No Redeeming Value

I am a big LAW AND ORDER: SVU fan. I have been for years. It's consistently one of the best plotted and acted cop shows on TV. I have used episodes of the show as examples in my TV writing classes here and abroad.

That said, I thought this week's episode ("Confession") was repugnant, pointless, and vile. 

It demonstrated what a joke network standards & practices have become. The censorship at the networks has nothing to do with content and everything to do with the ratings of the show and the power of the showrunner. No new show, or one with weaker ratings, or one helmed by a b-list showrunner,  would ever have been allowed to produce, much less broadcast, this episode.

Dick Wolf shouldn't have been, either.

Tonight's show was about a 17-year-old boy who is fantasizing about raping his six year-old step brother. And it gets more explicit and gruesome from there, with graphic discussions about anal penetration, oral penetration, and the evidence that digital or penile insertion in those areas will leave. An important clue is a semen found on the young boy's dirty clothes in the hamper…but it turns out his father was masturbating in the bathroom and used the clothes to wipe off.  There's also time spent with an adult pedophile who talks about his fantasies of sex with kids while we see photos of the children he has been stalking.

And that's the "cleanest" stuff in the episode. My description actually makes it seem tamer than it was and no different than any previous episode of the series. But it actually gets worse. Much worse. Keep in mind, I am a fan of this series and I found this episode shocking, not only in its graphic nature but in it's violence (there was an enormous amount of blood). I couldn't believe it was on broadcast TV and not HBO.

And yet, you can't show a woman's nipple for a split second or say "fuck" on broadcast television without incurring the wrath of the FCC (if you manage to even get it past the networks). 

The network will limit how many times you can say "Damn" in an episode but you can talk all you want, and in considerable detail, about a pedophiles raping children. I actually felt sick for the kids who acted in this program (or whose pictures were shown) and was angry at their parents for letting them be used this way.

This was an hour without any entertainment value… without any educational value…frankly,  without any value at all. Sure, the acting was great, and the production was top-notch, but to what end? What made this a compelling story worth telling? Why did it need to be made?

I have seen probably a 100+ episodes of SVU, so it's not the subject matter that bothers me. You can't do a show about sex crimes without sex crimes and they have dealt with child molestation before. But usually they have shown some discretion. Usually there is a mystery story worth following, or a social issue worth exploring, or a character worth examining. Something that made the show entertaining, relevant, and thought-provoking.  This episode has none of those things.  This episode made me want to take a shower to remove the stink.

It was ugly, sick and totally pointless. It had no redeeming value. I honestly don't know if I will be watching L&O:SVU again after this. I have lost respect for the judgment of the showrunners. If this is their idea of compelling television, they are on the wrong track.

I am beginning to think that about a lot of TV's slick procedural dramas, where the violence, mutilated corpses, and serial killings are getting more and more bloody, gruesome and graphic just to keep the attention of viewers (and writers) who have become jaded after thousands of hours and years of this stuff. All you have to do is compare a first season episode of  L&O:SVU or CSI with one airing in the last two seasons to see what I mean. They've amped up the explicitness of the gore, violence, and the discussion of the gore and violence, and fooled themselves into thinking that equates with raising the quality of the writing and the depth of the storytelling. It doesn't.  

On broadcast network TV now, you can show almost as much blood as you want….hell, you can spend five minutes with the camera lingering on the autopsy of a charred corpse…and discuss in explicit detail the murder, rape and mutilation of the man, woman or child before they were set ablaze. That's entertainment!

But don't you dare show a woman's nipple (unless it has been mutilated and belongs to a corpse) or two people naked (unless they're covered in blood and, preferably, dead), or having sex (unless you're rescuing a victim from being molested or raped) because then you've crossed a line.

On "free" TV we can show graphic violence but not two people in love having sex. We can show naked corpses on an autopsy table, and even watch as they are cut open and their guts exposed, but we can't show two naked people in bed.

