Sunday, August 21, 2011

Gore on TV: Good or Gratuitous?

Does anyone else think there are too many shows on TV that revolve around grizzly dead bodies, especially as a percentage of all the primetime shows out there?  And do you think they’re getting more and more so?  I do.  A Rizzoli & Isles scene a couple of weeks ago prompted this post when Dr. Isles (Sasha Alexander) extracted a baby from a cadaver.

Here’s a list of all the dead body shows I can name.  (Please feel free to add any in the comments section.)

  • CSI
  • CSI: Miami
  • CSI: New York
  • NCIS
  • NCIS Los Angeles
  • Bones
  • Rizzoli & Isles
  • Castle
  • Body of Proof
  • Criminal Minds
  • Dexter

Why are there so many and why do the discovery and autopsy scenes get more and more disgusting? 

Almost all of these shows follow a formula.  A group of normal people, many times children, are hiking in the woods, walking down the street or throwing something in the trash.  The music intensifies and here it comes.  A badly decomposed body jumps out or is revealed in shocking fashion.  Cut to the theme song, credits, back from commercial and a familiar team of detectives is combing through the muck.  For me, that’s when the good part starts, the deduction and sleuthing.

It’s my contention that producers are competing with each other for shock value because the gruesomeness has been ramped up in the past year or so.  There have been bodies in pizza ovens, eaten by worms, gnawed at by animals and left to decompose in the hot sun.

The question is how much of this sensationalist TV is gratuitous and how much is actually pertinent to the story.

Viewers mustn’t care too much because the ratings are strong and there have even been features in such respected publications as New York Magazine with the title, “The Ten Grossest Dead Bodies of the TV Season” (May 26, 2011),

And, an informal poll shows many viewers are unfazed by the gore.

“Some of the close-up scenes in NCIS can be a little gross but nothing to stop anyone from enjoying one of the better shows around,” says Archie Schiano.  He’s actually impressed with the way private parts are concealed with “judiciously positioned lighting that keep scenes quite decent.”

Don Sileo, a former member of SAG and Actor’s Equity, now a marketer, is also a fan.   He says, “Good writing and strong ensembles keeps me tuned in. I like the plots that are lifted from recent cases. The special effects are good for action, unless I'm eating.”

Joan Lohnes says, “They don’t scare me.  I’m a nurse!”

And, Dorrie Burke, who at one time spent a day at the Medical Examiner’s office as part of a job with the Department of Investigation, longed for a long ago HBO program called Autopsy: Confessions of a Medical Examiner (1994). 

“I was absolutely fascinated by it.  It was a documentary; real cases, evaluated by one-time New York City coroner Michael Baden.  At the time, I didn't find it gory at all.  It was such a unique view into an unseen world.” 

Burke did say that real life peek at the coroner’s office was off-putting.   “For a while I was afraid to eat, fearing food would block my windpipe after they showed us cross-section of a child's throat with a wedged lima bean.  Cause of death was choking.”

In case you’re interested, the producers of procedural shows, as they’re called, are spending millions to dress up mannequins and pay actors to play dead.  According to the Wall Street Journal, "NCIS" and "CSI" use dummies molded in the likeness of the actor playing the victim at a cost of about $7,800 each.  The paper says a typical crime drama is shot in eight days at a cost of about $2.5 million.

In some cases, actual people are used because as NCIS executive producer Mark Horowitz has said, “nothing looks more realistic than an actor playing dead.” 

I think it’s great that creative people are being put to work in these tough times to make dead bodies look more and more horrible.  And actors need to earn a living, too. I still think the practice could be toned down a bit.  In yet another recent episode of Rizzoli & Isles, Dr. Isles pulled a heart out of a body and sliced it in pieces to determine something or other.  PLEASE.  That was too much.

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