Coming to the end of my day of writing on Monday, I realized something: I was exhausted by my last several days of watching television. It’s not just that Sunday has become so jam-packed with strong, interesting shows that my weekends feel more like a build-up to my craziest work day than a chance to relax, or the fact that I’m in the middle of a barrage of mid-season finales. It’s that that almost all television now, particularly in drama, seems to be operating in a sphere so intense that it’s impossible to relax—and sometimes impossible to watch, or even to follow what’s happening on-screen. Every show has a conspiracy. Shocking violence has become the norm, and seems to be escalating quickly. The stakes are constantly so high in every episode of television that plot is often swamping strong character dynamics. It made me wonder if our television needs to take a chill pill for a while, if only so we can start thinking more carefully about what kinds of storytelling tools are most effective.
The shows that got me thinking about this phenomenon were Scandal and Homeland, two shows that purport to operate in very different environments, network and cable, soap and anti-hero drama, but this week had a plot element in common. It’s not as if political assassination attempts are taboo on television: West Wing shot President Bartlet
in its “In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen” episode, though the show made clear relatively quickly that the President himself would survive, and drew much of its drama from the grave threat to the life of one of his chief aides. But in that case, it felt like assassination was reserved for a moment of extreme gravity in the narrative arc of the show. In four days last week, we had two shows that had as their plot points attempts to kill a high official of the United States government. On last Thursday’s episode of Scandal, President Fitzgerald Grant was shot on the way to his birthday party, in what seems to have been a plot set in motion by his wife—it was the presidency as soap opera subject. And then on Sunday’s episode of Homeland, former prisoner of war Nicholas Brody, who has declined to murder a bunker full of government officials, got a chance to kill just one, the Vice President of the United States, the man responsible for the drone strike that killed Brody’s surrogate son and the biological son of the super-terrorist Abu Nazir. Last year, Brody’s decision not to commit an assassination was one of the most exciting episodes of television on any network.
It’s not only that more than one show is now fantasizing about killing high officials, a highly sensitive subject, that diminished the power of Homeland. It’s that the conspiracy around Brody has gotten significantly more complex. There are more people in play on the ground, journalist Roya Hamad, a munitions expert and his team, Abu Nazir himself, who seems to have strolled over the border. The scheme is grander, an attack on a welcome home ceremony for Marines, in front of Roya’s camera crew. The shock of Brody’s true nature would be even bigger now that he’s a Congressman. All of these elements amp up the magnitude of the plot against America. But they also introduce the possibility of inconsistency, implausibility, of error, and of emotional discontinuity, or losing track of characterization. And yet people continually seem to think these sorts of escalations are worth it, to believe that plausible character development and the emotional stakes that come along with being a human in a high-pressure situation aren’t actually enough to sustain our interest, and there has to be a giant conspiracy (as was the case with Lost Resort and remains the case with Revenge) or mystery or the promise of bloody destruction to keep us in our seats. It’s too bad, because some of my favorite shows—Sons of Anarchy with the cartels and the Irish, Homeland with Nazir, and Revenge with its shadowy initiative—have spent a lot more time on conspiracies that seem like they must eventually be dissolved or dismantled than on their main characters emotions, and have done so at moments when the actors on each shows are hitting high-water marks.
And it’s not just complicated serialized storytelling that can be getting in the way of experiencing genuine emotion on shows. One 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 Song of Fire and Ice 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 mass interest.
The thing is, maybe it is. 10.5 million people turned in to The Walking Dead‘s mid-season finale, more than regularly watch network television dramas. And I know there’s much more to the show than its grotesque violence, even if it hasn’t been enough to consistently sustain my interest. Sons of Anarchy has had a quite violent season by the show’s standards, and also become quite competitive in its time slot. Punctuating both shows’ increased and clarified stakes with visceral depictions of violence seems to be working for them.
It’s also intriguing to me that this escalation in violence hasn’t met with a corresponding escalation in sex. That’s not really surprising to me: the mass answer to the question posed in The People vs. Larry Flynt, “What is more obscene: Sex or war?” has always been fairly obvious. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s easier to get any of the incidences of violence I’ve mentioned in this post on the air than a genuinely explicit and realistic sex scene. I should note that Homeland‘s sex scenes have a more serious frisson than almost anything else I’ve ever seen on television, but, with the exception of the masturbation scene in the first season, they’re more emotionally than visually explicit (in part because Claire Danes has been pregnant during the shooting of the second season), and about a pretty limited range of heterosexual behavior. It’s been easier for prestige cable to level up to sexual assault, or to sex between paid professionals, as has been the case with Game of Thrones, than for them to explore sexual pleasure between consenting adults.
There are some obvious counterpoints to this kind of ante-upping. The success of Downton Abbey isn’t nearly as runaway as that of The Walking Dead, but it’s still been big enough to help revitalize PBS. That show’s relatively chaste sexual scenarios, violence as a result of the Great War rather than human perversity, human-sized stakes, and rebuke to the anti-hero age of television had a clear audience, and acted as proof that you could tell emotionally sophisticated stories before you hit a PG-13, much less an R rating. Nashville, similarly, has essentially confined itself to realistic arguments about political ethics, artistic integrity, financial success, and sexual mores, albeit among people whose positions of power in their industry mean that their opinions and behavior have impacts on large numbers of people, though again, the show isn’t close to a runaway ratings hit. The optimism of Parks and Recreation has always been bracing, and has never caught on. Shows like Community and Don’t Trust The B—- In Apt. 23 have mined their stakes from the significance we place in popular culture, but they’re hits more with critics than with mass audiences.
I should make it clear that I’m not opposed to all violence—I am, after all, one of the biggest fans of Game of Thrones in the critical community. I’m not opposed to mysteries—I do love me The Hour. But I would like to see a bit more of a conversation about when visceral violence is effective, and when it’s alright to look away and just to let audiences know something’s happened. I want to talk about what makes a mystery plot effective, and what kinds of acting and inflection in writing can make straightforward storytelling feels big enough on its own. I’m tonally bored by a lot of what I’m seeing on television as much as I am affected by some of it and by the prospect that that the lessons from the current era of prestige television mean we’re going to keep seeing zombies deboned like hot wings.