It’s Not TV, It’s HBO

25 Oct

ImageIn his essay on the Aristocracy of Culture, Christopher Anderson talks about this idea of escalating television to the level that it is not just something to consume and forget about, but as art: not only art, but art worth consideration. He points to the emergence of HBO and its critically lauded dramas as a turning point in the idea of television as art. This is important to distinguish from say an art form. Television is not an art, but it is art itself like a painting or a sculpture. When speaking of this standard that HBO created, Anderson says, “against the profane flow of everyday television, in which the run of the mill runs with metronomic precision of commercial necessity, HBO stands alone” (p.3 of PDF). While this is certainly  true, I think there is another reputation that HBO has that is worth considering. There is a 50-50 chance that when asked to describe what is a common characteristic of HBO shows, the common man (who does not discuss television in the way we are doing for this class) would either mention (A) high caliber dramas or (B) plenty of nudity.

The first example that comes to mind is True Blood. That show is not on the same level as The Sopranos when it comes to storytelling. I don’t mean this as an insult to the show; in fact, I enjoy watching it. It is more of a light, fluffy supernatural drama rather than the intense psychological drama that the Sopranos or Homeland is. The show demonstrates rather remarkably the tendency towards cable channel shows to veer into the smut territory. I have not done any official research, but my rather reliable memory is telling me that there is at least one graphic sex scene per episode of True Blood. And with the territory of it being a supernatural show, the increased strength/durability/whatever-you-wish of the characters has led to very disturbing sex practices that would be humanly impossible. There are less restrictions on what cannot be shown or said on channels like HBO. This can mean something like profanity or it can mean strange townwide orgy scenes like True Blood had in its third season. I think this happens in shows that are more narratively complex. I think it is a symptom of shows being on HBO and people loving to titter at how ridiculous it is or write it off as classy because “it’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Or in this case, it’s not porn, it’s HBO. Girls, for all the interesting things that it is saying about being young, living in the city or being a girl, has had many sex scenes that were extremely uncomfortable and way too detailed. I think an argument can be made for how Lena Dunham and Co. can make a totally reasonable argument as to how they are using that capability to further their storytelling, but that doesn’t mean I don’t squirm every time it gets too uncomfortable.

It is not just the sex though. The pure violence shown is on a whole different level. For this, I thought of Sons of Anarchy which shows on FX, but that channel is one that is following the trend that HBO started along with others like Showtime and AMC. Sons of Anarchy has its share of sex scenes, but as a motorcycle gang is the heart of the show, it is incredibly violent. In a recent episode, a character was forced to watch as his daughter was burned alive as retribution for an accidental murder he committed. Not only did he see this, but the viewer did also.

These scenes are incredibly powerful, not only in terms of storyline. These scenes have a greater capability to get an emotional reaction out of the viewer. This is both a defining trait and a potential pitfall for these kinds of programs. They are able to better tell certain stories because of this, but when is too far? I would just like to point out that sometimes there is great power in denial and having to be clever about certain themes. Here I call to the front Ren & Stimpy which was enjoyed by children for whatever reason that children enjoy cartoons and enjoyed by adults for being bawdy and inappropriate while still getting things approved for children’s television. Once it moved to Spike TV and was able to be completely vulgar and dirty, the audience lost their love of it.

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6 Responses to “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO”

  1. evanharold October 25, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    It’s important to divorce HBO series’ use of sex, violence, and all the other cool things people like, with their pornographic programming. I couldn’t tell if Anderson was consistently lauding HBO, or if he was occasionally taking up the perspectives of the common praises, because some comments tip toed on the ridiculous side. He shuttles between common critical praise and his own opinion (also praise), so it’s a little too ambiguous to say: “For those who have acquired the cultural competence needed to adopt an aesthetic disposition, it is possible to look differently upon a television series” (p. 3(?))

    That being said, I would be far less inclined to read Anderson’s chapter as over-admirable had he mentioned pornography at all. Maybe it’s brought up in a later chapter, but it seems absurd to explain how HBO planted loyalty in its audience without talking about the network’s catalogue of adult material. This, especially in a pre-internet America, was as much of an allure as the dramatic programming, feature films, spectacular sporting events, etc.

