"Negan." That's something Facebook was prompting me with yesterday in one of those daft 'stories you might like' sidebar. These are, in my experience, usually stories I either dislike or have no interest in whatsoever. Frequently, with a weary 'go on, I'll bite' air my interest is sufficiently piqued to take a look. It appeared that, in this case, Facebook was keen for me to watch a video of a pregnant woman getting her head bashed in with a razor-wire baseball bat. What larks.
This is, of course, the latest episode of The Walking Dead, yet another series that skilfully crafts empathetic and relatable characters then does something horrible to them. It's emotional manipulation in the shape of entertainment and I tend to avoid it. From the popular zombie series to Game Of Thrones to Sons Of Anarchy (all programmes people tell me I should watch in a manner that suggests they're not wholly in control of their own brains) I've decided I just can't be bothered investing 400 hours of my time in watching talented British actors killing each other in inventive ways.
I watched the first series of The Walking Dead. It was OK. But The Walking Dead is just relentlessly grim. There's no wit about it, it's just a load of zombie tropes explored much more imaginatively by George Romero. So after one series that was it for me.
You can't exist these days without absorbing some of what Game Of Thrones is about. Tits, goblins and decapitations seem to be about it for me. Every part of it I've ever seen has been Charles Dance looking solemn, a topless woman prancing around a fire or someone getting a limb lopped off. I'll just watch Jewel In The Crown if that's what I'm after.
Someone once told me I'd love Sons Of Anarchy and, because it had Ron Perlman in it, I dipped in and out of it. The bits I remember were various leather-jacketed men cocking guns, the guy from Queer As Folk staring into the distance and someone getting gang-raped. The homo-eroticism of the whole thing - not to mention how unintentionally ridiculous it was - was extraordinary but fundamentally it was unimaginative, grim, gang-warfare trash. I was bemused at how anyone could have imagined I'd like it.
I'm generally bemused by the supposed 'unmissable' nature of these programmes. I'm immune to their supposed delights. They're glossy, expensive things designed to neutralise your mental powers for a few hours and they're not even good as far as I'm concerned. And by and large I can ignore them and leave other people to slowly dissolve into their couches while their brains marinade in a diet of dull Hollywood sex and empty, brutal violence.
Except something that caught my eye today, barely 12 hours after I'd been reading about the resolution of the latest TWD cliffhanger, which involved various people getting their heads stoved in. Apparently fans have been on tenterhooks for six months pondering which of their beloved characters were going to get their brains pulverised. As TV goes it's not exactly 'Who shot JR?' and apparently the naked manipulation this amounts to has led some fans to abandon the show. Still, millions tuned in, it seems to be almost illegal not to watch these shows in 2016.
Anyway, today I looked up and saw this this billboard, showing a dozen or so people kneeling down in front of said baseball bat rather like they were the unwilling stars of an execution video. Which, I gather, they essentially were. The legend "WHO SURVIVES' was emblazoned across it. It was an advert for explicit, hideous violence; an invitation to subject yourself to a traumatic punch to the gut; a vicarious thrill amid the drudgery of modern existence. Scenes I recall from The Walking Dead - and other comparable box-set shows - are pornographic in their loving explorations of sadism, cruelty and terror. In this regard The Walking Dead is an abusive partner, with the willing audience on the receiving end.
An article I read on the subject pointed out that the insane levels of explicit violence that are celebrated in these programmes were once the preserve of video nasties. But the famed X-rated material of the 80s was generally alt cinema: challenging, disruptive, funny, satirical, subversive or wilfully stupid.
The glossy production values, wall-to-wall promotion and top-level casting of The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones are a gateway drug - or a figleaf - for sustained amounts of graphic material to be beamed into our homes via our latest subscription. Increasingly I suspect the sex and violence is the point - the narrative twists, cinematography and high-calibre talent are mere window-dressing. In a world where real horrors are a few clicks away - and the news seems so unremittingly awful - it's perhaps understandable that we seek fictional atrocities.
