New gore values

Prime time has taken a morbid turn as producers learn viewers see nothing the matter with splatter

November 3, 2020
By Noel Holston

This isn't the first television season that could be described as "ghastly," but it is the first to be ghastly in the most literal sense of the word - that is, to quote Webster's, "terrifyingly horrible to the senses." Some of the most popular, mainstream prime-time programs now traffic in images so gruesome that until recently you would only have seen them in a theatrical movie like "Halloween" or "Hannibal": graphic depictions of human beings maimed, crushed, blistered like overcooked hot dogs. And body parts, lots of body parts. Comparatively speaking, TV news is a model of decorum and restraint.

In a recent "CSI: Miami" a medical examiner handled a severed human arm and shoulder as casually as you or I might brandish a leg and thigh combo from KFC. On "Presidio Med" doctors treated a firefighter so hideously burned that half his body was a red, raw sore. In "24's" season opener last Tuesday, federal anti-terrorist agent Jack Bauer shot a man point-blank in the chest, then sized up the thickness of his victim's neck and requested a hacksaw. The severed head makes its inevitable appearance in episode two on Tuesday.

For pure shock value, however, nothing this season so far can compete with an incident in the opening "ER" episode. While helping load a patient into a helicopter atop Chicago's County General Hospital, Dr. Robert Romano, a series regular, stepped into the path of the chopper's rear rotor. His left arm was sliced off at the biceps. It flew across the tarmac as Romano collapsed, spurting blood from the twitching stump.

Whatever happened to the "comfort" TV we supposedly craved in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks? Television's drift toward more graphic depiction of injury and death has, if anything, intensified in the past 13 months.

That severed arm in "CSI: Miami" was first shown jutting from the slashed-open belly of a shark. The fisherman who had caught the shark threw up. But surely neither the producers, the network nor the show's sponsors expected us viewers at home to do the same. They have to believe we have the stomach for such visceral visual effects, or they wouldn't risk airing them. The Nielsen numbers indicate that millions of us are taking solace in the most grisly entertainment programming the medium has ever delivered. Could that be so?

The answer, based on interviews with psychologists, trauma specialists and grief counselors, including some who are still working with 9/11 survivors, appears to be somewhere between "maybe" and a guarded "yes."

Not everyone was open-minded. "These images are not benign," said Roger Simpson, director of the University of Washington's Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a resource for reporters who cover violence. "They're not entertainment. For some people at least, they can provoke anxiety, they can provoke fear, they can kick people back into a previous state of trying to cope with something they've been through. And I don't think news and drama are exclusive things. I think dramatic pictures have that same potential."

"As a human being, I feel uncomfortable watching these shows, even when they're well done," said David Grand, a trauma therapist with offices in Bellmore and Manhattan. "It's morbid fascination, the same that leads us to slow down and take a look at a highway accident when we're driving."

But Grand also said that denying the urge to look only intensifies curiosity. He entertains the notion that both viewers and producers may be in the process of working through their curiosity about the terror attacks, which the news media filtered and sanitized - admirably, some would say - for mass consumption. "You hear people were burned alive, people were crushed, people were decapitated," Grand said. "On some level, you recoil from it. But part of you is curious: What the hell did it look like? And here these shows are, providing that look" - or something approximating it.

Patricia Doyle, a psychologist in private practice in Manhattan who continues to counsel 9/11 survivors, said she "would seriously doubt that people who were really traumatized by 9/11, people who lost loved ones or who were actually down there and escaped, are watching these programs. It would cause too much pain. Their emotions are too raw."

But for the people who are flocking to shows like "CSI" and its South Florida spin-off, the former the season's top-ranked show, the other an instant top-10 fixture, watching may be a means of "turning passive into active, so that instead of feeling like a victim, one can feel mastery," Doyle said. "It's a way of entering into the violence but remaining safe."

Echoing her assessment, Josh Miller, a professor at Smith College who has worked with trauma survivors, noted that 9/11 "was really a collective trauma for the nation. People experienced horrible images and terrible fears and anxieties. I think a lot of people ultimately are going to play with that. Jung would say it's very analogous to fairy tales, where we project our most primitive, basic fear - being killed, being eaten, being kidnapped - and by creating a narrative we can master it, put it in a safer place."

He didn't just mean viewers, either. "People are going to write about it, make music about it, make movies and TV shows about it. And they might do it indirectly, not directly. It could be unconscious or conscious."

On the other hand, Miller said, "a negative explanation" for TV's fuller embrace of the shocking and grotesque "would be that it's exploitation, that it's almost capitalizing on 9/11." Or, if we don't wish to be quite that cynical, the phenomenon could be viewed as an inevitable result of a ferociously competitive, multi-channel TV world. The broadcast networks are trying to interest viewers who can see Det. Vic Mackey beat a suspect bloody on FX's "The Shield" or watch the morticians on HBO's "Six Feet Under" as they try to repair ravaged or maimed corpses to make them presentable for an open-casket funeral.

Robert Cochran, co-creator and executive producer of "24," freely acknowledged that in the second season the show has to live up to a reputation for jolting viewers. "We did things you normally don't see on TV," he said. "Not for gruesome. Not to shock. It's about coming up with things you can't turn to four other channels and see on television."

 Rolling heads, for instance. Or skinning.

 "For the premiere of 'CSI' this year," said creator-executive producer Anthony Zuiker, "we elected to cut over the forehead [of a corpse], pull off the face and have spattering blood on our assistant coroner. That was our way of saying, 'Hey, we're going to push the envelope this year. Welcome back. Things are gonna be a little edgier.'"

Even so, Zuiker said, he and the other "CSI" producers pay close attention to viewers' reactions. "We hear from people through the grapevine relatively quickly whether we've pushed the envelope too far," he said. "By doing that, we have been able to establish a pattern of trust with our audience. As long as the gore is done in the execution of science, the viewers are very forgiving."

Zuiker also shared "a sort of writer's trick. If you want to not make the audience sick, you can have someone on the screen be sick for them." Which explains the fishermen who blew lunch at the sight of the shark's dinner.

 The danger of this trend, however psychologically explicable it may be, is that it may keep escalating to the point that we're so desensitized, we can't be shocked anymore. But that threshold, now as always, varies from person to person.

 "I think part of the draw is that we all know we're gonna die," Doyle said. "It's a way we can play with it a little bit and walk away from the TV. We're not the ones."