Sunday, December 23, 2012

Looking at Fictional TV Shootings After Newtown

First graders. I often see classes of city kids on the #1 train going on a class trip amid the crush of morning commuters. When it's the first graders, you can't help but smile as they hold hands with each other, gently pushed by the teachers & parents into the middle of the car to hang onto the lower third of the silver poles. Their tiny height and bright faces are greatly accentuated by the towering, mostly dulled figures of the grownups going to work, and the high pitches of their new voices push through the heaviness and anxiety in the car with the eternal squeal of "Whoaaa" as the train jumps out of the station and the 6 year olds are thrown off balance with smiles and eyes wide.

Like 9/11, everyone not directly affected by the evil in Newtown is still drawn into all the larger issues of gun control and help and treatment for mental illness.

One part of my own reaction is a renewed consciousness that fictional gun killings permeate our TV storytelling to a shocking degree.

TV: Why Are Your Stories Shooting Us So. Many. Times?

Any reader here knows how much I'm interested in narrative, in storytelling, particularly in the art of TV.  I think the creativity and sophistication of fictional TV is enormous.

It has crossed my mind before how much of our mainstream TV storytelling is about killing someone with a gun. It's quite a spectrum: the Westerns of the 1950s & 60s; the singular murders in the otherwise cushy & peaceful worlds of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote; the ripped from the headlines shootings—singular, serial, and mass—of the Law & Order franchise; the exotic shootings of the CSI franchise; the cartoonish shootings of Castle and Bones; the gun deaths in the drug & vice lifestyle of The Wire, Breaking BadThe Sopranos; and many, many more examples.

As a lifelong TV fan, I know that I have become desensitized by this diet of fictional shootings.

But what really struck me was two episodes of The Mentalist that I saw just after Newtown. It was on in the background, and I wasn't following the story closely, but in one, the CBI gang is watching a home surveillance tape of a woman in her nightgown being shot in the stomach by someone off camera; and another about a group of clowns in a park and one is followed to an alley where he is shot at close range, and the blood goes into slow motion.

What the hell? The Mentalist has a horrific psycho killing at its root (yes, that's a ridiculous statement itself), but the show is usually psychological fluff with "Patrick Jane" doing a higher end "Shawn Spencer." (I have no idea why this show is a hit.)

So now I'm more focused. WHY are we telling so many stories of people being shot to death? What does this say about us as a nation? Do sponsors know that this kind of violence and death in our stories is what the audience wants, or have they just gotten lazy.

We Have to Remember: This Is Fiction. 

Storytelling is something that creative people have control over!

What if the TV writers just decided, 'hey, we are not going to write every plot with a gun ending a life.  And, if we occasionally tell that story, we aren't going to show it graphically.'

The AP said that Fox pulled new episodes of Family Guy and American Dad that were to air on Sunday the 16th "to avoid potentially sensitive content," a sign that there is some thinking going on in Hollywood. It's still a question, why do the episodes have plots about children and killing in the first place.

Since Cain murdered Abel, stories of killing have been part of the human condition, which the Greeks first raised to an art form. But we may be the first people in time to be able to see an escalation of gun killing while we continue an all-too steady diet of fictional killings. So let's be creative and stop feeding that diet. I'm not even arguing direct cause and effect. I don't know what societal changes are needed to stop the latest rise in gun murders in Chicago and Philadelphia,  and the various shootings at malls beyond the headlined Fort Hood, Tuscon, Aurora, Newton. But let's start by getting our fictional stories under control, because we can.

TV, in its dailyness in our homes, makes shooting someone far too ordinary, and small.

But we know that it shouldn't be either.