Dear James, June, and Maureen,
I want to take a swerve here and go negative. I want to talk about what I hated most this year: ultraviolence. By a huge margin, my most visceral viewing experience came when I watched the first three episodes of Fox’s The Following, a show that, as Jim has mentioned, was one of the few breakout hits of last season. The Following stars Kevin Bacon as a tortured ex-FBI agent tracking a genius serial killer who oversees a far-flung cult of devoted, homicidal maniacs dedicated to the teachings of Edgar Allan Poe. The show is a grisly network retort to cable that is almost as inane as it is gory, featuring both graphic puppy slaughter and specious speeches about the phony imperative to murder embedded in Poe’s short stories. It basically turned me into Tipper Gore: I didn’t just dislike it, it offended me.
I don’t believe that watching violence makes people violent. I don’t believe in dragging TV executives down to Congress and asking them what they think they are doing to the youth of America. But I do believe that fictions matter, that stories are powerful and meaningful and that they do something to us: If they can do good, why can’t they do bad? When I watched The Following—saw a naked woman stick an ice pick in her own brain and a masked man light a stranger on fire in the middle of the street (filed directly into the “horrible things I now worry about” part of my brain)—I was outraged, I was woozy. I wanted to ask the people who make this show, “So you sit around in the writer’s room dreaming up horrible things that have not yet happened and unleash them into the world? Do you high-five the person who comes up with the vilest murder?” I am genuinely embarrassed by this reaction; it’s so wholly unsophisticated, so moralistic, it gives way too much power and credit to a piece of schlock. But it’s how I felt.
If I had been watching The Following on another day, I might not have had that reaction. Maybe I would have just shrugged and shook my head, as when watching Low Winter Sun or Mob City or Ray Donovan, at the played-out tiredness of it all. But The Following has had a lasting effect: It’s as if it made me permanently full. I can no longer stomach violence of this sort; I see it and I start to feel a little sick. And I don’t mean just any violence, I mean violence as proof of seriousness and ambition—shows that equate body counts with artistic merit and so keep the corpses coming.
There are very violent shows I like: Scandal, Game of Thrones, Top of the Lake, American Horror Story, Justified, and procedurals like Bones and Castle can all be grisly. But these shows take care with their violence or use it purposefully. Scandal and American Horror Story keep the gore at a certain distance from the audience by making it broad, campy, over the top (not that I could bear to watch the recent scene of Maya Pope chewing her wrists open). Procedurals defuse violence by encouraging audiences to forget they are even looking at dead corpses, turning bodies into funny and salacious props, which is icky in a different (but to me more palatable) way. And shows like Game of Thrones and Top of the Lake use violence as horrible punctuation: They know as well as anyone watching how awful and powerful it can be.
And this brings me to Hannibal, which, Mo, I believe you like, and is by far the best-made of this year’s ultraviolent shows. It’s a gorgeous, thoughtful, well-acted show; yet it is so reverent of murder, of the art or murder, that something in me shuts down. I don’t care how beautifully filmed the carcasses are—how perfectly a body is draped over antlers—it just feels like violence as “quality,” this time with great production values. (It is also a part of one of this year’s other most noxious trends: the sexy serial killer.)
Am I wrong about Hannibal? I might be, but I suspect I am inconvincible, because we are treading on the bedrock of taste. And taste is truly irrational. I hate a certain kind of aesthetic violence, but my appetite for mediocre soap operas is boundless—I’m looking at you, Nashville. One thing I like about the “B-movie TV” title, Mo, is that it gets at an undeniable truth: We all watch a lot of junky, imperfect TV, some of which we love way more than the very good stuff. New Girl and Grey’s Anatomy aren’t in my top 10, and it would be much easier for me to launch into a speech about their respective flaws than their merits, and yet I love them. I love their company.
In her great essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Pauline Kael wrote, “It’s preposterously egocentric to call anything we enjoy art — as if we could not be entertained by it if it were not.” While I think her “anything” is a little too strong, I love the point: So much of watching TV is being entertained and charmed by moments and characters and lines embedded in something imperfect and commercial. It’s loving Margo Martindale, even within the confines of The Millers.
The flip side of that is hating Hannibal even if nearly every ingredient is just right. So let’s get to the contentious stuff: Mo, I found Masters of Sex well-intentioned and, ultimately, really boring. June, please explain to me how Last Tango in Halifax is not a substitute for an Ambien prescription and also how on Earth you are still slogging it out with 2 Broke Girls! And James, I see that Mad Men slunk to the bottom of your list, too: Tell me true, in your heart of hearts, should it have been even lower?
I think it should have been lower on mine.