A Burning Issue: When Television Goes Too Far

When it comes to television "entertainment," we all have our limits. Content that offends some people thrills or amuses others. Sex and skin send some folks into fitful outrage. Others turn away from graphic depictions of guts and gore, though the "CSI" franchise and other crime dramas have done their part to desensitize most of us to brutal violence. And many people are simply turned off by what they see on reality programs, especially those in which rich people flaunt their wealth and proudly display the deeply disturbing results of multiple plastic surgeries.

My limits have been tested and compromised as much as anyone else's during the last couple of decades, and it had gotten to the point where I didn't think I would ever again be all that upset by something I saw on television, especially in the scripted pay cable arena. After the frequent outbursts of shocking violence on "The Sopranos" and the furious nonstop savagery of the "Spartacus" series I thought I was finally good to go; free to watch any original content on any television network without fear of being truly offended or disgusted.



Then 2011 came, and I discovered that I still had one very distinct limit: I do not like the depiction or implication of people or animals being burned alive. Yes, television has made that an issue for me this year.

It started with the Showtime comedy drama "Shameless," which debuted in January. I knew it would be twisted. I knew that some of the storylines involving the kids on the canvas might be controversial. But I wasn't prepared to learn that one of the kids liked to amuse himself by taking animals to his room and burning them with a blowtorch. Worse, I couldn't believe that the kid's sick kick was presented as something humorous. During an introductory segment in the pilot, viewers saw the kid holding a cat in one hand and a blowtorch in the other. When the kid lit the torch the cat meowed. I tried to watch that episode with friends, but once that scene came on they insisted I turn it off. I was happy to do so. The cat was just the beginning. In the months since January, we've seen people burned alive on a number of shows. This summer, plotlines in two HBO series, "True Blood" and "Game of Thrones," have spun around witches burned at the stake. Given the degree of extreme suffering most characters have been made to endure in these series, as well as the fact that they are multi-tiered fantasies, I have been able to push aside the fact that women accused of questionable behaviors were indeed burned alive in this country and others several centuries ago and accept what happens to the witches in these shows as part of the overall madness and mayhem around them. It doesn't hurt that "Blood" and "Thrones" are enormously entertaining. I know to expect such things in series of this kind.

But I sure don't expect them in "Torchwood," one of the finest television franchises in recent years (and a spin-off from "Doctor Who," one of the best ever), which has unfortunately suffered in its transition from broadcast (on the BBC) and basic cable (BBC America) to the unrestricted environs of pay cable (Starz).

"Torchwood: Miracle Day" (as this year's season is titled) started out strong a few weeks back, with the introduction of a seemingly compelling story in which people mysteriously stop dying (even the terminally ill and catastrophically injured). In the last two episodes, though, it began losing focus, not to mention crucial momentum. I was already getting restless, but the sequence at the end of last week's episode was so profoundly revolting that I may give up on the show altogether.

You guessed it. People were burned alive.

(Spoiler alert: Read no further if you haven't seen it and intend to watch it, though reading what follows might spare you from enduring something you likely won't appreciate or enjoy.)

I couldn't believe what I was watching: Hundreds of thousands of the sick and suffering, who had been herded by government operatives around the world into giant, hastily constructed warehouses that were in fact giant ovens, were incinerated in their beds (or wherever their bodies were placed). One of the victims was a new (and healthy) character introduced this season; a doctor who had figured out what was happening and was shot and left to burn in one of the buildings.

You may recall that I published a very positive review of "Torchwood: Miracle Day" in this very space a few weeks ago. I couldn't have known that it would go so completely off the rails so soon into the season.

In short, I feel burned by this show and burnt out by this sickening new trend in television "entertainment." To all those writers in Hollywood who think burning people and animals is a welcome addition to popular storytelling, I say: Get real or get lost.

3 comments about "A Burning Issue: When Television Goes Too Far ".
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  1. Frank Maggio from Maggio Media, LLC, August 12, 2011 at 12:31 p.m.


    The burning of live animals and people is a practice not just limited to TV depictions. For a real wake up call, Google "Candy Apple Babies" and take a look at the fatal saline burns of millions of Americans that never had a chance to breathe, let alone watch TV. Warning - this isn't pretty... and it isn't fiction, either.

    This is a burning issue you won't even see on TV - and while the topic has been politicized, it doesn't deserve to be swept under the proverbial carpet. When will TV do its job to shine the light on this, and other similar forms, of incomprehensible, cruel, and fatal torture?

  2. Pam Mcneely from Tantara Media Partners, August 12, 2011 at 4:28 p.m.

    While I don't approve of the harming of animals or "living" people, I think you need to adjust your reality vs fiction meter. The Shameless pilot device was to quickly set up the morality level of the superhero microwave incinerator kid - no cats were truly harmed and your friends are overly squeamish. If, in fact, no one could ever die as posited by Torchwood, don't you think in some way the "dead" would be "torch"ed? They've waited years for that pun.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 12, 2011 at 5:13 p.m.

    You are so absolutely on target.

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