Sliding Scale Of Idealism Versus Cynicism / Live-Action TV
The 2004 Battlestar Galactica series is much more cynical than the original, with the robotic Cylons as implacable enemies despite the presence of forces within the fleet who think they can be negotiated with. But the show also functions as a raging battlefield of cynicism vs. idealism, as a rapidly declining population, hunted continuously by intelligent killing machines and running short on supplies, must determine if they should rely upon a visionary leader (whose prophecies may be nothing more than fevered rantings as a side effect of cancer medication) to lead them to a mythical promised land. Political debate and impassioned entreaties on faith abound.
The characters in Heroes run the whole gamut of the scale, from Hiro and Peter who are almost implacably on the side of idealism - sometimes to the point of behaving like idiots. On the other hand, Linderman (and most of his organization, from Nathan to Bennet) is on the side of cynicism. Much of the first season was about these characters gradually moving closer to the middle of the scale.
Claude is the most cynical character on the show ("People suck, friend! Never forget that!!"), but once you find out how he got that way, it makes sense for him. And he's a very nice foil for Peter's insane amounts of idealism.
Not in volumes 3 and onward. After the Volume 4 , no more Mr. Nice Guy from the Cape. In fact, several times, Future Peter seemed very cynical, and let us not forget Claire who is some Frankensteinish cross between her people-loving uncle and her stubborn, pessimistic father. Future Claire in volume 3 scared me a little, I'll admit.
And then there's Nathan who frequently uses cynical means for idealistic purposes.
A.K.A. the entire volume 4 plot wrapped into a single sentence. Nice work, Cadet.
Stargate SG-1 contrasts Daniel Jackson, who cares about making friends and allies, to the NID, who care about getting technology to defend Earth at any cost, and Jack O'Neill, who is somewhere in the middle, mostly on the side of pragmatism. An example of the show running on different points of the scale is "Scorched Earth", where Daniel finds a way to save both civilizations vying for control of the planet's ecosystem despite Jack's plan to blow one of them up with a naqadah bomb, and "Entity", where Daniel and Sam's idealism leads to the latter being possessed by a vengeful (our probes accidentally caused damage to them) computer entity, and only released when Jack threatens to send more probes. Jack basically has to tell Daniel to shut up, and let him do it his way.
On Stargate Atlantis, however, McKay is shown to be the Cynical Scientist while Sheppard is the Idealistic soldier, giving a nice subversion to the trope standard. Although both are usually shown to be right in equal terms, there's a tip of favoritism considering the other two members of the Atlantis Team 1, Teyla and Ronon. Teyla is shown to be idealistic and in more than one occasion has jeopardized everyone for very little gain because of her faith in her Wraith gene, while Ronon is shown to be a cynical hardened soldier who often gets the job done. While Sheppard and Teyla gets along well for their shared view, Ronon is usually at odd terms with McKay, but mostly because of both wildly different areas of expertise.
Notably, McKay and Sheppard periodically flip-flop these points of view, far more so than SG:1 did.
Teyla and many other members of the Atlantis team believed that Wraiths converted into humans would be eventually grateful for their new status: unfortunately, this resulted in the death of thousands when the test subject (AKA Michael) proved more than a little pissed off at the unfortunate results of his condition- memory loss, nightmares, and unending mistrust from both humans and wraith. Actually, despite the screams of What the Hell, Hero?, this is a pretty good example of the cynical end of the scale: if they'd tried for idealism and had Michael reduced to the hybrid equivalent of a Stepford Smiler, the results would have been ridiculous beyond the realms of human sensibility.
An extremely well done example of the side of Cynicism is Dr. Peter Kavanagh. In the Atlantis Expedition, he was functionally a human Lampshade on the various bad plans throughout the series. Of course, he is always wrong, but only because of sheer luck or Deus ex Machina working in favor of the expedition. It is Lampshaded (by himself at that) that if these events hadn't happened, his approach would be the best strategic and sensible one.
Stargate Universe however is extremely cynical, when someone is doomed, the usual order is to leave them to die or at the mercy of the whatever is out to get them (Compared to how despite going up against improbable odds, the heroes believe there is a way and will fight to make that third option happen) and takes a bit from the new Battlestar Galactica as sex, violence and character drama rule the day aboard the Destiny.
