Sunday, January 13, 2013

Don't Blame the Fiction, Blame the Reader!

There is much to be said for Bill Carter’s think piece in The New York Times today entitled, “Real-World Killings Pressure TV Fiction.” His laundry list of television series that involved murder on a regular basis is extensive and dispassionate. Still, I’m not sure that the comments of Nina Tassler, President of CBS Entertainment, had very much to add to the violence-on-television debate. She justifies Criminal Minds, with its focus on serial killers, with the claim that “the bad guys are brought to justice,” adding that she would (note that Carter did not use “does” in his article) allow her fourteen-year-old child to watch it because “it’s an adult show.” It is certainly true that the good guys prevail on Criminal Minds; but I think that what makes it an “adult show” is the obsessive detail surrounding each serial killer, not just through often grisly description but also through depiction. If we were talking about sex acts, we would call this pornography; and I certainly do not have any trouble invoking that same noun, even if through a thin layer of metaphor.

The guy who may have said something worth reading, however, may likely be John Landgraf, President of FX. Here are the paragraphs Carter devotes to him:
John Landgraf, the president of FX, which programs hit dramas based on some level of violence like “America Horror Story” and “Justified,” stressed a distinction between what he called “third-person entertainment” and “first-person entertainment.” The former describes the passive viewing of scripted dramas; the latter describes participatory entertainment, like video games, where shooting and mayhem are personally inflicted on characters.

He explicitly tied the prevalence of violence in the United States to the availability of guns, noting that television viewers in Britain watch the same shows as Americans and play the same video games, but that the country has drastically lower murder rates.

“We should be looking at ourselves, but I think we have to look at what is most substantially responsible for this kind of violence,” Mr. Landgraf said. “One way to look at that is by looking at the rate at which it takes place in our country and other countries that don’t have access to those kinds of 100-round, 30-round assault-weapon guns.”
Personally, I think that a debate over the availability of large-scale deadly weapons is more serious than the availability of violence on television. Nevertheless, there is still a path that I do not seem to share with any of Carter’s interview subjects. This is the one concerned with the extent to which viewers do not grasp that there programs are fiction. The thing about pornography is that readers tend to get their kicks from the fact that it is fiction, titillating the imagination but not inspiring into action. Could it be that those British television audiences spend more time getting their fiction from books and just react to it on television the same way, experiencing the thrill of scratching an itch without thinking very much of doing it in reality? When you think of how many television viewers out there probably treat the stories of their sacred texts as if they were “God’s truth,” granting the possibility of fiction as nothing less than heresy, is it any wonder that ours is a culture unwilling to recognize fiction for what it is, without letting it cross over boundaries into reality?

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