TV and Political Violence

By Joseph Young

I think we are in a (the) golden age of cutting edge TV.[1] HBO, Showtime, and even Netflix are providing edgy series that push the boundaries of what can be on done on (pay) TV. With that said, there have been some classic shows that have pushed us to consider the role of violence in our culture. Since we recommended books on political violence, and then movies, I am completing the trilogy and offer some TV series that provide insights on political violence.[2] Much has been made about violence in movies and TV and their influences on individuals[3] and society. These shows do not depict violence for violence’s sake but provide potential explanations for why and how violence happens.

1. The Wire

HBO, via Wikimedia.

I was late to the party. Will Moore recommended this show to me when I was deep in throws of my dissertation (or what my grandma called ‘my paper’). Because I have the self-control of a Buddhist Monk or I was such a serious doctoral student or because I couldn’t afford it (you decide), I waited. If you haven’t seen it, The Wire is set in the dangerous part of Baltimore (redundant) in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The show begins by getting inside a drug gang in the projects through the lens of the members, leaders, police, girlfriends, and users. The characters are complex, none is good or bad. They all have interests. For example, the drug kingpin’s lieutenant takes night classes in economics and lectures his soldiers on the elasticity of demand. The police are sometimes well-meaning, sometimes corrupt, and at times act like the gang. When considering violence, the show examines the strategic interaction of the groups and how it leads to mostly suboptimal outcomes.

The second season follows the police as they deal with human trafficking, drugs, and the docks of Baltimore. To be honest, it is a tad of letdown, and my wife gave up on the show midway through this season. Subsequent seasons highlight the role of the media, politicians, and schools as the focus remains on drugs, gangs, and violence. As a former high school teacher, the season dealing with the schools is the most real and heart wrenching. The Wire offers explanations for violence by criminals, gangs and the state (police). Some of it is unsettling, much of it realistic.

One final thought. It has the best, yeah the best, character, in any movie, TV show, book, or creative endeavor — Omar. Of course, the actor is amazing, but he is based on a real character in Baltimore, destroys stereotypes, and should have won an Oscar, Emmy, or Nobel Prize for that part.

2. Star Trek

Paramount Pictures, via Wikimedia.
Paramount Pictures, via Wikimedia.

As I mentioned previously, the original Star Trek explores some classic themes in political violence. One of consistent story arcs is a Cold War analogy as the series premiered in the shadow of this conflict. From war to ethnic conflict, Star Trek often provided thought experiments beyond superpower conflict about why violence happens and how we have the power to contain it. Dan Nexon and Patrick Jackson can offer more erudite Star Trek insights, but we all agree in its value.[4] In short, it would be worth some binge watching in case you need an idea for your ‘paper’ you need to write.

3. M*A*S*H

20th Century Fox, via TV Land.
20th Century Fox, via TV Land.

Set in the Korean War but actually lasting longer than the war, it was funny, serious, and engaging. My grandfather served in WWII and remained in the military well after the war. Years later, MASH was his favorite show. It reminded him of the camaraderie he felt while serving, and he often teared up while watching. It constantly prompted viewers to consider the humanity of all participants involved and some of the reasons for and absurdity of why people fight.

So what am I missing? What are your suggestions? Jay Ulfelder, my favorite blogger, mentioned Deadwood in one of his posts recently. I have willfully ignored this as I have another little paper or two to write. My sister claims Walking Dead is worthy, but I am not a zombie fan (although she claims that zombies aren’t really the main point).

[1] I say this as someone who doesn’t watch a ton of TV and yet does not leave my house often, so do with this conflicting set of information as you will.

[2] This is at least what you can tell yourself to justify a 14-hour binge watching session.

[3] The classic, Bobo doll experiment, shows some of earliest work supporting the notion that consuming violence can have negative effects on children.

[4] The folks at Grand Blog Tarkin do this for a living!  Although it is more about Star Wars than Star Trek, a subtle distinction my wife cannot or will not digest.

  1. If you’re going to do Star Trek, I would personally suggest the much later DS9, which focused on great power politics, the scars of warfare, the ease of which good people can move towards authoritarian thought and how far the heroes will be pushed to go in the face of unstoppable disaster.

    After that, Game of Thrones, but only if you can endure the rampant sex scenes and disturbingly present violence against women (I am aware that a good deal of it was in the books, several of the more gruesome deaths were not). It impressively shows family-centered elite politics, the problems built up in monarchies without conflict-resolving mechanisms (something very true across the world today) and even has a nice description of the nature of power courtesy of spymaster Varys. True, the books does more since they have far more space to explore this than a 45 minute show does, but the show does a good job nonetheless.

    If you want something your children (perhaps ten or so) can watch, the cartoons Avatar: The Last Airbender and spinoff The Legend of Korra* look at imperialism, war, sectarian violence and even carefully touches on genocide.

    *Without the Avatar name because apparently James Cameron or a lawyer attached to a studio is a jerk who threatens frivolous lawsuits over names.

    1. DS9 is fantastic, despite a slow beginning and some individual clunky episodes. For some reason it’s the only Star Trek series I’ve been able to get into, despite being a science fiction fanatic.

    2. Thanks for comment, Grant. I went back and forth on Game of Thrones. On one hand, the realist in me loves it. On the other, it has lots of gratuitous violence and nudity. Several good suggestions.

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