Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Is Too Much Freedom on TV Ever Bad?

The cast of Seinfeld shakes on it in "The Contest." Photo courtesy of joyhog.com.

With all the talk about "sexposition" on Game of Thrones recently, as well as the return of the often-gratuitous True Blood last weekend, I've been thinking about the role of censorship in television. Not censorship of ideas or political views - I'm completely against that - but censorship of things like sex, violence and foul language. Now, I'm not for censorship in any way, as I was raised by parents who realized I was smart enough to figure things out for myself and therefore chose not to censor things; however, I do think that the inability to show sex or violence onscreen can often lead to increased creativity.

I started thinking about this issue while reading Nerd Do Well, a memoir by the incredibly funny and talented Simon Pegg. In the book, Pegg describes his early comedic leanings by describing a joke he told to a friend's mother. The punchline of the joke relied on a mildly dirty work that Pegg, who was in primary school at the time, didn't want to say in front of an adult. Instead, he just paused and allowed the mother to guess the word based on rhyme and context. According to Pegg, the fun of guessing the dirty word for oneself made the joke much funnier than it would have been had Pegg said it aloud.

Pegg's point - that something implied is often funnier, sexier or scarier than something that is actually seen - is one that has been backed up by many TV shows. With the exception of pay cable channels like HBO and Showtime, television is a medium that has to abide by certain guidelines as to how much sex, violence and profanity is allowed. While this can be incredibly frustrating - "nipplegate," anyone? - it can also lead to increased creativity on the part of showrunners and writers, who are forced to come up with alternative way to get their point across.

One of the best - and best-known - examples of this is the classic Seinfeld episode "The Contest." The episode, which was ranked as the single best television episode of all time by TV Guide, revolves around a contest between the four main characters to determine who can go the longest without masturbating. However, due to strict television guidelines, the word "masturbate" is never used in the episode, isntead being referred to by euphemisms such as the now-classic catchphrase "master of my domain." The episode would probably still be funny if the word could be used, but the heavy implication of the subject matter and the many amusing euphemisms used by the group make the whole thing much funnier, because it makes the audience feel like we're in on the joke.

Another example that I've always been fond of is the inclusion of marijuana in That 70s Show. The characters smoke pot in almost every episode, but it is never referred to by name and no joints or bongs ever appear on-screen. Instead, the audience sees the camera pan over the characters while puffs of smoke hang in the air around them, allowing viewers to pick up on the cues and laugh with the characters, while once again including the audience in the joke.

Dramas can also use implication and creativity to increase the impact of a scene without actually showing it. I'm not normally a big fan of Mad Men, but Joan's rape in the second season of that show was beautifully played, and all the more powerful because of how little was shown. It was far from gratuitous, showing no nudity and cutting away before the deed was actually done, focusing instead on Joan's glassy-eyed, resigned stare. Not showing the scene allowed the audience to imagine what is happening and project our horror onto the situation, while avoiding the fetishization of sexual violence that often comes with portrayals of such behavior onscreen.

It's not that showing sex, violence, drugs or profanity on TV is always badly done: The Wire showed characters doing drugs in order to illuminate the societal problems that plagued Baltimore, Tell Me You Love Me used explicit sex scenes in order to delve deeper into couples' relationships, and Deadwood elevated cursing to an art form. However, portraying these subjects on television is always dangerous, and difficult to do well. For every Tell Me You Love Me there are several True Bloods, a show that uses gratuitous sex to cover plot holes and that is often guilty of fetishizing violence against women. Shows like Seinfeld and Mad Men have shown viewers that censorship is not necessarily a bad thing; now, if only shows like True Blood would take that lesson to heart, and realize that ability to show something onscreen doesn't imply necessity.

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