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The Bottom Line on TV Violence: It’s Up to You, The Viewer, to Decide Where to Draw the Line
October 4, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

The argument against violence on TV is as old as The Three Stooges — and, at times, about as silly.

Just because an argument is seemingly unsolvable doesn’t mean it’ll go away, though. Westworld, which debuted this past weekend, has jumpstarted the conversation all over again, thanks in part to a scene where a character played by Ed Harris repeatedly rapes a woman robot, played by Evan Rachel Wood, because he paid for the fantasy, and because she’s not real anyway. Westworld hails from HBO, home to Game of Thrones, another lightning rod for debate about violence against women and where popular entertainment should draw the line.

HBO’s The Night Of also drew unwanted attention for its repeated images of a violent murder’s aftermath — but here the argument gets a little more opaque, in my view.

The original Law & Order, a long-running drama that takes on added significance now that so many network dramas have become trivial and meaningless, where onscreen violence is simply a prelude to the next commercial break, was one of the least openly violent procedurals on television, in no small part because the writer-creators always opted to come in after a murder had already been committed, offscreen, out of sight but not out of mind.

The best writer-directors insist that something left to the imagination is always more disturbing than watching the actual act being committed onscreen. The images in The Night Of are disturbing, because they show the aftereffects of violence, and the physical and emotional and carnage left in its wake. As viewers, we did not have to see the murder being committed in The Night Of to know that it was bloody and violent. Repeatedly seeing images of the crime scene afterwards plays to the viewer’s imagination. The viewer has to imagine the act that caused so much carnage. Invariably, what we see in our minds is more disturbing — and important to the story — than seeing the violence played out before our eyes.

That is worlds away from seeing a little girl burned alive at the stake on Game of Thrones, or the weekly carnage in The Walking Dead (right) and its offshoot Fear the Walking Dead. The defense that Walking Dead in all its incarnations is a fantasy based on a graphic novel, and so shouldn’t be taken so seriously, doesn’t wash. The gore in Walking Dead is no more critical to the story than seeing a little girl being burned alive in Game of Thrones is critical in telling us that Stannis Baratheon is a churlish brute willing to do anything to win the throne.

There is a big difference, though, between advertiser-supported cable and premium pay services like AMC and HBO, and the commercial broadcast networks. The consumer has to make a conscious choice to subscribe to HBO or AMC.

Broadcast networks Fox, NBC, CBS and others reach into every home that has a basic cable package or basic satellite service, and so the responsibility is greater.

FCC rules determine what can and can’t be said or shown on the broadcast networks — whether that’s for good or bad is a whole other argument — but in many ways the trivialization and sheer repetition of seemingly bloodless violence in network dramas like The Blacklist (below left) is worse, because it desensitizes us to the real effects of violence and how it leaves ruined lives in its wake. Say what you will against the bloody crime-scene images in The Night Of, but they don’t trivialize the act.

The issue of realism — actual bloody, physical violence in the real world — and the desensitization that’s caused by banal, repetitive car chases and shootouts shouldn’t be discounted. A veterinarian friend of mine, an avid TV watcher who admits to becoming more sensitive to onscreen violence as he has grown older, says there are times when he and his colleagues are soaked with blood from head to toe after a particularly difficult operation. He says that if casual viewers saw the effect of a bullet on an actual human body — I’ll spare you the details — they would probably not want to watch a single police procedural ever again.

The argument over screen violence is unsolvable, at least in part, because there are so many different arguments to be had. Violence in shows directed toward children — cartoons, comic strips and yes, even The Three Stooges — is not the same discussion as violence in shows aimed at an adult audience.

The argument over whether onscreen splatter and gore are simply a sign of lazy writing is not the same discussion as whether rampant violence against women in movies and TV desensitizes viewers to the effects — and frequency — of violence against women in society.

The gender question has jumped to the fore, due in large part to the efforts of influential TV critics like Variety’s Maureen Ryan, formerly of The Chicago Tribune and Huffington Post. The sexual violence in Westworld may or may not propel the story — that’s for viewers and other TV reviewers to decide — but think how much more cutting-edge and original Westworld would have seemed if the roles were reversed, if Wood’s character was battering Harris’ character as part of some twisted, paid-in-advance revenge fantasy.

The argument is unsolvable, too, because no one has been able to empirically prove whether popular entertainment reflects society as it is, or influences it in some way.

The likely if not exactly useful answer, is that it’s probably a bit of both, but that’s just my feeling; I don’t have any scientific studies or hard numbers to back it up. There have been suggestions, though, that repeated exposure to popular network dramas like CSI and Criminal Minds causes people to be more distrusting of — and hostile toward — neighbors and strangers than the actual crime statistics warrant. Violent crime in the real world has leveled off — there are studies to show just that — even as depictions of violent crime in TV and film has spiked. A 2015 study of violent crime by New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice found that violent crime has fallen by 51 percent since 1991, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the fall pilots.

