Commentary

The Violent World Of Prestige TV

With the season finales of “Fargo” and “Better Call Saul” behind us, the prestige TV season is almost over.  There’s really only “Twin Peaks” to keep us going until next spring, when the Emmy-bait shows return.

This also means we have a short respite from highly stylized violence deployed in the pursuit of art.  Unfortunately, it will be a very short respite, because “Game of Thrones” is right on the horizon, and “The Walking Dead” will be back soon after that.

For decades, television violence has been one of the most hotly debated issues among academics, family groups, lawmakers, and critics, with most of the debate revolving around the impact of violence on children.

The rule of thumb is that conservatives are more worried about sex on TV and that liberals are concerned with violence.  And I have to admit that I am among those who think that a teenager is more likely to be influenced by watching their peers having sex than by people shooting each other.

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Having said that, I’ll leave the debate about TV’s influence on kids until another time.  I’m more interested now in the impact of violence on adults, specifically the violence that appears on the most highly honored and respected television shows.

Any list of great shows from the Golden Age of Television would include some of the most violent ones — not just the previously cited “Game of Thrones” and “Fargo” but also “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Homeland,” “The Leftovers,” “Dexter,” “Justified,” “True Detective” and “The Americans.”

A comparison between the original “Twin Peaks” and its sequel illustrates how our tolerance or even craving for violence has grown in the past three decades.  The first “Twin Peaks” was plenty scary and psychologically disturbing through good writing, haunting music, original storytelling, and eerie production values, but there was little in the way of obvious blood and guts.  

Even accounting for the fact that the first “Twin Peaks” was shown on broadcast television (ABC) and the new one is on Showtime, the new version is markedly more grisly, with disembodied corpses or gruesome murders in almost every episode.   In one recent episode a dwarf brutally stabbed two women to death with an ice pick, and a drugged-up teenage driver ran over a small child in front of his mother.  These scenes effectively illustrated the depravity of modern life — but boy, they were tough to watch.

Part of the problem with evaluating television violence is that there are qualitative but hard-to-quantify differences between different types of violence.  When I was growing up, the adults used to worry that the face slaps and head bonks of “The Three Stooges” encouraged violence. And there was rarely a Western or crime show that didn’t begin or end without someone being shot dead.  But those violent acts were relatively bloodless and not particularly disturbing.  Even today, there are shows with plenty of gunplay that don’t make you question whether life is worth living.

But one of the features of prestige TV is beautiful and powerful visual direction, with each scene composed like a masterpiece.  When someone on these shows gets killed (or even beaten up), the director’s talent is on full display.  For example, one murder on “Fargo” involved a guy getting stabbed in the neck as he was retrieving a carton of milk from the refrigerator. The resulting image was a stream of bright red blood pooling with the white milk – a beautiful but disturbing contrast between life and death.

On prestige TV, violence is supposed to be disturbing — it’s not to be taken lightly.  If a couple of bad guys are kicking a woman on the ground, each thud makes you feel sick to your stomach, as it should.  

Further, the more the show aspires to real art, the more the innocent suffer and the more random life feels.  This is one of the differences between prestige and traditional TV.  Most TV viewers prefer unchallenging shows where emotions are not ripped raw and where evil is punished.  That’s not always the case on the artier shows. Sometimes the good guys end up dead and the bad guys walk free.  

Look, I like shows that challenge my assumptions and make me think about the bigger issues as much as the next guy, but the over-reliance on violence as an emotional intensifier seems a bit lazy after a while.  

Here’s where shows like “Mad Men,” “Six Feet Under,” and “Friday Night Lights” really differentiated themselves.  Almost all of the drama we experience in our own lives is free of physical violence.  We are subjected to plenty of EMOTIONAL violence, but most of us don’t get shot, stabbed or garroted even once in our lives — never mind with the frequency it happens on TV.

So give us a break, prestige TV artists-of-the-first-rank.  Find a way to get our blood racing without showing someone else’s blood flowing.

4 comments about "The Violent World Of Prestige TV".
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  1. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, July 6, 2017 at 7:53 a.m.

    Great observations, Gary. Especially how quality shows like "Mad Men," "Six Feet," "FNL," managed to deal with emotion vs. physical depiction -- to great affect. I don't know where we are headed, but would like to think that real prestige shows will throttle back to emotion vs. gatuitous violent depictions. But they're competing in a world where consumers are becoming increasingly desensitized to violent depections. As you know (and reference), broadcast and basic cable have been responding to an edginess that began with pay TV shows like the "Sopranos," etc. And now, with the Internet, OTT and real-world violent depictions in news media, well, where will it end?

    It's all part of a progression, but true progress will come when television storytellers figure out ways to engage us more emotionally than stepping up the gratuitous depiciton of physical violence.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, July 6, 2017 at 1:19 p.m.

    I agree with you Gary and Joe, as well. However, the real question as it pertains to the broadcast TV networks and major basic cable channels, is not only whether they can break out of their comfy relationships with their "usual" program suppliers but also whether they can make very high cost and "edgy" dramas pay out---except as "loss leaders" which are bundled in with their usual formula pap and sold to advertisers in audience tonnage "packages". Another issue concerns oversaturation of the genre.As I point out in my book, "TV Now and Then", whenever primetime TV has gone overboard on violence laden dramas, a point was quickly reached where the public reacted negatively to the inherent redundancy---in effect became burnt out on the genre----and ratings plummeted. This tells me that "edgy" violence- and sex- oriented dramsa with high production costs are better suited to a distribution system where they start out as digital streaming entries funded by relatively small numbers of paid subscribers, then move into commercial TV where they appear as reruns ( though most viewers will never have seen them ) and are ad-supported. Their final destination, of course, would be in syndication, where they are played and replayed endlessly on the local station and cable rerun circuits and where the producers as well as their distribution "partners" will make the largest profits.

  3. Gary Holmes from Gary Holmes Communications LLC, July 7, 2017 at 9:30 a.m.

    Thanks Joe, I can understand occasionally resorting to violence to magnify emotion but when it's done all the time it seems unoriginal.  Unfortunately, as you point out, we become desensitized with exposure to any sensation, including violence, so that just ratchets up the stakes.  And the prestige shows aren't the worst offenders.  Hannibal and American Horror Story are hardly prestige (and are not behind a pay cable wall either).  From my perspective, the real problem with combining violence and prestige TV is that I can't stand to watch it.  I bailed out on Breaking Bad after just a few episodes and never even watched The Sopranos.  

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 18, 2017 at 8:08 p.m.

    Bigger, better, best formula whether phones or shows or selfishies or cars...ad infinitum. It does not make us better, bigger (fatter yes) or best.

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