What’s With All the Exploding Heads on TV?
It’s enough to make your head explode
A head goes BOOM!
If, like me, you’re currently watching two of the more popular streaming TV shows rolling out right now, HBO’s racial horror fantasy, Lovecraft Country, or the second season of Amazon’s superhero deconstructive, The Boys, you’ve seen it. Sometimes multiple times in a single episode.
Heads, human heads, the kind that usually rest undisturbed upon a person’s shoulders, go KABLOOEY in a shower of brain matter splattering on nearby walls and bystanders, a spectacle of partially practical effects with some CGI to juice it up.
It’s gotten to where every single week, without exception, highly visceral head injuries (by which I mean, with lots of viscera) are on the menu for these entertaining, buzzed-about peak-TV series. Sometimes heads explode from the sheer psychic power of a nearby malevolent force, but the gore imagineers have not limited themselves to just popping skulls. We’ve also witnessed, just with these two shows, crushed heads, heads bashed in with weapons or fists, heads where someone scraps the face right off like wallpaper, heads sliced off, heads melted with acid… on Lovecraft a few weeks ago, a head came out of another head like a cicada sloughing off old skin. It happened more than once on the same episode.
Such disrespect for noggins is not new, not even for the So Much TV era. Six years ago, I wrote for Rolling Stone about the trend of very popular, mainstream shows like The Walking Dead indulging in the kind of gore that rising budgets and more eyeballs (the viewing kind, not the popping out of skulls kind) afforded genre shows. But Walking Dead has always been unabashedly a horror series with some Important TV Drama pretensions, not the other way around.
The filmmaker Guillermo del Toro told me at the time, as he was working on the FX series The Strain, that the use special-effects gore was sometimes a matter of using the TV show’s budget to show off a bit. “We’re trying to push the look of the series to look far more expensive than it is,” he said. “We now have cutting-edge makeup effects, cutting-edge digital effects. We couldn’t have done it 10 years ago.”
But the willingness to bash us over the head, so to speak, with continual head trauma doesn’t just happen on series where you know what you’re going to get. The new Netflix thriller Ratched, based on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is more Ryan Murphy than Miloš Forman in one clear way: grossness. Bashed-in heads, naturally, but also severed limbs and lobotomies aplenty.
Murphy knows that after shows like Hannibal, indulging in blood and guts on TV won’t lose you cachet with critics. One of TV’s most respected series ever, The Sopranos, was not above letting an SUV roll over Phil Leotardo’s head, popping it like a grape.
The Boys and Lovecraft Country are, respectively, a wild and over-the-top action soap opera, and a chronicle of historically racist sins against African-Americans as told through a series of fantasy and horror subgenres. They are fun to watch, but are also quite serious in their willingness to tackle the current state of America’s fucked-up politics and our inability to bridge racial chasms.
How disappointing, then, that these otherwise thoughtful, dynamic, and subversively serious shows are employing the exploding-head gag/trick so often that it is losing its effectiveness? In the first episode of The Boys’s Season Two, it happens to a real character, not a just-introduced, unlucky rando within a crowd. The shock of this out-of-nowhere development lasts only a few seconds before the other characters are running for their lives and the plot moves on. But by mid-season, The Boys has begun to lose its ability to match that kind of moment because it seems to happen every week, whether it’s Homelander attacking a homeless guy or Kimiko skinning a man’s face with her bare hands.
Lovecraft is gross and scary every week, but may have already peaked with extreme effects on “Strange Case,” which took full-body horror to places we’ve never seen on television before as characters emerged like butterflies from ripped-open human carcasses.
Gore itself doesn’t seem out of place to me on these television shows; they are part of the makeup of two violent and unpredictable landscapes being portrayed. But the pace of it, the unrelenting need to make a destructively perverse moment, usually by annihilating someone’s head, week after week… This begins to feel like a failure of imagination on the creator side and a lack of trust that the audience to bring its own to the viewing.
Or maybe it’s just time for a peak TV reboot of “Scanners,” the 1981 movie that pioneered the art of the exploding human head.