The psychology of why we love to watch stressful shows like 'Breaking Bad'


I always assumed it was simply ape-level “glad I’m not the one the tiger is mauling”…


I think this also explains why the conclusion of Lost was so horribly unsatisfying.

I think Aristotle called that “catharsis.”


This is why, after 4-5 episodes I decided: “No, I haven’t had a positive moment; there’s no story worth subjecting myself to such…”

I definitely have an aversion to “squirm TV”, shows that make you vicariously uncomfortable as people behave badly or bottom out. I’ve had to take numerous breaks from watching BB, then catch up. I stopped watching Mad Men, though I keep vowing to catch up. Some people love to watch self destructive behavior. I don’t get it. Maybe I’m more empathetic than them. I prefer my shows a little more fantastical or escapist, even 24 or Homeland fit the bill, never mind fantasy or SF.


Hi gellfex, I was going to post something similar. I lack whatever it is that makes people enjoy sad or tragic drama. Given the critical acclaim earned by sad and/or tragic books, movies, tv shows, etc., I assume yours and my perspectives are the anomalous ones. Why don’t I like stressful TV? Am I deficient in some way? Better? Or just different?

Naturally I always think of Aristotle and the “pity and terror” that tragedy are supposed to arouse in us. What I find fascinating, though, is that the term “eudaimonia” comes from the Greek for “fortunate” or “happy”. Clearly it’s a more complex emotion, since, as the article says, eudaimonia “can enrich us, leave us feeling fulfilled, touched, and perhaps even teach us something about ourselves”.

As I recall Aristotle said the purpose of tragedy was to be cathartic, or purgative, but I like the idea of it being eudamonic, which is instructive–“an experience that meaningfulness, insight, and emotions that put us in touch with our own humanity”. To me it explains the appeal of difficult art much better.

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I watched all the show’s episodes (twice) because it resonated with me. Both my parents were teachers. We were a lower middle class family of four living in a small PNW town. In later years, my father would lose the use of his kidneys and had it not been for his insurance/medicare, my parents would have been financially wiped out over the years of his disease, what with procedures, three times weekly dialysis, and hospitalizations. A life time of work and savings gone. Most of us are one major (prolonged) disease from bankruptcy or enslavement to debt.

I watched because I’ve had cancer. Every person in the audience watching BB, who has had cancer, knew what it was like for Walt to quickly revise his personal priorities and jettison the rest. They’ve lived some version of that process. Social niceties like ‘morality’ fall into a gray area, that have more to do with the living than the dying. I couldn’t blame him for ‘Heisenberg’; the sociopaths he was dealing with wouldn’t have respected any ego smaller than their own; they’d have dominated, enslaved or just killed him.

I watched because I’m in no position to cast stones on any of those characters. I’ve done reprehensible things and know how much work it is to keep secrets and fear exposure. All the adults on Breaking Bad had secrets, an awareness of how many conditions being loved by others comes with and how painful that can be.

I watched because the show was set in what I consider one of the most beautiful places on Earth. There’s something about northern New Mexico that I find utterly mellowing and relaxing, a combination of natural elements that was featured constantly throughout the television series, that is best experienced in person. As good as the directors and cinematographers were you really have to take it in with your whole senses to get just how special that place is, and to have such a story set in a place considered a spiritual and artistic mecca was oddly ironic and grounding. It took the story for me from mere well written and acted drama to another level, connecting a very contemporary story to the very oldest kind of human tales. It’s like Joseph Campbell came back from the dead to advise on how to write the very human-est of stories.


It’s funny, to me the landscape, while beautiful, was another alien and dysfunctional character in the show. The artificiality of these suburban houses plunked into a desert where no one but a kalahari bushman would think people should live accentuated the blindness to reality that was a hallmark of the show. Everyone lived in their own little world, including the city itself. But maybe that’s just the bias of someone who has always lived where it actually rains enough to sustain human civilization without epic hydro engineering.


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