NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
From James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking" to "24's" Jack Bauer, violence has always been a staple of America's popular entertainments, but some believe there's something different going on right now. On TV, cop shows, hospital shows and military shows feature more explosions and gore than ever before, and interrogations that run all the way to torture. The level of violence on "24" even caused the FCC to take note in recent days, though it's not clear the commission can regulate program content that way. And to be fair, it's not just TV. Literature, movies, fairytales, video games, sports are all saturated with violence, and there's obviously a market for it. Have we turned a corner? Why does it interest us so?
Later in the hour, we'll take a post-Katrina restaurant tour of New Orleans with Tim Zagat. But first, why is there such a huge market for torture and violence on TV and films, et cetera? Why do we watch? Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com.
We begin with Ken Tucker, who's the editor-at-large of Entertainment Weekly. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. KEN TUCKER (Editor-at-large, Entertainment Weekly): Thanks very much.
CONAN: And Ken, we talk about the violence on "24." They triggered an incident this season that really did make everybody sit up and take notice.
Mr. TUCKER: Yes, they set off - terrorists set off what they called a suitcase bomb, a small nuclear bomb that killed thousands in an area of Los Angeles. And so it kind of set in motion the plot this year, which led to a lot of interrogation of suspects with the overarching "24" framework of this has to be done very, very quickly, within the space of 24 hours.
CONAN: Because there is no time.
Mr. TUCKER: Exactly. Agent Jack Bauer has to save the world yet again.
CONAN: Now but to be to be fair, again, this level of violence is not unusual for "24."
Mr. TUCKER: No, not at all. I mean I think that they have to raise the stakes each season a bit, and I think that by going in this direction of setting off a nuclear bomb, it adds to the urgency. And so I think when you have a suspect and the scriptwriters feel that if you have a suspect that has valuable information about locating these other bombs that are located throughout Los (unintelligible) easier to shoot the gun in the kneecap than to ask him politely to give up the information.
CONAN: And even leave an extra vial of torture, an extra needle of torture juice around so that - anyway, we're not going to get into the plot of "24."
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: But anyway, his brother. All right, we're just going to leave it alone. As we go through this though, even watching hospital shows on TV and some of the forensic shows that are so popular there seems to be a higher level of gore. Even the, you know, the sort of the shot of the coroner's table as they're dissecting somebody, we're seeing a lot more guts than we used to.
Mr. TUCKER: Yeah, part of that is technology. And, you know, you watch "CSI" and they can do those kind of fancy things where they go in through the bullet wound hole and follow it into somebody's, you know, the arteries of the heart or something...
Mr. TUCKER: ...and it's just - it's a lot of it is special effects for the sake of the fact that we can now do it. And I think that that sort of graphicness is almost tech people saying, gee, isn't this really cool that we can do this, and people are kind of disengaged from what's actually happening, what's actually being shown to them and what's being told to them in terms of the plot.
CONAN: Now we've described a couple of the more popular shows on television: "24," "CSI," and its various spin-offs. Is this a business decision? Is it a conscious business decision to, say, to keep up with the competition? In terms of broadcast TV, keep up with cable and HBO and Showtime, we have to be more graphic.
Mr. TUCKER: Well, I think there's a certain prize that the networks feel in being what they call edgy. They want to compete with cable network. They look at all the Emmys that shows like "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood" and "Six Feet Under" win, and they say, you know, we want that kind of buzz, too, because that attracts the right kind of people for our advertisers. Obviously, the networks reach many, many millions more people than paid cable subscribers, so it's not absolutely necessary that they show this sort of violence or have this kind of explicit language or sexual content. But they want to go as far as they can to the very edge to prove that they, too, can be edgy.
CONAN: And is there any sense of people concerned about the effects of this violence on the viewers? Now again, in general, violence in America, violent crime in America, has been - if you look over the past 10 years or so - way down, but nevertheless.
