The screenwriter Sir David Hare has vowed to bring Hitchcock-style tension back to our screens, accusing modern TV and film of being too quick to kill off characters and ruin any dramatic tension. Writing in the Guardian, Anne Perkins has taken to his idea and says dramas such as Midsomer Murders are killing off so many characters that death has become unrealistic and almost laughable. The question is whether or not we have become too desensitized to death, with international dramas like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead not hesitating to brutally slay major characters on a regular basis.
With regard to Midsomer Murders, Hare does have a point. The sheer number of people who have met a grisly end in the county of Midsomer is frankly ridiculous, and viewers now know from the moment they switch on that someone will have a chalk outline in the next five minutes. This is true of all crime dramas. Longstanding programs like Poirot, Marple, and Law and Order always feature death within the first few scenes, but the focus of each series is for the detectives (and sometimes the viewers) to solve the crime. A murder obviously has to occur at some point in the episode.
These dramas never pretend to be masters of tension in that regard; it is much more fun trying to figure out who the victim will be and then trying to identify the criminal. Unlike films or weekly soaps which have the luxury of a multi-episode season and developing storylines, Midsomer Murders usually has 90 minutes at most to introduce a set of characters, kill one, work out a motive, and neatly solve the crime by the end. To wrap up the entire investigation into a short space of time, the bodies must pile up quickly.
David Hare also has missed the point of other TV shows such as Game of Thrones and the Walking Dead. He claims to be angered by the amount of “unrealistic” violence he sees in films and television today. However, if used correctly, violence and death can be a highly effective tool for shocking audiences. As viewers of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead will know, some of their greatest moments come from the terror of witnessing a once major character being pitilessly removed from the picture. This heightens the tension in later episodes, not just because a killer is on the loose, but also because nobody is safe. They could be integral to the plot in one episode and gone the next.
Although some characters are quietly introduced and killed straight away, this does not ruin all tension as Hare suggests. If anything, it’s a supplement. The commonness of death in certain shows makes them difficult viewing at times, but the thought that your favourite character can be killed in the next hour creates a great deal of anxiety. True, certain film series can suffer from what Hare describes. The James Bond franchise, for instance, has followed the same formula for years and every viewer knows for a fact that Bond cannot die. However, the latest Bond film, Skyfall, did change the formula in one key regard: namely that it featured the death of a main character. This twist in the plot was unexpected in a Bond film but ramped up the level of danger that the viewer felt. This idea is something seen in the Hitchcock films as well, most famously in the infamous shower curtain scene of “Psycho”, when the killing of the main character left the rest of the film with an unpredictable vibe.
Hare is correct in that the use of dead bodies in television and film has increased in the last few years. However, this is only because of the impact it can have on a viewer. The killing of a main character (and, if done well, a minor one) in a film or TV show keeps us on the edge of our seat and proves that it is impossible, or at least very difficult, to simply guess what is going to happen next – surely a good thing and reminiscent of the Hitchcock style that Hare is so keen to get back.