The 13th Floor

NSFW: When Did TV Get So Gross?

I have a confession to make. This won’t come as a surprise to my friends and family, but to you, the people reading this who have no idea who I am, it will be something you don’t know about me. I like old people shows. MONK is one of my favorite TV shows ever. PSYCH too. Mystery shows with wacky detectives is my jam.

Thing is, MONK and PSYCH never really hit me in my horror bone, you know? Matter of fact, for ages I thought TV would never meet my gore needs. How could it, with the FCC keeping standards high and more conservative parents being upset when a show even suggests blood, let alone actually shows some? So I didn’t pay much attention to what TV was doing in the bloody arts.

It was at my grandma’s house when my eyes were first opened. There, on the TV, was one of the grossest things I had ever seen, a rotting human corpse being eaten by bugs. Was this a movie my grandma had rented? Or maybe it was on HBO? Nope. This was on Fox. It was the first season of BONES.

At some point, and I don’t know why, TV got grosser than movies. Here. check this moment out from BONES and see how nasty 9PM free television can go…

If you saw that in a packed movie theater, people would scream. That is on par with any amount of gross you would see in a slasher flick, right? I mean, the blood and brain matter flying through the air, bits of skull bouncing about. This is the kind of thing that got DAY OF THE DEAD an X rating back in 1985. Now you can watch it every week with a cheap antenna from Target.

When did this shift start? Was it the growth of medical shows? Did E.R. ever get super gross and no one told me? I mean, I saw the Tarantino-directed episode and they had the rebar that impaled a guy, but that was pretty tame, wasn’t it?

And here’s the thing, that clip from BONES? That’s actually on the low level of just how gory television has gotten. Do we even need to mention the death of a certain beloved character on THE WALKING DEAD? We do, because I’m going to include it here. Spoilers if you aren’t all caught up…

Nasty stuff, right? There is no way Adrian Monk could handle that. He would be screaming for a wipe like there was no tomorrow.

To be fair, WALKING DEAD is on cable, but it isn’t a subscription channel like HBO, it is part of the basic package. So sure, they can get a little more nasty with it, but that nasty? That is pretty amazing. I can’t think of the last horror movie that had anything that gory in it.

But, for the sake of the argument, how about we stick to broadcast TV for at least a little longer. As much as I love BONES – and I really do – it isn’t a show that I would hold up as art. No, for that, you need something more; that special touch that really doesn’t happen often. For that you need a show like HANNIBAL. You all saw that coming right? I mean, HANNIBAL was super duper gross.

HANNIBAL Season 2 (2014) NBC

But at least HANNIBAL was gross for the story. Bryan Fuller and his team used gore to push the characters and story, and the style of the show really called for that extra push.

Still, we may have to ask ourselves what the deeper meaning of all this gore means for the psyche of the human race. We freak out at sexuality and foul language on TV, but a half-skeleton/half-flesh body is shown on TV during the hours that were once considered “family time” and we don’t blink an eye. Are we becoming desensitized to violence and gore? Or have we become so in tune with our fear of death that we crave the site of the dead to remind us that we are, in that moment, still alive? Does the increase of rotting corpses on NBC point to humankind getting comfortable with death? Maybe NBC is just trying to shock us to get ratings. It didn’t seem to work with HANNIBAL, but BONES was a big hit so there is certainly a level of nasty that people will tune in for. A guy feeding his own flesh to dogs is too much, but that half skeleton half flesh dead body? We’re down for that.

I’d be lying if I said I had the definitive answer to the reason TV has gotten so gruesome. I’m sure somewhere out there is a TV exec who has a chart that breaks down the timeline of nasty stuff on TV, but it isn’t me. I would be willing to bet that reality does play a part, though. There have been moments that we’ve all shared in by watching them on TV, and many of those moments were violent and disgusting. Our parents and grandparents turned on the seven o’clock news to see images of the Vietnam War. Schools brought TVs into every classroom so we kids could be forever damaged by the explosion of the Challenger. Budd Dwyer took his own life on live TV, and I know I wasn’t the only ten year old who saw it happen. The falling of the World Trade Center wasn’t just shown live, the horror was replayed over and over again on TV for months. At times it felt like you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing the towers collapsing or poor innocent souls choosing to jump to their deaths rather than burn alive.

And with each of these moments, fictionalized television stepped up their game to match the horrors of reality. Art is, after all, a reflection of our inner selves, and if shows like THE WALKING DEAD, BONES, and HANNIBAL are any indication, our inner selves are not in high spirits these days.

Still, this could all be a passing phase. HANNIBAL struggled to reach three seasons, and BONES came to a close after twelve seasons. The death of that one guy from THE WALKING DEAD (whose name I won’t say so I don’t spoil it for you!) saw a lot of people complain to AMC about just how far the show had gone. Maybe we’re coming through to the other end of gore on TV and will head back towards something safer. In the 1990s, broadcast TV played around with nudity, showing off all the butts they could until the viewing public stood up and said “no more” when Dennis Franz’s pasty, flabby ass filled our screens. Could that happen again? Could a show go too far and force the blood and guts genie back into it’s bottle? Or will basic cable keep trying to take eyes away from pay channels by getting nastier, leading to broadcast TV pushing their limits even further to fight against basic cable?

Maybe it all ends with the FCC throwing its hands in the air and giving in. Then we’ll get all the flayed human flesh and old fat guy asses we can handle. And on that day, we horror fans will weep, for there will be no more worlds to conquer.

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