In 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.