But as I gazed up at the vast billboard promising an exciting carnival of bloody, visceral gore I felt genuinely unsettled. Is it really so harmless? What makes us seek these things out and, in a world where personal choice is elevated beyond most other considerations, is it wise they're so prevalent? In a world where we advertise such things, actually advertise violence whose very point is that it's gratuitous.
In another atrocity exhibition, JG Ballard explored how the mass media invades and disrupts our minds. His later novels explore people for whom violence, rape and insanity are simply the next natural step for humans stifled and bored by real existence. If one illicit thrill loses its power are we driven to seek another? And what does it do for our capacities for empathy, humanity, if the news reports we see are matched by our leisure choices? Black Mirror is the forum of our age for these concerns, where we fret over what technology will do to our near future. But it's not our near future; it's now.
In our glum, passive reception of gory outrages - designed, let's not forget, to make us watch sponsor messages - are we escaping the real world or finding ways to come to terms with it? Protecting ourselves against it. Perhaps it's not even as noble as that. Maybe we just love violence and these shows are feeding it. Questions of taste, decency and restraint seem quaint suddenly and it's hard to conceive of what would now be considered beyond the pale. I recall one friend on social media suddenly announcing that she'd quit Game Of Thrones after watching a young girl being burned to death. It seemed to be as if she'd had a chilling moment of clarity. The programme had shocked her, but it was the realisation of what the show had done to her; her complicity in the carnivals of casual violence the show had lured her towards.
We're training our minds to receive these images without flinching; to absorb these terrors as everyday. Normalising them. And our on-demand subscriptions are keeping track of what we watch so they can feed us more. Watch violence; get more violence. Advertising, data, media and money in a disturbing confluence - feeding us fictionalised snuff videos. Upping the ante; raising the threshold.
I wonder what these nightly doses of sex and killing can be doing to us. If these box-set TV shows are doing something horrible to our own brains. Will it drive us all mad? And will we know when it has?
Who in their right mind doesn't like Winterwatch (or Springwatch and Autumnwatch), the tri-annual BBC celebration of wildlife, obscure music references and utter filth? The show - presented by Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and the would-have-to-be-invented Martin Hughes-Games - is a glorious showcase for Great Britain and its beautiful countryside.
For an hour a night you can forget all about David Cameron's vile face, ISIS, The Daily Mail, Katie Hopkins and the looming nuclear armageddon and lavish your attention on whether the sedge warbles will fledge, attempts to reintroduce peregrine falcons to the UK and some blurry footage of a pine marten. It's a kind of comfort blanket for the middle classes but, unlike Bake Off and its ilk, at least you're learning something. And, with any luck, you might go and make a hole in your fence and put up some bird-feeders, thereby increasing the sum total of human happiness a few degrees.
But there's another reason to get a giddy thrill from Winterwatch. It's the interplay between the presenters. While Hughes-Games exists as a kind of Last Of The Summer Wine amiable buffoon, Packham and Strachan have formed a straight-faced double act of filth. It has always been there but last night reached some sort of apotheosis when the duo went looking for blackcock.
Twitter went into meltdown and no doubt some dead-eyed journalist at the Sun or Mail will use it to chip another tiny block off the BBC. But in the same way that Radio 4 can broadcast swearwords and sex scenes during the day because they know no-one who's listening is likely to be offended, Winterwatch can pull off the same trick.
As a result virtually every Vine tagged with Winterwatch is dirty. And long may we ruminate on just how much Michaela Strachan loves blackcock.
1. I get Michaela out of bed to show her blackcock in the flesh
2. Sucked off with the power of six-and-a-half tonnes
3. I thoroughly enjoyed my black cock experience
4. Blackcock live first thing in the morning
5. The promise of black cock live first thing in the morning is a very real one
6. We promised you blackcock live on the internet first thing in the morning
7. There's one particular blackcock that's made me smile...
8. Six blackcock, tits and nuts in the undies
9. Wait, what?
I don't know what's going on here but it looks dubious
10. The birds and the bees
Martin Hughes-Games gets in on the act
11. That isn't my knee
12. A little bit moist
13. Anal sucker
14. Tits in HD
15. I love that sound
On a slightly different footing, Packham responds favourably to the sound of a ghastly murder, deep in the woods