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.
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 (see following video for proof of that).
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.