“Make Me Miserable!” Why Do We Love Feel Bad TV?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the coast when a team of lifeguards pulled up in a Land Rover and ran barefoot into the sea. Almost immediately afterwards, a lady pushed passed me, narrowly avoiding falling on her face to get a look at what very well could have been a real life tragedy.

“Bradley!â€? she screamed at her dawdling son, far behind her. “Quick we’re going to miss it. Ooh, someone must be in trouble, Bradley!â€?

What a shame it would have been for Bradley to miss the opportunity to watch someone possibly drown. Bradley must surely, like his mother, love misery. We all love misery, though, don’t we? It’s why we slow down for car crashes, hoping to catch a glimpse of blood or (with any luck!) a bit of brain. It’s why The Daily Mail is the world’s most popular online newspaper and why Radiohead have sold so many records.

I mean, active listeners of their music must surely want to be miserable, right? Like some sort of punishment? It’s the same reason why, you might presume, BBC’s Great Ormond Street has found such an avid viewership. The same could be said for More Four’s 24 Hours in A&E or the BBC’s Hospital 24/7 or Discovery’s Hospital Sydney, Fat Hospital or The Hospital, Kids’ Hospital or my entirely fictional new shows Dead Baby Seal Hospital and Guaranteed Misery Hospital.

In all fairness, however, some do provide a unique insight at what goes on inside hospitals. Great Ormond Street reveals a lot about the great work that medical professionals do on a daily basis at the children’s hospital—and to its credit, it does so with great sensitivity for the patients and their families. But with so many hospital documentary series on the box at the moment, there certainly seems to be a trend of TV channels pandering to lovers of misery.

Take the latest episode of 24 Hours in A&E, for example, which opens with a cacophony of intense male screams.

“OHHHH! OH! JESUS! GOD!â€? yells one man, whose neck is in a brace.

There’s some generic ER-style music and then a doctor is heard shouting: “Stabbing! Code red.â€? And then, just in case you’re not wincing yet, ten minutes of the programme are devoted to a topless builder, who has injured his shoulder so badly that his screams can be heard from the other side of the hospital. Peculiarly, upbeat pizzicato violin music begins to play, coupled with reaction shots of people grinning, as if his pain is amusing in some way.

Great Ormond Street is understandably less sensationalist, but it’s by no means an easy watch. It’s more emotionally draining than watching Rolf Harris’ Animal Hospital, over and over again, nonstop, for days, as Rolf himself drowns newly born puppies in the corner of your living room. Along with the recent slew of bleak Scandinavian crime dramas, it’s just a bit too much—a bit too much misery. Misery in moderation? Sure. But let’s tone it down. We don’t need a variety of hospital documentary series. Really, we don’t even need two. Just the one perhaps. Maybe just Hilltop Hospital?

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