I want to make it very clear, right up front: This is not intended as an indemnification of violence on television.
To make statements that blame horrific events like Sandy Hook on the average amount of gunshots per hour of programming or on who blows what up when is, well, irresponsible in and of itself.
(It’s like shouting at the Weather Channel as a hurricane passes on through; it doesn’t get to the root of the problem, doesn’t add to our awareness and understand of a situation. It doesn’t move us forward.)
But if you’re the kind of person who enjoys TV violence as a sort of escapism—and I’m raising my hand here as one of you—I want you to try something. (This works best with a show like The Walking Dead.)
The next time you watch, establish a kill count.
1. Track, in one or two hours of television, the total numbers of bodies that hit the ground.
2. Time how quickly it takes you to forget about those bodies, and those characters they used to be.
Think about the tricks upon which the talented storytellers who have designed your program rely in order to scuttle those bodies out of the story—how shots are set up, how scenes change quickly, and how the subtle and not-so-subtle fantasies of how guns fire and bullets work all come into play to make gunplay and death all part of a curiously neat dance.
3. The hard part. Do a quick Internet search for “gunshot wounds.” I apologize for the results in advance.
There’s some harsh, unfiltered and heartbreaking reality to be found there. There’s also, without much effort, a great deal of examples available of videos of lives ended via gunshot available on the Internet. If you have the stomach for it, watch some of those, as well.
Here, then, is the strange disconnect between the violence of our entertainment and what comes next.
We’re trained, again and again, by the entertainment we consume, to equate a gunshot with the end of a character’s time on screen, and that’s it. The violence of it—the actual violence—is downplayed.
The real story is that a gunshot, fired into a human being, transforms a person—a complex package of experiences with all sorts of ideas, and a family, and odd habits, and a very specific laugh, and desires and everything else—into a piece of meat.
And it’s the consequences of that transformation that we seldom actually engage.
There’s a special kind of a horror in that particular element of death. We’re left with a physical mass that looks like a damaged version of someone we love, and yet they’re gone. It’s the grimmest, and maybe the harshest, singular part of life we all have to wrestle with, and there’s something to be said for escaping this awful thought process.
But there’s also something to be said, perhaps, for ignoring what happens when we disconnect violence from its consequences.
Where are the bodies?
I mentioned The Walking Dead, above, for several reasons. We could also use Fox’s The Following—which contains some of the glitziest, most-glossed-over gore on television in recent memory—for this same argument, but let’s stick with The Walking Dead.
First and foremost is its almost-constant willingness to dispatch its central characters. It’s almost impossible to go three episodes in a row without a main cast member dying, either at the hands of the zombie hordes or by the actions of a human villain.
And the unique conceit of this show is that the dead sort of come back as shambling, flesh-hungry antagonists; if our heroes aren’t careful, they’re faced with the actual consequence of violence head-on, as death can look at them, quite literally, straight in the eye.
Yet when something happens to a character we care about—when they’re killed—the body disappears. Even in a show so well-known for its graphic depictions of dismemberment and gore, there’s a willful gap between acts of murder and the bodies those acts create.
**POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT**
This is most evident early in Season Three, when preteen Carl shoots his mother (Lori), who's just undergone a pioneer C-section in a dirty prison. (As the scene is written, Carl does this to prevent her becoming a zombie; it's implied that she won't survive the unskilled surgery.)
The violence of the moment is all implied via after-the-fact blood splatter. We’re meant to suddenly understand that Carl is now a man amongst the survivors for this act. There’s an implied bravery and almost horrific badge of honor attached to this act unseen since the days Greek tragedies were in their first theatrical releases.
A fresh perspective
With all of this in mind, I’m positing that perhaps it’s time to watch television with a higher awareness of what happens and what doesn’t happen. There’s always going to be a glorification of gun violence in pop culture. It’s almost written into the DNA of our storytelling at this point, and not much can be done to curb that.
But what we can do is keep a sharp eye on the moments after. We can be aware of our reactions to the entertainment we consume, and , and each other, and anyone who’s willing to listen, really.
I think that’s step one to fight against this dangerous desensitization, and the psychological results that come of it, down the road. It’s the same principle on cable as it is in our grocery stores: awareness of what we consume, and how it affects us, is key in moving forward, both in our family lives and in the communities in which we want to take part.
What do you think?