Primetime Torture Porn
By Desmond Reddick
19 March 2009 — Imagine the following scenario: a man is kidnapped and wakes up buried alive in a glass casket while his friends have been given the hardware to watch him go mad and suffocate. Or, since he is outfitted with a loaded handgun, he can choose to kill himself if he wishes. Cue Jigsaw's prerecorded directions, right? Wrong. Actually, this was the set-up for the season five finale to CBS's high-rated CSI.
The current decline in what many call the torture porn sub-genre of modern horror is interestingly viewed in the increasingly violent and disturbing themes found in television's popular crime dramas. Most of these shows come across as processed pap, but if you actually pay attention to what is on the screen, there is little argument that even in more conservative times, primetime television is far more graphic than it used to be.
It is very easy to write off CSI as mainstream because, in a way, it is. But my dad, who has seen more horror films by happenstance than most people have intentionally, says it's too gory for him. The digital effects of Bruckheimer's CSI, as well as those on House, are more gruesome than a lot of theatrical horror fare, that's for sure. And don't even get me started on the practical effects used on hospital dramas. Some of those, I'm sure, help whet the appetites of millions of closet gorehounds.
"But," you say, "violence in a crime show or a hospital drama is necessary to convey realism. And we see more violence on the news these days than we ever do on primetime TV." To that, I say, "Touché." But, you can replace the buried alive sequence and gory effects with any number of scenes of teenage Slavic girls chained to beds or guarded portrayals of incest from Law & Order: SVU to know that network television has upped the ante on psychological torment one hundred fold in the past decade.
In this current climate, we are seeing things on primetime TV we only barely saw on HBO a decade ago. Why? Well, there are those who would say that we are a culture that, in part due to the Internet, has been desensitized. I can't say I disagree. I'm only a finger-click and an age verification button away from a real beheading or a girl shitting in a glass. It only makes sense, really, for the mainstream media to compensate a little.
Funnily enough, with this happening in the media, it is coupled with a bit of a creative drought in mainstream film. It's the independent filmmakers using these newer, more horrific measures in amazingly wonderful ways. The American system is beyond being fixed at this point. There will not be another Texas Chainsaw Massacre until things go back to the drawing board. We'll have to settle for the Hostels of the world.
The smart writers in America seem to see a good thing in a stable job on television instead of being stuck in the mire of Hollywood. Also, the recent surge in PG-13 material on network television has been brought on by a more mature style of storytelling, including overall arcs as opposed to episodic installments. The writers and, by proxy, the networks are actually making television shows "must-see" by creating more viable threats for their characters and having huge cliffhangers. It used to be that "on a very special MASH we've titled 'Klinger's Clingers,' a life or death hemorrhoid operation will ensure that the sun will no longer shine for one of our ensemble cast" (torrent this, it's a wonderful episode), but now it's difficult to find an hourly drama without a cliffhanger.
This PG-13 material (sometimes bordering on R) also takes its cue from the recent surge in popularity of cable shows like The Sopranos, Dexter and Weeds. In fact, the whole phenomenon could very well be thanks to The Sopranos, which began its life as a network pitch that was refused. When Fox passed on David Chase's show, he took it to HBO and it became a worldwide phenomenon. It dealt with adults dealing with adult issues, and though very little of what happened on the show could be considered horror, it brought a darker edge that was adopted by other programs and networks.
This made it safe to be edgy, which is kind of funny to say. But prior to this we had shows like The X-Files and Millennium, but these are niche programs with very specific audiences. Before CSI, nothing so disturbing and so popular had been seen on television like it since Twin Peaks. That show was a rarity and was so out of left field that even today it would be a shock to see it become such a hit. However, it brought dark themes and a creeping terror that is ever-present in several shows on television today.
In the end, I suppose it should be said that television as a medium has matured and become more of a prestige outlet. It has drawn screenwriters, actors and directors from film and created an atmosphere where a crew can set-up, tear down, and get shots much faster than you can on the set of a film. And the look is just as cinematic. Say what you will about CSI: Miami — and I will because it's a hackneyed piece of shit — but you can't look at it and say it's not cinematic. Hell, it looks as though it could be Michael Bay's Bad Boys with a fraction of the budget. It has gotten to the point that film directors like Frank Darabont are using television crews to come in on time and on budget with arguably equal quality.
All I know is, I was probably sold on 24 the same way Kiefer Sutherland was: if I could watch someone threaten to torture someone else in the back of a car by sliding a sock down their throat, soaking it in their stomach acid and then pulling it back out their throat repeatedly, things were looking up.