Animal Abuse on the Rise in Series Television

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I’m so glad that Gus, the dog from Saving Grace survived the first half-season. Gus, for those who haven’t been following TNT’s searing adult drama (and shame on you if you haven’t, because it is one of the most fascinating and compelling scripted series on television), is the beloved pet bulldog of the title character, Oklahoma City police detective Grace Hanadarko (played with blistering grit and intensity by Holly Hunter).

I’ve been worried about Gus from the start, because Grace leads such a dangerous, out-there life on the job and in her modest home. Many evenings, after a harrowing day on the streets and few drinks at the bar with her buddies, gun-toting Grace ends up passed out on her bed, her couch or her floor, the result of too much alcohol, prolonged paint-peeling sex or a combination of the two. As tough as she is, Grace is also one of the most vulnerable characters on television today: We learned in last night’s mid-season finale that when she was a younger woman she got blind-drunk in a bar, picked up a guy and brought him home for sex. Before the night was through the creep grabbed a knife, cut her right shoulder and left her to suffer. It took her eleven years, but in last night’s episode she finally caught him. (Hunter will be an Emmy frontrunner next year for this episode.)

Because bad things happen to Grace, I fear that, sooner or later, something terrible will happen to Gus, too. I almost freaked during the episode on September 10th when Grace returned to her house one night, realized a stranger had been inside (and might still be there) and could not find Gus. It turned out that a killer had indeed invaded her space, simply to provoke her. Gus was just hanging out under the bed. (Brave Gus doesn’t appear to be the kind of dog that would cower when threatened.)

My concerns about Gus are especially acute right now because animal abuse is on the rise in series television. (Yes, I know that animals aren’t really harmed in the filming of movies and television programs, but that doesn’t detract from my disgust with this growing trend.) The compelling FX series Damages started on a sour note this summer when we learned at the end of the pilot that Patty Hewes, the driven superstar attorney played to perfection by Glenn Close, arranged to have another character’s pet pooch slaughtered to advance her own agenda. I was horrified by this, as would be any caring person, but I was also disheartened, because Patty is in many ways a role model for women. She’s a strong, formidable female who has reached the top and maintains her position against powerful male competition. But she had a dog killed, and because of that, it will not bother me if she suffers one professional and personal loss after another. The bitch is dead to me.

Similarly, I lost all interest in and compassion for that rat-bastard Dutch on the FX cop drama The Shield three seasons back, when the depressed detective satisfied his growing curiosity about what it would be like to take a life by luring a trusting stray cat into his arms and choking the life out of it. I have despised Dutch ever since, even though he felt bad about what he had done and later adopted two kittens.

Because she took a shotgun to her neighbor’s pet pigeons at the end of last week’s episode, I’m no longer fond of Betty, the increasingly desperate wife of advertising hotshot Don Draper on AMC’s insanely cool period drama Mad Men, either. Better she had taken a few shots at the neighbor himself, since the son of a bitch had earlier threatened the Drapers’ dog. (Now that would be a narrative jolt nobody saw coming.) She wouldn’t have to hit him, just scare the #&*% out of him. Why take it out on the birds?

I’m cutting Betty some slack, because I don’t think she successfully shot any of the birds. (In fact, I think she may have been shooting a less-dangerous BB gun.) But she’s on my radar.

There’s more. Dogs suffer in the opening episode of two critically praised new fall series, though not to the extent of the poor pooch in Damages. I am personally acquainted with people who lost interest in The CW’s Reaper after a scene in which the obnoxious best friend of the demon-hunting main character slams a car door into the head of a barking dog. The dog is barking only because it senses that something (or someone) isn’t right. Disturbingly, this scene is meant to be amusing. I am sorry to report that the slam, and the dog’s subsequent yelp of pain, generated big laughs when it was screened for advertisers last May at The CW’s upfront presentation and for journalists last July at the Television Critics Association tour. (What does it say about modern media when grown men and women of considerable influence find animal abuse funny?)

A dog also meets a violent end in the opening moments of ABC’s fanciful new comedy-drama Pushing Daisies that could work against this terrific series, the best of the twenty-six shows debuting on the five broadcast networks this fall. On the upside, this is not a scene of animal abuse: The dog runs in front of a truck and meets a quick end while the boy who owns him watches in horror, but the boy, we then learn, has the ability to bring dead creatures (including humans) back to life simply by touching them. So the story of this dog’s death actually has a happy ending (and he remains an ongoing character on the show). But people may instantly change the channel after the upsetting opening moments, and if they do, the show will suffer in the ratings (while those distressed viewers will be missing out on the biggest treat of the new season).

Please, don’t send me e-mails asking why I’m complaining about violence against animals on television rather than violence against men, women, and children. I am not in favor of violence against men, women, and children. Ratings for crime series indicate that the audience likes nothing better than to see humans suffer and die in the interest of story development, and the grislier and more creative their deaths, the better. (Just as an example, think about some of the atrocities you have enjoyed over the years on the CSI shows.)

The point is, the overwhelming majority of people who watch violence against humans on television (and in movies and videogames) don’t go out and commit acts of violence against men and women they meet on the streets. But I fear that the desensitizing of the television audience to pain and suffering directed towards animals could lead to a real-life increase in animal abuse. Granted, that’s the worst-case scenario. Regardless, it is unnecessary and unacceptable.

By Ed Martin

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