TV minds defend violent shows
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PASADENA, Calif. -- In the wake of the elementary school shooting last month in Newtown, Conn., fingers pointed in every direction, with blame heaped at guns, a lack of mental illness health care and video game, movie and TV violence.
But the memories of entertainment consumers are short.
Earlier this month, "Texas Chainsaw 3D" opened at No. 1 at the box office. And this week, Fox's gruesome serial killer drama, "The Following," debuted with 10.4 million viewers, making it the top-rated drama series Monday night.
"Well, clearly there's an appetite, OK? Let's just say that for a fact," said Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly at a press conference during the TV critics' winter press tour earlier this month before the "Following" premiere.
"We can look at the success not only on television, but in the box office, and in all aspects of entertainment and media. People like these things, OK? So that is the business that we're in, of providing things that people like."
"The Following" (9 p.m. Monday, WPGH) tracks FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) as he rounds up the followers of serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy, "Rome") while reigniting a romance with Carroll's ex-wife (Natalie Zea, "Justified").
"We take everything we do -- everything we put on the air -- with the utmost responsibility," Mr. Reilly said. "I'm putting on an excellent thriller police story, a story of a cop chasing a bad guy. I'm not glorifying killers."
"The Following" creator Kevin Williamson, who previously wrote for "Dawson's Creek" and "The Vampire Diaries," said although he wanted to make a scary TV series, he's more interested in the characters and their relationships, particularly the connection between Hardy and Carroll's ex-wife.
"I know everyone is harping on the violence and scares, but I'm trying to write toward the tears," Mr. Williamson said. "I'm 'Dawson's Creek.' I want him to kiss her, and I'm writing toward that moment."
Mr. Bacon said he doesn't think about the social impact of his roles.
"My responsibility as a performer is to do a good job, to play this part and play it to the best of my ability and to be true to who I think the guy is," he said. "If I stop every time I took a project and said, 'What's going to be the social impact of it?' I'd never work. Let's face it, look at some of the [things] I've done."
Mr. Reilly cautioned against snap judgments that blame the media for real-world violence.
"Unfortunately in complex matters, we all like a scapegoat. We all like a simple answer," he said. "We want to put the finger on one thing and say, 'That's the problem. That's the issue.' And, look, we're just in the age of complex issues."
Fox's "The Following" isn't the only series likely to stir up some viewers opposed to TV violence in the months ahead:
• The CW's "Cult" (9 p.m. Feb. 19, WPCW) explores the fanaticism that grows up around a fictional TV drama.
• A&E's "Bates Motel" (10 p.m. March 18) offers a prequel to the "Psycho" story about the events that made Norman Bates a killer.
• NBC's "Hannibal" also is a serial killer prequel based on the character Hannibal Lecter, created by author Thomas Harris in a series of novels and popularized by actor Anthony Hopkins in the Oscar-winning, filmed-in-Pittsburgh movie "The Silence of the Lambs."
NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt said there is violence around "Hannibal" but the series doesn't depict many acts of violence. Mr. Greenblatt previously put the serial killer show "Dexter" on premium cable when he was the top programmer at Showtime.
"I'm not a psychologist, so I'm not sure you can make the leap [that] a show about serial killers has caused the sort of problem with violence in our country," Mr. Greenblatt said. "There's many, many other factors, from mental illness to guns. ... I think 'Criminal Minds' is worse than 'Dexter' ever was."
CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler didn't appreciate having her drama series name checked.
"It's a much-maligned show. I happen to enjoy the show," Ms. Tassler said of "Criminal Minds" after a CBS press conference earlier this month. She said the format of CBS crime procedurals, which she called "mini-morality stories," all have the good guys winning and bad guys going to jail. "['Criminal Minds'] is not for everybody. ... It's given an appropriate rating every week. ... I think we're making a huge mistake to let any of these conversations devolve into a discussion of my show vs. your show or one show vs. another. This is a much bigger issue, and thank God it's finally being discussed on the level it is."
"Criminal Minds" has been criticized for its violent content since it debuted in 2005. The crime drama's first star, actor Mandy Patinkin, quit after the first season because, he told New York magazine last year, the show's plots involving the murders and rapes of women were "very destructive to my soul and my personality."
NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said her network ordered "Hannibal" based on the past work of its creator, Bryan Fuller, the mind behind "Pushing Daisies" and "Dead Like Me."
"We're aware that there are a few big [serial killer shows] out there," she said. "We respect the piece of talent, and we like what he's doing, and so we stand behind it."
FX president and general manager John Landgraf, who programs the critically acclaimed and sometimes violent series "Sons of Anarchy" and "American Horror Story," said he'd like to see more research on the links between violence in media and real-world violence.
"If we can find meaningful correlations, we should act upon those correlations," he said, noting he has three sons -- ages 9, 12 and 15 -- and he doesn't allow them to play first-person shooter video games. "I think we should talk about it ... and I think all things should be fair game, whether they're video games or entertainment programming."
But after Newtown he also considered the similarities in the media consumed in America vs. Great Britain and the dissimilarities in firearms-related deaths, suggesting the differences may be attributable to tighter gun laws in England.
"The incidence of gun death in America is 10 per 100,000 per year. And the incidence in England is one quarter, .25, per 100,000 per year," Mr. Landgraf said.
"And we consume the same media: Same movies, same television shows, same video games."
First Published January 24, 2013 12:00 am