Mr. TUCKER: Well, I think parents very much, you know, worry about that kind of thing and do their own sorts of limiting of what they want their kids to see. Where I think it begins to be potentially dangerous is with the FCC (unintelligible) recent report that they presented for Congress that could craft a law that could regulate violent programming, much like it now regulates sexual content and profanity and, more important, for the first time extend to cable networks as well as broadcast, which would be unprecedented and would really cause a big ruckus, I think.
CONAN: We're talking about the prevalence of violence, not just on TV though -that's what we've been talking about at the beginning here - but in entertainment in general. We're speaking with Ken Tucker, editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's turn to Hugh. Hugh's calling us from Oakland in California.
HUGH (Caller): Yeah, hi. I wanted to just say that I don't watch programs that I think are too violent. "24" was novel in the beginning because of its fast pace, but it seems that they're running out of plot and substituting with this constant torture. Either he's tortured or he's torturing. And "CSI: New York," in order to differentiate itself from the other "CSIs" or "Law and Order," seems to have substituted plot by just showing blood and guts. And I stopped watching that, too. "Law and Order" seems to have a little bit more plot and occasional but much less graphic violence, and I would much prefer plot over graphic images.
Mr. TUCKER: This is very much a theme that's comes up. I read a blog every week after - the night after "24" airs and - on ew.com for Entertainment Weekly - and all the - many, many of the comments are exactly what this listener is saying, is saying I was a real fan of "24." I love the acting. I think Kiefer Sutherland's terrific. But they're really going way too far in the direction of torture and it's making my family and I uncomfortable.
HUGH: Can I add that this is not the first time that television has had to address violence. I remember when they tried to turn Freddy Krueger into a series, which they had on during prime time. And I saw it one time I think on the Family Channel, and it showed a poor girl who had just had a dream and was being pushed with razor blades across the ceiling. I think some of the people who make these have their own issues.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Hugh, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can turn now to Boyd(ph). Boyd's with us from Milwaukee in Wisconsin.
BOYD (Caller): Hi, Neal, thanks for taking my call.
BOYD: Hello, Mr. Tucker. Really, really good topic. I think though what we really have to look at is, you know, violence - certainly, I'm not defending it - but it goes back so many, you know, eons. I mean I'm currently reading a book by a gentleman by the name of Jonathan Kirsch. It's not a new book. It came out about 10 years ago, called "Forbidden Tales of the Bible." And in there you can find everything from rape, incest, you name it.
What I think, though, is more alarming is we - I think it is up to citizens in terms like with our children, you know, to, you know, educate them. And if they're going to have them watch shows - whatever that show might be - is to watch it with them. That is what's most important. I think when it comes to video games, which is an interesting thing what that is, because video games are, you know, certainly a part of the entertainment media. We can all be fair about that.
CONAN: Oh, sure.
BOYD: But with video games, they - when you see like a television show, or something like that, it's always that passive observation. But with video games, it's dualistic. You become that character, and I think with that - you know, I play video games myself, everything from - you know, I like playing Civilization, but I confess I like playing Duke Nukem as well.
I think the thing is though, if you're going to have your kids play that, you have to be there and play it with them. And maybe some games certainly like Duke Nukem, no, that you should wait until they're old enough and more mature and more important - most important of all, that you trust them.
Mr. TUCKER: Yeah, I think that's true. I think that that shows the technology generation gap. I think that parents know they should watch some of these TV shows with their kids, but they don't realize that when their kids go off and play these video games that parents could care less about, they're not really monitoring that. They don't have no idea the level of violence that some of these, the most popular games, contain.
CONAN: And for that matter even television. A lot of kids have their own TV in their own rooms, and their parents aren't watching that with them either.
Mr. TUCKER: A terrible mistake, something I would never allow my children to have.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BOYD: Yep, yep, okay.
BOYD: Thank you so, gentlemen.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Boyd.
