Is German TV Bleak and Depressing?

It’s the one thing that drives people who engage with Germany at anything but a superficial level up the wall: the bitter, pessimistic whining. Sometimes, outsiders can chuckle about it. But sometimes, you get to thinking: Is there something in the water here? Is there perhaps actually something deeply wrong with the psyche of these people?! As one German writes: "I have been living in the US for about seven years now, and if there’s one thing I dread when I go home to visit Germany, it’s the complaining."

Maybe it’s their TV. From Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly:

In the LA Times today, Alissa Rubin writes that Europeans don’t like American politics but do like American entertainment. The following passage from Reinhard Scolik, chief of programming for Austria’s largest broadcaster, caught my attention:

"In American programs, people have problems, serious problems. In ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ people are dying, it tells you that life will be very, very hard, but at the very end they get a little hope and there is a way to get through," he said. "In German shows, which we also get on Austrian television, it is mostly a hopeless situation, it is too heavy."

Wow. Are German TV shows really that bleak?

It’s a good question. I don’t have much experience with German TV, but it seems to be a bit bleaker than U.S. TV, but not horrifyingly pessimistic. I’d put it at about the same level as British TV in terms of bleakness. (Come to think of it, the Brits are also more pessimistic than Americans, but they are nowhere near as glum as the poor Germans).

On German TV, there are quiz shows, shopping shows, crime shows that are unusually thumbsucky and psychoanalytical, and pretty good soap operas in which ordinary people have problems, sometimes overcome them, and sometimes fail. There is generally a lot more open conflict in these soap operas than there is on American TV, but Germans can handle conflict.

I’d look at the documentaries as a possible suspect. There are many more of them than on U.S. TV. Many tend to focus on German history, customs, crime, and political corruption. However, Germans are well-known for reporting about the world’s problems, so you see hundreds of documentaries that address the problems that exist in various developing countries, and do so with brutal honesty.

This is a big difference. American mainstream documentary film crews avoid Africa and dire third-world poverty. That stuff doesn’t sell. What does sell, for mainstream TV purposes, is nice documentaries about non-controversial subjects like science, weapons, American history, jazz, or baseball (Don’t miss this minor masterpiece about the often-overlooked Old Negro Space Program). The tendency of American mainstream documentary makers to avoid subjects that are (1) depressing; and (2) not directly related to the United States is, in my view, a cop-out. [But at least it keeps Americans happy, and what could be more important than that? — ed.]  British teams do actually film documentaries about social problems in Britain and the developing world, but often with an uplifting twist: "Yes, it’s bad, but this new program/solar lamp/dedicated university graduate who came back to her home village is making a difference."

German and French documentaries are often brilliant and penetrating, but usually don’t have this uplifting angle. In fact, they may be so penetrating precisely because they don’t feel an obligation to tie a pretty pink bow on the package of human misery they deliver. At the end, the narrator often intones: "For generations, all the people of Bunakra province have known is war, disease, and chaos, and it appears that will continue for the next generations as well." Of course, in the preceding 60 minutes, they have shown you the political corruption, social anarchy, and exploitation that justify this prediction.

The result is that Germans are fantastically well-informed about development problems. No all of them turn away in resignation; in fact careers in development are the most prestigious service-sector jobs in Germany. But if you don’t have the personal make-up to react to these bleak documentaries in a positive way, they can rob you of plenty of hope plenty quick.

That’s my guess. I’d love to hear other people’s answers, and probably so would Kevin Drum…

5 thoughts on “Is German TV Bleak and Depressing?

  1. This text reminds me The crimeshow ” Derrick “: much more psychoanalysis than fireworks and bombs exploding in american traditional crime shows.

    A new american show (broadcasted by FOX , I think) that goes deeper on problems and solutions than the old Hospital series like E.R. (argh!) is Dr. House, M.D., starring the good british actor Hugh Laurie


  2. I don’t think that depressing German TV shows cause depression. Depressed Germans watch depressing shows. When they want to get away from all that Sturm they watch Baywatch and play David Hasselhoff albums.

    When I read ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ in (American) college most of my fellow students looked on it as a kind of joke. Alllll that miseryyyyy! Surely Goethe was being ironic and the novel was a send-up? Not so. He meant it.

    “The tendency of American mainstream documentary makers to avoid subjects that are (1) depressing; and (2) not directly related to the United States is, in my view, a cop-out.”

    Possibly true. But isn’t all that Deustche angst an equal cop-out in it’s own way? Nothing can be done about (Iran/Darfur/Iraq) therefore it’s OK for Seimens to trade with them – and attempt to foil any other country’s efforts to deal with the problem.

    And that is at it’s best. At it’s worst Deustche angst takes the form of scathing criticism. Genocide in the Balkans? Why haven’t the Americans taken care of it already? Must be because they’re blackshirts like the Serbians….



  3. There is something about the German POV which drives many Americans into absolutely raving lunacy. Not excluding me.

    It is the German propensity for long drawn-out historical analogies – and their need to constantly warn us naive Yanks about all the pitfalls in our path.

    I’m sure all the analogies between the various walpugisnicht(s) of German history are well-meant and all that. But a lot of it sounds like accusations of extreme evil to American ears. It’s probably rooted in a profound mutual cultural misuderstanding.

    I remember going absolutely bugfuttering postal when I heard about the remarks Schroeder’s ex Justice Minister made comparing Bush’s ‘methods’ with those of the late unlamented AH. To my American ears it sounded like yet another Germano-European accusation that the US (and particularly Bush and the Christian Right) were – what? I don’t want to violate Godwins Law here, so shall we use the word Wagnerian as a substitute for something even less pleasant?

    I think Germans sincerly believe that us Yanks are a bunch of Naifs and that we need to be constantly warned just how badly things can go. And there is some truth in that – but only a little.

    To be honest, a lot of the rhetoric coming out of Europeans (and particularly Germans) have made me wonder just why I and my country remind them so much of a certain period.Heavy Irony=ON And perhaps whether I ought to be watching more Leni Riefenstahl film in order to perfect my shouting and saluting technique? Heavy Irony=OFF

    This has gotten extremely old. Incredibly decrepitly old. Insultingly old. History may repeat itself but I rather doubt that if the US falls into fallacy it will do so in a European pattern. We’re perfectly able to futz things up in a completely American way. But we also solve problems and kick things into new paradigms in an American way – something the Deutsch and the Francais seem to have lost the knack of doing in latter years.


  4. “nice documentaries about non-controversial subjects like (..) weapons”
    maybe as disturbing to the German ear as Die Leiden des jungen Werther to the American.


  5. I hate Americans, I honestly hate them for their ignorance of the world, their stupid racism and obsession with categorizing humanity into stupid race labels.

    their plastic culture

    Americans I can not possibly like you


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