Hannah McIlveen

Blogger and Freelancer

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Trigger TV: Debating the Merits of Fictional Tragedy

The world can be a pretty sh-tty place. After all, it’s filled with people, and people can be pretty sh-tty. They kill each other, or try to kill each other; they do other nasty things to each other, or try to do other nasty things to each other. Some of those murders and other nasty things become ingrained in the shared human consciousness, and trickle their way down into popular culture, inspiring TV plots. Other times, those murders and other nasty things serve to disrupt television, rather than inspire it.

A bunch of shows in the past few weeks have been shelved because of just this. People are still raw about Newtown, so a Hannibal episode about (kids, not adults) murdering kids got canned. The Boston Marathon misfortune led to a few skipped episodes featuring bombings (Castle, Revolution). Glee aired their school shooting episode a couple weeks ago, and some people took issue with it, even though the episode ended with an “oops, someone gave the depressed, mentally handicapped girl a gun and it went off accidentally but she never intended to hurt anyone” scenario, rather than physical violence.

I want to be sensitive here. I want to have compassion for people affected by tragedy, and I want to understand the powerful ability of a TV show to trigger hurtful memories. And I do, I do understand (and without getting all passive aggressive like those Syrian folks). But every damn episode of every damn show is a trigger for something.

Dexter frequently reminds us of horrifically orphaned children. The Big C shoves hopelessly terminal disease in our faces every week. Teen soaps like Degrassi offer everything from homophobia and bullying to drug addiction and murder. Law and Order: SVU features sexual assault in what seems like at least 70% of it’s episodes. Two and a Half Men reminds us that some people are cursed with a terrifying inability to ever be funny.

But back to SVU. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 207,754 people are sexually assaulted annually in the U.S. alone. The Boston Marathon bombing had three casualties. And those passive aggressive Syrians are right – this particular brand of tragedy is rare on this continent. Small tragedy is still tragedy, and it still deserves respect and atonement. But there are small tragedies happening every day that don’t get media attention or mass police pursuits for justice. Despite a higher victimization rate, fewer people seem concerned about the portrayal of these quiet, daily tragedies on TV.

I can understand why some don’t want to watch their personal tragedies played out on TV in trigger plot after trigger plot. Some say it’s tactless, exploitative, or just plain mean to play people’s misfortunes for an audience and advertising bucks. Some say that all you need is a warning posted at the beginning of the show, and then it’s all good. Maybe it should all be fair game; after all, it seems tacitly unfair to sidestep select plotlines in the name of tact and compassion, while completely ignoring the emotional impact of countless others.

So we can argue all day about whether it's right, or kind, or fair to represent tragedy on television. But in debating the political correctness of trigger TV, why not take it a step further: Is it naive to think that maybe trigger TV can not only be okay, but healing?

Think of it as catharsis. In real life, the bad guy doesn’t always get caught, and we don’t always get the closure we’d like. The criminal justice system takes years, possibly a decade or more, and court is a battle of argument versus counter-argument, not good versus evil. But in TV Land, the good guys usually prevail. The bad guy goes to jail — or Dexter kills him — and then we can dust off our hands and get back to our lives.

On SVU, Olivia or Ice T or the Hispanic guy usually gets the rapist. Sometimes it’s kinda roundabout and he almost gets away, or it was mistaken identity or sleep-sexing, but most episodes end with closure, justice, and the beginnings of peace. Real life ain’t so nice. According to RAINN, 97% of rapists in the U.S. will never spend a single day in jail.

Maybe it can be helpful for victims of real tragedy to see a positive resolution to a similar tragedy on fictional TV. In the case of trigger TV, maybe writers can be considered temporary councillors, the actors surrogate victims, and the viewers all patients in a massive, collective therapy session. Maybe fictional justice can be a salve for real life’s injustice.

Maybe I'm stretching. Maybe instead of seeking absolution and emotional transcendence from our television, we should only watch and produce the easy stuff. Or put warnings on the hard stuff. Or refuse to let anyone but news anchors handle the volatile material. Yet I can't help but wonder if trigger TV might present a wondrous opportunity. I can't help but wonder if we stopped worrying about political correctness for a moment, and if we realized that all TV is trigger TV, if maybe something good could come of it. Something healing. Maybe, television could even — GULP — teach us something about coping with tragedy.

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