For as long as television has existed there has been enormous concern over its depiction of violence. The first congressional hearings on the subject were held in 1952, the same year Lucille Ball was seen massacring a factory’s worth of chocolate balls. In subsequent decades there emerged an entire cottage industry devoted to monitoring fictional small-screen violence and attempting to track its effect in the real world. To this day, pundits love to breathlessly trot out the figures, many of which are now older than the young people they’re meant to protect. The most-quoted congressional study, commissioned in 1999 by Murphy Brown guest star Orrin Hatch, declared that by the time a child is 18 he or she is likely to have witnessed 200,000 violent acts on television, 16,000 of which would be murders. One can only assume that those savage numbers have risen substantially in the 14 years since, particularly if you factor in every time the panicked contestants on Chopped are forced to shuck clams.
Though I remain skeptical of any direct correlation between fictional and literal bloodshed, I nonetheless feel for the children subjected to all this televised mayhem. Really, I do.1 But to be quite honest, my primary concern these days is for my fellow adults. Television, particularly the high-minded prime-time television I often write about, is awash in death. NBC, once famous for its “The More You Know” PSAs, now demonstrates how best to impale a female torso on deer antlers. Fox dresses up dime-store gore in undergrad pretension. And on HBO’s prestige dramas, blood burbles and sprays like water in the Trevi Fountain. Some of this carnage is artistic and some of it is gratuitous, but eventually all of it takes a toll. A simple evening unwinding on the couch can now be as relaxing as an autopsy; the spots dancing in front of your eyes after a DVR binge are stained red and they’re spreading.
For example, I was proud to be among the first to criticize Sesame Street for its planned, Elmo-centric lesson on colors and dinner etiquette built around an elaborate parody of the Red Wedding.
While the extremity of the violence — and the violent removal of extremities — is new, it’s worth noting that the brutality isn’t. Procedurals, the money-printing bedrock of network television, have long had body counts comparable to a land war in Asia. Even the genteel Murder, She Wrote, in which Angela Lansbury solved crimes between warming cups of chamomile, operated like a well-appointed charnel house; the quaint Maine town in which it was set was eventually revealed to possess a murder rate higher than that of Honduras. The difference is that, for the majority of these shows, corpses are essentially props, personality-free grist for the weekly case-solving mill. On the opposite end of things is The Walking Dead, a genre-wallow in which the no-longer-living have been intentionally stripped of humanity to justify all manner of video-game ultraviolence on the part of the show’s putative heroes. It’s a brilliant way for the producers to both have their cake and stab it in the forehead with a screwdriver too.
The real difference these days, the one that has me standing up, mildly retching, and crying “no more,” lies between the two extremes. As the amoral ambiguity of the great Golden Age dramas recedes in our rearview mirror, network executives are unflipping the scripts and restoring some familiar storytelling order. This means less cheering for criminals and a renewed focus on the law-and-order types charged with bringing them to justice. The Killing rarely gets credit for anything around these parts, up to and including its mildly improved third season. But the soggy series — or, more specifically, the apparently quite good Danish original — has actually been wildly influential.
Building a show around a crime, rather than a criminal, appeals to a broader range of viewers2 and a more established sensibility. The beats of a murder investigation are familiar to anyone who’s ever read a book, scanned a newspaper, or switched over to CBS at any point in the past 30 years. And, despite Veena Sud’s best efforts, this sort of police work usually carries a structure that lends itself to the kind of light serialization cost-conscious networks like best. When done right, a single case can last a season and then a series can more or less reboot itself, ditching any parts that aren’t working and maintaining those that are. When done right, as it was with Twin Peaks and its artistic descendant, Top of the Lake, dropping a body into a story like a stone into a puddle can be fascinating. When done wrong, it becomes less about the ripples and more about the audience being clubbed over the head with the stone.
Also — and this is important the way the industry is going — it appeals to a more international audience. The original Killing was a smash hit around the world before being imported by AMC. Now our draggy, domestic version has done relatively well outside the U.S. as well.
Of course, no one wants to admit that these shows are essentially bloodied-up procedurals. The Killing, its “Nordic noir” offshoots (which include Bron, the basis for FX’s very good The Bridge),3 and programs with similar bloodlines, such as Fox’s The Following and BBC Two’s The Fall, go to great lengths to prove themselves with mature themes and grisly content. But chopping up bodies and slicing off all sense of humor doesn’t necessarily make things better, it just makes things bleak. And making things darker is rarely an improvement; it’s often an impediment to sight. (It’s worth noting that from The Sopranos to Mad Men, the very best, most demanding dramas of the past decade were often among the funniest shows on television.) Bringing the tried-and-true procedural into TV’s risk-taking present makes sense on paper,4 but too often these shows are merely borrowing the boundary-pushing aesthetics of the Golden Age and stretching them over creaky bones left over from the Jurassic.