Firefly is a prime example of a show whose protagonists are willing to get their hands bloody if they think it's necessary. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is when Mal Reynolds and his crew renege on doing a job for a crime boss. After a tussle with The Dragon and some Mooks, Mal tries to return the boss' money, but The Dragon refuses to take it and threatens to instead kill Mal and his entire crew. Rather than go through a We Will Meet Again thing, Mal promptly kicks him into a giant jet intake. The subordinate he drags before him next agrees with his terms and to return the money before Mal even finishes his first sentence.
At the same time, though, the show also virtually runs on Honor Before Reason. The reason for the above reneging on the crime boss's job? The cargo that the crew were paid to steal turned out to be critical medicine for a poor mining community, where virtually the entire population is suffering from a degenerative disease that will eventually kill them without the medicine. Also, the mere fact that Mal is willing to keep Simon and River Tam on his ship, in spite of all the trouble they bring down on him and his. In fact, in the movie, Mal actually asks himself why he's protecting them, even after he's given a whole bunch of reasons why he shouldn't. The reason, of course, is that at heart, Mal is still an idealist.
It can be argued that Mal represents a center point on the scale. He will commit blatant crimes upto and including the above-mentioned murder but all in the name of protecting his "family" as represented by his crew.
Word of God in the commentaries states that they wanted to explore a hero's journey. As shown in the opening of the pilot (which was aired last), Mal started as an incredibly idealistic volunteer for the plucky underdog army, kissing a cross before a sortie. Then his army got crushed and he spent weeks watching the men under his command wither and die of injury and disease and he walked away a broken, hideously cynical man who verbally lambasts a preacher at every possibility. The show would have explored his gradual rediscovery of the idealist within.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (at least in the first four seasons or so) tends towards idealism. People are mostly good. Evil can be defeated. Monsters can become heroes. Even Cordelia Chase gets nicer, and Spike becomes a Noble Demon. However, the Season Eight comic is firmly on the cynicism side. The universe is the Big Bad and only destroying all magic can stop it.
Angel on the other hand, tends toward cynicism: the Senior Partners can never be defeated, only temporarily inconvenienced, and the universe is shown to be as equally heartless to an Eldritch Abomination as anyone else.
Despite its view being incredibly cynical, Angel is hard to quantify, because its fundamental take on the idea is "Evil can never be defeated, and good will never prevail. We fight evil in spite of this fact."
"If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do." Sounds idealistic to me.
The contrast between Buffy and Angel is both are inherently idealistic, but illustrate different traditions of idealism. Buffy, at least in the television program, is closer to the Christian idealism, which knows that Good will ultimately win, though it may require a lot of pain, and even the ultimate sacrifice, to make happen. Angel appears closer to the Germanic Pagan idealism, which knows that the gods will fall and the world is doomed to Ragnarok; but that it's better to fight for the gods and die a noble death, than to give in to the darkness.
To be more precise, it is extremely cynical for the male cast. The world hates them with the force of a thousand suns and at best they deserve the abuse and at worst they get roughed up, spat on, and then stomped on for having deviant opinions. The female cast lives in a semi-idealistic world where almost nothing goes wrong. This seems is a summary of most Dan Schneider shows in general; girls rarely get the raw end of the deal, while the abuse for boys lasts during and after the episode's done.
Star Trek is generally an idealistic show, at least in its original run; characters often speculated on the nature of humanity, which was portrayed as fundamentally good, and learned An Aesop. As noted in the Writer on Board entry, the Berman/Braga writing team has been accused of moving the normally idealistic Star Trek too far toward the cynical end of the scale.
And then overcompensating with the shift back towards idealism (often to ridiculous levels) with Voyager. Here the Federation's principles are presented not only as sacrosanct, but infallible. Pretty much every Planet of Hats alien race is presented as being deeply flawed in some way, so that the crew of Voyager can storm in to point out how primitive and rubbish the ignorant yokels are and how much more they have to learn. Take a shot whenever Janeway says "We're peaceful explorers" in a smug, patronising voice.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine definitely slid towards the cynical end of the scale, and slammed straight into the far end with the Season 6 episode "In The Pale Moonlight." Note that Deep Space Nine had a different writing staff than the other Trek series, which Braga and Berman pretty much left alone to concentrate on Voyager; this writing staff would later go on to create The 4400 and Battlestar Galactica 2003 (which, like Deep Space Nine, was a dark and cynical space tale with heavy suggestions that there is something in the spirit realm.)
