In recent years an awful lot has been said, mainly by posturing politicians, about the need to curb the gratuitous violence on entertainment television. There was only one problem with that. It was no longer there. On some cable stations, yes, but on broadcast television, where the vast majority of the public continues to reside, violence was fast becoming a thing of the past.
Last month, the UCLA Center for Communication Policy issued a study confirming that during the 1995-'96 television season, violence on the broadcast networks was a rarity.
I bet now they wish they hadn't done it.
Within two weeks after the UCLA study's release, the series "Millennium" (Fox) and "EZ Streets" (CBS) debuted. After watching both, it's clear that if the Center had waited long enough to include the new season in its report, it would have found a huge overall increase in small-screen gore based on those two efforts alone.
Back in the '60s there were two popular horror shows, "The World Beyond" and "Chiller." Both aired after prime time, midnight and 1 a.m. if memory serves, to limit the audience to adults. As with everything else on television in those days, these horror shows exercised caution. It was the storyline that was horrific, not the visuals. Gratuitous violence was not acceptable.
"Millennium" is a different kind of horror show. In the tradition of the "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" movies, it centers on blood-curdling dementia. It contains imagery that goes exceptionally and deliberately beyond the pale for prime time television. If NBC's lineup is hyped as Must See TV, this qualifies as Must Shock TV.
The lead character, Frank Black, is a detective with the psychic power to vividly imagine a crime exactly as it took place. During the October 25 premiere, Black is in the morgue, standing next to the body of a woman slaughtered by a sadistic serial killer. He envisions the woman screaming and struggling, then pictures the body decapitated, lying in a pool of blood.
A few scenes later, Black is back in the morgue and the camera focuses on a grisly, charred arm and hand hanging out of a body bag - another of the killer's victims. Black imagines the victim set ablaze and running through the woods screaming in agony. The police eventually rescue a man kidnapped by the killer and buried alive. His eyes and mouth have been sewn shut; with him in the coffin is the head of that decapitated corpse. Every scene here contains the most gruesome visuals possible.
Mind you, this is only a fragment of the violence in the premiere. After the uproar caused by this episode, "Millennium" creator and executive producer Chris Carter promised that subsequent episodes would be less graphic. You decide: On November 1, Black discovers in a garden carbonized human remains, the equivalent of seven adults, and envisions a victim being roasted in an industrial-sized microwave oven. On the 8th, a serial killer dismembers his victims and - I'm not making this up - defecates next to their remains.
As was pointed out in a previous UCLA study, a problem with TV violence in the past was a lack of attention given to its consequences. In recent years, that's changed. A common violent scene on detective series like "Law & Order" and "Homicide" will show, say, a glimpse of the corpse, the consequence of violence. The violence itself is not portrayed. "Millennium" cannot justify its performance because it, too, looks at consequences. Its goal is to portray the violence itself, in all of its horror.
The critically acclaimed but low-rated "EZ Streets" is currently off the schedule, but CBS promises to revive it. In just three hours - the two-hour premiere October 27 and a regular installment three nights later - it featured several seasons' worth of punches, gunshots, and gore, with unnecessary violence the rule. Typical of this series was a stomach-turning scene featuring a mobster about to shake hands with a politician, only to jab a nail into the palm of his victim. For good measure, he twists it savagely to create maximum pain and on-camera bleeding.
It's not just dramatic series. A few weeks ago I watched the Fox reality special "When Animals Attack II." Like "America's Funniest Home Videos," it contains footage, usually of the amateur video sort, capturing scenes that depict the theme of the show. But this one's no comedy. In "When Animals Attack II" we watch a bear maul a young man in a zoo, a massive deer maul a hunter, sharks maul swimmers, ad nauseam. There wasn't footage available to show the wild mountain dog which had mauled a toddler; a reenactment had to do. Shucks.