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Ground-Breaking, Edgy, Envelope-Pushing Exhaustion

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2014-04-22


The last time I went to see a movie in a theater I felt so bludgeoned by the ear-splitting trailers that played before the movie that I almost didn't stick around for the feature. I couldn't believe how unpleasant the experience was; I used to love watching previews before movies, but now, when they jam 5-6 of them together and blast you with those screeching, metallic sound effects, it's hard not to want to jump under your seat.

As the first one roared out I took a quick, startled glance around at my fellow patrons, certain that I would see people as unnerved as I was, but I was wrong: regular movie-goers, most just sat there, eating popcorn, blithely taking in the violent sounds and flickering lights that pulsed from the screen. While I was fearing that my body would soon start twitching from an epileptic fit, they were smiling, laughing, and keeping their eyes trained on all that sound and fury. It was at that point that I started to realize that my own particular sensibilities about popular entertainments have become a lot more sissified than I've previously cared to admit.

It's a notion that was reinforced to me when I tried to find a new TV show to watch this year I don't watch much network programming but every couple of years or so I try to find one show to champion and sort of remain monogamous to. Usually a hour-long drama, usually something with some reassuring actors and smart dialogue. Since it's a little late in the game to catch up to some of the celebrated shows out there (Mad Men, Walking Dead, Homeland, etc), and since I don't want to binge-watch something on Netflix, I decided to take a shot with some of the new shows on the "big 4" national networks. I read the synopsis of a few of the shows and figured I should be able to find something that would please my particular and discerning tastes.

Boy was I wrong. I know I sound completely out of touch here and about 90 years old, but when exactly did everything become so brutalizing and crass? Is every hour of scripted shows a repository of seamy, dark-tinged cruelty? My first choice was an NBC show called The Blacklist, a thriller/espionage serial that got good reviews and featured a hammy actor I kind of like, James Spader. Apparently he plays some sort of ex-CIA, master criminal/turncoat/brilliant psychopath who is coerced into coming out of hiding and helping but only if he can speak directly to a young FBI profiler/ingenue who's barely out of training.
Obviously, more than a few echoes of Silence of the Lambs here, with Spader playing the Hannibal Lecter role, and some utterly boring brunette (I never bothered to learn her name) playing the Jodie Foster character. I was rooting for Spader to pull off his master thespian thing in the show, but unfortunately he just looks too tubby and well-fed to be a menacing villain and he sounds silly, saying those plummy lines.

Worse than that, though, is that the episode I watched was titled "The Stewmaker," apparently named after the hit man who appears in the episode, a guy who disposes of his victims in various grisly ways, including. . . well, he's called "The Stewmaker," so you probably just ought to use your imagination. "The Stewmaster" begins the episode in prime serial-killer fashion, stripping naked and lining a hotel room floor with fluid-catching plastic, then filling a bathtub with various skin-removing toxins. . . more Silence of the Lambs obviousness here, and it's probably not too surprising (though depressing) to discover that the actor playing "The Stewmaster" previously played the killer in the first Hannibal Lecter movie (Manhunter, by Michael Mann, remade as Red Dragon.)

So there you are: after a hard day's work, home at last, ready to relax in front of the TV and so you flip on NBC and there's the Stewmaster, boiling his victims. Fun night, huh? Really takes the sting away from that tough day, doesn't it?

And look, I'm not asking for my next show to just be some sort of placebo or palliative, and I certainly don't want to waste my time watching some mind-numbing idiocy, but geez, can we just back off from the decapitations and eviscerations for an hour? I've peeked at some of the popular police procedurals over the past few years, the "CSIs" and the "Criminal Minds" and the million "Law and Orders," and they all seem to employ more than a touch of sadism and ruthlessness in their storytelling. "Artistic integrity," I guess they call it, but it sure seems more like cruelty and exploitation, lowest-common denominator stuff..

The second show I tried to watch this year, the mid-season replacement Believe (also on NBC), sounded cool to me initially 10 year old girl with special powers, on the run from a shadowy organization, sort of a Stephen King girl in an "X-Files" setting. I intended to give the show a decent try-out but after the first five minutes, when Mom, Pop, and the Girl are forced off the road by the bad guys and Pop gets his neck snapped by the lithe female assassin, and Mom and the Girl are crying in the woods, bloody, desperate, and limping, trying to escape, I said, Okay, that's it. I've had enough. Five minutes and I clicked it off.

I've tried other shows, like Top of the Lake and The Red Road on the Sundance Channel, and again, the shows are just too dark, too violent, too much. I'd like to get on board with some new show but everything I see is just too committed to breaking new ground and pushing the envelope and being edgy and dark-tinged and uncompromising and I just want to watch something that's not going to beat me up too much.

I know that what I'm describing here isn't the state of television so much as the state of me, and the fact that my sensibilities are getting increasing more fragile. It's funny: I recently watched some horror movies from my youth that I once loved, Dressed to Kill and An American Werewolf in London, and it surprised me how much more disturbing they are to me now. When I was a kid they just rolled off of me; the violence and gore didn't matter. Now, though, everything gets to me. It's like I'm destined to only watch safe programming from now on, a future full of repeats of Matlock and Murder, She Wrote and Little House on the Prairie. Followed by an early buffet dinner at Bob Evans, I guess.

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