Aaron Paul plays Jesse Pinkman on AMC's Breaking Bad.
[This piece contains information about the plots of lots of
contemporary TV dramas, probably most notably a context-free discussion
of an incident during the most recent season of Breaking Bad, as well as general comments on the plot of the film The Grey.]
Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress wrote a piece
yesterday called "Why American Television Needs A Break From Violence,
Conspiracies, And Maybe Even Serialized Storylines," in which she pushes
forward a discussion that's been percolating for a while among some of
the critics I know about what Alyssa describes as an excess of
"intensity" in American television. She doesn't lay the problem entirely
at the feet of extreme violence, but she names it as one of the issues:
of the things that's marked the search for increased intensity in our
television watching is increasingly escalating violence, disgustingness
as a signpost of how serious a situation. In 18 hours yesterday, I saw
two of the grossest things I've ever watched on television, Glenn
yanking an arm bone out of a zombie's rotting flesh on the mid-season
finale of The Walking Dead (I couldn't make it through the rest of the
episode) and a scene from an upcoming episode of television that was
much more viscerally upsetting for taking place in a non-genre setting.
This is not to say that grotesque violence can't be powerful
signposting: the latter incident is so powerful and so keeping in
character that I'm still having a physical reaction to my revulsion
hours later. And for those of you who know what's coming in the [George
R.R. Martin] universe, I'm bracing myself for some truly horrific things
coming down the pike in Game of Thrones that will literally
test my ability to keep my eyes on the screen as they occur. But I'm
curious about the extent to which it's actually necessary to holding
After I read that piece, I spent
part of the day catching up on a couple of the movies that I missed
this year — one a prestige documentary (The Queen Of Versailles) and one a little more mainstream: The Grey,
starring Liam Neeson and a bunch of wolves. The latter was advertised
as sort of a fight-y action picture, one man against nature, not that
different in feel from Neeson's recent roles in films like Taken.
It turns out, however, that what you get in The Grey
is essentially the opportunity to watch a series of gruesome, bloody
death scenes, with very little to tie the story together other than some
flimsy anecdotes about how each of the men in the doomed group has a
sad tale and a lot of deep feelings and maybe some buried heroism just
waiting to be discovered. Mostly, it's blood all over the place, in
addition to a drowning, one suicide by wolf, spurting arteries,
eaten-off faces, the dragging away and noisy devouring of the injured,
and the screams of those being killed.
At the same time, I've been watching the response to Alan Sepinwall's book The Revolution Was Televised, which chronicles the television renaissance that began somewhere around The Sopranos by way of an analysis of twelve of the shows that made that renaissance happen: Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Lost, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and 24. (It's a terrific book. You should read it.)
I ask you: Of those 12 shows, on how many of them would it be not at
all surprising to see someone walk up and shoot someone else in the
face? I'm going to conservatively say six — fifty percent — would easily
embrace a straight-up face-shooting (and several of them actually had
at least one), while five of the other six have had at least some
gruesome deaths (remember, even the classed-up Mad Men splattered blood all over the office and delivered two suicides by hanging). The last one is about football.
This isn't because Alan cherry-picked the violent shows, either. What if he'd kept going? How about Homeland? Sons Of Anarchy? Dexter? Justified? Boardwalk Empire? The Walking Dead? Game Of Thrones? American Horror Story? It's a lot of blood, in every single one of those cases. Sure, there were people who wanted to see Alan cover The West Wing
in the book, and that was often a very good show, but as he's pointed
out, it's not part of the prestige revolution — it was admired more the
way ER was or Hill Street Blues was, as good, solid
dramatic television. This new world, this "television is just as
cinematic and important and creatively alive as film" world, is a very,
very gruesome place.
Don't misunderstand: none of this violence offends me. To give just one example, The Wire
is an astonishing, artistic, brilliant creative work with much more
than its violence to create drama, and some of its most violent scenes
are some of its most important and necessary. I don't consider any of
these shows exploitative or offensive, nor are they about their violence
alone; I consider all of them thoroughly deserving of the praise
they've gotten. None of these shows when I've seen them have made me
feel like The Grey did, like I'm just watching blood pile up.
what is concerning is that this revolution has been deep but narrow;
it's like we have an army of dazzlingly fluent poets who all write in
one language. That doesn't, of course, make all the poetry the same, any
more than all English-language poetry is the same. These shows are
varied in many ways: The Wire is not the same show as The Walking Dead just because people get shot and otherwise brutalized, and American Horror Story and Boardwalk Empire
are hardly identical twins. But they share elements, one of which is
that the stakes involve — not solely but largely — avoiding being
violently killed. And for that reason, they ask the viewer to want to
watch people being violently killed now and then, and sometimes now and
then and then and then, because otherwise the threats are false.
