Thursday, October 31, 2013

Violence and Anti-heroes on TV

My brother wrote a post on violent tv. [Go read it. I'll wait.]

I disagree. And I disagreed to the length that it wouldn't fit in the comment box.

So I think this argument has a few flaws.
Reality TV, earlier TV, and graphic imagery
First up, reality TV rose to prominence in the oughts, not the 90s and I don't think Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Survivor or American Idol really fits into your argument about sex, drugs and violence. Cops might, but it started in the 80s, as did America's Most Wanted. Yes, Cheers is a happy, non-violent show, but that’s pretty true of all comedies, even today. MASH and Murder She Wrote may not have had graphic images, but they certainly dealt with dark topics. I would agree that graphic images started with cop and doctor shows, such as ER, NYPD Blue, Homicide, X-Files, Twin Peaks, and St. Elsewhere, (Picket Fences?). Granted, I haven’t seen a lot of older shows. I don’t know how violent Magnum PI, Remington Steele, Miami Vice, or Hill Street Blues were. I do know that most critics think that the majority of older shows weren’t as well written as the better shows of today. (Also, in terms of popularity, soap operas dominated the 80s, but as their themes of killing off twin brothers to sleep with someone who came back from the dead have not changed today, I’m going to disregard them here.)

Yes, there are graphic images on tv. And yes, the networks can now show more graphic images than a few decades ago.  But graphic images aren’t limited to television; they are in movies, graphic novels, video games, theater, and in fiction, non-fiction and song lyrics, for those with active imaginations.

As for the rise of the horror genre in television (see: American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Dracula, Sleepy Hollow, True Blood, Hemlock Grove, the upcoming Penny Dreadful), it is certainly new to have so much good horror tv (not that the list above is all good), but horror is also a long-established genre, with the Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, the Outer Limits, Hammer House of Horror, Dark Shadows, Kolchak the Night Stalker, Strange Paradise, Supernatural (the 70s British one), and Friday the 13th, not to mention miniseries like Salem’s Lot or IT, or horror comedies like the Addams Family or the Munsters.

As for gangsters, pimps and drug dealers being the top rated… that isn’t really true. Most of the shows you go on to list (Dexter, the Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Oz) are all on niche cable channels. Breaking Bad, at its absolute peak, hit 10.3 million, for a 5.4 rating. In other words, less than football every week (if you want to talk about violence…) The show only broke 2 million viewers once in its first four years.

Last season’s highest rated dramas were: NCIS (protagonists: cops), the Following (the FBI – but violent!), Grey’s Anatomy (doctors), Revolution (post-apocalypse survivors), Once Upon a Time (Snow White), NCIS: LA (cops again), Person of Interest (dubious government workers? Possible anti-heroes?), Criminal Minds (FBI/Cops?), Glee (show choir!), Elementary (detective), and Scandal (white house intrigue?) The shows with the most critical acclaim, that come to dominate discussions about tv such as this one, are still not as watched as The Voice or The Bachelor.

Furthermore, I don’t think that you are making the argument that the rise of graphic or violent television leads to lack of social involvement. If anything, it seems to me that the rise of reality TV contributes more to lack of critical thought, hyper-focus on d-list ‘celebrities’, and general complacency.

As for those current dramas…
The Wire and Hannibal actually don't focus on the bad guy. As much as the Wire can be said to have a lead character, it would be McNulty, the cop, and as much time is given to the dock workers, politicians, teachers, neighborhood children, and reporters as the gangs. And the focus on the criminal element, if anything, serves to humanize them and investigate the societal causes and pressures of the drug trade. I would actually argue that the Wire (although I think at times overrated), is one of the most important social dramas ever produced. No other show has focused on the failures of the American dream - the war on drugs, our educational system, the collapse of blue collar industries – the way this show did. If any drama of the last 25 years were to affect positive social change, it would be this one. And I would argue that it probably did cause people to take more of an interest in social change than if they hadn’t watched.

As for Hannibal, he is the supporting character to Will Graham, who is a thoroughly decent person. I can't speak to the Sopranos, because I've never seen it, or Mad Men, but if you look at other shows in TV's new golden age, you've got Deadwood (lead character: sheriff), Sherlock (Byronic detective hero), Friday Night Lights (Football Coach), The Good Wife (lawyers – well, ok – kinda evil by definition), Homeland (CIA agent), Justified (US Marshall), and Lost (ummm… depends on who you like, but I would say most people went with the reformed con man. Technically the lead was a doctor). I have heard that Downton Abbey is diminishing returns after season 1, but I think the lead there is a good earl? House was more Byronic hero than anti-hero, given that he was a doctor (and also a sherlock). I haven’t seen Big Love, but a polygamist and not an otherwise criminal there (I think). Six Feet Under – funeral home operators. Flawed, but not morally corrupt. If you head back farther, you get emmy nods for Boston Legal (lawyers), Grey’s Anatomy (doctors), Heroes (…), The West Wing (the most idealized president ever), 24 (mercenary? I don’t really know), and CSI (cops) for the last 10 years. Game of Thrones is interesting because I have yet to see consensus on who anyone is rooting for. Maybe Daenerys, who is all about freeing slaves and having awesome dragons. Maybe Tyrion for being clever. There are certainly evil characters, but not anti-heroes in the vein of Tony Soprano or Walter White.