BOYD: You bet.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail. This we have from Liz. I think the violence doesn't lure the viewers. I think it's the suspense. People watch despite the violence, not for it.
Mr. TUCKER: Yeah, I think that in the case of well-written shows like "24" or "Heroes" or "Lost," people are caught up in these things. That's why they become both very popular and why they're willing to look past a lot of the violence. I mean, you know, we're not talking about, you know, silly shows like, you know, "Walker, Texas Ranger," and no one would be getting upset and be counting how many times, you know, Walker shoots his pistol off. It's because these shows maintain such a high quality of level of acting and writing that I think that the intrusion of the violence and the torture into these scenarios disturbs people who would otherwise avoid that kind of violence.
CONAN: And here's another e-mail, this from Aman(ph) in San Francisco. I highly recommend watching the documentary "This Movie Is Not Yet Rated." It helps to explain why there's such a double standard between sex and violence on the screen. A small number of unelected and unaccountable people, roughly a dozen, get to decide that a bloody massacre is less obscene than a glimpse of two people making love. Janet Jackson's Super Bowl nipple slip and the out of proportion political storm it caused was perhaps the most glaring example of the silly and puritanical attitudes that seem to have taken over this country in the past few decades.
Obviously, he's mixing TV and movies in those comments. But Jonathan - but Ken Tucker, as you look at this, clearly there's a lot more violence than sex on TV.
Mr. TUCKER: Yes, and I think all those examples are, you know, examples of where the FCC has betrayed its original purpose. It's become, you know, this kind of political position that's appointed by both parties...
Mr. TUCKER: ...over the past 40 years have made perfectly dreadful mistakes and completely twisted the original purpose of the FCC, which was to encourage diversity of voices in programming.
It really hasn't been since Newton Minow, whom John F. Kennedy appointed, who - you know, I love television, and Newton Minow's the guy who called it the vast wasteland, yet he was the last guy who really pushed for diversity and a variety of voices, as opposed to censorship.
CONAN: And of course with all the channels we have today, far more than in Newton Minow's time, we have a much vaster wasteland.
We're talking about violence in TV and in the movies, and why we watch. We'll have more with Ken Tucker from Entertainment Weekly when we come back and find out why we love blood and guts in film and TV. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking today about the level of violence and torture in popular entertainments: television, movies, books, video games. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Have we turned a corner? Why do we love to watch violence? 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: email@example.com.
Our guest is Ken Tucker. He's editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. And while some people's stomach turn at the scale of violence in popular culture, others find it nothing new except for the level of exuberance. Joining us now is A.S. Hamrah. He wrote an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times titled "We Love To Torture." He also joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Mr. A.S. HAMRAH (Author, "We Love To Torture"): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And that's a provocative title. Do we love to torture, or do we love to watch?
Mr. HAMRAH: Well, as far as Hollywood's concerned now, they both love to torture and love to get people to watch torture, which people love to watch.
CONAN: In terms of - why is that? Why do we like to watch something as obviously horrific as torture?
Mr. HAMRAH: Well, people have wanted to watch scenes of violence and bloodshed since art was first, you know, shown to anyone. Torture is as old as mankind. The question today is not whether people want to see torture, but their attitude towards the torture they're seeing. And this is a question that should be asked of the people making it as well.
Mr. HAMRAH: I think that this recent anti-torture thing we've seen with "24" is significant. It's significant that it's happening at the same time as, you know, there's this anti-escalation sentiment regarding the war in Iraq.
Mr. HAMRAH: They're both things are about escalation.
CONAN: And you think they're parallel.
Mr. HAMRAH: I do.
CONAN: Interesting. We've got an e-mail from Lily(ph) in Kentucky. I wonder about how current events may affect our interest in violence on TV. We're a country at war. Could this contribute to a rise in violence in our entertainment? You seem to be suggesting it's all directly connected.
