Isn't It Shocking?

With ample amounts of blood and guts, TV today is pushing the envelope of the violence. But is all this gore just masquerading creative shortcomings?

Over 10 years ago, I reviewed the FX original series The Shield for PopMatters. At the time, I praised the lead performance of Michael Chiklis and lamented what I saw as the violence-for-the-sake-of-violence, graphic-for-the-sake-of-being-graphic style of the series and wondered where all this new frankness in the name of “realism” was going to lead us in the coming years.

Now, a decade on, I think I have my answer.

Recent viewing of series like Game of Thrones, Spartacus, True Blood, and even old standbys like CSI, have evidenced what a red-soaked blood bath television (pay cable, basic cable and even broadcast) has become. Whoever is supplying all the fake blood in Hollywood these days is making a major (ahem) killing.

Of course, television has been upping the adult nature of its presentations since practically the day it began. Though they couldn’t say “pregnant” on the air, Lucy Ricardo’s “expecting” of Little Ricky in season two of I Love Lucy was one of TV’s first embracing of “mature themes.” Herman and Lily Munster and the married leads on Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, were TV’s first couples to be seen regularly sharing the same bed; they debuted in 1964 and 1965, respectively. All in the Family was the first TV series where one overheard a toilet flush, and Maude dealt with (and underwent) an abortion in 1972.

With the possible exception of the abortion storyline—abortion is still too much of a firebrand for television to take on very often—all of the things just mentioned happen quite regularly on TV nowadays. In fact, it seems like now everything is fair game and the more in-your-face it is the better.

Despite these earlier “mature themes", Steven Bochco certainly seems to be the one who truly pried open the floodgates of adult content on the broadcast networks with the 1993 debut of his ABC network series NYPD Blue. It, amidst great fanfare, became primetime’s first series to regularly incorporate previously unspoken cuss words and flashes of nudity into its weekly episodes. Bochco’s desire at the time to test the limits of broadcast standards always seemed surprising to me. For years, he had proved, many times over, that he could craft effective television drama (Hill Street Blues, anyone?) without the use of profanity or bare buttocks and breasts. So why did NYPD Blue suddenly have to throw down the (naughty) gauntlet? I always thought it was simply done by Bochco to see if he could get away with it. And, all in all, that’s a rather childish impulse, one driven more by ego than by storytelling necessity.

Regardless of Bochco’s influence or not, his pushing of the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope attitude seems to be the norm in Hollywood production circles today. Certainly HBO’s current hit Game of Thrones enjoys (or at least exploits) some of this logic making ample use of graphic bloodletting and violence and throwing in the occasional bare breasts if only to remind viewers that they are indeed watching HBO and not, say, CBS.

But random shots of bare bosoms and ample shots of swords shoved into flesh is a very weak and increasingly cliched way of proving that you are “edgy” and “adult.” We are beginning to too often confuse being shocking with being compelling, or even interesting. We shouldn’t mistake gore for effective storytelling or, for that matter, even for realism. Nor should we start to think that as long as we douse everything with enough fake blood and naked flesh we can hide the flaws of the underlying script.

Today, it seems, even a great deal of TV “humor,” first wants to be titillating before it bothers with being funny. Consider Saturday Night Live's frequent flirting with homosexuality, especially the “daring” risk of the male-on-male kiss, or Chelsea Handler’s near-nightly mentioning of abortion and molestation. Laughter born from discomfort seems to be as good as any laughs at all these days.

But even without (my) moralizing though, we are still left with one overarching question: Yes, it is shocking--but is it any good?

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