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Why is TV, Literally, So Dark?

By Genevieve Burgess | Think Pieces | March 19, 2016 |

By Genevieve Burgess | Think Pieces | March 19, 2016 |

There’s been a lot of amazing television happening in the last few years. Better writing, better acting, more complex plots, and a high level of attention to nuance and detail. It’s been said pretty often that TV is now more willing to be thematically very dark.

But those of us who are watching more TV than is healthy for us might also notice that a lot of these shows are also LITERALLY very dark. As though they are consistently shot on sets that are only available in the middle of the night and have a very strict lighting budget. Which seems ridiculous when you see shots like this one from House of Cards where Claire Underwood is cloaked in shadow despite standing next to a window AND a lamp:


Or this scene in Game of Thrones, where Tyrion is getting his bearings on a sunny patio under his own personal glower-cloud:


And I could go on with more examples from The Americans, The Walking Dead, Daredevil, True Detective, even the original flavor CSI has a bad habit towards this sort of thing. But why? Why spend a lot of time and money on making a show’s costumes, settings, and actors all perfect, just to cloak them all in impenetrable shadows? Well, one answer my handsome research assistant uncovered is that television cameras have advanced to allow much more contrast in scenes and television cinematographers are taking advantage of it. A lot of these shows are also made by people who have experience working primarily on films, and film aesthetic has always been visually darker than TV. Because films are meant to be watched on very large screens in very dark rooms, while most TV is watched on smaller screens in brightly lit rooms. It seems the people making these shows aren’t evaluating the lighting for the proper venue. In this season of House of Cards, I noticed that the episodes directed by new director Robin Wright didn’t have this problem.

So why is TV so dark? Maybe because they can, maybe because the people making it haven’t grasped the nuances (or lack thereof) of the medium, maybe because it lends an air of prestige to a class of entertainment that still seems to have an inferiority complex. But whatever the answer, best to familiarize yourself with your “picture settings” controls, because it doesn’t look likely to stop anytime soon.