If you were to look at all the scripted dramas available, I don’t think that the focus on anti-heroes or bad guys would outweigh the regular or good people. I haven’t seen the Americans (spies), Southland (cops),  Treme (musicians?), Parenthood (regular family?), Fringe (FBI?), the Killing (police), Alphas (mutants?), Luck (gamblers), or Sons of Anarchy (violent bikers), but there you’ve got the focus on the bad guys in maybe half. As for Doctor Who, Orphan Black, Glee, Smash, the Newsroom, Nurse Jackie, Shameless, Skins, Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Rescue Me... you have some unlikeable characters, but only one or two anti-heroes in that bunch.

Yes, Boardwalk Empire focuses on gangsters, but (it is mostly boring and) I don’t think anyone really aspires to be Nucky. After all, the one character who did so was killed off. Dexter is closest to fitting the mold you describe (although the show gleefully kills off all other wrong-doers). But Dexter's end is bleak and the show takes the stance of Dexter getting what he deserves for being a monster.

On Breaking Bad, which is totally brilliant, Walter White doesn't become an anti-hero, he becomes the villain, and sparked far more conversations about morality and choices than any other piece of pop culture I can remember. Even Jesse, who many if not most viewers actually cared about, is quite literally tortured for his sins. It isn't a show that glorifies violence or criminality. For what they've done, the characters are punished in equal measure.

House of Cards probably fits the anti-hero genre. So far, Spacey has experienced set-backs, but has yet to fall entirely. I haven’t seen Damages, but Glenn Close might actually be an anti-hero, so score one for gender equality (I don’t know how she ends up). Other shows that might have an antihero-focus: The Shield, Californication, Low Winter Sun, Ray Donovan, the Blacklist, and the Borgias.

But I do think it is important to make the distinction between unlikeable or flawed characters, anti-heores, and violent shows. (Not that these categories don’t overlap in some shows. From hearing reviews, it sounds as if Weeds features an anti-hero, but I haven’t heard that it is particularly graphic or violent. Likewise, most cop and doctor dramas feature graphic images, but come down on the side of morality and social order, and feature heroic, flawed or Byronic, but not amoral protagonists.

Furthermore, an anti-hero, in classical definition, is inferior to the viewer for lacking the qualities of a typical hero protagonist. Viewers may enjoy watching Kevin Spacey plot and scheme, but they also feel morally superior to him.

As for two others you mentioned:
Oz – absolutely violent and with very few moral or in any way redeeming characters. But also interspersed with real information about the prison system in America – overcrowding, incarceration and recidivism rates, etc.

Law and Order? You can make the case that it, particularly SVU, and shows that ape the format (Criminal Minds, the Following) do as much reveling in the violence as prosecuting the offenders. But I think you can also make the case that these shows often serve a similar function as murder mysteries. Yes, there is violence as the primary plot driver, but justice reigns in the end. I can’t find the essay, but Aaron Elkins once wrote about the fact that people enjoy murder mysteries because they are actually lighter reading than a lot of other fictional literature. Yes, they delve into the seamy side of life, but everything gets wrapped up in a nice little bow by the end, in a way that real life, and nihilistic, dark or cynical fiction, do not.

Additionally, Warren Ellis wrote a really interesting article recently on why we need violent stories. And I would again make the point that those watching HBO and Showtime - the majority of the violent, anti-hero focused shows - are likely more intelligent and more social aware and involved than those watching reality tv or Two and a Half Men. I wonder if there are any sociology studies to that effect…

Television as medium
Besides, isn't it much better to have well-crafted art than the (by-in-large) wasteland of television before our time? TV isn't thought of as high art (see your Bill Hicks quote at the bottom), but the masses don't have access to going to the theater on a weekly basis. (And the dark leanings of plays and operas could easily be a separate essay. I mean, hello Shakespeare’s tragedies. Blood will have blood indeed.) However, the masses now DO have easy universal access to well-written, well-crafted art. Some may choose to watch Real Housewives rather than the Good Wife, and that speaks volumes about IQs and personal choices in this country, but I don’t think the proliferation of well-written dark dramas can be classified as a bad thing.

Yes, people could read more, and it might exercise their brains more than watching television, which is a mostly passive exercise. (Less so with the rise of social networking and live tweeting, but still. More on that in a moment.) But take a look at EW’s top 100 books of the last 25 years. The Road is #1, which I think is not a bad choice; it is an incredible book. But that book is DARK. And violent. #2 – Harry Potter, the Goblet of Fire and the rise of Voldemort. #3 – Beloved – slavery, rape, and madness. #6 – Mystic River – child abuse and murder. #7 – Maus – The Holocaust. #13 – Watchmen. #16 – The Handmaid’s Tale. Etc.

