In theory, this means that archetypes which we are usually accustomed to acting in a more noble setting will have to act in one where they must think and act grimly in order to make progress, thus forcing re-examination of the tropes involved or the ability to use new tropes and expand the setting making for different sorts of characters and stories. In practice, however, writers can be too lazy to make use of what most of those words mean and ending up randomly "spicing up" a work with gratuitous gore, cursing, and sex to make the work more "adult" — often overdoing it in the process. This is not to be confused with Tough Love.
When done right, Darker and Edgier works are a case of Tropes Are Not Bad. When a show uses this trope as a tagline, you can expect a mixture of: awful things happening to the characters, twisted backstories giving them a reason to angst, good and bad becoming less obvious, and the setting becoming much bleaker. However, this all works IF it's done right.
As one could predict, this is fairly easy to screw up and poor use of these tropes may just result in Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy if the setting gets too depressing or Narm if the edginess becomes just silly. This doesn't make it a bad trope though— when this is used subtly such as in the Harry Potter series it can create the effect of a series growing up with its audience.
In fact this is often the purpose of a Darker and Edgier turn. Just as a Lighter and Softer tone is typically part of an attempt to bring a fictional world to children or to younger children, a "darker" tone is often intended to make a setting appeal to older children or adults. But unlike its opposite, a Darker And Edgier shift is often intended not to reach a new audience, but rather to keep an existing audience as it grows up. It can also be a result of child fans growing up, Running the Asylum as Promoted Fanboys, and continuing to think of the setting as something aimed at themselves and their peers instead of the original target age group.
This trope became extremely popular in Comic Books as a rebellion against the Silver Age but also led to more than a decade of clumsy attempts to show that comics are "not kid stuff anymore." See the Bronze Age, the Dark Age, and '90s Anti-Hero for more details about how this worked.
The excessive version is often known as "Grimdark" (one word), derived from the tagline of Warhammer 40,000. ("In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.") Sometimes justified with the phrase "Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!". Usually shows up in Dark Fic. If a pre-existing show undergoes a Retool under the guise of making things Darker And Edgier, expect Jumping the Shark, especially if there was Executive Meddling involved. The United Federation of Charles wrote an essay called, What is Grimdark? which explains some of the history of the subject. "Grimderp" has in many parts of the Net become popular as a term for Grimdark that goes so far that it becomes Narm. When a specific character rather than the work as a whole is perceived as having become excessively Darker And Edgier, a popular term is "Edgelord". Which also gets applied to fanfic writers who produce exclusively Grimdark (or especially Grimderp) works. Future writers beware! Using this trope without knowing when to stop is a quick road to Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy.
As with Lighter and Softer, this practice tends to go better if the change was planned in advance to keep the tone from shifting too abruptly.
Note that this is not the same as a Deconstruction. A Deconstruction plays out the genre's conventions to their logical conclusions in order to criticize the initial genre conventions. This does not have to be dark (see for instance Deconstructive Parody) and it doesn't prevent things from turning out well. Darker And Edgier just adds "dark" elements to try and get the same effect. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but often a Deconstruction can cause a work to seem darker because it's calling attention to dark aspects already implied but previously glossed over; see also Ascended Fridge Horror.
Opposite of Lighter and Softer, Younger and Hipper, Denser and Wackier and Revisiting the Roots. Often found alongside Bloodier and Gorier, Hotter and Sexier, Obligatory Swearing, Sequel Logo in Ruins, and Real Is Brown. Often a by-product of the franchise growing bigger and more epic.
Compare Grimmification and Fractured Fairy Tale for when this is done with fairy tales and American Kirby Is Hardcore for when this is done with boxart. See also Sugar Apocalypse, and Cerebus Syndrome. For when it applies to a single episode, see Unexpectedly Dark Episode.
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