A few months ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a rather concerntrolling piece on violence on elite dramas. It cited the aggressive season openers for Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire, among others, as evidence that violence is ‘amping up’ on television shows, and that it’s making a crossover into specifically more highbrow shows, the new lineup from cable networks trying to push the envelope in terms of quality, and content, of programming.
The author, Greg Braxton, admitted that violence on television was nothing new, arguing that it of course has a long history[1. And, of course, an equally long history of handwringing editorials about it.]. His claim was that violence is getting more baroque on television, and that this is something we should be paying attention to, the increase in the level of mayhem and what is played for shock value. This, coming from a journalist working for a publication that has run the burned bodies of contractors hung from bridges in Iraq on its main page.
Yes, television designed for adults is violent, and on cable networks, it can be especially violent, because it’s not subjected to the same content standards as network shows. Things like True Blood are airing well after people who might be particularly susceptible to violence have gone to bed, and adults can decide whether they want to watch them. These shows are coming, after all, with an explicit content label that warns viewers they may encounter graphic violence, and that label doesn’t really mess around. Neither do the show’s creators; look at previews and you can get a pretty good idea that there is going to be violence, and there will probably be a lot of it.
There’s a long tradition of ultraviolence in film, which hasn’t gone as mainstream because of ratings issues. Kill Bill certainly reminded theatregoers that audiences have an appetite for extreme, almost cartoonish violence. Film ratings boards tend to go easier on violence than they do on sexuality, which means that some quite explicit things can get past and end up in theatres; audiences should be asking themselves, if they watched movies like Kill Bill or American History X, what kind of violence doesn’t get past ratings boards, forces a movie into a category that means it can’t be shown in theatres, because make no mistake, ultraviolence is a film genre, and has been for a long time.
The violence on cable networks isn’t even as graphic as true ultraviolent films. It’s played, yes, for shock value, but also for effect, to take viewers deeper into that world, to invest them more seriously in the plot and the characters. Even as the characters are reminded of the high stakes of the world they live in through graphic beheadings, throat slittings, and other acts of violence, viewers are drawn in. They can make a decision to back out and stop watching, which some fans certainly do, and they shouldn’t be faulted for it, or they can keep going.
Television is exploring dark worlds right now, because this is where viewers are. The economic meltdown has created increasing frustration and unease with the surrounding world, a deeper desire for escapism, and a need for a stronger outlet. Television is providing that, even as these shows join a long lineage not just in film, but in television. Some harsh violence appeared in shows like The Wire, and audiences clearly have a taste for graphic television, as evidenced by the success of a slew of forensic dramas. Networks and cable alike are playing to their strengths and giving viewers what they claim to want.
It’s possible to use violence as a vehicle for emotional drama, as well as a motivator for viewers. These are violent acts that occur not abstractly to people peripheral to the storyline, but to key members of the cast. They are important in the development of the characters and in the narrative, where the violence underscores the very harsh reality these people are living in. Gangsters in the 1920s absolutely did stage violent wars with each other, and the scenes in Boardwalk Empire are true to life and a reminder that beneath the glitter and the flappers lay something much darker. They’re also a reminder that the human dramas of the era were as important as the violent ones; there is violence, for example, in the racial tensions of the show, in the exclusion of Black residents from society.
Art has included depictions of violence for centuries. Audiences have always enjoyed a good bloodbath and come back for more, whether performed on stage as part of a drama or played out on the sands of a coliseum. It is not surprising to see a return to graphic, intense violence played to narrative effect, nor to see it spreading across the adult networks and into shows critics may think of as ‘elite’ or ‘highbrow.’ Some highly reputed and respected filmmakers explore the same visual themes and boundaries with violence in their work; Martin Scorcese, for example, shows both violence and complex human drama.
Concerntrolling about violence on shows depicting violent times, airing late at night, misses larger and more complex shifts that are happening in television and the use of television for narrative. ‘The Internet’ is blamed for the rise in violence, and this ignores huge cultural issues happening right now that might well be leading viewers into a desire for expressions of violence and explorations of very dark places.