Last summer, David Nevins, president of Showtime, explained that when you run a cable network, “Your licenses are sex, violence and bad behavior.”
Sex still largely remains the provenance of cable, thanks to inconsistencies in American squeamishness. But as the broadcast networks try to recapture some of the territory they have lost to cable, the creators of new dramas are confronting the same challenges their cable counterparts face about when and how to portray violence.
“I think violence, if you show it, should be disturbing,” Bruno Heller, executive producer of Fox’s “Gotham,” said when asked about his show, which hews closer to Batman’s dark origins than the family-friendly Adam West interpretation of the character. “That’s the only moral way to show violence. It shouldn’t be comical. Or if it is comical, it should have had some moral force to it.”
There is plenty of violence in Fox’s “Gotham,” a prequel story that follows the rise of James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) through the Gotham City police department as he becomes frustrated enough to turn to a vigilante to protect the city and the evolution of several iconic super-villains. In the pilot, at least, much of the violence is character-driven.
Gordon, in this interpretation, is a war hero who hopes not to have to kill again. Like the costumed hero he will eventually work with, Gordon shuns guns, even though he carries a firearm on the job. His preference for using negotiations, or if necessary, his fists, means that Gordon is subject to a certain amount of physical punishment: The fisticuffs feel painful. But they need to, because they are communicating the cost of Gordon’s choice.
Similarly, when we meet Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Taylor), he is the obsequious employee of Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), a vicious crime lord. His job mostly consists of holding umbrellas until he is given an opportunity to beat one of Fish’s other employees, a man who has offended his mutual boss. The sound of the blows is sickening, but not more so than Oswald’s obvious enjoyment of the violence he is inflicting.
In “Gotham,” it is clear what we are meant to take away from every raised bruise, every swing of a knife.
That is not the case in the pilot for CBS’s “Stalker,” a new drama from “The Following” creator Kevin Williamson, about a special unit in the Los Angeles Police Department that is tasked with handling stalking cases.
“It can be very scary,” Williamson told critics at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles last week of the kinds of crimes he wants to explore. “What we’re doing is making an entertaining show, but at the same time, I’m hoping to raise a little bit awareness to this crime that has sort of escalated to — because of social media, to such a degree that I think it could be kind of a timely piece, hopefully.”
Stalking is not always a crime of physical violence, though about one-fifth of stalking cases involve the actual or threatened use of a weapon, 31 percent of women who are stalked by a partner or former partner are sexually assaulted by their pursuer and many murders of women are preceded by stalking.
“Stalker” begins with one such endgame, kicking off its pilot episode with an extended and graphic sequence of a relatively anonymous woman being burned to death in her car. Maybe this is meant to put us in the same position as the murderous stalker who tilts his head to watch his target’s agony, a rictus grin carved into the blank mask that he wears.
But it is still Williamson’s choice to start his show with an extended sequence of a relatively anonymous woman’s suffering and terror. He might have introduced Kate to us before she was killed or chronicled the escalation of her stalking and the toll it took on her and her family. Once she is gone, we learn some stalking statistics and precautions that stalking victims take to manage their fear. But these figures and strategies are detached from any character we have come to know and care about. It is Kate’s final pain and fear, and ultimately her violent death, that matters, not her person.
This seems to be a critical distinction, especially for a show with any pretensions to larger social significance. If on-screen violence helps us understand characters, culture and institutions better, then its cinematic work is done. But if everything else disappears in a haze of agony, something has gone very wrong.