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Violence on TV: Wherever You Look, There Will Be Blood

01/24/2013 11:44 am ET | Updated Mar 26, 2013

Every so often, America agrees to have a debate about violence in popular culture. There are few if any concrete results that emerge from these debates, but it's certainly a discussion worth having.

There's no doubt that television is generally more violent and resorts to more graphic imagery than it did a decade or two ago. Whatever you think of the results of this trend, there are quite a few logical behind it.

Every day, an ever-expanding array of networks flood the market with all kinds of programming, and new-media companies like Netflix and Hulu are stepping into the fray as well. So how do does a network stand out in a cluttered media landscape? One way to get eyeballs is to gouge them out, apparently. Monday's moderately successful debut of Fox's "The Following" not only showed or mentioned a couple dozen murders but also featured a disturbing scene with a mutilated dog. Not wanting to be left behind, NBC debuts "Hannibal" later this season; the drama tells the backstory of the serial killer from "The Silence of the Lambs." Gone are the days when a posse of good-looking lawyers or cops were enough to garner a reasonable audience -- at least that's what network executives concerned about audience erosion appear to be thinking. (Another example: "Do No Harm," an upcoming doctor drama on NBC, is about a physician who moonlights as -- wait for it -- a murderer). To compete with all the noise in the marketplace, TV has gotten bigger, brasher and louder in a lot of ways (think of the dumb stereotypes on "2 Broke Girls" or the four-quadrant blandness of "Terra Nova" as other exemplars of this trend). TV shows have to be brassy and have a hook these days, and even if the hook isn't vampires, there's a good chance there will be blood.

Television obviously isn't competing only with other networks and the Internet; it's also competing with other leisure pursuits, including video games and movies. I'm not here to dump on video games; I play them. But television executives are well aware that the video-game and film industries are peeling off potential viewers, and they have responded accordingly. Whatever we may think of the bleed-through among media platforms, it's not surprising that certain sequences in "The Walking Dead" resemble challenging levels on "Call of Duty" and that "Game of Thrones" makes the body count of "The Hobbit" look quaint.

Television audiences have seen a lot over the years, and television writers know that heeding the same old storytelling conventions may bore their audience. What's a sure-fire way to raise the stakes in a story? Threatening to kill or actually killing a characer. Life-or-death stakes are far more common than they used to be on television, as are cliffhangers, big twists and surprise deaths. When "24" killed off a key character at the end of its first season, it was a huge deal, and rightly so. But now that kind of thing happens weekly, on both prestige dramas and pot-boilery soaps, as writers and producers scramble to garner the kind of buzz that social media exists to feed.

Late last year, as I thought about trends within the shows I'd watched, one visual trope came to mind again and again: A character being held down, tied up, interrogated, tortured, menaced, taken hostage and terrified in some way. These kinds of scenes occurred (sometimes in multiple episodes) in "Homeland," "Revolution," "American Horror Story," "Revenge," "Sons of Anarchy" and "Arrow" -- a very wide range of programs. That's to say nothing of the time Don Draper strangled a woman in "Mad Men" (in a dream, but still) or the multiple deaths that occur on shows like "Boardwalk Empire" and "Breaking Bad." There's a brutality at the center of many current dramas that may indeed reflect something dark and festering in our culture, and the damage that people do to each other is absolutely an idea that writers should be exploring in all kinds of stories.

But when is enough enough?

Everyone will draw the line in a different place, but one thing is clear: At a certain point, violent scenes become empty calories that offer nothing nutritious or tasty, even in the short term. A better analogy might be drugs -- nothing really matches the intensity of that first hit, and eventually a much bigger dose barely has any impact at all.

The approach to violence is key to working out whether it's being used to advance a show's plot and themes or merely to bludgeon the viewer. A significant death near the end of the first season of "Game of Thrones" was heartbreaking because it was told from the point of view of the victim and victim's family members, and very little of the actual death was shown. We saw the devastating effect it had on those who'd loved the character. It wasn't about the gore; it was about the empty space that person left behind.

"Justified" is another show that I don't think of as violent, even though people up dead in many episodes. If anything, the show is about how Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder attempt to resist the easy solution of violence, and its greatest joy is the verbal combat among various characters. They strategize, they bamboozle, they banter and they reveal themselves in tantalizingly small doses. One of the best scenes of the show's third season featured Raylan throwing a bullet at a guy and saying, "Next one's coming faster!"

For its part, "Breaking Bad" is the most morally compelling show on the air, given its relentless aim to expose the selfish delusions of a man who won't admit how much damage he's done to everyone around him. The consequences of Walter White's increasing brutality are never ignored. "American Horror Story," which more than lives up to its title, shows quite a bit of inventive gore, but its particular brand of melodramatic excess is grounded in character journeys, as loopy and surreal as those journeys are. The show's approach to horror is part of a unified aesthetic that actually works as a piece of storytelling, and the fact that "AHS" is not like anything else on TV -- and displays some black humor about what it does -- counts for a lot.

Violent encounters, murder and the harm done to human bodies -- all those things are and should be tools in the storytellers' arsenals, but those tools grow dull with overuse. "Dexter" started out as an interesting exploration of the moral grey area in which a "good" serial killer resided, but the show is now a cautionary example of how violent fare can come to feel rote and mechanical. After a while, all those bloody acts become little more than white noise. "The Walking Dead," on the other hand, has gotten better -- and its ratings have increased -- not because it kills more zombies in every episode but because it made the audience care more about the desperate survivors at the center of the drama. Contrast that with the approach of "The Following"; in next week's episode, the victims of the blank-faced acolyte of a "charismatic" killer are presented as a bunch of naive, interchangeable coeds (and they're dead coeds, of course). As I said in my review, the whole enterprise adds up to little more than a collection of serial-killer clichés.

Nobody wants to see stories told inside a plastic paradise in which people's darker, uglier instincts are never acknowledged. But television may be reaching the point of diminishing returns when it comes to on-screen gore and artificially pumped-up stakes. Violence is part of who we are, but so are love, altruism, selfishness, ambition, curiosity -- there's a whole realm of subjects to explore, and not all of them involve axes and knives. There are many interesting stories that can be told about the human nature, but it takes hard work to create suspense and audience investment the old-fashioned ways -- through expert character development and first-rate storytelling.

It's hard not to wonder if the stories that make the most noise or shed the most blood are just a little too fashionable these days -- and a little too easy to sell.

This story appears in Issue 38 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, March 1.

"American Horror Story"