So I’m not going to lie; the only reason I started watching BBC’s Ripper Street was because of Jerome Flynn who is probably best known for playing Bronn in HBO’s Game of Thrones series. I enjoyed his character in the American series so I was curious to see how he fared in a different role. His character, Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake, couldn’t really be any further from Bronn, which is nice. It shows Flynn off as a well rounded actor. Bronn is immoral and quick witted, whereas Drake is stiff and more easily repulsed. And there’s a lot to be repulsed about on this show. Within the first three episodes, prostitutes have been murdered, children have been used to kill and in the third, a cholera-like disease was used to poison numerous victims.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that some viewers have been complaining that the show is too violent and overtly sexual. True to that, another character, an American army surgeon by the name of Captain Homer Jackson, played by Adam Rothenberg, lives in a brothel and is a friend to the madam. In the aforementioned cholera episode, The King Came Calling, their investigation leads them to a club for transvestites and homosexuality.
Unfortunately, the show is called Ripper Street. The action is set in or around Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper famously went on his killing spree. Ripper Street is set six months later but very little has really changed. There are still slums and orphan children and there are still prostitutes, as there would have been in 1889. The show itself plays out like Sherlock Holmes with Matthew MacFadyen playing the lead; Detective Inspector Edmund Reid. Reid is nowhere near as brilliant as Holmes and the cases to be found here are certainly more gruesome than you might find in Steven Moffat’s Sherlock. However, the gruesomeness of Whitechapel is surely part of the appeal of the show. To set a detective series in that area and then play it safe and tame would feel rather empty.
It’s not as though Ripper Street is aired on daytime television. This is a show that airs at 9 O’clock on a Sunday night. There shouldn’t be any young children awake that time to see the horrors of Whitechapel and if parents have older children that they don’t want to watch this kind of thing then the parents will need to take an active role in stopping them. Ripper Street is attempting to tell a story and it would be a rather sad event for it to get cancelled for being too violent or sexual when those elements are necessary for the depiction of Whitechapel. Thankfully, it has already been commissioned for a second season. Part of the problem really is that the BBC relies on the viewers who pay their television fee because they don’t show advertisements, so they tend to have a greater responsibility to what the viewers desires. That said, we live in the era of freeview where most people have tens of channels at their fingertips. If you don’t want to watch Ripper Street, use the remote.
Ripper Street isn’t the only show getting complaints for being too violent, although The Following got such criticisms before the first episode had even aired. But now that episodes have aired, we can clearly see that it’s not a simple case of being too violent. In part, the violence is justified. This is a television show about a serial killer. It needs bloodshed. A serial killer show without gore is like having Breaking Bad but never showing Walter White cooking meth. It’s a necessary component of the show in the same way that a victim is in Ripper Street.
What is more telling than the depiction of violence is the reaction of the characters within the show to the violence. In Ripper Street Drake and Reid are both repulsed by what they see whilst only the surgeon is desensitised to the brutal treatment of the victims. That makes sense considering that he’s both a doctor and in the army so he’s bound to have seen things that most normal detectives couldn’t even dream of. This is contrasted with Reid, who visibly recoils when he sees some of the victims, and Drake, who is shocked when he sees a man electrocuted on a railway line. But it’s The Following that seems to show this better than anything else.
Kevin Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a retired FBI agent with a pacemaker, known for having caught Joe Carroll, played by James Purefoy, a serial killer who worships Edgar Allan Poe and kills his victims by stabbing them and cutting out their eyes. When he escapes from death row to finish his last work, Hardy is called back in to consult and help capture the man. But his escape and subsequent attack on his final victim, played by Maggie Grace, are anything but clean. Within minutes of the opening of the show, the good guys stumble into a room of slaughtered prison guards and during their search to find Carroll, they search a man’s house and find a German Shepherd, cut and bloody, with its eyes gouged out, just like Carroll’s victims.
Those are pretty horrendous depictions, although in all fairness you’re likely to see this kind of gore on cable television any day of the week. Again, however, it goes back to how the characters react to the bloodshed and it’s anything but indifferent. Hardy, who has been studying and stalking Carroll, is still noticeably disgusted by the room of dead guards and another character mentions taking the death of an animal seriously because he himself owns a dog. While the show is violent and bloody, and necessarily so, it also goes out of its way to show the viewer the effects of that violence on others.
It’s rather closed minded to write shows such as Ripper Street and The Following off as ‘too violent’ or complain that the bloody effects offend the senses. It is death at its most visceral and it should offend you but it’s clear that the characters in the shows are also offended. By watching and paying attention, it’s obvious that these characters would rather not have to deal with the intense bloodshed, but it has to be dealt with to prevent further victims. And they can’t just relay the information back because the viewer then misses out on that intensity. If the character is repulsed by something the viewer can’t see then they can’t relate to the character and they might fail to understand the urgency of the mission. Case in point, at one point in the pilot, Hardy flips out and demands that the U.S. Marshall Chief does something. It’s a fairly straightforward scene but what really helps elevate it is the amount of bloodshed and violence we’ve already seen up until that point. We understand why Hardy is flipping out because of the violence.
It’s easy to see bloodshed on television and complain that it’s all for shock value. What’s harder is to take a moment and look at that bloodshed and actually find out where it’s illustrative or education. Looking deeper in to Ripper Street and The Following, that seems to be true of both these shows.