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Extreme goes mainstream

Maximum shock behavior pervades TV as real-life antiheroes feed the public's thirst for 'truth.'

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In other words, short-form modes of storytelling such as Twitter and texting have created an entertainment culture with a growing appetite for fast and flimsy narratives. Consider two of this season's TV miniseries: "The Kennedys," about the storied American political family, and "The Borgias," a 15th-century papal Italian family. Both series may have many biopic conventions, but, says Thompson, compared with earlier controversial miniseries such as "The Reagans" (2003), both these current shows heighten far more shock-value flaws, such as unlicensed drug use ("The Kennedys"), serial womanizing, and ties to organized crime.

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This take on the genre shortchanges the appeal of shows such as the top-rated "Bad Girls Club," says Jane Olson, senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy for Oxygen Media. The channel's three-year-old tag line, "Living out Loud," reflects what Ms. Olson calls a new generation of young women who want to live life on their own terms. "These characters are very real and appeal to young women who don't want to be told how to live their lives," she says, adding, "authenticity is a key driver for our programs."

A public demand for 'truth'

Public thirst for "truth" – in this case a kind of unscripted, original living – feeds the genre's appeal, says Matthew Brosamer, associate professor of English at Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles. People gravitate toward narratives with even the patina of being "real," in this way, he says.

There do appear to be some limits, however. The recent, behind-the-scenes tussle over "The Kennedys" scored one for the forces of family boundaries. Both Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver put pressure on History, the original sponsor of "The Kennedys," leading the cable channel to drop the show in January, says The Hollywood Reporter news editor Matthew Belloni.

Of course, the media coverage of the brouhaha was a boon for the little-known ReelzChannel, which recently aired the series. The channel scored its highest ratings ever on the debut night, with nearly 4 million viewers tuning in.

Is discretion passé?

There is scant evidence that the social-media generation has any patience with respecting such boundaries, says Susan Mackey-Kallis, author of "The Hero and the Perennial Journey Home in American Film." "This is a generation that does not privilege privacy for itself," she says, "let alone for anyone else."

The culture of narcissism that underlies much of the social-media interaction, the "I am the star of my own movie" ethos that breeds a hyperconfessional, tell-all online modality, renders discretion and dignity passé.

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