We’re living in a Golden Age of Television, Megan McArdle notes, but why is it so dark?, she wonders:
We watch so many crime dramas because there are no big stakes in middle-class American life. The criminal underworld is one place where decisions actually matter — and can be shown to matter, dramatically.
You look at novels of the 19th century and they are filled with terrible, dramatic dilemmas that actually did face ordinary people. People lost everything, and risked starvation; they performed terrible, cruel, dangerous work for years on end in order to make a little money; they died from the risks of their job or the ordinary diseases that used to carry off so many people in their prime. Women had to choose between love and the economic security of a well-off suitor. The result of a regrettable night of passion could be expulsion from polite society, or a hasty forced marriage. People in the 19th century, and into the middle of the 20th, faced a lot of dilemmas wherein doing the wrong things could permanently destroy their lives.
America has less drama because compared with the 19th century, our economic and social systems are basically risk free. Don’t get me wrong: Being poor is still really terrible. But almost no one who is poor in modern America (with the exception of a few drug addicts and mentally ill people) is seriously at risk of spending an extended period of time without heat, food, clothing or shelter. The ordinary poor do not starve to death, and they do not freeze to death. Those were real things that could happen to, say, a middle-class family without close relatives whose bread-earner died. They were real things that did happen to a lot of people, not one random case that made the news because it’s so unusual.