Mr. HAMRAH: Well, I don't think it's necessarily directly connected, but I think it's significant that this rise in torture films and torture on television cop shows happens at a time when America's at war and when it's known that guards have been torturing soldiers - excuse me - prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Stephen(ph), Stephen calling us from Boise, Idaho.
STEPHEN (Caller): Yes, thanks for taking my call. The first thing I wanted to say was just that when it comes to the difference between regular television and cable, HBO and some of these - there's a lot of violence involved. However, another caller had mentioned the lack of plot and story on the television networks. That's where cable is really, really popular. It's not just that there's violence. It's that there's excellent stories, there's excellent plots. And I think that's what brings the viewers to that, not just the violence. I think the violence is just more of a realistic - and they get away with it because it's on HBO. But it seems like the plot and stories is what brings people in. And then (unintelligible)...
CONAN: Or is it - Stephen, is it the shock value? You can't see this on broadcast TV, and that's what brings people to it. And they may stay for another episode if they think it's well written and well acted.
STEPHEN: Exactly, exactly. I think there's - I mean it does have some of the shock value there, something that draws the attention of the consumer of that media. But I do - if they don't have the plot, if they don't have a story - there's many shows on HBO that I don't watch because their stories and plots are horrible. So I think that feeds into it.
And then the last thing I wanted to make a quick comment on, which your gentleman was speaking to a moment ago. I think there's much more of a direct connection between seeing more torture and more violence, especially more torture and more military-type of situations, on television and films as it relates to what's going on with our current administration, with our current, you know, world politics, the war in Iraq. It seems like in terms of the show "24" specifically started doing more torture and really started increasing - that became kind of the focus of the show - right around the time that we started having a debate and we discovered the...
Mr. HAMRAH: Oh, this is absolutely true.
CONAN: Go ahead, Scott Hamrah.
Mr. HAMRAH: He's absolutely right in saying that the both things started to escalate at the same time and both - and the audience is getting sick of both things at the same time. Both seem like desperate measures to people who are both viewing these things at home on the news or on, you know, fictional shows.
Mr. TUCKER: And also, it's interesting that even within the context of "24," the two creators of the program - Joel Surnow and Howard Gordon - are kind of the yin and yang of this argument.
Mr. TUCKER: Joel Surnow was recently profiled in The New Yorker and was describing himself as one of the rare, quote, "right-wing nuts" in Hollywood. And he was very much in favor of the kind of torture scenes that the show is now presenting. Howard Gordon came out this past week and said, actually, I think that the torture has become a kind of reflex action for our writers. It's become too easy. Even my wife doesn't like it. I'm uncomfortable about it, and you're going to see less of it in "24" as the season progresses.
CONAN: Of course...
STEPHEN: (unintelligible) Doesn't it say something, though, that one of the creators of the show - he confirms he considers himself a right-wing nut. Doesn't that show there is some sort of I think support for, there's some attempts to actually normalize or glorify or glamorize this so that it's more palatable to the public that we're actually torturing people in other countries?
Mr. HAMRAH: I think that's the case, yes, indeed. I think that America's been having a flirtatious little affair with torture. And now America's started to think that maybe torture isn't all, you know, he was cracked up to be.
CONAN: Well, of course one of the big differences on TV, if you're torturing somebody, you can make it work.
Mr. HAMRAH: That's true.
Mr. TUCKER: I also want...
Mr. TUCKER: I also think there's a kind of free-floating revenge fantasy going around the country. That no matter whether you're a Democrat or a Republican or where you stand, you kind of want to get back at somebody, you know, you - Osama bin Laden, but you can live out this kind of revenge fantasy with a clear-cut villain on television.
Mr. HAMRAH: Well, in terms of motion pictures, sometimes the villain isn't so clear-cut. The torture's just spreading out into all corners and crannies of the films.
CONAN: Yet on "24," it has to be said, Scott Hamrah, that they're equal opportunity tortures. Jack gets tortured just as often as he tortures somebody else.