The truth is that none of this matters, not as long as formulaic violence in media boosts the bottom line of multi-billion dollar media companies. As long as shareholders see steady returns and as long as TV action stars become household names, there’s no incentive for the industry to change. As distinctive and well-reviewed as Game of Thrones, The Night Of, and Westworld are, the truth is that more people might see The Blacklist or Criminal Minds in one week than will watch Westworld over the course of an entire season.

So many of today’s network dramas have discerning viewers pining for the days of House and Lost — not that long ago — when story was key, characters mattered and life lessons imparted were deeper and more meaningful than whether to keep a gun on you in the shower or in bed at night, because you never know what hopped-up meth head might come bursting through the door and terrorize you in your own home.

The issue may seem intractable and the argument unsolvable, but that’s not to say important points aren’t being made, by Ryan and others. In a thought-provoking essay in last week’s issue of TIME, National Sexual Violence Resource Center CEO Delilah Rumburg argued that TV can be a force for good, in helping improve understanding of sexual violence in the real world. Rumburg says this means more than simply having Joe Biden appear in an upcoming “very special episode” of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Rumburg believes prohibition and regulation are not the answer — “If we avoid the topic altogether, we risk skirting a serious and widespread problem that’s a reality for millions of women and men across the country,” she wrote — but rather encourage writers, directors and producers to humanize the victims in their shows by giving them motivations, dreams, and hopes beyond those defined by their assault. Experts who work with the victims of violent crime can and should play a key role behind the scenes, Rumburg argues.

Rape and other violent crimes should be depicted more realistically, not glossed over, trivialized or glamorized, Rumburg argues. She cited a series-changing episode of Outlander as a good example, by showing a rape survivor’s pain and struggle to recover over the course of several episodes and even seasons to come.

Finally, Rumburg argues, popular entertainment can and should play a bigger role in crime prevention, as it’s already doing through the efforts and public appearances by high-profile actors like Mariska Hargitay and Ashley Judd.

Violence against women is just one aspect of a thorny and multi-pronged issue, of course. In the end, it’s down to the individual viewer to decide what’s right for them. Just be aware of what’s being shown on the screen, and why, and what the storytellers’ motivations are.

When Gotham (left), now in its third season, debuted, series creator and showrunner Bruno Heller was pressed on the subject of the show’s apparent violence — a man being bloodily beaten to death with a baseball bat, for starters — and whether it was necessary to be so . . . explicit.

Heller also created the HBO costume drama Rome and the long-running CBS procedural The Mentalist in a previous life.

“Violence, if you show it, should be disturbing,” Heller said, meeting the question head-on. “That’s the only moral way to show violence . . . This is a crime story. And crime is violence, essentially. We’re all aware, on Gotham, that we’re telling a story to a general audience.

“I do think the benchmark for what’s acceptable violence has risen in society, and it’s very hard for any individual person or even individual show to calibrate where that line is. If Gotham were not a crime show, violence would be inappropriate, obviously. But once you’re in that world, I think it’s important and morally correct to make it disturbing.

“I have kids. I see that my 12-year-old boy is more adult in many ways than 16-year-olds when I was 16, simply because that’s the way media has gone. They have access to things that 12-year-olds didn’t have 50 years ago. It’s up to the audience, to parents, to decide what standards they wish to cleave to.”

It's your choice, in other words. Which is probably as it should be. Just be mindful of the motivations at work in the background, behind the scenes.

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Three Stooges? Well,I'll go back to the most relevant electrical medium while the Stooges first spooled those two reels in the local Bijou decades ago-radio. Images of violence and gore were part of the norm in movies(think Warner Btos. gangsters),though the Hayes Code pretty much put a lid on much of during same era. Meanwhile,radio,with words and sound effects let the theater of the mind paint some pretty sordid details that oft times were hard to forget. If someone chimes in on graphic violence found on cave walls from thousands of years ago,it shows that this didn't start in the 1950s-maybe 40.000 BC. It's storytelling.
That said,I've been in a movie house only four times since 1997. Why? Air Force One,directed by Wolfgang Petersen. A scene early on has the bad guy with a gun pointed to the head of a child. Sorry,visually,that's porn. Jumped out of my seat. Refund. Never returned,save for two TCM revivals,an NPR event and the Brian Wilson biopic.
Oct 6, 2016   |  Reply
A gun pointed at a kids head elicits sexual arousal? You may have been offended, but that's a bad choice of words.
Oct 12, 2016
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