem to deliver an unceasing parade of horrors and sociopaths, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t be crisply photographed.