Mr. HAMRAH: Well, because part of this is, you know, both sides of the fantasy. People want to be tortured and they want to torture people. They want to watch torture and they want to be the victims of torture as well.
STEPHEN: Well, and you have your (unintelligible) justification for torture in the first place. If we see somebody tortured that we believe in as our hero, or we see a beheading or hear about a beheading in other countries, we need those things to justify the torture...
Mr. TUCKER: That's right.
STEPHEN: ...I think even "24," Jack to be justified in what he's doing, and that justifies it if it's done to him as well.
Mr. TUCKER: Yes, and I also think a lot of people who watch "24" realize that if you follow Jack Bauer's arc of his career, so to speak, on this show, he feels himself a doomed soul. He feels incredible remorse for the kind of torture he's inflicted. Those kinds of motives and deep thinking are not allowed the villains in that show. You - they don't spend enough time establishing that in any sort of way. Jack is our hero. He is also our conscience.
Mr. HAMRAH: That's true, but at the same time, as Jack's become more tortured, his tortured soul becomes kind of comic the more the show escalates the torture and violence. It just seems silly after a while.
CONAN: Stephen, thanks very much.
STEPHEN: Thank you (unintelligible).
CONAN: It has to be said, it's not just "24." Even on a FBI show like "Numbers" recently an agent was captured. And in order to find the information about where the agent was being held - we weren't shown the torture scene, but clearly somebody got beaten up badly in the back room and spilled some vital information. So it's not just "24."
Mr. TUCKER: No, people are talking about "Lost." There's some torture scenes there. One of the most popular shows now that's made a resurgence in the ratings just in this past year is "Criminal Minds," which has some very graphic - every - it's a serial killer of the week show - and some very graphic scenarios in that show. And so in that sense it is a kind of wave we're riding right now.
Mr. HAMRAH: The love of torture used to be a very kind of fringe desire in films and television, but now it's become very mainstream.
CONAN: Let's talk with Estelle(ph), Estelle with us from Gilford in Connecticut.
ESTELLE (Caller): Hi, Neal.
ESTELLE: Hi, everybody. I very much agree with the notion of the simultaneity between current events and the popularity of violence on television. But I would like to - and movies - I would like to take it one step further, though. I honestly feel that in some way it's a reaction to 9/11 in that we are incorporating what this tremendous amount of violence entails in a controlled environment. We can turn it on, we can turn it off, we can walk away from it, we can indulge ourselves, which is something we could not do in 9/11. We did not have that control. So by feeding this sort of information to the populous, I think that they are hoping to somehow have a certain catharsis and help us or enable us to deal with the notion of violence.
CONAN: When you say they, Estelle...
CONAN: ...that's where I get into problems. So who is this they?
ESTELLE: Well, the...
CONAN: I mean nobody sat around a table and said, well, we have to decide this. You think this is collective unconscious?
ESTELLE: No, unfortunately I don't think they're aware of it themselves. I'm just saying by presenting programs such as these - because I think producers, directors are also obviously influenced by what took place on 9/11...
ESTELLE: ...it just enables us to work this through, which is not in any way to say that I think it is the way to cope with something. I certainly don't. But I think it's something we are all dealing with.
Mr. TUCKER: I think the caller's really right, and I think it has taken this long since 9/11 for the entertainment industry to figure out how to grapple with what I was saying before about this kind of free-floating anxiety and revenge that we seek in our primary target focus being in the real world on Osama bin Laden.
But at the same time, a certain amount of time had to take place. You couldn't have had shows like "24" and "Criminal Minds" and "CSI" in the immediate wake of 9/11. A certain amount of time had to take place. So in that sense, Neal, what you're saying is there was a certain amount of sitting around in rooms saying is it too soon to show this on television. When is the right time?