Furthermore, "In The Pale Moonlight" is generally heralded as a Crowning Moment of Awesome for Star Trek, precisely because of its ruthless and painful Deconstruction of the franchise's inherent idealism. (Not to mention that we get balanced out by episodes like "Far Beyond The Stars" and "The Visitor", crowning moments of Idealism and Tear-Jerking, respectively.)
Deep Space Nine actually flopped back and forth: "Once More Into the Breach" is idealistic: Heroic Sacrifice to save the day actually works and it's implied that's what the Tragic Hero wanted all along and many enemy installations are destroyed. And generally this is war at its glory. And then we get "Siege of AR-558" which is cynical to the end (basically it's like "Platoon" movie, but with 'less' survivors) and the system they fought for is later lost anyway.
On the other hand, while some of the crew's actions may be morally questionable, the overal theme of the movie is overwhelmingly idealistic: The Klingon Empire—enemies of the Federation throughout the TOS era—have suffered a major catastrophe, and some within the Federation are suggesting that this is an ideal time to crush the Empire, given their weakened state. Yet Kirk & Co. save the Klingon Empire rather than destroying it.
Star Trek: The Original Series is a very idealistic series... except when it's not. From "Charlie X", where a boy raised by aliens is taken back by those aliens, begging and screaming to be saved, because the skills the aliens gave him to survive make him too dangerous; to "The Apple", where Kirk destroys a peaceful, innocent, loving civilization in order to allow them to advance technologically and to save his crew. Spock often acts as the voice of cynicism, clashing with Doctor McCoy's belligerent idealism.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was fairly idealistic while Gene Roddenberry was still writing it. After his death, it took a more cynical turn (although still very Idealistic).
Even the generally idealistic Doctor Who has a cynical moment in "Evolution of the Daleks". The Hooverville leader Solomon gives the Daleks a Sedgwick Speech. You can guess what happens next. "EXTERMINATE!"
An interesting example from the same series is The Silurians, in which humans destroy a race of sapient creatures that have awoken from hibernation, where, if both races hadn't automatically assumed that the other was dangerous, and had listened to the Doctor's idealistic point of view, the tragedy would have been avoided.
A slightly Family-Unfriendly Aesop version of this appears in a later appearance by the Silurians; the Doctor constantly insists that the humans should attempt a peaceful resolution with them, but the fact that the Silurians are genuinely only interested in wiping humanity off the face of the planet mean that, in this case, violence is the only way that the humans can defend themselves.
The show itself tends to bounce from one side of the scale to the other wildly, particularly in the new series; one week Humans Are Bastards, the other Rousseau Was Right. The Doctor himself is usually portrayed as an idealist, but at times he's engaged in quite cynical acts, especially if he's been pushed too far.
In the first three seasons of the relaunch, the Doctor tends to express great admiration of humanity and our curiosity, though he does make a comment in the fourth season about a future human empire built on slavery being not so different from industrialized human societies in the present because "who do you think made your clothes?".
Episodes with Daleks tend to be darker and more cynical.
But then you reach the Doctor Who Expanded Universe, which is more consistently cynical due to much of it being primarily aimed at an adult audience...
In-universe illustration: In the Doctor Who New Adventures, the Doctor thinks Bernice Summerfield is a cynic; she says she's an idealist who was wrong too many times. And then she turns out to be nowhere near as cynical as New Ace, much less Roz Forrester.
In the Eighth Doctor Adventures, by contrast, Sam Jones is a highly idealistic companion who is always wrong about everything.
On the whole, though, the series tends to lean toward the idealistic side, even in its darker moments. Long-time Doctor Who fan Craig Ferguson, in the "lost" cold open of his Doctor Who tribute episode, described the Doctor as "a force for good in an uncertain universe" and the series itself as being about "the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism."