worth mentioning that the violence is not the only thing many of these
shows have in common. They're also very heavy, though less uniformly so,
on the question of what it means to be a morally conflicted 40-ish
white guy in modern America, or '60s America, or Prohibition-era
America, or Westeros. This is also the theme of the highly decorated Louie,
which is sort of a comedy, but only sort of. As much as it's failed to
reach many kinds of stories, the revolution has also failed to reach
many kinds of people with any regularity.)
There have been exceptions to all these rules, certainly: Treme is less about violence, mostly. Big Love was — mostly. Perhaps ironically, Six Feet Under was — mostly.
there are vast expanses of stories that have largely been ignored
unless they're mixed in with people being shot in the face. It's said
over and over again that The Sopranos is not a mob show but a
family show, and there's great truth in that. But it was still a family
show where people are terrorized and shot and garroted to death. Breaking Bad
may be, to me, the most compelling tragedy I've ever seen on
television, and it deserves every breathless accolade it's received. But
to access it, you have to belly up for more bleeding out, more spatter,
and — this last season — an innocent kid being shot and killed.
or not enjoying scenes where people are brutalized is no different from
anything else: It is an element of your taste, of what you want to
watch. For some people, a show that features murders and rapes and
beatings is no harder to watch than one that doesn't. But for some,
including me, there simply is only so much of this I care to watch, even as someone who watches television as part of my job. I could not possibly watch Homeland and Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones and Sons Of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead,
because watching one season of each in a calendar year would mean
spending almost 80 hours — the equivalent of two full work weeks out of
every year — staring at an amount of violence that would make me
miserable. I don't want to watch that many people bleed to death, no
matter how good the shows are where it's happening. I just don't.
is not inevitable. This is not the simple operation of physics, where
eliminating cornball sentimentality leads without exception to zombies
having their armbones pulled out. There was, after all, Friday Night Lights.
Why has this revolution not produced more family dramas? More stories
about marriages where nobody shoots anybody? More workplace dramas not
set in environments where you're likely to get killed? You can say
they've failed, but I don't remember a whole huge lot of them being put
on offer on the cable outlets that are leading this whole business.
"television versus film" debate is absurd and always has been; there's
no way to attain a weighted average of all of television and all of
film, nobody sees all of either one, and comparing best versus best
ignores everything else. But at some point, if dramatic television wants
to be considered as vibrant and exciting as film can be, it needs a
better mix. It needs love stories and family stories, workplace stories
and friendship stories, and they can't all be soaked in blood.
Inevitably, there is a portion of the audience that is — as Alyssa
pointed out — eventually exhausted by that. Not offended; exhausted.
a tough thing to talk about, because expressing that exhaustion gets
you pegged as a sissy or a prude, when it's really just the operation of
your particular taste and a desire for variety. The Sopranos was revolutionary and violent; Oz was revolutionary and violent, The Wire
was revolutionary and violent. But they weren't revolutionary primarily
because they were violent. They were revolutionary primarily because of
the investment in character and story, and because they were so heavily
serialized and required such commitment from both creators and viewers,
and because they had shorter seasons, and for plenty of other reasons.
It's a red herring to suggest that being fatigued from violence means
being over quality or realism or gritty truth-telling. We will all face
gritty truths, and very few of them will involve bloody violence. Those
stories are perfectly worth watching as well.
Let me put it
this way: If the dramatic television revolution were almost entirely
focused on musicals — funny ones, dramatic ones, great ones, but most of
them musicals — how quickly would critics say that no matter how good
those musicals are, and no matter how brilliantly talented the people
who make them may be, they've had enough musicals?
brilliant musical is my brilliant gore-spattering drama. I don't have
any more carrying capacity. Every year, I watch plenty of films that
rely on the creation of high stakes simply forged from the fact that
human beings are complicated and fallible and break each other's hearts
and want things they will never have. I will watch Walter White kill and
perhaps even be killed, and I'm certainly grateful to have him. But I
long for more brilliant television with the same vibrancy and creativity
and talent that gives me those personal stories without the part where I have to watch people shot, stabbed, raped, eaten, beaten, and dissolved in acid.
Please do not make The Grey into a series, is what I'm saying.