It is an ever-recurring issue: how we are affected by what we watch on TV.
A rational and well-adjusted adult will normally be able to buffer strong images and fictional violence. But it is a fact that as the violence in some films and TV series becomes more explicit and grotesque, we become increasingly callous and unaffected by what we see. Our mental defence system seems to be at work. But in the wake of popular TV series like The Sopranos, The Wire and Boardwalk Empire another issue is raised – will these series affect our moral judgement?
The Moral Dilemma
These series are brilliantly produced and cast a line of fairly unknown, but good actors. Their popularity may also be accounted for by the true-to-life characters, whose complex nature and human aspects are displayed in a most credible way. Traditionally, a protagonist in such a series would be directed to give the impression that, in spite of his shortcomings and vices, he is out there fighting for a good cause. The new heroes of TV fiction also come alive because they are neither all good nor all bad, but a bit of both, just like most people. But the difference is that they are not fighting for a good cause – they are, in fact, criminals.
Most people respond to a film narrative intellectually as well as emotionally. We try to make sense of a plot that can often be complex and intricately composed. At the same time, an emotional sensor will tell us where to place our sympathy as the plot develops. Based on information the film director chooses to give about the different characters, we gradually form a combined conception of what goes on and where to place our sympathy. But what happens when our intellectual and emotional understanding clashes with our moral judgement – because the supposedly good guy is actually a bad guy? Can we, for example, sympathise with mafia boss Nucky Thomson in Boardwalk Empire just because he has human traits? We can see his troubled mind and follow his personal considerations, but a protagonist who easily pulls the trigger to protect his own interests is hard to sympathise with from a moral viewpoint. And Omar Little in The Wire may have his positive sides and moral reflections, but he is far from what we would call a good guy. We also appreciate Tony Soprano’s domestic situation and care for his family, but there is a dilemma: we cannot accept the way he runs his business, but at the same time we catch ourselves hoping that he gets away with it all, because he is such a human and charming character.
If we take a step back and consider the moral implications, it would probably kill the thrill. So, instead, we side with these protagonists, even though their conduct is despicable. But the question is whether this alternative affects our own ethical judgement; is it possible that we develop a moral flexibility and bluntness in the same way as we can buffer fictional violence?
To Take the Bad with the Good
These heroes show efficiency, and they pursue their goals with a ruthless drive. They know how to pull the strings so they don’t have to do the dirty work themselves. This exercise of power is a liberating escapism in our un-dramatic everyday lives. The reason why these bad protagonists have our sympathy may be down to the simple fact that their antagonists are even worse. And faced with this ambivalence, our sympathy will go in favour of the most human and least brutal character. But when we take the bad with the good like this, we have made a choice of moral dimensions by just turning a blind eye to the dodgy proceedings of our hero. We see how Nucky Thomson runs his Empire and may even accept his questionable logic: “It’s a tough world out there, and one must bend some rules to get by. And after all, crime is, well – a question of definition, ain’t it?”
However, there is definitely a line somewhere as to how far a bad protagonist can go and still deserve our sympathy. Within the commercial frames of these productions, there are certain crimes that would simply be untouchable. Smuggling, black-mailing, cheating, - even killing seem to be acceptable offences, whereas e.g child molesting or rape would most certainly be more than what a supposedly heroic character would get away with. This ranking of crimes is a peculiar phenomenon; our ethical standards are manipulated because we tend to accept more from a sympathetic gangster than from an all-bad character. In the Tarantino film Reservoir Dogs (1992) the protagonists are involved in really bad stuff like torture and mutilation; but the difference is that they don’t get away with it, and none of them has our sympathy.
Criticism and Responsibility
The ethical issue in film is not new. The acclaimed and award-winning Godfather trilogy (Francis Ford Coppola , 1973,-74,-90) presented a family-loving protagonist who, at least in the beginning, seemed to have a moral standard of some sort, and was more or less unwillingly dragged into his criminal activity due to his responsibility as the new head of the family. Consequently, we feel sympathy with Don Corleone even though we know that he is a ruthless criminal who should be brought to justice. The issue was vaguely raised in the wake of the two first films, but most of the criticism was silenced by the enormous success of the films, both on the screen and at the box office.
The block-buster Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) was heavily criticised for the way the protagonists are portrayed as sexy and cool. They are cold-blooded mass murderers, but they are also vulnerable and emotional characters that call on our sympathy. When the film was released, it caused a debate about the ethical responsibility of a film director or a TV company. The same issue is now being raised by the new trend in TV drama; how should we relate to the sympathetic gangster without corrupting our own moral standards?
Tasks and Activities
- How, and why, do the commercial frames of TV production limit its use of effects and criminal elements?
- What does it mean that we respond to a film intellectually as well as emotionally? Explain the difference?
- What does it mean that “their exercise of power is a liberating escapism”?
- Explain “moral flexibility”.
- Can you mention some examples of the fact that violence on film has become more explicit and grotesque?
- How do you explain such a development? Is there a limit to how far it can go?
- Do you agree that we respond to fictional violence by gradually becoming more callous?
- Do you think we are ethically affected by watching series like TheSopranos and Boardwalk Empire?
- What do you think of Nucky Thomson’s logic that is quoted in the article?
- Do you think a film producer or TV-company has a moral responsibility for what they publish?
In the text, you will find words and expressions that cover the following definitions. Scan the text and find them.
- To look in another direction and pretend that you don’t see
- To become thick-skinned and insensitive
- To sever and cut pieces off a body
- It has to do with house and home
- It is another word for evil or immorality
- To hold off or keep at a distance
- A film that has a huge success
- To be in doubt about two diverging alternatives
- The need to get away from a boring existence
- To be sensitive and exposed to harm
- To be realistic and authentic
- To be mean and detestable
1. To turn a blind eye
2. To be callous
3. To mutilate
6. To buffer
7. A block-buster
10. To be vulnerable
11. To be true-to-life
12. To be despicable
- Make a survey in your class or at your school of the popularity of the series mentioned in the article. Ask also whether they have thought about the ethical issue raised in the text.
- Search YouTube for clips that demonstrate some of the dark sides of our new TV-heroes.
- Write a blog entry where you oppose the points made in the article.
- Write an article (200-300 words) where you present one of the series mentioned, and state what you like / dislike about it.
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