AMC’s "#The Walking Dead" began its seventh season last Sunday with an uncommonly violent episode that resolved a cliffhanger from last spring’s finale. The episode entailed the violent deaths of two longtime characters, as well as a disturbing sequence in which villain Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) threatened to cut off the arm of Carl (Chandler Riggs) in front of his father Rick (Andrew Lincoln.)
The series, which delivered the show’s typical boffo ratings (over 20 million viewers), also drew condemnations from several top TV critics. In New York magazine, Matt Zoller Seitz assailed the show’s “empty violence.” Vox’s Todd Van Der Werff called it “terminally stupid television” and “pointless, sadistic and dumb.” The AV Club’s Zack Handlen called the episode “a new low.”
I didn’t like the episode either -- it was the show exhibiting most of its worst tendencies, and turning itself into a torture porn movie for 70 minutes. Other writers vowed to never watch the series again. But at least none of them called for federal government to stop "The Walking Dead" from being broadcast. Except for one.
“I called the FCC”
Rochelle Riley, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, was among those who declared that she was “done” with the series following the premiere episode. But in her column, published Sunday, she went even further -- asking incredulously why the #FCC “allowed” such a violent TV episode to air on cable television. Disgusted by the episode, Riley called the FCC -- only to be informed, to her disgust, that the government agency has no jurisdiction over cable TV, and therefore couldn’t touch "The Walking Dead." She calls for “ forcing Congress to re-examine decency rules for what should and shouldn't be allowed.”
The column is wrongheaded in numerous ways, from a journalist calling for government censorship, to unfamiliarity with the various FCC/network battles from the last 30 years, to her line that “the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), for the most part, still operates like it’s 1934,” apparently unaware that in the days of the Hollywood Production Code, starting in the 1930s, things were way, way more censorious. Or the implication that AMC didn’t air a content warning before or during the episode -- it certainly did. Or that she can’t simply react to a show that disgusts her by turning off the TV.
The FCC vs. “Indecency”
There is not, thankfully, any current plan by the FCC or any other government body to block broadcast of "The Walking Dead" or any other TV series. But it is true that in the past, especially during Republican presidential administrations, government regulation of “decency” on television has certainly been on the table. Sure, it’s often taken the form of fines against singers who let f-bombs slip during televised awards shows. But a return to the days of Ed Meese is a real possibility -- even if the Republican presidential candidate has himself produced dozens of hours of trashy TV in his own right.
Of all the fights in the last few years about political correctness and what is and isn’t offensive, it’s been rare for someone to openly call for government censorship of a TV show, but Rochelle Riley has managed it. If you don’t like "The Walking Dead," I suggest turning it off, or canceling it from your DVR. Calling for the federal government to act is the worst solution imaginable.