One thing I’ve noticed in recapping The Bridge is that the central conceit of the show, the serial killer plaguing the El Paso–Juárez border, is absolutely the least interesting thing about it. Thankfully the margins are so rich that I’m hoping we’ll get to spend more time there as the series develops.
There’s an argument to be made here that programs like The Shield and Damages already did exactly this, and I would agree with it. The key difference is that for whatever their flaws, both of those shows were idiosyncratic and personal works from highly invested, highly leveraged creators. This second generation of shows, particularly those based on preexisting formats, is far less showrunner-dependent and thus under far more network, studio, and, one would imagine, advertiser control.
What I’m finding harder and harder to watch, though, is the way this new breed of dramas attempts to flesh out murderers and their victims, even as the former are gleefully removing the flesh from the latter.5 Don’t get me wrong: A real interest in character and motivation is precisely what has elevated television this past decade. But in their dogged pursuit of unpleasant truths, both the cops and their showrunners have stumbled into a new uncanny valley, one in which efforts to humanize a stabby array of corpses and killers have resulted in a vision of humanity I can neither recognize nor tolerate. On one side of the divide there’s the breeziness of your average Law & Order. On the other, there’s the beautifully complex depravity of a Tony Soprano or a Walter White. But in the saggy, striving middle? That’s where things get untenable. Fox’s The Following, with its ham-handed swipes at insight, can be easily dismissed as the indulgent schlock that it is. But what to make of BBC Two’s The Fall?
I don’t watch Dexter but I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring it up here. It seems to me that, at its best, the long-running Showtime series is more aligned with the deep-dive morality surgery of Breaking Bad than this new generation of serial murderers.
The five-episode series is currently streaming on Netflix and is inarguably well intentioned and extremely well made. The show is built around Gillian Anderson’s tough and subtle portrayal of Stella Gibson, a British detective on loan to a Belfast police department overwhelmed by a recent murder, but it lingers almost lovingly on Jamie Dornan (Once Upon a Time) as a happily married bereavement counselor who, after putting the kids to bed, puts on a ski mask to stalk and strangle young women. One of the goals of The Fall is absolutely to make your skin crawl and, you know, mission accomplished. But when watching the pilot, I found myself desperately hoping against hope that the attention paid to Dornan was a misdirect. Not only was the character far-fetched — a mental health professional with a stable family life and a flair for homicide is great but only in the sort of pulpy fiction a high-minded project like The Fall seemed designed specifically to avoid — I found myself dreading the thought of tracking his undoing, no matter how meticulous and artful the journey promised to be. There’s a doomy inevitability to these sorts of crime shows, no matter how sterling their pedigree. The unspeakable all too quickly becomes the unwatchable. It’s not necessarily brave to stand at the top of a pitch-black staircase and decide to descend. These sorts of scenarios rarely end well, not for blondes in horror movies and certainly not for the casual TV viewer.
Broadchurch, debuting August 7 on BBC America, is, in broad strokes, almost indistinguishable from any number of these dark dramas. There’s an innocent victim, a troubled investigator, and a small town full of secrets. Stop me if you’ve seen this one before — particularly if you’ve seen it in the past five minutes. But the eight-episode series, which became a “Who shot J.R.?”–like phenomenon in the U.K. when it aired earlier this year, is too artful and considered to be dismissed outright. As dreamed up by playwright turned Doctor Who scribe Chris Chibnall, Broadchurch is an Agatha Christie novel reimagined as Grand Guignol tragedy, a societal-slice-of-life procedural that isn’t afraid to cut all the way to the bone.
The series is set in a fictional burg on England’s Southern coast. The titular town has a friendly veneer, a struggling, seasonal economy, and a thousand dark shadows lurking beneath its fantastical, terrifying cliffs. When 11-year-old Danny Latimer’s body washes up on the beach, the region is sucked into the seedy particulars of the case like a swimmer into a riptide. Standing waist-deep in the spume is Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, a splintered toothpick of a man recently relocated to the area in the hopes of avoiding just such a high-profile crime. Hardy’s last case, another child murder, fell apart in court due to police error, leaving Hardy with a broken reputation and a busted heart, literally and otherwise.
