On violence, TV isn’t the scapegoat for once

One of the least important things that happens after a terrible tragedy is that some TV episodes get pre-empted because of their content. Castle delayed an episode about a bombing, and Hannibal has pulled an episode that the creator decided would not be appropriate to air at this time.

But what’s surprising is not that some episodes get pulled, but that there isn’t that much controversy or scapegoating over the episodes that do air. Public officials often look for someone or something in the media to blame for violence. Violent video games are a popular scapegoat; you often hear politicians or NRA people saying that the problem is not guns in the hands of “law-abiding citizens” but the culture of violence created by video games. And television, traditionally, was the readiest and easiest thing to blame – yet it doesn’t seem to happen much now. There is much less finger-pointing at violence on television than violence in video games or even movies.

And this despite the fact that television today is probably more violent than it’s ever been. Margaret Lyons at Vulture recently wrote about violence in TV drama: she counted 109 dramas with rapes or murders as plot points, to 16 that have never featured either. TV has fewer restrictions on violence than on sex or language, and may at this point have fewer restrictions than mainstream movies: CBS and other networks have pushed violence to levels that would get an R rating in a feature. The stuff that used to get complaints about violence on TV – mostly lots of murders without much blood or graphic detail – looks quaint. And yet the bloodless violence of older TV shows was debated, scolded and worried over. Modern television hasn’t had that. The success of The Following has created some awareness, rather late in the game, that networks are trying to use violence to attract viewers. But it’s not as big an issue as it once was, and probably never will be.

I should add here that I’m not advocating that we all start freaking out over TV violence again. I think it’s a good thing that we’re not. Most of the TV-violence crusades of previous generations seemed pretty pointless, just as blaming video games or rap lyrics is usually a distraction from actual problems, and always winds up lumping a bunch of unlike works into one umbrella category of “violent content.”

There’s a lot to be said artistically against the violent content of some individual shows: it’s sometimes exploitative, and tends to make shows very grim and dark and depressing. You’ll notice that the short list of non-violent dramas includes many of the dramas with that elusive element, charm: shows like Bunheads, Parenthood, some of the USA and CW shows. You can have charm on a murder mystery (Bones, Castle) but it’s easier to fall into a mood of gloom punctuated by a few token one-liners. But that’s an argument for turning off some individual shows or hoping for more shows that look at other sides of life. Complaining about TV violence in general usually doesn’t make TV better or encourage TV to find other stories; it just results in a lot of shows where there’s a lot of gunfire but nobody gets shot.

So I’m okay with the fact that there hasn’t been a major anti-violence backlash when it comes to television. I’m just curious as to why: why was TV violence such a hot-button issue for so long, only to recede as an issue just when the actual content got really grim?

I suppose one answer would simply be that sex replaced violence as the hot-button issue, and we can only have one big one at a time. Sexual content on television is a big source of complaints, and the people who spend their time monitoring these things seem to focus most of their attention on that. Networks learned long ago that as long as the bad guys are punished (and even if they’re not, since some of these fictional serial killers go years without being caught), you can have all the violence you want and still have the right moral values. A show where murderers are punished can always claim that it’s a moral show, no matter how much blood it has. Sex is a trickier issue, because the very portrayal of sex outside of marriage has always set off arguments, and probably always will. Which may explain the fact that as it became more common for TV characters to have a lot of sex (or at least talk about it), complaints about violence started to become less common; violence was supplanted by a bigger “values” issue.

There’s also the point that TV violence today is really grim, and therefore doesn’t leave itself open to the argument that it’s glorifying violence. Anything can be a glorification of violence if you’re in the mood to see it that way, but much of today’s violent TV is trying to portray a depressing, brutal world where violence doesn’t solve anything. A lot of the older TV-violence controversies revolved around the enjoyment we were supposed to get from seeing the heroes solve problems with their guns or fists. There’s no danger of us getting any but the most downbeat enjoyment from Criminal Minds or something like that.

Finally, there might be a cultural reason related to the overall decline in crime. TV-violence panics often occurred when crime was high, or thought to be high, and TV seemed to be making that look like a fun thing, trivializing the real fear people were feeling. As fear of everyday violence – such as mugging – has declined, crime shows look less like an exploitation of real-world fears and more of an escape into a violent fantasy world. That’s the point of these shows about god-like serial killers; they’re far removed enough from the actual things we’re worried about that the violence doesn’t seem like anything anyone could potentially imitate. TV tends to panic people the most when there’s a fear that something could be, theoretically, imitated (which is why Standards and Practices people are more inclined to allow things that a person in real life would have a hard time doing, as opposed to just stabbing someone with a knife). A lot of TV violence is really more like TV itself – very remote from everyday experience, and therefore not all that frightening.

All this is not to say that there can’t be another full-blown panic over television violence again. If anything is cyclical, it’s probably that. I’m just saying that as things stand right now, TV isn’t getting yelled at as much as video games are getting yelled at. I suppose TV is getting criticized for so many things these days, it had to get a break on something.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.