Common Sense Violence
Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Apple TV+ series Foundation, as well as some graphic depictions of violence, both real and fictionalized.
My wife and I started watching the new Apple TV+ sci-fi series Foundation last weekend. The trailer for the show promised exciting visuals and an intriguing plot. The review from the site Common Sense Media was mostly very positive. The write-up on the show focused quite a bit on the show’s diverse cast and little on the violence. The quick summary on the site encapsulates their review well: “Cerebral sci-fi drama has diversity, some violence.” Representation is important, but I’m ashamed that we’ve become so saturated in violence that we consider the level this show contains barely worth mentioning.
In the universe of Foundation, a powerful empire rules over many planets. In a scene from episode two, we are shown how the empire responds to acts of terrorism. They find scapegoats for the act and target vengeance upon token individuals from the scapegoated populations in a town square setting. The indviduals are masked and made to stand on the edge of a building rooftop with a neuse tied around their necks. Each faceless character was kicked off of a roof to hang by their surely broken necks. The show wasn’t shy about stretching this out, showing each individual being kicked off one a time and their dead body twisting in the wind. It was reminiscent of what Saddam Hussein used to do with people that he wanted to eliminate. While this was happening, weapons of mass destruction were being deployed on the entire populace of two planets, while their ambassadors wailed and screamed at the fate of their fellow citizens back home. During the incredibly visceral ordeal, crowds, shown on the balconies of their spartan apartments, cheered in triumph. What made the scene even worse for the viewer was knowing that the people being punished were not guilty of any wrongdoing, but were simply the targets in an exercise of force. They were victims of an act of genocide for show. When the show was over, a traumatized boy is brought over to the hanging dead bodies. He asks if they ever handle these situations differently and is told no.
Violence in television and movies has become so mainstream that even sites specifically created to surface it aren’t up to the job.
In the same episode, we see one of the protagonists brutally stabbed to death by his protege, his life blood oozing across the floor. The murder is done with no context, and is shocking. The frantic scene that follows gives no more information on why the murder happened. The viewer is left, potentially emotionally damaged, all in the service of trying to squeeze a cliffhanger in to draw people into the next episode. It’s crass and manipulative.
When I was in the eleventh grade, I lived in Albuquerque, NM, which was, at the time, second in the nation in gang activity. It could be a rough place and in high school, you learned to keep your head low (literally, lest someone you looked in the eyes think you were mad dogging them). The high school I went to was the same high school that Neil Patrick Harris attended, though he was two years ahead of me and graduated the year before I was there. That same year, a boy from the school was killed in the parking lot because he had allegedly said something bad about his murderer. I only heard stories, but I’m sure Harris remembers the incident, which would have happened when he was a senior. The part that disturbed me most about the stories that I heard was that a crowd had gathered around the conflict and were chanting, “kill him.” I can never get that out of my mind. The bloodlust of the crowd depicted in Foundation brought back for me the ugly reality of human nature.
When sense is no longer common
This show and its evaluation on the Common Sense Media site shows that I can no longer rely on that site for giving reliable information with which to judge whether a show is too violent (for me, or my kids). Violence in television and movies has become so mainstream that even sites specifically created to surface it aren’t up to the job. It’s frightening what that says about us.