The West Wing often provides an idealistic vision of the United States Presidency, and a Democratic President in particular.
West Wing's idealism isn't so much that government always does the right thing—attention is given to striking deals, what looks good in the press, getting re-elected, etc—but that the people in the government, particularly the protagonists, want to do the right thing.
There's also the show that could be called the anti-West Wing, the US version of House of Cards. For all the idealism and focus on the good government can do in The West Wing, House of Cards is the opposite, focusing on using political power solely for your own gain at the expense of everyone else.
As funny and lighthearted as it is, Scrubs was a fundamentally cynical show, albeit with some idealistic qualities.
Ironically, Danny DeVito rose to fame in Taxi, which was pretty much the opposite: A group of cab drivers who grow to accept their place in life and take The Power of Friendship very seriously. Although Louie was still one of the most cynical things you could find on TV.
For a show with such a silly premise, Supernatural is firmly on the cynical side. They never get paid or thanked, it's implied that humans can be just as bad as the monsters they hunt, bad actions and secret-keeping always comes back to bite them on the arse, their extreme co-dependency is portrayed as unhealthy and slightly disturbing (and Dean's "We can't be martyrs anymore" speech has so many things wrong with it that you start to think they did that on purpose), and at the end of "What Is and What Should Never Be", Sam can't even convince Dean that what they do is worth all the pain in their life.
This is debatable; the show is, of course, set in a Crapsack World where God is missing and even the angels are dicks, and where good things are apparently incapable of happening. However, despite the very cynical coating, the show leans towards idealism at its heart. This is especially evident in seasons 4-5 where it's repeatedly stressed that humans, for all their faults, do not deserve to perish in the war between Heaven and Hell, that the end does not justify the means, that former torturers / junkies / murderers / etc can get a shot at redemption, and that Lucifer's powers pale before the Power of Brotherly Love.
Lucifer (on humans): They are broken, flawed abortions. Gabriel: Damn right they're flawed. But a lot of them try...to do better. To forgive.
Farscape heavily leans towards the cynical side, even though most of the main protagonists seem to be idealistic in spirit. In the very telling example of a season 1 episode, Zhaan does all her best as a high priestess to convince a captive alien mercenary that the performance-enhancing drug his species uses is his true enemy. While she gains his gratitude and respect, she ultimately fails in getting him "clean". The best example for the moral philosophies of the show, however, might be the finale of the series-concluding mini-series "The Peacekeeper Wars". Despite being strongly cautioned against using wormhole weapons by Pilot and the wormhole alien, John enforces peace between the warring Peacekeepers and Scarrans by actually building one, using it to destroy both their armadas, and threatening to destroy the universe if they don't agree on a peace treaty. He's not bluffing, either.
That could be seen as quite idealistic, though, too. Demonstrating with brutal clarity exactly where cynicism will get them. . . namely, sucked into a black hole that will eat the universe.
"Wormhole weapons don't make peace. They don't even make war. All they make is destruction."
The Wire is a very cynical show. Out of four young middle school boys, one ends up a drug addict, one ends up in a group home, one ends up as a stick-up man, and only one is saved. The drug dealers constantly escape the law again and again. The most corrupt politician in the show escapes the law entirely. Almost every "hero" in the police department is either fired or demoted at least once by the end of the show.
Even so, the show is not completely without small, tear jerking moments of idealism; none more so when Bubbles gets sober and stays sober. Or when Namond becomes the only one of the boys in the fourth season to escape the streets.
Treme, David Simon's new series on HBO, depicts the bleak living conditions of post-Katrina New Orleans, but possesses much more idealism, because while the characters realize they live in a Crapsack World, they make it work. Usually.
The Sarah Connor Chronicles sits on the edge of the middle, leaning toward the cynical side of things. Sarah Connor herself is represented as something of an idealist who values all human life and will not kill anyone, but nearly everyone else in the series save her son is comparatively ruthless. Nearly every attempt made thus far to show mercy to someone who is a potential danger turns out to bite the Connors in the ass in one form or another, and the only way to protect the family is often to eliminate witnesses, enemies, and other threats.