What the hell is the matter with us?

I know that's not the first time someone has said what I'm saying. It's become  cliche. But finally for me, personally, after seeing this weeks L&O:SVU, I am beginning to wonder if we have gone too far.

What were these writers thinking? What made them believe this was a good show, something that would entertain an audience? What was the network thinking?

Maybe that's the problem: no one gave it  a thought at all because they have become so inured to the violence, depicted or discussed, that anything less would seem too tame and pedestrian. We just keep pushing the limits, as if that is the definition of what makes great drama.

If I'm not offending someone, is it good writing? If  the viewer isn't turning away, repulsed, have I sacrificed the realism? If it's not as dark and gritty as possible, am I diluting the potential drama? Is that what the writer is thinking?

I worry that pushing the boundaries has become the goal rather than simply telling  compelling stories. I'm not saying that's the case at SVU…but that it's something I see happening  in broadcast TV as a whole. 

I know a lot of TV writers. They look at the acclaim that THE SOPRANOS and THE SHIELD got and they want it, too. Pushing boundaries gets you known. Pushing boundaries gets you Emmys. But pushing boundaries isn't always entertainment. Sometimes it's just vile.

Keep in mind, I am asking myself these questions as not only a fan of gritty police dramas (I love DEXTER, a show where the hero is a serial killer!) but as writer/producer/author of crime fiction myself. I don't want to restrict creative freedom…or stop writers from exploring new dramatic territory…and I'm not telling them that its wrong for drama to be offensive to some people (what viewers found "offensive" about HILL STREET BLUES, MAUDE, etc. seems so tame now). But I do think have a responsibility to think hard about what we are putting out there as entertainment. 

Are we trying to entertain? Or simply seeing how far we can go before someone slaps us and says what the hell are you doing?

(The irony here is, of course, that I have been accused of doing exactly what I am railing about here. There were people who reacted to some of my episodes of DIAGNOSIS MURDER — and even some of my books based on the show –  the way I reacted to this week's L&O: SVU.  And yet if you were to ask anybody in the TV business about DIAGNOSIS MURDER, they would tell you that the show was hopelessly conventional, old-fashioned and tame. I am sure there are TV writers who will read this and see it as evidence that I am out-of-touch and stuck in the past)

23 thoughts on “No Redeeming Value”

  1. I have this episode in my DVR queue, but haven’t watched it yet. Like you, I’ve watched quite a few crime shows and wondered about the increasing bloodiness. It doesn’t bother me per se, but the ramp up is noticeable on these types of programming.
    As in horror movies, what you imagine is there is more effective than too much.

  2. Lee, you just nailed it down why I’ve pretty much given up on commercial TV as a whole. SVU hit me a few years back, leaving me thinking, “If I want this shit, I’ll go to work.”
    Face it, my friend. Alexander Mundy is running a bar in Casablanca now. Napoleon Solo went back to his computer company. Simon Templar is dead and buried. James West rode off into the sunset and fell into an abandoned mine shaft. Remington Steele was run out of town. Amos Burke lost it all in the Dot Com crash.
    And it stinks. It stinks to high heaven….

  3. I think you are right on, and I believe that Network and even studio execs have become somewhat of a joke. Many of them are folks who stand around and find ways to justify their jobs. Case in point…
    I worked on “Friends” and there was an episode where one of the gals was drowning her relational sorrows in ice cream…with another gal upon hearing the reason said “time for the good stuff” where she was going to pull out a Haagan Daaz. Network wonks said “no, we don’t do commercials here.” Fast forward to the following week when the latest “Seinfeld” epsisode aired (on the same network remember) with a storyline that featured the real life chicken francize Kenny Rogers Roasters (which had a location directly across from NBC studios at the time) with Kramer going nuts and spending almost every moment of the episode lauding the deliciousness of the chicken…every scene filled with bags of the product, etc.
    Of course this example pales in comparison to your…but illustrates that “standards and practices” has none!

