Gag Me With a Remote Control

Digital gross-outs come to network TV, leaving little to the imagination

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On a recent episode of The Walking Dead (Sundays, AMC), our luckless cast of survivors endeavors to remove a “walker” intact from a well, to prevent the undead plague it carries from contaminating the water. On the lip of the well, the zombie splits wide open. And filmed in loving, slow-motion close-up.

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But it’s okay because it’s on cable, right? Well, this season on Fringe (Fridays, Fox), the paranormal FBI unit has been tangling with synthesized humans that have translucent skin. From certain angles, it’s possible to see their bones and muscles flexing beneath the artificial epidermis. And this is just the latest example of going for the gross-out from a show that regularly explores new and bizarre forms of soft tissue damage, after which Dr. Walter Bishop noisily autopsies the victim during his snack time.

In other words, there no longer seems to be much difference in what we’re seeing on the networks, which supposedly have Standards and Practices departments and are governed by FCC regulations and what you see on cable. There used to be an argument that nothing anyone could actually put on-screen can be as disturbing as what you see inside your head when they hide it. It’s like the old W.W. Jacobs story “The Monkey’s Paw,” where the thing at the door vanishes a split second before it’s revealed. Scarier that way, supposedly.

But that claim no longer applies. Thanks to new digital technology, these days we can watch Jack Bauer recover a memory card from a live suspect’s stomach on 24 (Fox, again) or see how Dead‘s Darryl ransacks a walker’s gut for signs of fresh human remains and decide for ourselves which of the two scenes is the most upsetting to watch. It’s a photo finish if you ask me.

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So to those who still say that screen magic can’t compare to the mind’s eye when it comes to horrifying images, I doubt many of us could have imagined, quite so clearly as AMC’s Breaking Bad showed us not long ago, exactly what it looks like when a man steps out of a bombed-out room with one side of his head blown away. Network TV probably can go farther than it has, and probably will, but it probably shouldn’t. Cable, especially premium cable, has barriers to access that broadcast doesn’t, the overcoming of which implies some consent on the part of the viewer. The networks may feel pressured to keep up, but amping up the blood and gore isn’t a front where they can win. Just ask anyone who quit watching CSI when a rat crawled out of a corpse’s mouth.

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