House is a strong example of hard cynicism. The eponymous doctor vacillates between extremely cynical and just really cynical. The most idealistic characters are often mocked, criticized, undermined, or otherwise subjected to mild versions of Break the Cutie. And House is always right, or else beats everyone else down with his near-superhuman cynicism until they give up on trying to convince him otherwise. It's constantly made clear that House, although he is the "hero", is totally unhappy, and he has to go to the loony bin for withdrawal at one point.
Yes, Minister and its sequel series Yes, Prime Minister tends towards the cynical side of the trope; the British Civil Service is, for the most part, depicted as a smug, hypocritically self-serving, elitist and amoral monolith perpetuating a clogged bureaucracy arrogantly convinced that it alone knows what is best for Britain (despite being aloof and out-of-touch for the most part) and automatically opposed to any and all hints of change, even if that change would be beneficial or even urgently necessary. Politicians, on the other hand, are cowardly opportunists who, whilst they might have vague ideas of change and reform, will fold at the slightest hurdle or if it looks like the public will turn against them. And whilst occasional victories might be won and small reforms implemented, there's an ever-present sense that nothing will ever change in any meaningful way.
One of the major factors contributing to the series' success was arguably that viewers felt this was an uncomfortably accurate representation of actual government, or at least a highly plausible explanation for why things are the way they are. That it was wildly popular with politicians and the civil service alike lends at least some credence to these beliefs — nothing is so good to laugh at as the Elephant in the Living Room.
That it is sometimes described as the UK equivalent to The West Wing also gives some indication of where on the scale the respective nations views lie when it comes to politics.
It was also sometimes described by ex-politicians as being more documentary than sit-com.
The writers were retired civil servants, and many of the more "unrealistic" storylines - for instance, smuggling alcohol into a reception held in an Islamic country - are based on events that actually occurred in 1970s British politics.
JAG: For the protagonists, pragmatism is usually the best solution to any given problem. This is not surprising given that they're military officers. The show overall is somewhat idealistic regarding the ability of the U.S. military to almost always do the right thing.
Foyle's War tends to hover somewhere around the middle; since the whole point of the series is to explode the myth that during World War II everyone in Britain pitched in together to fight the Nazis, it's generally quite cynical; a frequent theme is that war changes people, usually for the worse. As such, people are venal, cowardly, classist, elitist and, especially in the early seasons, quite defeatist. The government is depicted as being quite morally flexible, willing to do whatever it takes to win the war, to the extent that they freely issue Get Out Of Jail Free Cards to people who they think can help, resulting in a high number of Karma Houdinis in Foyle's investigations. However, the series frequently reiterates that the war had to be won and the Nazis were even worse, and that there were good, decent and even heroic people around; most especially, Foyle himself is consistently presented as a genuinely noble and honourable man.
By contrast, the oft-compared Friends leans very far on the idealistic side. The main characters really do love and care about each other, episodes usually have bright/cheery tone, and everybody has a happy ending at the end of the series. Even when the show briefly took a Darker and Edgier turn in the middle of season three (when Ross had sex with Chloe the copy girl after "thinking" he and Rachel had broken up), it still maintained a strong sense of idealism and lightheartedness.
One of the subthemes of Jericho is people trying to maintain their faith in the ideals of America while struggling for survival.
Pushing Daisies has what might at first glance seem to be a grim premise—main character can bring the dead back to life, but only for one minute or else someone else dies—but in fact it falls firmly on the idealistic end of the scale.
Where Glee falls on the scale is debatable; most viewers generally see it as happy and idealistic, but some critics have attested that this apparent idealism masks a much sadder reality. Particularly played with in episodes that focus on grown-up former glee clubbers (who tend not to have achieved their dreams of Broadway fame and fortune, with April Rhodes being the most extreme example), or on the students' popularity ("Mash-Up" and "Mattress", and now "Prom Queen," in particular). Part of the issue may be that Glee has three different writers, and it can jump all over the scale depending on who is writing any given episode.
It's okay to steal evidence from law enforcement to conduct your own investigation if you know the cops are a bunch of failures.
If your illegitimate child is at risk of falling into the custody of abusive people, you're better off fleeing the country with her without even giving a custody hearing a try.
