At the TCA Winter Press Tour this morning, Fox presented "The Following," the network's new drama starting January 21 and starring Kevin Bacon in his first regular (non-soap opera, for those with long memories) role as an FBI agent brought in to battle James Purefoy as a serial killer who's amassed a network of protégés to do his murdering for him. It's a show with a high body count and some creatively gruesome violence (eye stabbing!) and the intensity turned questions toward the recent Sandy Hook shooting — and whether violence as entertainment is being reconsidered in its wake.
"It’s squeamish and it’s not for the faint of heart," said creator, writer and executive producer Kevin Williamson. "You have to kind of look away. But it’s not the sum of the show. There’s also drama and emotion and a lot of other things running through it."
It was a message he held to throughout the panel. "Who wasn’t affected by Sandy Hook? I’m still disturbed when I think of Aurora. And we sit in the writers’ room after that happened and we’re all traumatized by it. It reaches a moment where that just gets too real, and it’s very disturbing.
"But I think that’s one of the reasons it still affects me, because it’s just so real. I’m writing fiction. I’m just a storyteller. So when I take pen to paper, there is a reaction to it and it finds its way into what I do."
Williamson added, "We don’t sit around and just think of like ways to kill people. I’m sitting around thinking of the drama. Yes, it’s a horrific, scary show but, you know."
This angle has shown up at various panels throughout TCA, and it's been interesting as well as frustrating. For someone who thinks (as I do) that violence in entertainment is more reflective of audience taste and mindsets than causal of real-world incidents, the implicit moralizing has been disheartening.
But it's also indicative of a conversation people are obviously anxious to have about the programming that regularly shows up on the same screens on which they watched the terrible reports from Newtown. Carlton Cuse, executive producer of A&E's "Bates Motel," when asked about adding to the stack of shows about serial killers with his new "Psycho" prequel series, admitted "I haven’t really thought about it in sort of the larger context. For me, I just was fascinated with telling the story of this mother and this son."
The "Bates Motel" crew also got the Newtown question. "The only thing I think anyone thought about that was that it was horrible and sad," executive producer Kerry Ehrin responded when asked if she had thought of similarities between the tragedy and her show. "And a lot of us are parents and it was just horribly tragic. I think that the show isn’t about violence. It’s about a mother and a son. It’s not pandering to violence or taking advantage of violence. It’s trying to explain."
Asked about upcoming "Silence of the Lambs" prequel series "Hannibal" (with Mads Mikkelsen) at NBC's executive session, chairman Robert Greenblatt evaded the issue of gory depictions, saying "There’s a lot of violence around the show, but you don’t see a lot of acts of violence. You see people who have been murdered."
The main character of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), according to programming exec Jennifer Salke in an echo of Williamson's description for his own series, is "the definition of a kind, gentle sort of soul who’s really sensitive. It’s not a 'shoot-’em-up' kind of show. You’d have to see it. It’s difficult to explain because it’s incredibly unique. But it’s not gratuitous, I think, in the way you might be thinking." Greenblatt went so far as to punt and suggest people "look to the movies and, dare I say, at video games as another outlet" in terms of violence.
The question on many of the TCA attendees' minds seems to be not so much what the connection is between on screen and real-life violence and more why we so consistently enjoy shows about murders in particular, a common topic in not just cable but on many of the procedurals that rule the ratings (as Greenblatt put it, "I think 'Criminal Minds' is worse than 'Dexter' ever was").
Which brings us back around to Fox, where chairman Kevin Reilly today told the TCA crowd that "The Following" "adheres to our broadcast standards," and suggested the reason it's drawing attention is its quality. "The truth is, I think there have been more violent shows on television," he said. "I think some of them have come and gone and nobody noticed or cared because they were insignificant, bad shows. This is a significant show and a good show and I think, as such, you’re invested in it and it feels even more intense than it is."
He suggested that the show's all about keeping up with boundary-pushing cable dramas like "The Walking Dead": "We must match the intensity, otherwise we’re going to be a pale comparison and we’re not going to entertain the audience. And I think this show goes toe-to-toe with them on the level of intensity and ability to surprise and hold your interest."
The unspoken message throughout these sessions has been that if people didn't like shows like these, they wouldn't watch and they then wouldn't get made.