Burnings, beheadings, drownings, disembowelings: my essay in the print issue of TIME this week (subscription required) is about the ever-more graphic and gross violence in TV drama today. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t partly prompted by Newtown: the essay takes off from this blog post I wrote last December, on how tragedy should and shouldn’t make us think about pop-culture violence.
But I started thinking about writing this earlier last fall, when it started to seem like practically every show I watched besides New Girl involved a character getting burned alive. And it wasn’t as simple as just condemning shallow, exploitative gore. There’s a lot of that on shows like The Following and Banshee–but what I really wanted to deal with was how some of the most over-the-top carnage takes place on shows (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy) that are among TV’s best and most ambitious. TV doesn’t just have too much dumb, mindless violence, it also has too much smart, mindful violence:
Much of it is used in service of serious themes (misogyny in FX’s American Horror Story, morality and mortality in AMC’s Breaking Bad). But overall, it’s exhausting. Whether on network TV, which is desperate to recobble a mass audience, or on cable, where TV’s most ambitious dramas now live, producers have decided that the best way to touch a viewer’s heart is to rip it out and show it to him…
Violence is your grandma’s entertainment and your nephew’s. What they see is life as a relentless struggle and their fellow man as their potential executioner. Whether in suburbia or in 1920s Atlantic City or in a fantasy kingdom, people want what they want and are glad to build their dreams on a pile of skulls.
Why has TV drama become so reflexively brutal? For some of the same reasons it has become so good. Post-Sopranos cable is frequently as daring and rich as the best movies because its creators are free–free of limits on language and gore, free of having to make protagonists likable, free to kill off characters, free to break rules (and fingers). But not free of ratings pressure. Basic-cable networks have to chase the viewers advertisers pay for, particularly young men. What gets their attention are life-and-death stakes. “There’s a network buzzword for it. They like things to be ‘noisy,’” says Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter. “There’s just that need to say, ‘Hey, look at me! Look over here! Watch this!’”
Unfortunately I can’t share any more of the piece, because it’s behind the paywall. But I can give you the rest of that interview with Sutter. I don’t always like the way Sons uses violence–sometimes it’s incredibly powerful, sometimes it feels like it’s one-upping itself for shock value–but I do believe that Sutter deeply thinks through the reasons he uses each scene, which is why he was the first creator I thought to ask about the subject. I called him up last month:
I’m kind of wrestling as a critic [in the essay] with the fact that some of the violence I see on TV seems exploitative–but also a lot of shows that I consider basically the best dramas on TV right now are extremely graphically violent. So the first thing I wanted to ask you about is, as a creator, is it harder to get a dramatic story on TV now without some sort of life and death element involved?
Kurt Sutter: My sense is that as the viewing audiences get more specific and more demanding in terms of how much there is to watch and when they’re gonna watch it… that there seems to be that need for some kind of big hook. You know, having a great script or having great characters, you know, sometimes just doesn’t cut through. There’s a network buzzword for it. They like things to be ‘noisy,’ meaning that it has something that can cut through everything else that’s similar to it. So there needs to be something, whether it’s life or death – something with high stakes. Something that can distinguish it from other things on the air.
Or in the case of network TV as I’m sure you witness season after season: what did really well this season – you know, let’s do our version of that and piggyback on what we think people want. … I see more and more of it. Even to a certain extent on broadcasts that I’ve never seen before.
I’ve just been staggered by the ratings, for instance, that The Walking Dead has been getting. Obviously there’s a big demand for this kind of intensity, right?
KS: I think so. I think the great thing about Walking Dead–not that it’s enough to just have this, but it’s a very specific genre piece. People love zombies and people love vampires. And then of course you have to have good storytelling and interesting characters. But I also think the gore and the violence on a show like The Walking Dead is – and this is not to suggest that the drama is this way but definitely the violence and the gore — because it’s supernatural it almost crosses into the cartoonish. It gives you a certain amount of distance from it, where it may gross you out. But I don’t think you viscerally have a sense of, ‘Oh my God, you know, I feel awful for that zombie because it just lost its head or had its limbs blown off.’ So I think it allows people a certain distance from the gore and the violence because of the genre of it all.
I guess maybe it is because of genre that you have that reaction, where you’re grossed out and horrified but you also laugh a little?
KS: Right, because you know the chances that you’re gonna walk out of the house and get eaten by a zombie are pretty slim. Not to sound ludicrous but I think that allows people, you know, a certain amount of buffer to the brutality.
Do you have any thoughts, as a writer, on what’s the boundary between using violence in a way that’s dramatically justified vs. cheap or exploitative?
KS: Clearly I’m a guy who has a little problem with boundaries to begin with but I can’t speak for anyone else’s process. I do think there’s a sense out there for some shows to try to generate some heat or some buzz and perhaps pump up the level of gore or violence. You know, for me personally and creatively, I’ve always had a very broad sense of the absurd. Even on The Shield, pretty much all the crazy ass insane shit that happened on The Shield was a toned down version of a pitch that I had. You know, Shawn Ryan going, “Okay, we can’t do that but we’ll do this.”