Lost tends to be very, very far down the cynical side of the spectrum—things have a tendency to go from bad to worse, all of the main characters hit their rage breaking points at least once (some of whom do so completely out of character), and almost everyone's gut reaction to any problems that they encounter is to point a gun at it. However, idealism vs. cynicism is actually a central theme of the show and is manifested in the two foremost protagonists: Jack, the "man of science" who represents cynicism, and Locke, the "man of faith" who represents idealism. Many of their interactions on the show are based on one of them trying to convince the other that their viewpoint is right. Eventually, they both convert to the other side. Jack takes a leap of faith by dropping the nuclear bomb down the hole at the future Swan Station, while Locke has a mental breakdown when he cannot convince everyone to return to the island.
Then comes the Grand Finale which ends on the most idealistic point on the scale possible.
Skins can come off as very cynical compared to other teen shows, but it actually jumps around on the scale:
As far as the couples go: in the first generation, Tony/Michelle couldn't make it work, Sid/Cassie had an ambiguous ending, and Chris/Jal were broken up by Chris's death. In the second generation, though, there was a Happy Ending for the Schoolgirl Lesbians with Naomi's Anguished Declaration of Love to Emily, and it's more than implied that Thomas and Pandora will get one, too, as they head off to Harvard. So only Freddie/Effy get screwed, but considering that Cook/Effy were the Fan-Preferred Couple anyway...
And Skins tends to take a rather idealistic view of teen romance. Rather than acting like teen relationships are doomed to fail, Skins always portrays its Official Couples (the ones that make to the end of their generations, that is) as being in "true love" and likely to last if they put the necessary work into them.
Also: Bad people do tend to get their comeuppance. For example, Tony ruins his friends' lives and immediately he is hit by a bus which his recovery leading to a Heel–Face Turn. Both Mad Twatter and his Expy in Generation 2 get the shit kicked out of them (literally in the former case) for messing with the protagonists. Only Chris, Freddie and Grace, and Sid's dad get the truly bleak end of the stick.
The show seems to have fallen into a pattern for each generation of making its first season more idealistic, with its second season taking a hard turn for the cynical. It overall puts the show on a Cerebus Roller Coaster.
Skins takes a particularly cynical view of psychology/psychiatry. Even before they had Effy's Ax-Crazy shrink murdering Freddie, it showed Emily and JJ going to Psycho(logical) Support and getting the same generic pills for wildly different problems (and with Emily's case, she really didn't need any pills, just some therapy - showing they'd much rather dash off a prescription than actually take time and help her), or Cassie easily tricking her therapists into thinking she'd gained weight (like she's really the first person who walked through there to try that trick). Jamie Brittain has confirmed that this is a case of Writer on Board; he had some bad experiences with psychiatrists in his adolescence and holds a grudge against the profession as a result.
Due South is waaaaaaay over on the idealistic side, so much so that Fraser lives in the worst neighbourhood in Chicago and never needs a lock on his apartment door (it's a plot point that he refuses to believe he needs one).
In the vein of Asian Daytime Dramas, the scale is different for every country. Hong Kong's dramas are mostly idealist with the evil people getting their just desserts and the good people earn their happy ending while Korean Dramas falls mostly in the cynical side.
Kamen Rider swings all over the place in this one, especially in the Heisei era (2000 onwards). Early Heisei shows like Ryuki, Faiz and Blade go purely cynical with a couple of idealists who winds up sacrificing themselves for everyone else; it also marks the introduction of evil but Not Brainwashed Kamen Riders (compare to Gundam, above). More recent Heisei series like Den-O, OOO, and Fourze are much more idealistic worlds where only the Big Bads are truly evil, and the Monsters of the Week result from the desires of people who are good but misguided or manipulated into bad choices. This isn't cut-and-dried, however; the recent Double had its dark moments but is ultimately cautiously hopeful.
The Ultra Series started out fairly light, with death shown, but with mostly good ends for the protagonists. Leo went all-out, with nearly everyone dying and brutal dismemberment. The Heisei series started out with serious moments but hopeful endings. Then Nexus came along, swinging the series down the scale again. Recent series have been lighthearted and fun.
CSI, being as angsty as it is, lies firmly on the cynical end of the scale, though there are also idealistic redemption at times, and most criminals are brought to trial.
