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2010 obsessions: Zombies, vampires and more brought TV gore

By Henry Hanks, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Walking Dead," "True Blood," "Dexter" part of TV's bloody good year
  • Do audiences demand more bloodbaths? Blogger says yes, for certain shows
  • Critic: trend isn't new, but it's a step in a "slow process"
  • "Boardwalk Empire" continued violent "Sopranos" tradition
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(CNN) -- The instant popularity of AMC's "The Walking Dead" this year has brought new attention to a growing trend on television: Scenes that would usually be reserved for some of the most violent horror movies are popping up more and more in prime time.

"I don't think it's a sudden new thing," Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik said. "It's more of a step in a slow process."

Poniewozik says that the gore we've been seeing in the last few years is different from the kind we saw with the advent of shows like CBS's "CSI" (with its slo-mo, CGI depictions of bullets slicing into bodies), Fox's "House" (which finds new ways each week to show just how diseased a body can get) and CBS's "Criminal Minds."

"When people stab a vampire and they turn into a pile of Jell-O, there is a level of unreality to it," he said. "With these 'genre' shows becoming more popular, the gore is distant from the real world, making it safe in a way. What's more violent? A vampire being staked, or a 'Sopranos' killing several years ago?"

Poniewozik sees some of the horror shows that revel in gore as trying to establish credibility with hard-core fans. "The Foley [sound] effects on 'The Walking Dead' are amazingly over the top," he said. "[They're saying] we're real, we'll go there, this is not sanitized for TV. This is the real deal."

So have audiences been more willing to embrace blood and guts on TV? "I think that they insist on it at this point," said Ronnie Karam of the blog TVgasm.com. "Last year, you had 'Dexter's' wife's body in the bath tub, and the baby in a pool of blood. This season's finale didn't end with his girlfriend horribly murdered at the end, and people are mad! They've embraced it to an uncomfortable point."

Karam clearly isn't a fan of some of the bloodier shows out there, like "True Blood." "Mixing the sex and violence, it gets really freaky," Karam said. "[Sookie Stackhouse] has got blood all over her, and she's making out with her boyfriend with blood in her mouth, and we're at home saying, 'aww, that's so sweet!' "

"True Blood" had its third season this year, so its fans were used to its extremes. But many of them weren't ready for the episode in which Bill and the villainous Lorena engaged in what has been called "the most twisted sex scene of all time."

At one point, Bill twists Lorena's head in the complete opposite direction, and some commenters on CNN.com said it gave them the heebie-jeebies.

Said CNN commenter JC, "This season is too graphic with the bloody stumps, mouths, etc. It has gone past sensual to sick and twisted."

At the same time, to Karam's point, other commenters embraced it as over-the-top cheesiness. In fact, commenter RS piped in with "All I could think of was 'Why didn't he just continue to twist her head around until he ripped it off?' "

If you can't stomach "True Blood," and think that "The Vampire Diaries" is a "safe" vampire show -- say, compared with the relatively bloodless "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" of years past -- think again.

A major plot point in the show has been the rings that some vampires wear for protection, and so this past season ended with a man's fingers brutally chopped off before he's stabbed in the stomach.

"We remember that scene, but can you remember the quotes from it?" said Keith McDuffee, blogger for CliqueClack.com and a casual viewer of "The Vampire Diaries." That scene from the finale made him sit up and take notice.

"Those kinds of scenes are memorable because they're shocking." McDuffee also wonders if it isn't a reflection on the U.S., where violence is more acceptable on broadcast networks, whereas other countries are more accepting of nudity.

On another broadcast network, Fox (up until recently, anyway) has dedicated Thursday nights to "Bones" and "Fringe," two shows following in the footsteps of the CBS procedurals, where decaying bodies --- and worse --- are a regular occurrence.

This past year featured some literally stolen hearts, a body sent through dimensions (in pieces) and human remains found in a giant chocolate bar. Back on HBO, "Boardwalk Empire" is keeping the mob violence alive in the "Sopranos" tradition.

McDuffee recalls a scene in which a prostitute's face was sliced into. "I remember cringing -- I couldn't even move. It was just so graphic," he said. "Later they show her, and there was this giant scar."

Karam thinks that the DVR might have something to do with this acceptance of the icky. (Many of these genre shows traditionally have their first airings late on Sunday night.) " 'Dexter' had dead girls in a barrel all season. It's hard to eat a plate of spaghetti while you watch that," he said. Now, you can watch Food Network while you're eating and turn on some 'Dexter' later."

Despite what could easily be seen as writers finding excuses to throw in one gross-out after another, most of these shows enjoy some level of critical support. "You can see 100 zombies get pick-axed in the head and it's gross, but that in itself is not as disturbing," Poniewozik said of "The Walking Dead," which was nominated for a Golden Globe award for best television series drama this week, along with "Dexter."

"What's distinctive is not the gore, but the way in which it sort of directly deals with the psychological idea of what it would be to live through the end of the world. So to me, the scariest, most disturbing aspects seem to be the less directly gory."

And for those who might not remember, last year, Anna Paquin took home a Golden Globe for "True Blood," while the series itself received the same nomination as "The Walking Dead." This year? Nothing. When it comes to awards, at least, there may be only so much gore that voters can take.