Mr. HAMRAH: I think that's true. And I think what this reveals also is the things that entertainment and torture have in common with each other, which is not something people have remarked on a lot, but entertainment is serial in a way that torture also is. It keeps happening over and over again until it gets the results that it wants. And I think "24" has actually internalized torture into, you know, what they used to call the mise en scene of the show.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Jennifer. Jennifer with us from Oregon - Oregon, Illinois, excuse me.
JENNIFER (Caller): Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JENNIFER: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Got two states there in your title. Go ahead. I'm sorry.
JENNIFER: That's okay. I just have been increasingly aware about the alarming amount of torture against women in these shows. Like "Law and Order: SVU," "Criminal Intent," a lot of other shows. Just wondering what is your comment on that? Like why do you think we've seen a rise in that?
CONAN: And - you're convinced that we have seen a rise, Jennifer? You have no evidence of this? It's just anecdotal?
JENNIFER: Well, I'm just that…
CONAN: It appears to you that there's been a rise. Ken Tucker?
JENNIFER: It appears to me that there's been a rise…
JENNIFER: …in parts - you know, violence against women, you know. The way I see it is like ever since we've had, you know, I call it Nipple Gate, you know, basically…
JENNIFER: …that one time it's like our way to get around showing women on television in a provocative way that's not, you know, sexy. It's violent now.
Mr. TUCKER: I think that's absolutely a very good point and very true. I mean, I think the whole idea of women in jeopardy has been around for a long time on television and in movies. It was certainly a staple of horror movies. The idea is to isolate a young girl alone in a house and have her killed at the beginning of, you know, "Halloween" or "Nightmare on Elm Street" or movies like that.
And on television I completely agree. My wife will not watch "Law and Order: SVU," because she says every week someone is raped, a child is molested. There's just this constant barrage of things that she finds depressing and repulsive.
CONAN: It is about the sexual victims unit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TUCKER: Yeah.
JENNIFER: Well, yeah. Exactly.
Mr. TUCKER: I mean, you know what you're getting into. But at the same time it's, you know, it's kind of a downer every week.
JENNIFER: Yes. I know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HAMRAH: We've seen a big rise in the disposability of everybody on these shows. It's men and women both. I mean, human life just seems valueless on most of these shows. So it's unclear a lot of the time what the police or what Jack Bauer, or whatever kind of unit it is, are actually defending or investigating.
CONAN: Jennifer, thanks for the call.
JENNIFER: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking about the prevalence of violence in popular entertainment with Ken Tucker, editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly, and A.S. Scott Hamrah, who's a writer and brand analyst in New York. His op-ed "We Love to Torture" appeared in the Los Angeles Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's got to Elaina(ph). Elaina with us from Ypsilanti in Michigan.
ELAINA (Caller): Hi there.
ELAINA: I recently had this discussion with my own students about the prevalence of this sort of constant violence and how like in "CSI", "SVU," and "Bones," how these things serve a function and they're reactionary.
It's comforting for us to see the crimes that we see on the local news an hour or two before these shows appear. We like to see that these crimes are investigated to the degree that they are, even though in real life they probably aren't. You see?
CONAN: So that they do, for the most part, come up with the bad guy at the end of the show. Sometimes they get away, but most of the time they get them.
ELAINA: Yeah. They come up with the bad guy. Every Amber Alert that you see flashed across the screen, it's comforting to think that they're investigated to the degree that they do on "SVU." So you know what I mean?
CONAN: I know exactly what you mean. Ken Tucker, I've always been fascinated that there's this FBI unit just waiting around in case I go missing.
Mr. TUCKER: I know. It's just a complete - that's their job to do that. And I think that's a very good point. I think that also in best-selling fiction that's also true. Kathy Reichs, who wrote that series of books that "Bones" is based on, I think it's interesting that it's a woman author who's got a female hero who investigates these heinous crimes. And so I think it's a very valid point.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Elaina.
ELAINA: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Meg in Germany.
