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Blood, Guts and Gory: Tim Goodman on the Rise of Gross TV

Beheadings, surgeries and flesh-eaters abound as shows from 'The Walking Dead' to 'Outlander' now compete to make viewers cover their eyes in disgust

The Rise of Gross TV - H 2014
HBO/NBC/AMC

This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

There's a lot I love about NBC's Hannibal — the incredible cinematography, the bold storytelling, the Grand Guignol approach. But there's also something that I really don't like: Watching it.

While I appreciate some of the boundary-smashing going on in Bryan Fuller's gem about Hannibal Lecter, it's a show I've tried many times to watch but ultimately can't, because it's too gross.

And that's a piece of the puzzle that can't be dismissed. What if a show does everything well but is ultimately too disturbing to actually enjoy? With the current embarrassment of TV riches, whether a show is enjoyable is often the deciding factor in the choice to watch or not to watch. And, as I check my swollen DVRs (yes, plural), what I see are a number of fantastic shows, several of which indulge in grossness, begging for my free time. Are they enjoyable enough for me to watch?

In the case of AMC's The Walking Dead, the answer is yes. It's the grossest show on TV, but I watch immediately. Live. As it airs (cue miracle music). Because The Walking Dead is incredibly compelling. Despite the fact that there are an alarming number of beheadings. Despite the fact that the flesh-starved "walkers" are disgusting, and zombie brains and soft­ening skulls are often splattered across my screen. I'm grossed out enough to flinch but not to miss an episode. Maybe my willingness to endure The Walking Dead comes from the fact that zombies aren't real. So on some level, I can justify the gore.

Grossness is not a new phenomenon on television. Showtime's Dexter sliced and diced bodies for eight seasons. Forensic shows on broadcast, especially CSI and its clones, are uncommonly gross, and Fox's The Following has a slasherific awfulness (only in America is it OK to see someone's severed body part in primetime, but not her nipple).

Yet a spate of cable series, which could spend their time sexing it up, seem keen on pursuing the gross factor. HBO's Game of Thrones isn't shy about chopping off hands or putting heads on spikes. And red will the rivers of blood run at weddings if that serves the show's warring clans.

But perhaps the grossest thing on TV these days is not a decaying zombie face but a human one on the operating table in Cinemax's new Steven Soderbergh drama, The Knick. The show stars Clive Owen as a New York doctor in 1900 who has — like most medical practitioners of the era — an astonishingly bad record of keeping patients alive, but he is seen as a hero for his willingness to try bold new methods of treatment. There seems to be no end to people on The Knick reaching inside bodies they've just cut open to see what they can grab; it's a brave new world in clamping, draining and scalpel-wielding. Owen's character treats a woman whose syphilis has completely eaten away her nose, and another doctor manually stuffs a man's hernia back where it belongs.

The Knick might not be "enjoyable" per se, but it intrigues by taking a premise we haven't seen much of — medicine in 1900 — and wrapping solid characters and storylines around it. The grossness is essentially something you have to endure to get to the better stuff. Furthermore, the series would be duly knocked if it shied away from honestly portraying the medical chaos of a burgeoning nation. It's well worth watching, even through fingers splayed on a dismayed face.

Another new show, Starz's Outlander, also crams in its fair share of gore within the first six episodes: At least one body part is sawed off, and in one almost surreally repulsive scene, a man receives 100 lashes just a day after a first 100 lashes were administered. Blood sprays everywhere, and there are close-ups of bits of flesh barely hanging on to his back. But the show also is just too slow, despite its interesting concept and strong presentation. In other words, I probably won't continue watching, and not just because of the grossness.

Boundaries need to be pushed in such a crowded landscape. But violence and decay can't make or break a series; wince-inducing shock can't be the selling point. With so much competition, the rush to outgross the grossest can't possibly last. Nor should it.