Its Asian variant, Forensic Heroes however is on a more idealistic side with a couple of dramatic moments to offset not only the lighter setting (literally) but also the reactions to the situation (It helps since each case is not a single episode affair but a complete arc).
Married... with Children is another example of hardcore cynicism, providing a stark contrast with the blissful optimism of the late-Reagan/early-Bush (Sr.) eranote Its Working Title was Not The Cosbys: The entire cast is made up of jerks and losers (except for Bud and Steve, who are just losers). While the female characters are clearly more successful, they achieve this by less-than-honorable means, while the men are... well, fate has them as its favorite toys. Famously subverted by the fact that the Bundys do really care for each other in spite of all.
Chuck Lorre's productions:
Two and a Half Men is firmly set at the cynical bottom: The characters born jerks (specially Charlie) have it good (a house in the beach, as an example), while the good ones (we are lookin' at ''ya', Alan) are liable to be Cosmic Playthings: Once, the aforementioned Alan began taking advantage on his family and friends, who in tun get quickly fed.
The Big Bang Theory often switches between cynical and idealistic viewpoints. In the short term, the characters often don't really learn that much from their mistakes, but in the long term, they all have go through at least some positive Character Development. In other words: the cynicism is played for laughs, but at it's core, the show is somewhat idealistic.
Norman Lear's shows:
All in the Family was initially very idealistic, with Mike being The Ace and Archie a Straw Conservative. After a few seasons however, Mike was seen as more hypocritical, while Archie became much kinder and tolerant (not that much anyway) getting close to the middle. Archie Bunker's Place became more cynical, even if Archie's prejudices had been thoroughly toned down.
Both The Jeffersons and Good Times were located at the middle, leaning towards idealism at the beginning and turning more to cynicism at the end
Sanford and Son was the most neutral, especially since it was a more "traditional" sitcom.
Maude however, was definitively cynical: The Hilliard-Findlays were extremely hypocritical and neurotic, and were a family mostly just in name.
24 is a brutally cynical political thriller where torture must be used to get critical information out of a person. Good people die and betrayal is often common and Jack Bauer on more than one occasion becomes a wanted man.
And then Kiefer Sutherland's next series, Touch, is well on the idealistic side, at least for the single-episode plotlines, which always end up for the best; whether this is true for the larger series arc remains to be seen, but given the optimistic outcome of the individual stories, one can reasonably expect the same of the larger arc.
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report both embrace the cynical end of the scale as a way of life, though this is a given when you're showing politicians and select journalists to be hypocrites, liars, and idiots four nights a week .
Blackadder began pretty much at the middle for its' initial season (which centered on Prince Edmund trying to gain the throne) before leaning more and more on cynicism: the second season featured an Expy of Elizabeth I as a complete failure of a queen. Series three had Blackadder himself doing very ugly deeds eventually becoming the Prince Regent; and the final incarnation was set during The Great War, and it's ending was not humourous.
Breaking Bad is firmly on the cynical side of things The thesis of the show is that a decent milquetoast chemistry teacher with a loving family can enter the criminal underworld under the pretenses of needing the money and end up becoming a hardened criminal who continues on with his work despite being given multiple opportunities to stop engaging in criminal activity. Ultimately, his empire falls and while he secures the future of his family, he does not survive the ordeal.
Mad Men is another exercise in cynicism: Under the seemingly perfect world of The '60s, lies an underworld of nihilistic ad men who have absolutely no morality. On the other side, the women; either secretaries or housewives, get to know what's cooking behind, but they still manage to hide their feelings.
Parks and Recreation has been called the most optimistic show on television. This is ironic since it started with the premise of Leslie being a clueless Pollyanna in a Crapsack World. Since then, Leslie's world view has gotten more realistic and the show's universe has become less cynical. Although the gap has narrowed considerably, Leslie is still a little bit more idealistic than the world she lives in. The show's optimism may be most evident in the portrayal of Leslie's opponent in the race for city council from the fourth season. While he's an Upper-Class Twit totally unqualified for the position, he's also a genuinely nice person who just wants to impress his father.