As an American living in Europe, I've found that sex and nudity are much more prevalent here than in the States. In comparison to that, violence is much less prevalent. I think that this is an outcome of our country's formation from puritanical beliefs, which were focused more on sex and gender relations than violence, whereas the lack of violence in European media tends to come out of the abhorrence of things that happened during the World Wars.
And certainly you do notice, Scott Hamrah, a very distinct different between British and American popular entertainments.
Mr. HAMRAH: That's true, but I think (unintelligible) entertainment is getting more violent as well. And I think American entertainment is getting more sexual. So I think there's an evening out process going on to some extent.
Mr. HAMRAH: The question is about what kind of violence are we seeing, not how much of it there is, I think. And, you know, cops have always caught bad guys by however they could on these kinds of shows. The question is why are they torturing them so much now.
CONAN: And you think torture is much more prevalent than it used to be?
Mr. HAMRAH: Oh, yes. I think it's definitely much more prevalent. I don't think anyone can argue that.
Mr. TUCKER: And I also agree that the idea of the popularity of shows like "CSI" or medical shows where the corpse is on the table it becomes - the human qualities are kind of removed from that. It becomes a scientific experiment. So that you are getting the satisfaction of knowing the crime is being solved, but at the same time the victim has been completely dehumanized. It's a kind of meat on a table to be examined.
CONAN: Yeah. We see the person there for the first 20 seconds of the show, then they're killed and the rest of the show, you're right, they're meat on a table.
Mr. HAMRAH: Their death is more important than their life.
CONAN: Does it bother you to watch, Scott?
Mr. HAMRAH: Oh, no. Not really.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HAMRAH: What I mean, it bothers me morally but it doesn't bother me, you know, in a visceral sense, I guess.
CONAN: What about you, Ken Tucker?
Mr. TUCKER: I feel much the same way. It doesn't bother me in my gut. I'm, you know, I want to watch these shows in terms of their writing, their acting. That's what engages me and so I'm much more interested - you know, I'm much more interested in a show like "The Wire" on HBO, which has the kind of freedom, especially in terms of what they can say and show in terms of the drug culture in Baltimore. I think what makes it a great show. It's that kind of freedom that we have to fight the FCC against.
CONAN: Yeah. That show does not lack for violence, however.
Mr. TUCKER: That's right.
CONAN: We're going to take a short break. We're going to continue on this topic and take a couple more of your calls on this. We're hoping that A.S. Scott Hamrah and Ken Tucker can stay with us. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. We'll also go to a new guide of post-Katrina restaurants in New Orleans and talk with Tim Zagat.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In just a few minutes we'll talk with Tim Zagat about his post-Katrina survey of restaurants in New Orleans, but let's continue our conversation now about violence in American popular culture with Ken Tucker, editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly, and Scott Hamrah, who's a writer and brand analyst who wrote the op-ed, "We Love to Torture," in the Los Angeles Times.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Thomas. Thomas with us from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
THOMAS (Caller): Hi there.
THOMAS: I just wanted to say I think the violence in media's been around with us from a while and every generation seems to find something more that's appalling than the next. But I think I wanted to make a distinction between what I see as the violence in cop shows, which is usually perpetrated by the villain and then the SVU unit or the other police unit is there to clean it up. Even the violence in something like a show like "Lost," which is enacted, again, by a villain or by some mysterious force. And then the violence that seems to be enacted by the show "24" where it's not the protagonist but the hero is enacting violence.
CONAN: Yes, but - well, all right.
THOMAS: I'm sorry - as I said, the hero using violence as a tool and it's not even for his own ends. It just seems to be violence for violence sake.
CONAN: Scott Hamrah, do you see a distinction?
Mr. HAMRAH: I think the caller's making a good point. The question is not has there always been violence in cop shows. There always has been. There's always been violence in films. One doesn't, you know, one doesn't think about it this way if it's a Peckinpah film or something. But…
CONAN: They did when the Peckinpah film first came out.
