Like the Tiber River after Caligula’s been on a weekend bender, television today is flooded with blood. What was once the sole sphere of slasher flicks now has become a common spattering on the small screen, and not just with cable shows such as AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s Game of Thrones and the recently launched Showtime drama Penny Dreadful. Now the networks are in the gore game with Fox’s The Following and Sleepy Hollow and NBC’s Hannibal and Grimm. The proliferation of blood and guts on TV in this era of the explicit proves that the appetite for death and destruction hasn’t jumped the shark so much as stabbed the beast, torn into its flesh, cooked it up and swam among the remains.
“I think people today enjoy that sensation of being scared,” says The Following’s co-executive producer Marcos Siega. “Shows like Dexter certainly opened up a lot of doors. And then Walking Dead comes along, and there is a lot of gore on that. I’ve never seen a show that hits more people in the skull, and yet people are tuning in in droves.”
Bloodshed has been a part of TV since the beginning, but it was mostly implied in the early years. The loosening of censors and Standards and Practices departments on TV violence allowed shows to get rougher, starting with police procedurals such as NYPD Blue. A 1992 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association claimed that an average American child would see 40,000 murders and 200,000 other violent acts on TV by the time he or she turned 18. Still, the actual onscreen blood flow was kept to a minimum. Those days are over. Somehow Ralph Kramden’s empty, “Pow! Right in the kisser!” threat on The Honeymooners has given way to exploding heads on Game of Thrones.
“The Following is the (show) that’s the most surprising because it is incredibly graphic,” notes Sara Colleton, executive producer of Showtime’s Dexter, which ended its series run after eight seasons last fall. “They can do that now on (network) television, which is shocking.” Fox’s Following—about a weary ex-FBI agent, portrayed by Kevin Bacon, on the hunt for an escaped serial killer—tortured and burned its way through the first season last year and only got bloodier for its second round.
Similarly, NBC’s titular killer in Hannibal—a TV version of the character made famous by Thomas Harris’ books and Anthony Hopkins’ film portrayals—has nauseated, astounded and scared the living daylights out of primetime audiences. “I hope what Hannibal does is allow networks to not just be gorier but take more risks and be able to commit to a vision of a show,” says Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller. Bathed in a disturbing darkness that drips off the screen in a psychopathology all its own, the thriller might not be attracting a huge Friday night viewership, but it certainly is carving its own niche. It recently won “best in show” in Hulu’s voter poll over Game of Thrones.
“Now we have viscera and arterial spray, and it’s just one more component of the Crayola box that we get to use. But if that’s the only color you’re using, that’s when it becomes exploitive,” Fuller says about the parameters of showing gore on TV.
“If you have too much blood or (your show is) too gory or graphic, nobody’s going to pay attention to anything that (the characters are) saying,” adds Colleton. “Every episode (of Dexter) presented the same problem in terms of finding the tone. Sometimes we’d hit it dead on, and sometimes maybe we didn’t. It was always a balancing act.”
Says The Following’s Siega, “For me, it’s, ‘What is the best way to tell the story?’ I’ll use the subway scene from our first episode of season two as an example. It is a really well written and intense scene, and there were a lot of stabbings when you read it on the page. We pick and choose what we think is the most effective (storytelling), and we take out the stuff that we don’t think is necessary. I don’t think we censor ourselves, but we do ask if we really need to repeat ourselves.”
New heights in the gorefest were scaled this year with The Walking Dead. AMC’s zombie apocalypse series literally killed it with record-breaking ratings, occasionally thrashing the usually unbeatable NFL among the valued 18-49 demographic. Literally dripping with sliced and rotting flesh, the season four finale pulled in 15.7 million viewers alone—10.2 million among adults 18-49. Sure, thanks to its graphic novel origins, the Stephen King-sanctioned show had a built-in audience ready for the beheadings, stabbings and shootings. But the viewers have long since extended beyond the fanboys who pack Hall H at Comic-Con.
TV also has A&E’s Bates Motel, FX’s American Horror Story and the return of the ruthless Jack Bauer on Fox’s 24: Live Another Day—shows that might differ in tone from something like Game of Thrones but not in temperament. FX also has several other shows to add to the bloody mix, including Cold War drama The Americans, the grisly The Bridge, the broken flesh and bones on Sons of Anarchy and the bodies that continue to pile up on the neo-Western Justified. On all of these series, a famished death stalks the land.
It can be said this onscreen reign of terror exemplifies the safety valve that releases our worst fears and the morbid mirror we can’t turn away from. Underneath the sadism there is a sense on these shows that violence and terror maintain order. One has to wager this could even be the year the typically genre-phobic Television Academy voters will get a little blood on their hands and ballots. With all the disemboweling, gouging and spattering that pushes the storytelling on so many of these shows, you have to wonder if Gore could be an Emmy category all its own soon.
In the end, as much as some might hate it, the blood, guts and gore are all about giving the people what they want. The massive success of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones—combined with the fact that The Following and Hannibal are on network TV—proves the point. You might hold your nose at it, but remember: Television is a populist medium, and the carnage in Rome’s Colosseum sold out every night.
Guts and Gory
Several scenes on TV this year raised the bloody bar. Here’s a look:
The Walking Dead: Sheriff Grimes went full Tyson and tore out a man’s throat with his bare teeth in the season finale.