And so I’ve always sort of had that creative bent to do that, and as a storyteller I’m always looking for the most interesting and the most provocative and how can we – how can we be organic to the story, organic to the character yet, you know, do something that we’ve never done before or no one’s ever seen before. And how can we be a little bit of a provocateur with all this? Coming from theater I have a real awareness that I’m creating something that is going to be viewed by an audience. Do you know what I mean? I’m not up in my ivory tower writing my drama for myself. So, you know, I do have a sense of entertainment value. I do have a sense of how can I make this compelling and exciting for an audience.
And then the balance always is, you know, how do I do that and yet keep it organic to the world and organic to the character and organic to the show. It’s a fine line and I think I always sort of run up to the absurd line all the time. And I really try not to cross it and have it become absurd for the sake of being absurd or crazy for the sake of being crazy.
I will say also I learned a lot from Shawn Ryan on The Shield that as a storyteller I have an obligation to the mythology and the characters and the the world of Sons of Anarchy. But I also have a moral and ethical responsibility to, you know, keep my characters and their circumstances real.
So, for me, violent and awful things happen on my show but they never happen in a vacuum. There’s always consequence. And as the series sort of winds down in these last few seasons you see more and more of those consequences because, you know, we’re running toward the tape. When you don’t have that sense of responsibility and when you don’t look at the actions of your characters–What’s the reaction to those actions? What are the consequences? Who do they impact emotionally, physically, spiritually, whatever you want to – however you want to look at it. That’s, I think, when it gets sort of exploitative. That’s when it then just sort of crosses into violence for violence’s sake and then I think you get into glamorizing the violence and the shooting and all that stuff – when there is no consequence for that stuff.
Speaking of that, I’m wondering with something like – and I’m just going back to, you know, last season because it’s fresh in my mind–Otto bites his tongue off and spits it out. Or Tig’s daughter gets burned alive for vengeance. What is it that you gain by showing this rather than describing it or implying it?
KS: You know, it’s why John Landgraf and I have a really good relationship because, you know, John has the awareness more than I do of the impact of [violent scenes] because he’s been doing this a long time. So, you know, he can say to me: “You think people want to see this but they really don’t want to see this.” My experience the first few seasons was really, you know, getting a sense of what was an effective use of violence and what ultimately didn’t serve the story and really didn’t serve the viewing experience.
As far as the burning goes, I did feel like that the nature of it was so horrific but the truth is there is probably maybe seven or eight frames of the actual burning that you see. And the truth is, that’s all you need to see. The rest of it you just really play off the characters’ face, and it’s much more horrific, I think, and painful watching and hearing it – watching it on the face of the character than it is actually, you know, watching the act.
The same thing, you know, when we were burning the tattoo. If you talk to people about that scene, you’d think that we were burning that tattoo off that guy’s back for a half hour straight. And it was the same thing. I mean obviously it was a prosthetic but it was literally, you know, a handful of frames and then the rest of it was just the pain, the screaming and then playing it off the faces of the different characters who had very distinct and different reactions to what was going on.
As far as the Otto part, for me it’s just this – there’s this story that we’re being told with the slow decomposition of Otto in terms of, you know, pretty much losing a different part of his body every season. Landgraf’s joke is by the end of the season the only thing that’s gonna be left of Otto is his middle finger.
So I will tell you that was one of those things where, you know, I pitched it. I thought it was just such a brutal act of defiance, and we filmed it and I didn’t know if it was going to work. Because it was all props and, you know, it was a prosthetic tongue and the whole window.
And then we did it and I had a version where we didn’t do [the tongue on the window] but it was just, for me, getting the response of Donal Logue’s character. You just needed that moment of absurdity when the tongue was hitting the window for him so his deadpan, you know, “Way to go, Otto” was just so much more potent when you saw the violence of it all and knew that he was having absolutely no response to the violence.
What do they make a bloody prosthetic tongue out of? What did you have in your mouth?
KS: You know, there’s that famous shop right in North Hollywood where they pretty much do all – they do The Walking Dead stuff. I literally had to go and do a cast of my tongue. Then they, you know, they fill it with blood so I literally was chewing an exact replica of my own tongue.
Do you ever feel that there is a kind of drama that you wish that you were seeing more of or some of on TV that maybe you’re not seeing out there right now because it’s not “noisy” enough?
KS: I think it’s very hard to get a character-based show on the air right now. Do you know what I mean? That doesn’t have some sort of broad hook to it. … I don’t know if a show like Hill Street Blues could get on the air now. I don’t know if a show like LA Law could get on the air now, you know, where it was just this sort of an interesting character based drama with a great ensemble cast.
I look at a show like Chicago Code that Shawn [Ryan] did last year and, you know, it was a great show but… it was sort of like old school cop, character driven, interesting – I don’t think it was noisy enough for people to like flip the channel and go there.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the pay world… you know, Netflix and Amazon, and to see how House of Cards does. Those shows that you literally, here’s my whatever, $1.99, whenever you want to watch it. It’ll be interesting to see how that works in terms of potentially opening up avenues for perhaps things that may not have lasted, like how Damages and Friday Night Lights that, thank God, were given resuscitation through [DirecTV].
I don’t want to judge other things but sometimes you flip through the channels and you just scratch your fucking head. But I think it’s because people don’t know yet. It’s just such a different landscape and I think people are just trying to kind of figure out what works. And I think all of that is really in parcel to what your bigger issue is here. In terms of why all this is happening – there’s just that need to say – “Hey look at me. Look over here. Watch this.”