Mr. HAMRAH: That's true, but now people don't look at it that way, because now the question we have to ask ourselves is when did we slip over onto the side of the torturers, you know. Before when you saw a film like that, you know, you were horrified by this. You weren't cheering on the torturer. Now the torturer's being applauded and encouraged. And that's the question.
THOMAS: And just one more point, the show "The Shield" certainly the protagonist uses violence, but it's for his own ends. And though we cheer for him, it's because we're seeing most of the world through his eyes. But we don't applaud him for using violence to get himself out of trouble. And yet the Jack Bauer character, we're supposed to be wrapping ourselves up in the flag with Jack.
Mr. HAMRAH: That's right.
THOMAS: And yet this is a character that, you know, in any other environment or milieu would be the villain. And I just - that's the only - I couldn't think of any other show to compare that to that, like you said, I think hopped over the line. When did we become the torturers?
Mr. HAMRAH: That's the main question, I think.
Mr. TUCKER: There are these little moments. I mean, with "The Wild Bunch" you were meant to think that William Holden and Ernest Borgnine and those old coots in "The Wild Bunch" were pretty cool old guys, even though they were engaged in bloody massacres. I think when in the - I think one of the other tiny little turning points was in the first "Raiders of the Lost Ark" movie when Harrison Ford is about to be attacked by the guy with the sword and he just realizes, ah, I'll just take my gun out and shoot the guy.
Mr. TUCKER: You were completely on his side. In the same way with Jack Bauer you have to understand that that's his job. His employment is to protect the country and that's what he's been trained to do. His job is different from what a policeman does or what a forensic scientist does on some of these other shows.
Mr. HAMRAH: Which is I think why that general from West Point went to speak to the producers of the show in Hollywood.
CONAN: And they've been brought to - the actors have been brought to Washington to appear before various groups as well. As if, much to their befuddlement, they point out that they're not experts on counterterrorism. They just play one on TV.
Mr. TUCKER: They're just experts in sadism, not in counterterrorism.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get one last caller in. This is Tara. Tara with us from Muir in Michigan.
TARA (Caller): Hi. I had a comment. I think that for me being so young that violence in movies and torture in movies doesn't really bother me so much because that's what I've been brought up with. I mean, that's all you ever see. When I was younger I can remember watching "Child's Play" and stuff like that. And I mean, so really - I mean, it's like going to movies or watching something that has torture in it, you just wait for the next movie to come out to see, well what are they going to do next? What are they going to - how are they going to kill somebody else in a different way?
Because that's what makes the movie good, it's because it gets so real and so, you know, it's like riding a roller coaster. It gets your adrenalin going. And I think that's what younger people like me like to go see because it's all we've been brought up with.
Mr. TUCKER: Well if that were what made the movie good, then every torture film would be good, and that's not the case. The caller must admit that some are better than others, and I would wonder why she'd think that.
TARA: I seem to like - and a lot of people that I go to movies with, we like to see more gore and stuff like that. I mean, and you know, it's totally a personal, you know, personal choice, but I think that it doesn't bother us as much just because it's been around. You know, we've been around it all of our lives.
Mr. TUCKER: Gore has been in films since the early '60s. Gore in films is not new. It's the attitude the films take towards the torture that they're presenting that is new.
CONAN: Tara, thanks for the call, and have a good night at the movies.
CONAN: Appreciate it. And I'd like to thank our guest, Ken Tucker, editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. Appreciate your time today. Thanks for coming in.
Mr. HAMRAH: Thank you very much, Neal.
CONAN: And Scott Hamrah, who you just heard there, writer and brand analyst who's op-ed, "We Love to Torture," appeared in the Los Angeles Times. They both joined us from our bureau in New York. And when we come back, we'll be going to New Orleans to ask about the restaurants post-Katrina.
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