Sometimes you just need a wicked witch soaking in a big tub of blood or a fork to the back of the head to drive a drama home. Today’s TV writers and producers are no longer limited to depicting brutality offscreen, and recent years have seen a rise in explicit violence and gore — especially in cable’s prestige dramas from “Sons of Anarchy” to “Game of Thrones.”
Critics and viewers regularly debate whether or not certain shows have gone too far, but fans are eating up the grisly fare as they tune in for series like “The Walking Dead” and “Vikings” in record numbers.
Emmy voters appear to be split on the appeal of blood-soaked dramas. They showered HBO’s “Thrones” with 19 Emmy nominations and FX’s “American Horror Story: Coven” with 17 last year, while essentially snubbing others like “Dead” (three noms in sound and vfx categories) and “Sons” (one nom for original song). Is all this graphic content causing a disconnect?
“Penny Dreadful” lived up to its horror roots early in its second season by having a young couple brutally killed and their baby snatched from them so a witch could later cut out the infant’s heart. That last bit happened off screen.
“I do think people are put off by the violence, and when you have a show that has a lot of action and a fair amount of violence, it’s not taken as seriously because it’s viewed as pulp-like,” says “Penny” creator John Logan. “Yet, at the end of ‘Hamlet,’ there are a lot of bodies scattered.”
Gore has been a staple of stage work since early times. A prop list for George Peele’s 1594 “The Battle of Alcazar” lists three vials of blood, sheep’s lungs, heart and liver.
In contemporary times, cable has provided the ability for TV creators to expand limits traditionally restrained by the broadcast networks.
Yet even broadcast has been pushing the envelope. Last season’s freshman CBS series “Stalker” kicked off its pilot with the incineration of a woman trapped and screaming inside her car. ABC’s “Scandal,” which in an earlier season featured Olivia Pope’s captive mother biting through her own wrists to break free, now regularly indulges in extensive torture scenes.
Whether a series is on broadcast or pay cable, the ultimate gauge of how far to go with onscreen violence usually rests with the producers.
“We employ the right amount (of violence) to propel the story, quicken the pulse or to horrify,” Logan says. “Just the idea of cutting the heart out of a baby is so upsetting, you don’t have to see it, and it’s more effective.”
Logan notes that he took his tale to Showtime’s premium playground for a reason.
“I needed to have the freedom to do the show I wanted,” he says. “My people are not going to be sitting in a coffee shop talking about bad things. The horror element is part of the character provocation.”
On basic cable, the rules are just a bit tighter, although viewers may not even notice. Kurt Sutter’s “Sons” blew right past any perceived boundaries throughout its seven-season run, including an infamous scene in which motorcycle mama Gemma murdered her daughter-in-law by plunging a two-pronged carving fork into her brain.
“I’m attracted to antiheroes who work in the underbelly, so they are navigating through a violent world,” Sutter says. “But you have to make that violence feel organic and not manipulative or gratuitous. There are consequences for my characters when they engage in violence.”
History’s signature dramatic series, “Vikings,” lives in that same type of world — albeit a few centuries earlier. Creator and sole writer Michael Hirst (“The Tudors”) says he was briefed on his constraints in regards to violence and sex by the network execs.
“I told them, ‘You do realize you bought a show called “Vikings,” right?’ ” Hirst says. “But I don’t like porn violence and felt we didn’t need to go there.”
Last year, the show made waves by offing a major player in what fans refer to as the “Blood Eagle” scene. A character describes in graphic detail how a man will be executed by breaking open his chest and pulling his lungs out of his body while still alive. He has to remain silent in order to go to Valhalla.
“Because we described it, people thought it was more graphic than it was when we showed it happening,” Hirst says of the torturous scene.
Steven DeKnight came from the opulently bloody world of Starz’s “Spartacus” to Netflix’s Marvel series “Daredevil.” While he felt the hard-line violence on “Spartacus” was justified, he doesn’t believe it belongs on the new series.
“I love ‘The Walking Dead’ — I think it would be disingenuous and not as effective if they cut away from the violence. But on ‘Daredevil’ I think it would’ve taken you out of the moment and the world we were trying to build,” DeKnight says. “For me, I think the violence that’s depicted (on a TV show) really depends on the subject matter and the story you’re telling. You want to make sure that the graphic nature of it really matches the style of your show.”