November 6, 2012
In a recent episode of "Family Guy," Peter Griffin uses his power as a newly minted Nielsen viewer to force some changes on "Mad Men." In his version, the usually unruffled Don Draper reacts to criticism from a client by picking up a lightsaber and doing battle while the "Star Wars" theme plays in the background.
A real Nielsen viewer would be more likely to have Draper wield a machete to pounding rock music and not rest until the client's skull was hanging from a hat rack.
"Mad Men" may be a critical smash, but its 3.5 million fans pale in comparison to another AMC series, "The Walking Dead" (14 million weekly viewers), and FX's "Sons of Anarchy" (5.3 million), two ultra-violent series that live off mayhem, not martinis.
In "Anarchy," a motorcycle club attempts to maintain its illegal weapons trade by pummeling enemies to death, running people over on the street and shooting anyone who gives them so much as a dirty look. In a harrowing scene earlier this season, one gang members is forced to watch as a rival douses his daughter with gasoline and burns her alive in a pit filled with corpses.
"Walking Dead" is even more gruesome.
Plague survivors ward off zombies by sticking knives in their heads, jamming screwdrivers into their eyes and slicing them into pieces. According to funeralwise.com, a website that helps people prepare for the inevitable, "Dead" averages 17 dead bodies an episode, a statistic that would startle even the investigators from "CSI," where only four people get knocked off every hour.
Those interested in body counts best stay at home on the holiest day of the week. HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," about a ruthless gangster who doesn't hesitate to kill his right-hand man; Showtime's "Dexter," which asks us to root, root, root for a serial killer, and "Walking Dead" all air on Sunday bloody Sunday.
I suppose this is the point at which a responsible citizen should climb up on the bully pulpit and rail at heartless Hollywood for subjecting us to all this - but I can't do it.
Sure, any parent who allows young children to watch these shows should get a late-night visit from Dexter Morgan, but for grown-ups with the right constitution, violence can make for killer drama.
Consider "The Sopranos," arguably the most acclaimed series of the past 20 years. The first things you think of aren't Tony's heart-to-hearts with his shrink, his marital infidelities or his hankering for a second plate of pasta.
It's the time he took a break from touring colleges with his daughter to off an informant. Or maybe it's the moment when he left his nephew to bleed to death after a car accident. Or perhaps you'll flash on Adriana's infamous trip to the woods where she pleaded for her life until Silvio put her out of her misery.
Yes, AMC's "Breaking Bad" works for many reasons, but the series' most-talked-about moment was when bad guy Gus Fring emerged from a fiery explosion, straightened his tie and then started to collapse as the camera spun around to reveal that half his face was blown off.
There's a perverse pleasure in seeing how TV writers can come up with new ways to shock, scare and shake us while we're safe and sound in our own home.
It's no longer just a question of who will get rubbed out, but how. A bomb wired to a wheelchair? A calculated killer interrupting someone's bath time? A rat chewing through a prisoner's chest?
As long as we can separate reality from fantasy - and I'm fairly certain the vast majority of us can - this kind of creative carnage has raised the stakes in what has to be called a golden age for TV dramas.
You can have your nostalgia. I'll take more "Sons of Anarchy." - Neal Justice, Minneapolis Star Tribune
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