April 5, 2023

The fantasy of television violence

It could be said that inside every fantasy, there's a reality waiting to burst out. No matter what we might be watching, comedy or drama, we can't help but ask ourselves what might happen "if this were real life." I've certainly done it many times; you remember that article I wrote a few years ago when I talked to an expert on theology about how Hogan's Heroes meshed with the Catholic Just War doctrine. Some people thought I was overthinking the whole thing. I don't think so; it was just the reality of war and morality bursting out from a sitcom. Even light entertainment can make you think, and that's not a bad idea. Even superhero movies seem to recognize the need to introduce reality into their stories, even if it's a reality not all of us might recognize.

Anyway, there are two genres I've spent a lot of time watching over the last couple of years: the detective shows of Warner Bros., and the samurai and noir movies of Akira Kurosawa. An interesting pairing, I know, and you wouldn't necessarily think the two genres would have much in common. Well, they do and they don't: both the WB shows of the late '50s and early '60s and the Kurosawa movies of the post-war period can be extremely violent. But the way they address violence—well, there's the difference. It's not uncommon for one of the WB detectives—Efrem Zimbalist Jr., say, or Robert Conrad—to trade punches with the criminal and have a chair or two, or perhaps even a bottle, broken over his head, and emerge with nothing more than some blood out of the corner of his mouth. Worst case, he's knocked out for a few minutes—but only if the plot requires that the bad guy escape (temporarily, of course) from the clutches of our hero. (Not just WB, of course; as you can see from the illustration above, plenty of shows shared the same traits.)

Kurosawa and his peers, on the other hand, aren't afraid to let the blood flow, and that's putting it mildly. Last week we watched one of Kurosawa's great samurai movies, the 1961 samurai classic Yojimbo, and you not only had people being killed, they were having limbs chopped off and getting gutted by samurai swords left and right. It wasn't perhaps as graphic as Quentin Tarentino (certainly the language wasn't), but you get the point.

Now, obviously part of the reason for this is the basic difference between television and the movies, especially back then; there were (are are) some things you just don't show on TV. But as I watched Yojimbo, and afterward, I wondered if Kurosawa didn't perhaps have a more enlightened attitude toward graphic violence—and if there wasn't something we might have learned from it. Back in the 1960s, Mickey Spillane—creator of the hard-boiled Mike Hammer novels, and an expert on violence if ever there was one—wrote that television violence should be "improved," not reduced. "Rather than a frenzied, overt violence continually erupting in fist fights and shootouts, the violence is held in check, a grenade with the pin out but the handle still held down." He cited two of television’s greatest authority figures of the time, Joe Friday and Matt Dillon, who rarely resorted to "the stilted, pseudo-bloody action seen in one of some current shows." The violence was there; "It was about to happen every second and you knew it and wondered how it was going to come about. But in between a story got told and an audience got entertained believably, no critics screamed and if kids wanted to emulate a hero they got good ones in Friday and Dillon. And brother, you still don’t mess around with Old Matt."And this is true; the tension of impending violence was so thick in Yojimbo that you could cut it with, well, a samurai sword. 

By contrast, Spillane felt that much of the violence then seen on television—the kind featured in the WB detective shows as well as others—was cliché-driven: "fake judo chops or wild punches that can belt a villain 10 feet without knocking his hat off," or "a hero with a chopper dropping a half dozen actors with blank bullets." 

There are a couple of points in play here. Spillane is absolutely correct that the threat of violence makes for better stories; he's also right, however, that there's something cheap about the "fake judo chops" and "wild punches" that punctuate action shows on television. They're not realistic; if you have a chair broken over your head, you are not going to just shrug it off, trust me. And having a few punches land on the jaw are going to leave marks on your pretty face, no matter how big a star you might be. 

And this brings me back to the point I rased at the beginning. The detective stories we know and love are a fantasy, albeit an entertaining one, and there's a truth waiting to burst out. That truth is that violence is not something to be taken lightly—it hurts. Things have changed mightily since Spillane wrote this article in 1961; for one, the world is a more violent place. As such, the entertainment world can't ignore it. I do think that television has done a better job of integrating it into a more sophisticated means of storytelling, as Spillane predicted it would.

