Monday, January 14, 2013

TV and violence

The New York Times article by Bill Carter is entitled, "Real-World Killings Pressure TV Fiction". I didn't think it would be worth discussing, but the more I read the more I felt I'd been dropped down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality. I had to call out a few passages that left me a little dizzy.
“I don’t think there’s anyone on this planet whose life hasn’t been changed and/or affected by the recent course of events,” said Nina Tassler, the president of CBS Entertainment. But, she argued, “nothing that is on the air is inappropriate.”
Says the woman in charge of putting all that stuff on the CBS airwaves. Truly an objective voice.

Here's the Fox network's chairman for entertainment, Kevin Reilly:

“You look at the top scripted shows on cable, and they are all pretty heavy duty. These are not some small cultural little things that people like. The top drama on television now is a show where people get their heads blown off at point-blank range.”
(He's speaking of AMC's The Walking Dead.)

My first, unstudied reaction to Reilly's comment is: "So you want every show on your network to feature people's heads being blown off at point-blank range?"

In pop culture, especially in TV, the game is always "follow the leader", so his remark shouldn't surprise me. Yet it does, and I'm tryihg to figure out why. After all, this country has survived a century of trend-following in film and TV. If thousands of cruddy Westerns and brainless "science"-fiction movies and TV shows haven't destroyed us, why should blood-soaked dramas like The Walking Dead or the current version of Spartacus?

That's a good question — and I don't have an answer. I only have a gut feeling, and it isn't good.

Maybe I'm too old to regard the continuing evolution of pop culture with benevolent indulgence any more. (I certainly passed the stage of "eager consumption" a while back.) I don't love gore for its own sake: a youthful viewing of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series made that abundantly clear. Some combination of these and perhaps other factors just leaves me less than thrilled that Reilly and other top TV execs are so eager to soak us in blood.

Reilly continued:

“If you are going to be in this genre,” he said, “the bar is set at the level of shows like ‘Breaking Bad.’ You can’t come in lower and succeed.”
I would ask a different question: "Should we be in that genre?" Then again, I've never longed to program a TV network or cable channel. I understand that the imperatives might be different.

Kevin Williamson, the creator of the midseason show The Following, which is garnering a lot of attention for its graphic depictions of violence, admitted to some unease in the wake of recent real-life shootings.

“We sit in the writers’ room after [the Newtown, CT massacre] happened, and we just, sort of, we’re all traumatized by it,” Mr. Williamson said. “It reaches a moment where that just gets too real, and it’s very disturbing.” But he added: “I’m writing fiction. I’m just a storyteller.”
I'm just a storyteller.

That is a highly disingenuous remark. It's dismissive of his power as a creator of filmed entertainment. Yet you don't go into a career in television without believing in its power to communicate. Even the lowest-rated TV show reaches hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people. And TV doesn't communicate via abstract symbols, like text on a page: it paints images into people's eyes and plays sounds into people's ears. There is little distance, except that created by our consciousness that "we're only watching a story". Yet the best stories slip in around that consciousness. They make us forget we're watching a story. That, indeed is the hope of everyone producing filmed entertainment, that the audience will be sucked into the story. That's why surround-sound and 3D are such intriguing technologies for creators: they promise to immerse us even deeper in our filmed fictions, to make it even easier for creators to suck us into their stories.

And what effect do the stories we are told have on us? Well, clearly they engage our emotions to some degree. They may help to form our moral sensibilities. In the absence of relevant life experience, we might even be tempted to fall back on them for guidance. At the least, it requires an act of will to ignore those stories when confronting real-life circumstances that remind us of the fictions we've absorbed.

I'm not arguing that Williamson or anyone else can't or even shouldn't create the TV shows they're making. But it's bullshit for him to brush off his own uneasiness, and ours as well, by claiming that he's "just" a storyteller.

Here was a bit of tap-dancing that amused me:

John Landgraf, the president of FX, which programs hit dramas based on some level of violence like “America Horror Story” and “Justified,” stressed a distinction between what he called “third-person entertainment” and “first-person entertainment.” The former describes the passive viewing of scripted dramas; the latter describes participatory entertainment, like video games, where shooting and mayhem are personally inflicted on characters.
I can't produce any evidence that he's wrong, but I doubt he can produce any that he's right, either. I'm going to call this an overly elaborate bit of sophistry, akin to Bill Clinton's famous parsing of "is".

Landgraf, though, didn't stop there.

“We’re mammals,” he said. “Our greatest fear is death, and if you want to rivet people, you’re going to tend to hover around questions of life and death because that’s the thing that rivets our attention most naturally.”
Yes, we're mammals. We're also humans, which means we've created a pretty elaborate and extensive non-primal civilization. Death, in other words, isn't all that can hold our attention.

By his logic, Starbucks should be peddling meth instead of coffee. I can live without our most primal instincts always being stimulated, thank you.

Truthfully, I would be deeply uncomfortable if anyone tried to ban the shows these execs are defending. I wish the audiences for these shows would dry up, though. A market-oriented solution like that would suit our present libertarian bent. However, that would require more self-control, and better taste, than we have ever shown.

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