What’s With Dimly-Lit Television?

Dearest directors of photography, lighting designers, producers, directors, and the whole lot of you.

We need to have a talk. I’m going to request that you turn on a few bloody lamps so you can actually see my face during this conversation, though I imagine it will pain you immensely — and that you may have to hunt through a warehouse on the back of the lot to find them. It’s quite all right. I’ll wait. Here. In the darkness.

All set? Excellent. No…just…plug it in right there, I know it’s hard to see…you may have to do it by feel…oh, you don’t want to get shocked? Well fine, borrow my phone so you can find the outlet by the light of my screen…there you go. Can you find the switch all right?

Here’s the thing: I am all for dark, moody scenes. They can be a fantastic way to set the tone and create a sense of tension, sombreness, and intensity that you can’t exactly get with a bright, sunny, festive lighting scheme. I am a huge fan of lighting design and I love it when a designer really explores light and shadow, which can include very dark scenes — I mean, let’s talk about the glory of noir, which was all about scenes in dramatic black and white relief, with the elements of the story hidden in the shadows, forcing viewers and actors alike to tease them out and bright them to, well, light. A show that’s flatly, thoughtlessly lit is, in my mind, such a tragedy; I like to see lighting with zest, imagination, and fervor, showcasing the scenes and the actors and working with the story.

That said, this is getting completely out of control. In recent years, but this television season in particular, I’ve noticed not only that dark scenes are so dark that I can’t see a bloody thing, but that even the rest of the show is filmed in shadowy, murky darkness, making it functionally impossible to discern anything on screen — something particularly exacerbated if you’re in a room with any sort of glare at all, or an environment where it’s not possible to achieve perfect darkness. The dim status light on my router in the other room are enough to make it difficult to see.

Y’all, I don’t know what the problem is here. Are you paying by the lumen? Has someone from on high handed down a mandate to cut the electricity bill? Do you suddenly hate actors, and wish to ensure that no one can actually see them? Are you trying to slash budgets by not building sets, and covering it up by providing no actual lighting so we can’t see that the actors are just on a blank soundstage? (Have you heard of radio? It’s totally a thing, and you so don’t need sets for it.)

I get it. We’re living in dark times, and consequently, we are watching a lot of dark television. But that doesn’t have to be taken so literally, as we should, I hope, understand the difference between metaphor and actuality; you don’t actually have to include almost no lighting on a set for the viewer to understand that a scene, and the plot, are dark. You can do that with more judicious lighting, with good writing, with great acting, with strong sets and costumes and music (though please, spare me the melodramatic Bela Lugosi-style musical theatrics, if you’d be so kind).

There are some shows I’ve given up on ‘watching’ entirely because I can’t actually see anything. Television is a visual medium. If I wanted to listen to the radio, I would (and do). When it comes to television, I need to be able to see what’s going on, because it’s an integral part of the story. Equally, I need to see dimness used judiciously — let us not forget, for example, the furtive lighting that so beautifully complemented Lady Mary’s midnight assignation to the Turkish minister in Downton Abbey. The dark, shadowy scenery there reflected the nature of the moment, reminding us that Lady Mary was delving across multiple taboos. It was appropriate — and I could still see what was going on, because the scene was well-lit even in darkness.

How about the moody scene where Buffy first meets Angel, where the shadow in the darkness resolves into an unexpected ally? Or watching Ichabod slowly emerge into the light of the 21st century, confused and upset as he tries to navigate an entirely new world? Or that ominous scene at the start of House of Cards as Frank strides out into the darkness and we all know what is happening, but it’s not lit in an explicit glare, instead in a dark, thrilling light that leaves much to the imagination while still allowing us to see Kevin Spacey’s actual face? These are all examples of perfectly respectable, well-done television lighting that captures darkness without actually being dark, in the sense that they reflect a sense of shadow but still allow the viewer to see what’s going on without having to wear night vision goggles (or is this the new thing? In which case, I didn’t get mine in the mail, would you be so kind as to send them along?).

Maybe we live in an era of hi-def and you’re worried about having actors, sets, and the lot standing up to more intense scrutiny, but that’s a poor excuse for not lighting television properly. We’re grownups, and we’d like to actually be able to see our TV, please and thank you. This is getting absolutely ludicrous, and I simply must request that you stop, take an elementary-level lighting class, and then rejoin us when you’re ready to turn on a lamp or two.

It doesn’t take much, I promise.

Image: I will find you in the dark, Brian Murphy, Flickr