A Moment of Silence, Hollywood Style


 As a culture, we’re pretty big on moments of silence. We’re not very good at being quiet, mind you, but we very much like to honor things/people/events with a moment of thought/prayer/silence. From tragedies to triumphs to transitions, these little moments become cairns along the way, reminding us of where we’ve been and where we want to go.

So it’s not all that strange that such an impulse might ooze its way even into Hollywood’s heart. And one of the ways it does so is in the way we sometimes see TV shows and movies preempted or delayed right after a national cataclysm.

Recent examples revolve around the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings and the Boston bombings. Immediately following the massacre in Connecticut, as we relayed in our Culture Clips at the time, cable channel Syfy replaced an episode of the show Haven because it depicted scenes of violence in a high school, and Paramount Pictures postponed the Pittsburgh red-carpet premier of Tom Cruise’s new movie Jack Reacher. (Among other bits of fallout.) After the terrorism perpetrated upon Boston, NBC’s Hannibal replaced a problematic episode as well. Executive producer Bryan Fuller said of his decision, “I didn’t want to have anyone come to the show and have a negative experience.”

Well, that raised some serious questions for not just me, but Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen too. He wrote:

The example of Hannibal is worth further reflection because it reveals some interesting things about this business of being “sensitive,” or rather, not being “insensitive.” The move made me reasonably curious… and piqued my interest in a way that makes me ashamed. Just how relevant to the times was the pulled episode? How much more lurid could Hannibal be? Now I must know. Let me see! That line of thinking is certainly flattering to a show like Hannibal, which also got TV pundits talking last week by losing nearly 20% of its audience from week two in the overnight ratings. … So we could be cynical and suspicious, too. Why announce the move? And why not just bench Hannibal altogether for a week? Couldn’t we all use a little breather from dreadful drama about man’s inhumanity toward man? And while we’re going down this wormhole: What’s the expiration date on “sensitivity”? When is it okay to go back to being “insensitive”? The more you noodle this over, the more meaningless this seemingly thoughtful gesture becomes.

Noodle, indeed. Then, a few weeks later, I ran across this, from Mike Roorda, who was writing for Pajiba (republished by salon.com):

Either the content of your show should be acceptable for viewing, or it isn’t. Proximity to actual violence shouldn’t matter. Why is it OK to make entertainment out of violent acts and gore normally, but then the same is somehow inappropriate following real life examples that hit close to home? Shows like CSI and Law & Order regularly dive into the deep end of the horror pool and reliably contain imagery of violent acts rendered in glorious HD. Criminal Minds is a poor man’s primer for the many deviant ways you can snuff out a life. Yet, when confronted with the reality of similar actions in a way that touches us personally, the artificial depictions make us uncomfortable and uneasy. If such content isn’t acceptable viewing material during the moments following a crisis, should it be a part of our regular entertainment diet at all?

I guess I’m done thinking about this sooner than I thought I would be. Moments of silence are good. Great even. Artificially delaying one bit of hideous entertainment in the name of deference and sympathy, only to push that same piece out into the public space a few days or weeks later is just plain lame. And damaging.

Who wrote this?

Steven Isaac has served as editor for Plugged In’s NRB- and EPA-award-winning website for more than a decade, orchestrating, managing, scheduling, shaping and tweaking at least 750 reviews and articles annually. He’s a husband and a father of a teenager.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

syd collings More than 1 year ago


You're right about the ''too soon'' tropes on TV. I think network show showrunners are concerned about coming off as insensitive in the face of real world violence.

I've seen some episodes of Hannibal and obviously NBC was being cautious to avoid bad press. It's ultimately about money like you said. However, I think it's a good thing that they're showing that sensitivity regardless of the show's content.

Alex Clark More than 1 year ago

Actually, what I think it says about the movie and TV people is that they just want to make money.  They worry that it probably wouldn't be good for business to release an "insensitive" movie or episode of a show at a time when they perceive people won't be in the mood to watch it.  But once time has past, people will be in the mood again.

I don't know, this kind of thing seems like its a generally excepted principle, its "inappropriate" to talk about tragic events or do anything that would remind people of them after they have happened, but once some time has passed, its ok again.  Its the whole basis of the "too soon"  trope at TVtropes.  Maybe what we should really ask is "why do we become more relaxed about things as time passes".  if it was "too soon" to make a movie about 9/11 right after it happened, should it always be "too soon"?  

Charity Bishop More than 1 year ago

I think them pulling an episode of “Hannibal” is stupid, considering every episode is just as violent and disgusting as every other episode. I found the one they replaced the episode with (in which angel wings are carved out of human torsos) more disturbing than the episode itself (about a woman kidnapping children and turning them homicidal against their parents). It does beg the question, would anyone have cared? I doubt it. What does a crime show have to do with Boston bombers, if there’s no bomb plot involved?

This is a case of networks revealing their secret anxiety about what they put out there for public consumption. It actually says more about them than the public.