Networks fight to keep up with cable

A young woman, covered head to toe in Edgar Allen Poe prose, disrobes as police officers and FBI agents scream at her to stop.

“Help my poor soul,” she says repeatedly, as she brings a knife up to her face. As cops begin to move in on her, she plunges the knife into her eye.

This is Fox’s “The Following,” and this scene occurs within the pilot’s first fifteen minutes.

As network television plays catch up with their cable competitors, even innocuous channels have to increase the heat to attract viewers. Fox has always pushed the envelope, but Monday’s “Following” premiere raised the bar. The show concerns former FBI agent Ryan Hardy, an alcoholic loner who is called in to track escaped serial killer Joe Carroll. Hardy put Carroll away years ago, and he quickly learns Carroll’s new plans involve brainwashed disciples, a method eerily similar to Charles Manson’s patterns.

Networks may be desperate to produce Emmy-worthy content, and violence similar to “The Following” seemed to rule the top categories. Nominees “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Boardwalk Empire” all feature heavy violence. Critically acclaimed cable series “Dexter,” “Homeland,” and “The Walking Dead” all have premises involving death and destruction. Yet these series get the attention come Emmy time, because their loose cable limits allow gritty realism to seep in. Last year’s Emmy Awards recognized six drama series as top contenders, and PBS’ “Downton Abbey” was the only non-cable drama.

Yes, some cable dramas often border the absurd — “Homeland” struggled with over-the-top plots last season, while its’ first season was rather grounded — but as the envelope is pushed, cable provides viewers unique storylines that blur the typical good vs. evil line.

Fox knows their competition. But because of FCC censors, they must approach the line without crossing it. Fox is home to “Family Guy” and the now defunct “24,” so they are no stranger to controversy. I squirmed like never before while I watched “The Following,” but it was still an amazing pilot. The show would be more suited for Showtime.

The violence issue lingers as the nation reels in the Sandy Hook massacre aftermath. Do we show too much? Do we, as a country, fetishize violence? “The Following” has unfortunate timing— it is the first violent show to premiere post-Newtown. Could the story be told without the gratuitous violence?

Probably. But it certainly wouldn’t have the same impact.

Networks argue they must do something to stop the ratings drop. Bland comedies such as “Animal Hospital” just won’t cut it. But it’s a vicious circle — increase the violence, and people may complain the gore affects children. Why one would let their children stay awake late enough to see a woman stab her eye out is beyond me, but that’s a tough topic, one I’m probably not qualified enough to expand on. It deserves a completely different article.

Ratings don’t lie. “CSI,” a show one can depend on to be bloody and dark, is such a consistent performer that CBS aired the original and two spinoffs for quite some time. As long as these shows perform well, networks will continue to greenlight them.

“Dexter” is my favorite show, but even I’ll admit the show has gone too far several times. I enjoy it because the writing feels free. You can tell the writer was given ample elbow room to construct a plot and pose the tough questions.

Yes, some inventive plots delve into the grotesque, but the best shows force audiences to consider the plot’s implications. Can you condone Dexter, a serial killer who only kills rapists and other murderers? Can you condone “Breaking Bad”’s Walter White, a meth dealer who is close to death and cooks to support his family (at least, at first)?

What compels you to follow Joe Carroll, a college professor who murdered fourteen female students in the name of art?

Yes, the boundaries have been stretched. But it is these terrifying new concepts that create television’s most unique monsters. In the end, when these networks compete, and if you can stomach it, the audience is the ultimate winner.

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About Karsten Burgstahler

Karsten Burgstahler can be reached at kburgstahler@dailyegyptian.com or 536-3311 ext.255.

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