What’s With All The Incest On Television This Season?

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Four shows on premium television are currently exploring plot lines involving incest. Is it mere coincidence, or is there something else going on here? (WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.)

Boardwalk Empire, Bored To Death and Dexter all ventured into incestuous waters this season, to varying degrees of success.* (That is, if anything related to incest can ever count as “success.”) On each of the two dramas, it was used as part of an already major plot point: Jimmy Darmody‘s submission to execution by Nucky on Boardwalk Empire, and Debra Morgan‘s discovery of her brother's “dark passenger” on Dexter. On Boardwalk, incest served to illuminate Jimmy's actions for us after a somewhat opaque season for his character. In light of this major trauma, his abandonment of Princeton, enlisting in the army, hasty marriage, and attempts at taking over his father's crime syndicate all seemed much more comprehensible. It also provided some support for his least comprehensible action of all: willingly giving up his life.

On last night's season finale of Dexter, however, the incest came completely out of left field to complicate (and potentially, take away from) a moment the series had building up to since it began. Judging from the comments on various recaps, many people found it felt a bit cheap, and I agree. The single most important relationship on that show has always been the bond between Dexter and Deb, and incestuous thoughts (which Deb may or may not have actually had before her shrink suggested them to her) threaten to totally ruin that bond for fans who've become invested in it. Isn't it enough that Deb has to discover her beloved brother, the only family she has left and someone who has saved her life multiple times, is a serial killer? Rather than elucidating anything, this just seemed like an awkward plot point with zero precedent that got piled on at the last minute by a new show runner. Then again, Deb did make lieutenant this season, so I guess something drastic had to be done to honor the “Deb's life must suck at all times” rule that they seem to have in place.

Then, there's the HBO comedy Bored To Death, which tried to play incest for laughs, although many fans were too grossed out to find it funny. After learning that the mystery-solving babe played by Isla Fisher was actually his half-sister, the fictional Jonathan Ames decided not to tell her (at least for not yet), instead kissing her tenderly as they slow danced at a wedding. “I wasn’t creeped out by it myself because it was a comedy,” show creator Jonathan Ames (the real one) told The New York Times.  “It’s not the real world to me. I feel bad if it put a bad taste in people’s mouth.” This shows Ames' inexperience with working on a television series. Sure, these characters aren't real, but you want people to be able to root for the protagonist on your show or it doesn't stand much of a chance, and the primary trait that makes Jonathan likable is his sweetness. We can argue about exactly how bad it is to knowingly perpetrate incest on an unwitting lover (I happen to think it's pretty bad), but it's certainly far from “sweet.” He's never done anything remotely this dark before, and I'm not sure how Ames thinks he's going to redeem him as a character.

Are TV writers simply running out of plot ideas? Are they resorting to incest to try to shock an increasingly un-shockable viewership? Or does the incest serve a justifiable purpose on some of these shows? HBO's president for programming Michael Lombardo explained it thusly:

“The similar story lines, he said, were the results of working with ‘writers that are interested in exploring the outer reaches of human experience and how it affects the way we live.' He added, ‘I think they’re going to be drawn to areas that are rife with conflict and drama.'”

Do you buy it?

*HBO's Game Of Thrones did too, but I haven't been watching it so I can't really comment on it.