  2. crystalfong October 25, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    I like that you brought up the more “scandalous” and violent scenes that occupy HBO. I do recognize that HBO has a very esteemed reputation for showing sophisticated dramas with complex narrative strategies – and I do appreciate them. It’s great entertainment. But the reputation of HBO that I grew up with was an unsavory one- my parents would not let us kids watch HBO, not just because of the subscription fee, but more because they believed it to be a trashy network that had too much swearing, too much violence and too much sex. Of course, HBO was never meant to be appropriate for kids, but there is a population out there who thinks the same as my parents. Many programs today do show pornographic scenes- but somehow, since it’s become so commonplace and not as “scandalous”, I do wonder how TV networks like HBO would respond to Allison’s question of “when is it too far?”

  3. mikkikressbach October 25, 2012 at 3:16 pm #

    I think your discussion of sex and violence is a very important point to bring up. Because we all must remember that despite our own affinity toward the complex narratives of HBO, they are still deeply integrated into an economic model where “sex sells.” This could be an interesting counter point to Anderson’s discussion of “high art,” where the use of sex and violence may perhaps be akin to dated discussions of “art film’s” use of nudity or the “gritty” use of violence from “important” filmmakers like Scorsese. My use of scare quotes is not to deemphasize the importance of these critiques historically, but rather to point out that these very elements, which can be said to serve as justifications for their status as “art,” are still subject and saturated within the commodification of the art objects. Sex and violence in shows seems to tread a fine line between both “legitimizing” a show’s reputation as a complex (or artistic) object, while still playing into established markets. (It also seems important that these selling points are brought into the priviate domestic space and how that changes the relationship to sex and violence in comparisons to films viewed as a collective in public.)

  4. fereiramaria13 October 26, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    I agree with you that sex and violence take up a weird position in HBO programming. I’m thinking particularly of Game of Thrones where they sometimes use sex as a distraction. There are some points in the show where one character will essentially be giving a monologue full of exposition while an explicit sex scene is going on on-screen. It was a device so widely used, that the practice was termed “sexposition” by fans. It appeared to me that in order to maintain viewer attention, the program was capitalizing off the freedom granted by HBO to show these explicit scenes and titillate fans while still dumping information on the viewers (whether it be backstory, world-building, etc.). While the allowance of more sex and violence can be used for the “artistic” value, it can also be used for “cheap” thrills or distraction.

  5. Keegan Hankes October 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    I’m assuming one of the uncomfortable scenes you’re mentioning from Girls is from the episode that Judd Apatow cowrote, “The Return.” In the episode, Lena Dunham’s character Hannah returns home to visit her parents in Michigan. During her visit her father gets injured while having sex with his wife in the shower. Hannah is forced to help her completely nude father after the event. In true Judd Apatow fashion the whole scene is brutally uncomfortable. That said, I think it tells us something useful about HBO’s evolving position on the question of “when is too far?” This extreme portrayal of sexuality in an older age group is a clear progression from the Six Feet Under pilot where Ruth admits to having an affair with a hairdresser. Eleven years later, HBO is no longer just gesturing towards these formerly untouched themes, but actually showing them to us. In the case of Girls, I’m not convinced it enhances the storytelling, but it does add poignant comedy (even if it does make us squirm).

  6. kebullock October 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    I do not think anyone can deny that the amount of sex and violence on HBO is uncharacteristic of the rest of television and, along with the obsessive way we often watch HBO, is definitely unsettling. But I also find it interesting that while HBO certainly does not shy away from the use of sex and violence as separate entities, it does have qualms about marrying the two. I am specifically thinking about Game of Thrones. Having both watched the show on HBO and read the novels, I find it interesting that while HBO has included (and even added quite a bit more) sex and violence, they have completely eliminated all but one rape scene from the novels. And the one scene they did include could be explained as necessary for the characters’ development. I am most definitely not criticizing HBO for this choice to eliminate sexual assault when adapting the novels, but I do think it demonstrates a key difference between the way we interact with novels and television. With novels, events unfold from within a characters thoughts or through their second-hand description. On one hand, this makes events such as sexual assault more disturbing as we are forced to imagine them, but also more distant as we are not forced to watch the act unfold visually. While in a novel you can (almost unconsciously) skim through uncomfortable passages, television is grounded in its visual temporality. You could choose to pause or fast-forward a television show, but that requires an active acknowledgement of the medium and eliminates any feelings of escape or reality in the show.

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