Monday, October 17, 2011

Blood and Guts on AMC

It is quite amazing to recognize the cultural changes that one misses in absence of television. As much potential detriment as there is in the medium, there is no denying that it keeps a person terrifically connected to the world around them. The pattern of my life thus far seems to indicate longer and longer periods of time effectively divorced from that window into pop culture, the current one being something like three years and counting. I know that if I ever have cable hooked up again it will be like witnessing the creation of a new and alien world.

I visited with my mother last night. Doing so gives me an opportunity to have a fleeting glimpse of that creation, so I scrolled through the program guide while she was in another room. The funny thing about being online but unhooked from the more structured media is that you get very incomplete, selective exposure to certain examples of what is on television and in theaters. You see the things that are being marketed to internet audiences in particular, that are just being marketed heavily, or that are tailored to your search results and browsing history. I’m not sure why I was aware of AMC’s The Walking Dead, but it had come to my attention from time to time. I’m not sure whether the marketing was why I decided to flick it on when I saw that AMC was running a marathon in advance of the second season premiere.

I am an extraordinary fan of the Romero Dead films, and I appreciate the zombie apocalypse genre in general, although that is apparently extremely commonplace in my generation. So I was curious to see what the series was like, especially since I thought it odd that the idea of a television series in that genre had been conceived, green lit, and widely promoted. It might seem tactless to use my fifty-six year-old mother’s television to investigate that curiosity, and that certainly was on my mind as I tuned the cable box to AMC, but I really just wanted to catch a glimpse of the show until my mother and I shared a meal and found something more suitable to keep in the background as we talked. Imagine my surprise, then, when after I returned the remote control to her we spent three and a half hours watching The Walking Dead together.

So the resolution of my curiosity was that the show is quite good. Most significantly, I was impressed that a television show inspired by the popularity of the zombie apocalypse story wasn’t simply all zombies all the time. Considering that the show has started a second season, I am pleased to know that the audience for it is sufficiently interested in the human drama that takes place within the setting. That in concert with the action and violence keeps the show genuinely engaging, and at least broad enough in appeal to draw in my fifty-six year-old mother. Nevertheless, I’m sure that most of the committed viewers are tuning in for the fast-paced bits and the bloodshed, and boy are they getting what they came for.

And that brings me to the subject of what I found surprising about reconnecting in this way to a landscape of television media with which I had lost most contact. I was acutely shocked by the amount of graphic gore was depicted right on screen. When did they start allowing buckets of blood and human entrails on basic cable? The television programing that I remember from my childhood and adolescence was subject to pretty rigorous censorship boards. Did they all disband in the mid-2000s, and I just missed the press release?

I’m not exactly complaining. I was never shocked by gore, although I don’t see any appeal when it’s used for no further purpose. And obviously I’m not paranoid enough to think that the sight of fake blood will make children who are watching the wrong channel before bed turn into animal-mangling sociopaths. Still, the element of society that does believe such things had been strong for quite some time. Isn’t there tremendous backlash from them against such uninhibited violence on American television screens?

I think the censorship of the effects of violence is silly at best, and perhaps even counter-productive to the cause of improving society’s sensibilities, but America has always been bizarrely Puritan. Without having been able to adeptly track the changes over the past several years, this seems to me like a pretty dramatic cultural shift. I own several seasons of Tales from the Crypt, which was originally broadcast on HBO, and I am having a hard time thinking of anything from that series that came close to the amount of blood that I saw when, for instance, two characters cut open the abdomen of a zombie they’d just killed on The Walking Dead. By the new standards that I’m suddenly coming aware of, even the edgy, uncensored premium channels were coddling us in the 90s and the earlier 2000s.

All I want to know is when did that stop, and how did I miss this significant breaking point in the American media’s tolerance for graphic public displays of blood and carnage? It seems powerfully abrupt to me since I’m looking at still pictures rather than movies, but such a thing could never have been especially subtle, right?

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