But when we look at all the anti-violence campaigns that television has faced in the past, I think it's a fair question to wonder what good any of them have done? On the other hand, what if Spillane's suggestion had been taken back in 1961? Furthermore, what if the depiction of violence had been more realistic? What if we had restricted the anvil-on-the-head violence to cartoons, but allowed the consequences of it to be shown on live-action programs? To the extent that television violence influenced the behavior of the average viewer, would he or she have been more likely to resort to it if they had seen the blood flow from a punch, had been aware of the concussions from being hit over the head by a chair, had known how fragile the human body actually is? One of the clichés we often hear is how the French don't have the same problem with alcohol that we do here because they have a more sophisticated take on it; they've grown up with it, and they've learned from an early age how to handle it. And if it's true about wine, might it also have been true about violence? 

We're beyond all that by now, I think. It might have worked back then because we still had a common culture, religion was still a major part of lives, and things in general were more gentle. But that ship has sailed, and I don't think it's ever coming back. Today, people—young people in general—have grown desensitized to violence; many of them don't even recognize basic humanity, don't place value on a human life any more than they do a pair of shoes. I blame video games for much of this, but television has its part to play, as do all of us. There's no common moral code, no agreement on what's right and wrong; it's all relative. Even mass shootings don't have the effect on us that they once did, and the debates about them generally ignore the most important, most salient points. Put bluntly, as a culture we've lost the ability to be shocked. 

As for violence on television today: well, I don't know if people are even surprised by it anymore. Shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and Better Caul Saul made generous use of violence, and they were among the most acclaimed dramas on television. I think that many times, the violence in these shows is psychological as much as it is physical; the sense of "impending violence" that Spillane urged. Meanwhile, as Spillane said of the "good old days," there's nothing new being created in these shows—they're merely reflecting life as it is. That, perhaps, is what should shock us most of all. TV  


  1. Something I posted exactly five years ago on Facebook:
    Many times, you can tell the moral compass of a nation by what entertains them.
    When it comes to pop culture I admit to being illiterate.
    I would much rather read a book or pop in a DVD of something that puts me in a good and mellow mood. I gave up on broadcast network TV when my daughter was little and never caught up. But the other night I decided not to be a ‘fuddy duddy’ and watch a popular show I had never seen before. It’s called “Chicago PD”.
    Unbeknown to me the show frequently shows police breaking laws themselves to enforce them and violating civil rights. The episode I watched had a white officer roughing up a black suspect and was promptly protected by his white superior (who I assume to be the hero?) by making up a story for the altercation.
    At that point, I turned it off. A few years ago, I turned off “Blue Bloods” for a similar reason.
    In this day and age of frequent reports of police brutality and shooting of unarmed civilians, this is what entertains…who?
    No thanks. My decision not to watch broadcast TV has once again been proven to be the right one.
    In creating a ‘new normal’ we must be conditioned to accept the morally repugnant.
    I won't.

    1. Couldn't agree more, James. I wrote about the problem in police portrayals a few years ago. https://www.itsabouttv.com/2013/04/does-tv-encourage-creation-of-police.html

  2. Good post on police procedurals. I come from a more liberal perspective, but I nevertheless agree with your assessment. And I firmly agree that Naked City is one of the best police shows ever made for TV. I have the series on DVD.
    Someone (I forget where I read it) used the term 'violence or torture porn' to describe the violence of modern TV and film. They stroke the most dark part of the human psyche to entertain, much in the same way sexual porn does.

    1. Yes, I think there's something to that! The evolution in my thinking on the police has been gradual over the years. I don't automatically assume they're wrong, but I also don't automatically think they're right. I think their conduct over the past decades has forfeited them the right to automatically be given the benefit of the doubt. And thanks for the kind words on the post - I appreciate it!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!