As satire, “Thoughts and Prayers” veers uncomfortably close to the truth. In the wake of mass shootings in the U.S., producers often respond by suspending or delaying projects that depict or glorify gun violence. After the Las Vegas massacre, Netflix canceled a promotional event at Comic Con in New York for The Punisher, its upcoming Marvel adaptation about a gun-toting vigilante played by Jon Bernthal. In a statement, Marvel and Netflix declared that they were “stunned and saddened” by the recent events in Las Vegas, and after careful consideration they decided “it wouldn’t be appropriate for Marvel’s The Punisher to participate.” The counterargument to this statement, though, is that if it’s inappropriate to promote The Punisher after a mass shooting in America, it’s never going to be appropriate to promote The Punisher. At this point in history, there are too many “recent events” to count.
This isn’t to rail against TV shows and movies that feature gun violence, which is a different argument for a different day. It’s to underline that Hollywood unfailingly responds to mass shootings by looking away. Episodes are delayed; releases are put on hold; promotional events are canceled. Then, after a minimally disruptive period of time has passed, everything returns to normal. But while gun violence quickly becomes acceptable again to depict on film or television, the topic of mass shootings is studiously avoided. The reason that’s most frequently proffered is sensitivity to victims, but coming from an industry that’s hardly squeamish about portraying, for example, sexual violence, it’s hard to fully accept.
The fear of inspiring copycat shootings has also deterred artists since Columbine, which saw a spate of complaints against filmmakers, video-game companies, and musicians for supposedly inspiring its perpetrators. But, as with any difficult subject, there are ways to approach it without glorifying violent crimes or contributing to the mystique around perpetrators. Active Shooter, like the recent documentary Newtown, spends as little time talking about perpetrators as possible. It notes only basic biographical information that adds context to the ongoing question of why these outbreaks of horrific violence keep happening.
A different reason might be that when storytellers do consider the subject, they’re widely criticized. The 2016 Netflix drama The OA was denounced for featuring a school shooter in its climactic final episode, even though the series had spent much of its time up till that point considering the loneliness, disaffection, and isolation that trigger acts of violence. And a school shooting–themed episode of the Fox series Glee, which aired in 2013, was accused of manipulating a charged subject in a ploy for ratings. When Glee’s creator, Ryan Murphy, had previously considered school shootings in the first season of American Horror Story, he was also critiqued—not for a lack of sensitivity, but because the episode’s nuance and somber tone didn’t gel with the series’s sense of fun.