The escalation of violence on television isn't merely a matter of audiences becoming desensitized. It also raises the stakes and the psychological payoffs when the violence is avenged.
Graphic violence and gruesome subject matter on American television is nothing new, but it has become so pronounced lately that the FCC is urging Congress to allow the Commission to regulate violence on television in the same way it regulates indecency. Shows like CSI and House use computer-generated images of bodies or body parts being destroyed or shutting down. Lost has had violent scenes, including the use of torture, though the biggest offender when it comes to torture is easily 24. Law and Order: SVU confronts heinous crimes, and the protagonist of the new Showtime series Dexter is a serial killer.
But lost in the discussion of what violent subject matter on television should be censored is what fuels the trend toward violence in the first place. It goes deeper than audiences simply becoming desensitized or developing an unhealthy fascination with the macabre.
Shows like 24 and Law and Order:SVU certainly aren’t popular because of the violence alone; they are also well-written, suspenseful, and have dynamic and interesting characters. But plenty of non-violent shows possess all of those traits as well. So something about the particularly gruesome, high-stakes violence that shows like 24, Law and Order: SVU, and Dexter portray must attract audiences, fulfilling a specific function for which tamer shows are inadequate.
According to Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, children (generally ages five to eight) go through a stage, often known as the “justice stage”, during which they seek out dark and gruesome stories, such as Grimm’s fairy tales. This stage coincides with the development of a sense of empathy as well as the growth of relationships with friends and peer groups. The dark stories serve as one way in which children learn a sense of right and wrong, good and evil. Good always has to win though -- hence the “justice” label.
During a time of war and uncertainty, it may be that contemporary American audiences, like children, are moving towards violent television as a way to reaffirm their own sense of right and wrong. With the ongoing war in Iraq, the continued threat of terrorism, uncertainty regarding Iran and North Korea, and genocide in Sudan, the bad guy on TV now has to be really bad in order for the triumph over evil to satisfy viewers. And the most hard-hitting way to make a bad guy especially bad is to make his (or her) crimes especially violent, heinous, and bloody.
The popular series 24 and Law and Order: SVU and the new series Dexter each illustrate this in varying ways. All portray graphic violence or gruesome and macabre themes, but each has in its own distinct way, it's own clear-cut definition of evil (terrorists, criminals, other serial killers, etc.). And more important, in each series, good consistently wins.
Law & Order: SVU
When commissioners and lobbyists argue for the FCC’s authority to regulate violence on television, 24 is often cited as an example. Parental groups, human rights organizations, even the US military and interrogation experts have criticized the show’s glorified portrayal of torture in its signature “ticking clock” situations. Despite these ethical concerns, the show still defines good and bad for the audience in an unmistakable way: Jack Bauer is the good guy, the terrorists are the bad guys, and Jack Bauer always wins. Since torture aids the good guy, it becomes acceptable. So every 24 hours, good triumphs: a presidential candidate is saved, a bomb crisis or bio-weapon threat is averted, society is saved, and the terrorists lose. Life goes on, and the American people are a little bit safer.
This idea of extinguishing a threat to society is found in both Law and Order: SVU and Dexter as well, although both of these series are drastically different from 24. Law and Order: SVU rarely, if ever, depicts graphic violence on screen, but the crimes it deals with are among the most gruesome on television: brutal, often serial, rape and sexual assault, and the abuse, rape, and/or murder of children. When asked why they prefer SVU over the Mothership (as Law and Order proper is known), fans of the show generally say that the Mothership series just isn’t twisted enough -- a stand alone, straightforward murder isn’t that much of an attention grabber. Are audiences becoming desensitized? Perhaps. But it seems a bit more complex than that alone.
SVU fits the standard TV police-procedural genre in many ways, but what makes it stand out is that the stakes are so much higher. Unspeakable crimes and repeat offenders intensify the consequences of the cops not catching the perpetrators: The threat isn’t “he’ll get away with it”, but rather, “he’ll do it again.” Given the high stakes, when the detectives of the Special Victims Unit win, the affirmation of good triumphing over evil is all the stronger. After all, Columbo never caught a serial child rapist-murderer.
But if “twisted” is what the viewer is looking for, the most interesting case here is Dexter. The series chronicles the daily life of Dexter Morgan -- a blood splatter analyst for the Miami police department by day and a sociopath serial killer by night. The plot twist is that Dexter was conditioned by his cop foster father (who happened to notice young Dexter’s peculiar interests early on) to only kill bad people. While the series stays clear of becoming gratuitously gruesome, it is certainly not shy about blood and violence. Given the subject matter, Dexter also employs its own brand of decidedly dark humor. Whether the viewer believes in vigilante justice, or capital punishment for that matter, for Dexter the lines of right and wrong are clearly drawn; they must be for his character's survival.
Dexter meticulously researches each of his victims, generally people who have fallen through the cracks of the criminal justice system but still pose a threat to society. Whether they’re arsonists, rapists, child molesters, or even other serial killers, all Dexter’s victims are similar to the perps of SVU in that they have a criminal pattern and remain a prolonged threat to society, until Dexter extinguishes them. While Dexter’s actions cannot truly be considered good or altruistic, by the end of each episode a true evil has been terminated, so the viewer can still feel square with the antihero winning.
The series I’ve mentioned here, as well as a plethora of others on television, have some relation (albeit romanticized) to law enforcement. Should the 24, SVU, or Dexter fan change the channel, they will probably come across some news of a government which has proven itself inept at fighting terrorism or criminals who have continually cheated the justice system. The average TV viewer has already learned that justice is generally reserved for the highest bidder, that police stations and law enforcement agencies are under-staffed, and that many criminal cases simply fall through the cracks. In the TV world, justice is served swiftly and efficiently by compassionate heroes who continue to work during their precious little downtime and look past issues of class and race which frequently impede cases in the real world. And on those occasions which the TV cops don’t get the bad guy, Dexter Morgan is there to take care of it.