Top 5 Most Anxiety-Inducing Shows on Television

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In the post-“Sopranos” age of the television anti-hero, TV can be stressful. Gone are the days in which the most anxiety-inducing aspect of a great show is its will-they-won’t-they arc. It’s not that this has disappeared—it’s still the central focus of shows like Fox’s “Bones” and ABC’s “Castle.” But now we’re worried about more serious matters: For one thing, our favorite TV characters might be killed before the next episode. Plus, television is more disturbing than it once was—this can awaken troubling feelings we’re not ready to process.

5 “The Following”

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Fox’s horror-thriller with Kevin Bacon opposite James Purefoy makes us anxious first and foremost because we can’t figure out why we keep watching at all. Here’s the thing: We’re not generally opposed to violence on television, but the sexualized ritual murder that happens on every episode of “The Following” both disturbs and fascinates us. So we find ourselves routinely disgusted but unable to look away. This is perhaps the show’s only success: It wants us to experience cognitive dissonance as we watch, and we do. Purefoy’s seductive, charismatic serial killer makes sure of that. Beyond this, the writing and plot are overwrought to the point of silliness. We hate this show, but we’ve seen every episode.

4 “Top of the Lake”

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Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake”—set in a remote village in New Zealand—is an under-appreciated Sundance series that premiered in 2013. It stars the always-fantastic Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, a police detective tasked with uncovering a child sex abuse ring. “Top of the Lake’s” tension builds effectively throughout each episode. As the series progresses, Robin grows increasingly triggered by memories of her own rape, a factor that considerably heightens the show’s intensity and emotional stakes. A few terrifying plot twists thrown into the mix complete the package.

3 “Mad Men”

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Viewing “Mad Men” can be something of a chore. We’re used to multitasking when we watch TV, so making sure we actively stare at the screen for the duration of the show so as not to miss anything important is stressful in itself. Then there’s central character Don Draper, the psychopath who routinely gets deceived into believing he can change and grow. We know he never will, but we somehow get stressed out on behalf of all the innocents in his life every time he does something new and awful. Finally, the absence of all hope makes us anxious. Between Joan sleeping with the Jaguar rep and Peggy losing the love of her life, we’re beginning to wonder if the message is really that no one escapes being consumed by the system.

2 “Breaking Bad”

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The tension of “Breaking Bad” builds slowly, over the course of several seasons. In the early seasons, we get relatively lighthearted comedic moments, particularly as we watch the relationship between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman unfold. Now five seasons in, we know that the whole thing could end in a Shakespearean bloodbath—that’s no longer what makes the show stressful. It’s the slow-building sense of doom, the loss of all humor, the grimness of the tale we’re watching. By season five, each “Breaking Bad” episode is a harsh, visceral experience for us. It’s just too heavy all of a sudden, and we feel depleted after watching.

1 “Boardwalk Empire”

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HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” has an established record of killing off its most beloved characters—that’s the root of our anxiety. We were gutted when “Boardwalk” dispensed with both Jimmy and Owen. We understood with Jimmy; he seemed resigned to his death and ready for it. But the show went too far with Owen. Maybe we should have seen it coming. Nucky Thompson would never have allowed Owen’s plans with Margaret to move forward. But goddamn, we loved Owen, and his death makes us wonder who’s next. We knew when we got into this that there are no guarantees on a gangster show, but we’re going to be very, very cautious before we let ourselves fall in love with a new character in the future.

Christina Lee began writing in 2004. Her co-authored essay is included in the edited volume, "Discipline and Punishment in Global Affairs." Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and politics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master of Arts in global affairs from American University and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Penn State University.

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