David Tennant is outstanding in a role that, on the surface, would seem to cry out for a completely different sort of performer. An adrenalized Muppet in his most famous performance as the 10th Doctor Who, Tennant here is wasted and wan, a ruined man who has given up on a world that has clearly given up on him. The spine of the series rests on the prickly partnership between Tennant’s Hardy and the revelatory Olivia Colman as Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, a warm and loving local who might be too nice to be a cop and is definitely too nice to exhibit much resentment over Hardy swiping her dream job away from her. (It helps that the job quite quickly descends into nightmare.) Together the two canvass the city center, uncover muck, and spar relentlessly and, eventually, respectfully. (It’s quite amazing the way Tennant says the name “Miller” in his thick, Scots brogue. He makes it sound like he’s summoning a lesser demon from the gates of hell.) There’s a weary professionalism and a welcome lack of flirting to their partnership. Sexual tension is perfectly fine, but sometimes regular old tension can be just as satisfying.
The acting is uniformly excellent here, from the grieving parents (Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan) all the way to the fringier regulars/suspects, including Pauline Quirke as a dog-loving drifter and especially the riveting David Bradley — known to regular readers of the New York Times “Vows” section as Walder Frey — as a newsagent with a past. The pacing, too, is expert, with each successive hour riding a gradually swelling wave of intrigue and despair. The show has something fascinating to say about tabloid damage, the way blaring headlines too often obscure the full story, and it has something surprisingly petty to say about intentions of the police (nearly always good) and the press (nearly always bad). Those interested in committing to the series but still smarting from Season 1 of The Killing can rest assured that the conclusion of Broadchurch very nearly justifies the investment. Most of my niggling questions and skepticism were washed away by the emotional wallop of the big reveal and, particularly, the performances of those involved. Uncovering mold and decay underneath the shiny surface of things is a cliché unto itself in detective stories of all stripes. Broadchurch is the rare show willing to let things get well and truly rotten.
But despite how much I liked the finale of Broadchurch, I’m still not sure I can fully endorse the beginning and middle. It may be the very best of these pathological procedurals and it’s certainly the classiest: There’s no fetishistic ogling of bodies, no ratings-goosing gush of arterial spray. In contrast to many of the sadistic shows described above, Broadchurch is practically old-fashioned in its restraint and deeply humanist in its crushing melancholy. But nearly every one of Hardy’s steps feels overly familiar and deeply exhausting. We know all too well the cringing horror of a pilot in which a mother and father enjoy their last “good” morning, still blissfully ignorant of their child’s passing, and the actorly showcases of impossible grief and fist-shaking fury that inevitably follow. You can wind your watch to the rhythm of the middle chapters in which suspects are served up with damning superficial evidence, then exonerated in a windy blast of backstory and pathos.6 Death for these shows isn’t merely a means to an end; it is an end itself, of hope, of lightness, of any surprise unconnected to the workmanlike drudgery of “whodunit.”7
I should clarify here that I don’t think these clichés are necessary to all detective stories — in fact, the off-kilter and dreamy Top of the Lake remains my pick for the best show of the year. There are familiar beats in stories from Raymond Chandler to The Rockford Files. The key difference is that there is also a variety of tone.
I have to admit that my respect for Broadchurch dipped further when it was announced that the series, lovingly crafted by Chibnall to be a one-off, will bow to the pressure of financial opportunity and return in 2014. How he’ll pull this off is anyone’s guess.
“People are unknowable,” is how DI Hardy puts it at the end of the series, his blunt attempt at comforting a colleague who’s been steamrolled by revelations. That’s all well and good, and it’s possibly even true. But what I wouldn’t give for more television that used Hardy’s words as a jumping-off point, not a fatalistic destination. He’s not wrong: In real life, our fellow humans can often seem unknowable, even those to whom we’re closest. But TV, at its best, tries to figure them out before it’s too late.
Instead, television of late seems overly interested in its newfound ability to push the envelope, to splash around the shallow end of the big-boy pool. It remains far too invested in the notion that our existence can have meaning only when we’re reminded how fragile it is, that a life is only valuable when it’s threatened with an abrupt end. But that’s nonsense. Psychological weight isn’t the same thing as psychological insight. Which is why I don’t think it’s a surprise that the very best show of this long, hot, and bloody summer has been Netflix’s surprising Orange Is the New Black. Yes, it focuses on women stuck in a dead-end situation, but it never strips them of their basic humanity, a humanity that insists, despite long odds, that there is always a way out. The show is racy and electric with possibility, and either despite or because of its grim setting — I’m honestly not sure which — Orange Is the New Black feels radically, thrillingly, and defiantly alive. Orange may have filthy, bug-ridden showers, but it’s high-minded downers like Broadchurch that feel as if they’re circling the drain.