  4. What the hell is the matter with us?
    Is it all of us? For every fan of Ann Rule’s true crime files or Bill Curtis’ Justice Files – there’s about 5 fans who’d rather read highly lurid, dramatized accounts of real crimes that are depicted in the Detective-pulp mags. When you think about it, crime has become a form of entertainment that can and is highly sexualized. Men’s detective mags aren’t as prolific anymore not because the covers always featured half-naked women in ropes–but because the medium of ero-crime drama has moved to television.
    🙂 FWIW, I felt last nights ep was contrived, too many stereotypes shoved into 45 minutes…the best the show had to offer was the last five minutes when a battered wife came in and needed Detective Munch, and he did was he does best: special victims police work.

  5. I generally take a very laissez-faire attitude towards entertainment programming — but I’m having trouble understanding how this show, as you described it, could be viewed as entertaining by anyone. (Kiddie rapers, maybe.)
    I think you’re absolutely right, though, that whether the medium is TV, movies or novels, writers (and producers and directors) are forcing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable entertainment media. And the process feeds on itself. The more coarse and edgy that entertainment becomes, the farther out new writers need to push their content in order to stand out from the crowd.
    What gets lost, I think, is not just good taste and responsible programming, but good storytelling as well. When the nature of the stories being told, and the way in which they’re told, becomes so extreme, I think a lot of the entertainment value is lost.

  6. Actually, this is a trend I’ve noticed for a while. And for the same reasons as you’ve mentioned. Heck, the first few years of The Sopranos, all I heard when people praised it was how “realistic and gritty” it was. Translation, it’s full of language and violence I wouldn’t like.
    I used to watch the CSIs and Without a Trace until I took a few month break and came back to them to find myself repulsed byt the two weeks worth I tried to watch. I haven’t been back since.
    I do truly believe that there are some people who just attempt to see how far they can push boundaries and claim it is good storytelling. It’s an important issue that needs to be looked at.
    And yes, this is coming from someone who watches 24 and Heroes. I’m not always comfortable with the level of violence on those shows. But at least they normally have a good story behind them. The day that changes I won’t be back.

  7. hell, you can spend five minutes with the camera lingering on the autopsy of a charred corpse…
    My husband watches BONES, and this was exactly what happened on an episode a couple weeks ago — that aired at 8 PM (used to be known as “the family hour”), no less. I had to leave the room. I am very glad I didn’t see that episode of SVU.
    In my homeland of Sweden, violence is automatically R-rated but (non-sexual) nudity is OK — eh, it’s just the human body, we’ve all got one. I’ve always thought that was a much healthier attitude.

  8. Lee, This is one of the best articles you have written. I couldn’t agree with you more. Sure, some violence can get a point across, but when it is in excess, it is just that, excess. Indeed, there are topics that warrent discussion, but when the subject is so blantantly displayed, it does the opposite- one turns away in disgust. Whatever happened with off-camera, let the audience fill in the blanks. As a writer, I would not bow to use graphic violence, let my reader indulge their imagination. Hopefully, your article can be read by many.

  9. “And yet, you can’t show a woman’s nipple for a split second or say “fuck” on broadcast television without incurring the wrath of the FCC (if you manage to even get it past the networks).”
    I think you’re right that the narrow area of what’s acceptable on network TV means that shows are going further down the roads that are available to them.

  10. Lee’s comments on L&O is the reason why Monk is where I tend to hang out for some good mystery/dramedy. That, plus there are some things I don’t need to know about pedophiles/rapists/sex offenders.
    Thanks for the post, Lee.

  11. As an afterthought, though, I live in downtown Seattle, so if I want to see naked people, or nipples, or people having sex,(or doing drugs, or confusing their cell phones with guns they didn’t know they had) all I have to do is look outside my window into the alley of my apartment building. Or go to the pubic library where many of the computers in my general field of vision will have graphic porn on them. My own nudity, in my own home, tho, I’m okay with. Other peoples, not so much. LOL. Keep ’em coming Lee.

