We see dead people.
We see them all over prime-time TV, every night of the week, filling the screen in novel and graphic ways. There they are on the gritty police drama "Boomtown," slumped in pools of viscous crimson or turning blue in oversize foot lockers. They're on CBS's "Robbery Homicide Division," and on all the rapidly multiplying clones of "Law & Order."
The dead practically co-star on "CSI," CBS's top-rated forensic drama. They're all over Monday night when the "CSI" spinoff, "CSI: Miami," puts its body count up against NBC's coroner drama, "Crossing Jordan." HBO's "Six Feet Under," about a family-run mortuary, has its share of bodies, of course. But so, too, does CBS's "JAG," a show about military lawyers.
You're watching Corpse TV.
Cold stiffs may be the hottest trend of the new TV season. No longer content to merely suggest death with a shot of a lifeless hand or a tagged toe, dramatic TV shows now lay the dead out before the camera to be inspected, scanned, poked and prodded.
Programs plying the dead zone are thriving in the Nielsens. "CSI" is currently the nation's highest rated drama series with an audience of about 30 million viewers a week. "CSI: Miami" is TV's most popular new show, finishing in the top 10 every week since its debut in late September. The three "Law & Order" series lead the ratings on each of their respective nights -- Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
Dead bodies have come in many ways during the first weeks of the season: shot, stabbed, electrocuted, strangled, frozen, burned, decaying in shallow graves. A bloodied, battered corpse turned up in a golf course sand trap on "CSI." "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" built a show around the corpses left at a defunct crematory. On "CSI: Miami," fishermen discovered a hunk of human flesh -- half a torso and an arm -- in a gutted tiger shark.
TV shows used to be squeamish about such things. It was once okay to enact many types of violence on TV so long as the ultimate consequence of it -- death -- was not vividly depicted. Even shows about posthumous investigation -- think "Quincy," "Murder, She Wrote" or "Diagnosis: Murder" -- rarely showed a bloodied or bullet-riddled corpse in full close-up detail.
Now, for the most part, the poles have flipped: Many prime-time shows have toned down the violence, but have dialed up the specifics of death.
Viewers could, for example, inspect the bruises and indentations a strangler left on a murder victim's neck during "Law & Order: SVU" the other night. On the crematory episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," Detective Robert Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio) grows suspicious when he pokes a victim's blowtorch-scarred body with a surgical instrument and a pus-like ooze rushes from a wound.
"There's been a sea change from the shows of the '70s, no question," says Shawn Ryan, creator of "The Shield," a cop show that airs on the FX cable network. "We're showing the aftermath, and that means a dead body. You can't get down to the horror of these situations without showing what really happened. Death is shocking. It is raw."
In fact, the movie-like detail of many cop shows reflects a merger of the "action" drama of yore and the contemporary "reality" series, says Jeffrey Cole, an expert on TV violence who directs UCLA's Center for Communication Policy. "What you're seeing is a kind of pseudo-documentary" style on dramatic shows, he says.
Which means that the dead don't get to rest in peace on TV these days. The action began on the first episode of "The Shield" last spring, for instance, when police found the body of a beautiful young woman on the floor of her kitchen. The woman was laid out in grotesque disarray, her naked breasts visible, her genitals covered only by an oven mitt.
Quick question: That's entertainment? With real death lurking so close at hand these days, do people really crave so much of the fake kind?
Apparently. "The Shield" has been both popular and award-worthy. The premiere episode, written by Ryan, attracted an audience of 4.8 million -- huge by cable standards -- and earned two Emmy nominations, for best writing and best direction. Its star, Michael Chiklis, won the Emmy for best actor in a dramatic series.
Cole calls TV's death imagery "graphic," but he isn't so sure it's socially problematic. Most of the social-science research about the effects of TV violence on viewers is based on watching violent acts, rather than about looking at corpses, he says. Seeing the dead on TV "might contribute to a perception that a lot people get killed in the real world, but I don't think it particularly contributes to imitation or antisocial behavior," he says.
TV's new romance with death may be the next step from "ER" and "Chicago Hope." Those programs brought state-of-the-art gore to series TV, what with gurgling chest wounds and spritzing arteries. But the medical shows typically depicted living people in states of extreme distress. The dead got covered with a sheet.
The big breakthrough in TV death may have been the premiere of "CSI" two years ago. The series follows the work of a team of crime-scene investigators as they systematically analyze the human detritus of death -- blood, urine, hair, flesh -- for clues. Cadavers are central to each week's story line, and are nearly omnipresent.
"CSI" pioneered (at least on TV) an unstinting anatomical point of view of crime and police work. It regularly shows how a homicide victim got that way, with swooping camera views of, for instance, a bullet tearing through internal organs or a knife blade severing an artery. It's big on body parts -- a femur here, a piece of skin there, skull fragments all around.
What's more, "CSI" brought death to an earlier hour; the series airs at 9 p.m., 60 minutes before most of TV's harder-edged dramas.
"Before 'CSI,' I think dead bodies were background," says Anthony Zuiker, the program's creator and executive producer. "The camera never really got below the belt. We've gone beyond the blood pool. Our show lives and dies with seeing the body up close, as you've never seen it before. It's not just a chalk outline or a sheet."
Not even close, in fact. A recent episode focused on a psychotic criminal who ate human organs. Another had investigators Gil Grissom (William L. Peterson) and Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) discussing a tray of human brains. On "CSI: Miami," coroner Alexx Woods (Khandi Alexander) often speaks to her lifeless clients, calling them "honey." During the series debut episode last month, the camera looked down from on high as Woods worked over a patient whose abdomen has been filleted and whose organs were arrayed on the slab.
Zuiker says such unblinking scenes have elicited "very few" complaints from viewers over the past two years. And he reports only one clash with network censors: In the pilot episode, a dead character had maggots crawling from a wound in his chest. "CBS called and told us to tone that down," he says. "We wanted to communicate about blood and guts, but we all felt we had to earn the viewer's trust first. We've done that, and now we can push the envelope."
He adds, "When your show is about death, and you have a forensic excuse to show gore, the audience will forgive you. We're not doing this in a gratuitous fashion. It's important in our show to know the extent of the harm or abuse" the victim experienced.
Such hyper-realism has fostered a subsidiary TV trend: a demand for realistic-looking corpses.
It's not enough simply for living actors to play dead anymore. Producers now come armed with tools once reserved for big-budget movies, such as elaborate makeup, prosthetic props and computer-generated imagery.
That gang member who was burned to a cinder on "The Shield"? It's a specially crafted rubber dummy. The bluish corpse that tumbled out of a foot locker on "Boomtown" the other week ? It got its oxygen-starved coloration from makeup and a special film-processing technique, said Graham Yost, "Boomtown's" creator and executive producer.
Skillful craftsmen, he says, "can make a very realistic-looking flesh wound with latex. Even the [fake] blood is better these days. These makeup guys are great, but I'm telling you, it's a weird, creepy business."