TV So Good It Hurts: The Psychology of Watching Breaking Bad
After a five season run, tonight marks the conclusion of the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad — one of the most tragic, stressful, gut-wrenching television experiences I have ever endured. Each excruciating, emotionally taxing episode made me feel like I was walking on shards of glass.
I know that many other people can feel my pain. Ratings for the show’s final season rank Breaking Bad as the most popular non-football program on Sunday nights with 6.4 million viewers. Why would so many of us voluntarily spend our leisure time, designed for escape, watching a show that can make us feel so emotionally exhausted?
This is not a new question for media psychologists who have been trying to understand why people subject themselves to entertainment that they know will elicit negative emotions.
Dolf Zillmann, widely recognized as the founder of entertainment psychology as a field of study, theorized that the answer lies in the emotional intensity these types of shows make us feel. His excitation transfer theory says that we can experience a wide range of emotions while we watch distressing shows, and that all the excitement from each of those emotions builds up while we watch. (For an example that might resonate with Breaking Bad viewers, think about how the intensity of your emotions built up when you watched the events unfold during the great train heist in Season 5).