Sex, violence and TV shows


We just finished watching the third season of Game of Thrones on DVD this past weekend. Before that, we watched The White Queen, another DVD series (one season only, although it deserved more).

As we watched both, I found myself wondering why directors and producers felt the need to insert gratuitous – but apparently obligatory – explicit scenes of sex and violence that really had little to do with either plot or character development.

The same questions arose when I watched Deadwood, The Sopranos, First Blood and Boardwalk Empire. Personally, I found these explicit bits distracting, like commercials, because they drew attention away from the story and characters.

I had a notion that the writers ran out of ideas at these points and instead threw in a bit of sex or violence, hoping the audience wouldn’t notice the paucity of the writing.

Why do both need to be so graphic? Can’t the same effect be accomplished by suggestion, by clever camera indirection? Do we need spurting blood and genital closeups to make a scene seem real or effective? Can’t a good director or cinematographer convey these emotions through suggestion, shadow and impression?

Do we need to have full-frontal nudity to convey a sense of the erotic? Or has pornography dulled our senses to the point where anything less doesn’t capture our attention? Why do we need sex and violence instead of story? Because we, collectively, haven’t got the attention span of gnats and our emotions are reduced to biological urges?

Or is it a generational thing? Am I just being old fashioned and curmudgeonly? Maybe, but I’ll keep my reserve, thank you.

I think of how movies and TV in the past dealt with these issues. Old Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart films, Charlie Chan, film noir. The mystery and passion of love in a film like Casablanca has been lost in the uber-explicit world of modern media. The villain dying histrionically in a B&W 1930s’ gangster film, without blood seems corny, staged, over-acted compared to the slice-and-dice extreme violence of today.

Or maybe not to my generation. We always have Alfred Hitchcock. There are better ways to engage people that are just as – maybe more – effective than explicit images.And certainly there are better ways to send a message about acceptable behaviour to youth.

I’m not being prudish here. I’m talking rather about context: stuff that defines the connectivity in a TV series or film. Scenes need to make sense, regardless of content; they have to contribute to the greater gestalt of the production and the story. Otherwise they’re just voyeuristic moments. They are to storytelling what gossip and rumour are to news, no more relevant to the context than local bloggers are to local politics.

And where is the imagination gone? Has TV dulled our senses so thoroughly that we can’t enjoy a story without being bludgeoned by the coarsest and most tiresome graphic visualizations? Do we collectively need explicit sex to be titillated sufficiently to pay attention?

But then how is it the BBC can accomplish their storytelling art so effectively and compellingly without resorting to such egregious visual distractions as some American TV seems to require?

But clearly not all… How did West Wing and M*A*S*H or Darling Buds of May survive so many successful seasons without graphic sex or violence? By having good characters, good dialogue and solid plots.

Ditto with many successful TV series: 24, Lost, The Unit, Wired, The Shield, Newsroom, The Hour, Zen, Prime Suspect, New Tricks and Fringe, for example (although several of these had a bit of violence, and the occasional, muted sex, it was usually presented within an appropriate context and seldom dwelt upon).

Many period pieces are even more muted about sex and violence, although they may refer to them: Downton Abbey, The Paradise, Larkrise to Candleford and Cranford come to mind – but they do so within a refined and mostly non-graphic context. And, of course, they are British and most British productions are simply better.

Of course, it’s not just the Americans that are to blame, although they are the heart of the matter of graphic imagery. They just seem more licentious and prone to let it overwhelm the content.

Rome – a mixed British-American-Italian production – was a great (and unfortunately too short) series that had both sex and violence without allowing either to overwhelm any scene or episode. But the BBC’s (arguably better and more dramatic) I, Claudius suggested both without any graphic imagery – and was still a more powerful production.

And don’t get me wrong: I like the storytelling components of these series, which is why I watch them. Most of them, anyway (Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire struck me as dull concatenations of minor scenarios rather than comprehensive story lines and The Tudors was so poorly written and cast it made me gag and guffaw – it compared very poorly to the aged BBC production of the Six Wives of Henry VIII).

I just feel most shows would be better without catering to the voyeurs and the salacious. Focus on the core components of good storytelling: character, plot and dialogue.

I don’t over-intellectualize TV: I know it’s mainly meant for entertainment. Good for a laugh, a cry, a thrilling ride, a few hours wasted while condiments and junk food are consumed.

TV – at least most American TV – is light fare and shouldn’t be expected to do much more than entertain. But It can accomplish that successfully without graphic sex and violence and surely there are writers who are not so lame they can’t figure out how to convey a sense of tension or passion without having to resort to mere imagery for its attraction.

Ah, but then I wonder: is it just me (and maybe my generation) not able to adapt to a world in which graphic sex and violence are just part of the presentation, stripped of emotional content? Well, I hope not. There is still for me magic and mystery in sex. I abhor violence and am moved by compassion more than anger.

I hope I never lose these feelings to a mere TV series. I like the stories, I like getting lost in plots and characters. But the experience doesn’t require the clumsy and callous to make it effective.