My point is that a lot of good art is dark and violent. It isn’t limited to television. And neither are anti-heroes (Merchant of Venice, Clockwork Orange, and many noir detectives spring to mind.)

Societal Implications
I think that you are trying to make the point that people should be spending their time being politically involved, rather than watching tv. Or that tv watching is no longer passive, because good storytelling has made people care more and become more involved in what they are watching (I would argue that is a good thing). Or that your students should care more about modern slavery than Breaking Bad.

Yes, people should be more politically involved. But I don’t think television can be sourced as the reason that people are not. Furthermore, television is a break for most people. You write; “We have so much strong emotion on our televisions, we've saved none for the realities we must conquer to make our world a better place.” Look. I’m sure you think I watch too much TV. But I spend the largest part of my week working, and I am actively working on a daily basis to make the world a better place. If a nurse wants to come home and watch American Idol, you know? He’s worked a full shift making the world a better place. Who cares how he unwinds?

And being wrapped up in your entertainment is hardly new to tv. People crowded the docks for Dickens' new installments. People shunned Arthur Conan Doyle after the Reichenbach Fall. There were literally men wearing mourning dress in the days after it was published. People care about fictional characters. Deeply. And that is a blessing, because it teaches empathy. Far more frightening are the societal fringes and religious groups that ban books and television and music.

As Neil Gaiman wrote; “The second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes…. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if "escapist" fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with; and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour, real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”

[This essay is also worth a read:]

As for your students, a couple of things. One, your particular school. Your kids are – and please correct me if I’m wrong – in most cases dealing with some very real individual issues. They aren’t going to have the same bandwidth to care about hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa as a privileged, upper class school (Hello activism clubs at prep schools…)

There are two Mark Morford articles that come to my mind. One, Ask Me about My Agony, has this to say: “the karma of the world is not yours to solve.” (If I start quoting any larger pieces, I end up with 3/4 of the essay.) I’m not saying your teaching is bad, but if you are covering the death penalty, genocide, and slavery all in the course of a semester, I could easily see how students might shut down. How on earth are they to shoulder such ills? Have a hope to making a dent in any of them? Are you saying they are a bunch of losers for not somehow solving societal problems that date back millennia? (Also, are you saying they should be out protesting, because I’m pretty sure they can’t just wander off campus…)

The other essay is this; No Twinkies Please. “All problems, illnesses, joys, bouts of sadness over even the most commonplace of things, these have a decidedly potent charge, a valid role to play. All issues of the day, whether it is the death of a relative, a bloody war in a faraway land, all the way on down to feeling upset that one of the cast of “Real Housewives” might reduce her breast implants, these all have a spot on the continuum. But as the wise ones say, you gotta discern.” I would hope, if asked, that your one student would recognize where involvement in a fictional show falls on the spectrum of issues to care about. If not, well, he needs to learn. I mean, is that not a teachable moment? Teenagers still feel things so immediately and so vividly that they have to learn how to prioritize emotions (your boyfriend breaking up with you is a not a good reason for suicide, etc.)

In fact, any media studies major would make the argument that television is an important part of our cultural dialogue, for both teenagers forming their world view and adults refining theirs. Most narrative shows, at least at some point, comment on ideologies or social problems. As one paper put it; “it is television as a whole system that presents a mass audience with the range and variety of ideas and ideologies inherent in American culture.” Additionally, and apologies for the Wiki-links, but I think when discussing the effect television has on consumers, you also have to state how you believe people are consuming that media. I don’t think you are suggesting that viewers behave in an hypodermic way, because that rhetoric is mostly used in the “people who watch violent tv are going to commit violent acts” way. The Uses and Gratification theory may be more applicable. It sounds as if you are concerned that people watch tv for simple entertainment or escaping stresses, rather than information or identification? (Or maybe identification with the wrong types of characters?) (Or, using the Katz, Gurevitch and Haas definitions, you worry that people are watching television for affective and tension release needs.) But as I stated previously, I don’t think that escapism necessarily leads to complacency. And I think that empathy from fiction can only be a good thing.

Do we need political change? Indubitably. Is protesting the best way to achieve that change? Probably not. Will the TV we watch make a difference? Maybe only when it comes to discussing the 24-hour editorial news cycle.

I don’t think empathizing with a serial killer like Dexter makes me a better or a worse person when it comes to being politically involved. I mean, it might say something about my political bent – I can empathize with a person unlike myself, therefore I believe in welfare and immigration reform. And yeah, I don’t have a theoretical issue with the death penalty, because I think a murderer’s life is forfeit. (I think politically in this country it doesn’t work, obviously.)  (If anything, I’m now less inclined to believe in the death penalty because of an episode of Oz that absolutely destroyed me.)

In sum, don’t blame societal ills on Breaking Bad. It’s one of the better things America has produced recently.

“Seeing a murder on television… can help work off one’s antagonisms. And if you haven’t any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some.” – Alfred Hitchcock.

“One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.” – Kurt Vonnegut.

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