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Blood, Guns, and Plenty of Explosions: The Evolution of American Television Violence

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Abstract

American television, as a mass medium of storytelling, often gets scrutiny over its content, facing industry standards, censorship, and audience pushback. While sex and obscenity have been intensely studied, TV violence has had most scholarship aimed at the effects of viewing violence. This study is focused in a different direction, seeking to analyze the evolving presentation of violence on American airwaves. TV violence is composed of two parts: The first is the graphic portrayal of violence through fights, gunshots, and death. The second is the role violence serves within TV narratives, which has morphed from acts of justice and self-defense to plotlines intertwining moral indifference with pointless killing and righteous vengeance. Three case studies utilizing close reading and image analysis of various shows are used to analyze both aspects of TV violence. The first case study centers on Bonanza, a TV western that presents violence within strict moral boundaries. The second looks at The Day After, a TV movie that employed special effects, dialogue, and set design to portray the aftermath of nuclear Armageddon. The third case study analyzes The Walking Dead, a culmination of the changing TV landscape of the 2000s that led to a hyperreal level of graphic violence and storylines that emphasized moral ambiguity, villains that escaped punishment, and endless death. The portrayal of violence on American television has changed drastically in the last 80 years, and this study hopes to reflect the reciprocal relationship between a changing TV industry and a shifting American society.

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Blood, Guns, and Plenty of Explosions

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