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.