  12. I’ve noticed this with books, too. Readers/viewers that I talk to aren’t asexual, bloodless, handkerchief-wavers with the vapors, but I’ve heard them complaining they’re being pushed further and further into levels of ugly explicitness that aren’t entertaining or enlightening to them. In fact, many work soul-draining, grody jobs, and they’re looking to get away from the office and have some fun without having to go all candy-colored about it. They don’t want 10-page torture scenes or endless close-ups of abused baby corpses, and the young actors playing victims are a whole ‘nother issue. Further, they’re pissed at the implication that they’re tasteless rubes for not enjoying it. There’s more “frank” language on regular TV and more sex, too, and I don’t mind it or nipples on parade for (relative) grownups. Heck, that’s why I’ve already got premium channels. However, I do think someone would make an unholy mint on a multi-layered, realistic, crime-based network show that could air at 8pm in the family living room without being insipid. The top TV talent is up to telling a sophisticated crime story in a cleverly suggestive way, and I’d love to watch it.

  13. On the other hand, look at the shows that USA has produced. MONK (you may have heard of it), BURN NOTICE, and PSYCH all have some wit and don’t need to get bloody to be good. And they’re successful! Why aren’t more people imitating THOSE shows?

  14. I’ve tried recently on my humble blog to point and on a well-known US blog where my French presence is tolerated that the true question is the relevance of keeping fiction on Networks, at an age where offer has changed in a drastic way with DVD, the internet, Showtime and HBO.
    The CSI trend will not last forever (in the nineties the best-selling worldwide franchise was… Baywatch!) and I hear regularly that Real TV and Game shows dominate. After all, as I said, Deal or No Deal can be fun to watch and Showtime offers a quality line-up.
    “The Times They Are a-Changin” sung the Bard, the new Knight Rider is the laughing stock of critics. But remember the original show came from Glen Larson (on offence intended, really… great childhood memories) and was about a talking car!
    As I said on Nikki Finke’s blog, credit should be given to Gary Scott Thompson for his understanding of what network-packed light popular entertainment should be. Las Vegas was great escapism, what some may call Guilty pleasure.
    “DIAGNOSIS MURDER, they would tell you that the show was hopelessly conventional, old-fashioned and tame.”
    I know a tv series expert here who thinks that… 🙂 DIAGNOSIS MURDER was a good show “à l’ancienne” and sometimes amateurs of popular entertainment got more than they wanted with wit, causticity and great reunions (maybe too systematic sometimes) for tv-series thirty or fortysomething aficionados.
    My wife recently discovered the show (with my little help, it’s regularly poly-multi shown here) and qualifies it of “Weekly Columbo”.

  15. I agree; but I wonder how much of the problem is sheer outrageousness and how much is bad storytelling. The reader or viewer will put up with seeing stomach-wrenching material if it’s integral to a gripping story (the SILENCE OF THE LAMBS movie comes to mind). But if the gore or other cringeworthy content is used as the adult equivalent of Garbage Pail Kids — the titilation of the forbidden, just for titilation’s sake — it becomes harder to tolerate for those who are looking for entertainment targeted somewhere north of the beltline.

  16. The first and last time I watched SVU was a story about a mother who, to avoid being raped, tells the rapist where her young son is (so that he could be sodomized by the guy). At that point, I felt that this show’s view of “entertainment” was a little off. I’m sure it had some redeeming value, but…I didn’t see it.

  17. i dont think we can condemn the entire series because of one bad episode…everyone episode since this one has been top notch as per usual.
    I completely agree however that this episode when way to far.

  18. I’ve caught a few more SVU episodes this season. None of them have been anywhere near as repugnant as the one I mentioned here. That said, they haven’t been very good, either. This has been the weakest season in years. The plotting just isn’t up to their usual high level.


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