The Sopranos is unrelentingly cynical, not only in its depiction of its characters but in its grim postulations about human nature. However, it is not entirely doom and gloom: even characters who do monstrous things feel genuine emotions and sincerely lovetheir families; characters are depicted as possessing moral agency, even if time and time again they slip back into choosing what's easy over what's right; and for all their difficulties and disappointments, the show ends with a glimmer of hope that Tony and Carmela have at least succeeded in raising children who will have a better life than them, thus carrying on The American Dream.
The Inbetweeners has a surprisingly idealistic message from within a cynical setting. It's a cynical portrayal of The Good Old British Comp and school days. But while the four main characters suffer alot, much of this is brought on themselves when they're being dishonest, jerks or too spineless to stand up for themselves. On the rare occasions when they act honestly and selflessly, things start going their way.
Scandal swings wildly on this scale with the running theme that noble beliefs are useless until put into action. Even the worst people in the show are genuine in their beliefs and unwavering in their patriotism. Only David Rosen and President Grant are traditional idealists, though, and in the end can only be such because they are supported by the cynics. In fact Grant's success turns out to come entirely from his friends rigging the election without his knowledge.
Bothversions of The Office are notable in their examination of the scale. Both depict the titular office as being a sucky and soul-crushing place to work where you watch your dreams die. And yet by the end the characters have found happiness in their lives and work and see that many of the things they wanted were right in front of them the whole time. The big difference is that the UK version shows the office as a straight-up Crapsack World while the US version has it as a World Half Full.
Victorious: Jade and Tori are in an in-show evocation of this trope and seem to represent it's own clash between Idealistic and Cynical values. Tori is generally kind, caring, easily forgives those who wrong her and generally believes people's happiness and sense of comfort are the best key to their well being. Jade, in contrast, is cold, distant, often abrasively cruel, and believes what's best for people is conveying (what she believes is) the world's brutal truths. There's argument that both worldviews are right and wrong in both similar and different ways. The show itself often tends to slide between a more optimistic and pessimistic view of human relationships and nature, although Tori's climatic show of unconditional love towards Jade during Tori Goes Platinum (even after the latter's betrayal) seems to hint it's ultimately an Idealistic rather than a Cynical show, despite many grey areas and mixed messages that pop up now and again.
The 100 is an odd combination of idealism and cynicism. On the one hand, it's very idealistic about human nature, with just about every character having a deep desire to do the right thing and help their people survive. However, it's quite cynical about people's ability to actually accomplish anything good, with most victories coming at the cost of tremendous sacrifice or by committing horrible acts against people who were also just trying to do the right thing to help their people survive.
While Six Feet Under is a very dark show, it actually veers more on the "Idealistic" side. Though the show's main focus is on death and the finiteness of human life, it puts a very optimistic spin on the subject and indeed suggests the viability of life afterwards. Meanwhile, the characters (though flawed) are fundamentally good people who care about each other and generally strive to do the right thing.
Once Upon a Time, despite being a show partially based on The Theme Park Version (AKA the Disney version) of fairy tales actually falls all over the scale. In general, the show goes 2 different directions with the idea. On one hand, cynicism works when employed, but it creates a lot of problems down the road. On the other hand, idealism can generate problems as it goes, but can still be rewarded as well. Really, the show can't make up its mind about this, because so many of the different characters either lost, found, or are in the middle of fighting for their happy endings.
Perhaps the most obvious way to think about it is looking at the most important aspect of the series: It's villains. The heroes in general are more idealistic (save for the Knight in Sour Armor hero), so it's the show's treatment of the villains that really shows where the series is on the scale. When the series began, the hero/villain line was a lot more clear cut, showing an idealistic show that you can find a happy ending even if you have to earn it. However, by the middle of season 1, you begin to see that even classic villains like The Evil Queen could have a Freudian Excuse behind their actions, though without excusing them. Come season 2 though, the series goes in 3 directions with villains, showing a surprising amount of idealism. Some villains try reforming (some more successfully than the other), 2 have an Alas, Poor Villain moment despite being serious antagonists, some are given some excuse though have to die for the sake of the group, while some are given life, but in such a way that they lose what they really wanted. In general Once dresses in cynicism in poking holes in fairy tales, but lives in idealism in holding onto the idea of there being good in even the worst people.