There has been a healthy conversation of late debating TV’s violence problem: whether there is one, what has caused it, and how and if it should be fixed. In the past few months, as television shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Sons of Anarchy” wrap up and announce the end of their series, TV and culture critics have voiced a sort of violence fatigue. TV fanatics note that they are weary of what appears to be shows outkilling and outgoring each other for shock value and water-cooler moments.
In the October issue of Glamour, entertainment writer for New York magazine Margaret Lyons wrote about her own exhaustion over bloody murder scenes and their oft-female victims in a piece titled “Prime Time’s Body Count.” In July, Andy Greenwald of online magazine Grantland wrote about the growing number of bloody crime dramas on the air. Focusing on neither the criminals, the detectives nor the victims makes yet another iteration of humanity’s darkest side watchable. He reminds us, “It’s not necessarily brave to stand at the top of a pitch-black staircase and decide to descend.” Last month, CEO of FX John Landgraf said that “Breaking Bad” is “the end of the road for outdarking each other” in terms of how fast and how brutally we can fall down that staircase as a profitable network and as an audience. Online responses to these have largely been in agreement: We’ve had enough.
Show runners, of course, don’t always agree with their viewers or the critics. Terence Winter, the Emmy Award-winning writer of “The Sopranos” and creator of “Boardwalk Empire,” has been one of the most recent voices to speak up in this debate after the fourth season premiere of “Boardwalk” Sept. 8, which featured one of its most graphic and violent scenes yet. As a show set during the Prohibition era in the U.S., the show often depicts the violent crime associated with gangsters and bootleggers in the 1920s. In an interview with Fairfax Media and in response to those offended by the premiere, Winter said, “These guys are gangsters, and murder is ugly. It looks like what it looks like. … It is what it is, and some people have a very hard time with it. But if this is an accurate depiction of that world, that’s what we’re going to see.”
The rise of the anti-hero from Winter’s own Tony Soprano to Walter White is well documented. The success of crime dramas as set pieces decorated with cliffhangers prime for serialization and syndication is longstanding. But if we’ve had enough, how did we reach our breaking point?
It isn’t news that over the past decade or so, we’ve hit a real-life surge in violence. This does not necessarily mean that more violence is occurring in the U.S. or elsewhere. This surge is less about actual scale than perceived scale. If you’re active on any social media network or have ever watched CNN in the past year, you’ve seen every terrifying act from the Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C., to Newtown, Conn., to the Kenyan mall situation to the Boston Marathon bombing displayed before you on multiple screens in agonizingly dutiful, magnified detail.
The media pounce on these types of acts and amplify them, and they do it because we tune in. We can’t look away from the horror, the fear, the perpetrators themselves. We wonder how this could happen. It reaches a dark, anxious part of ourselves that thinks that the more we know, the more prepared we are. It could happen to us. So we watch.
It only makes sense, then, that network shows depicting the ins and outs of crime, procedurals that dive deep into the minds of the criminals and the heroes themselves, would be a success. Going behind the scenes of the anti-hero — a criminal we can’t help but love, toying with our fascination and repulsion — just takes it a step further. We were already watching these storylines. A TV show, though, is a socially acceptable obsession.
Most recently, the perpetrator of the Navy Yard shootings was analyzed on every major news network after investigators revealed that he had a criminal record as well as a record of incidents suggesting mental illness. After the Aurora, Colo., shooting in July 2012, the perpetrator’s name and image were plastered on every surface until we reached complete saturation. For respect of the town and families, the media took a step back on the coverage of the perpetrator of the Newtown tragedy that December. During these incidents and those like them, some branches of the media stopped covering the actual criminal. Many refused to print their names, as in this article. Instead they began to focus on the victims, the families affected, the cause and recovery. Rolling Stone magazine’s coverage of the surviving perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing received exceptional backlash for glamorizing its cover star. Somewhere along the line, we realized that dignifying the perpetrators of these acts with acknowledgment is a bad idea.
So it seems that with news coverage we have hit a breaking point with the microscopic investigation of the monsters living among us. It only makes sense if TV’s “age of the anti-hero” or the influx of profitable, grisly dramas has also reached its zenith. The dark is nice to visit once in a while, when the light is too saccharinely sweet to believe. But when all the lights go out, everything looks the same. Maybe it’s time to climb those stairs back up.
An iteration of this article first appeared on aubsandentertainment.wordpress.com.
Aubrey Nagle is the managing editor of The Triangle. She can be contacted at [email protected].