In the most recent episode of Big Little Lies, Reese Witherspoon is dining alfresco and having a heated discussion with her ex-husband and his wife when it happens: She vomits. At first it’s semi-discreet, a bit of throw up off to the side that’s seen only momentarily onscreen. But then she does it two more times, projectile-style, spewing viscous green liquid all over the table and hitting Zoe Kravitz with some of the backsplash. It’s really gross, pretty funny — the fact that she barfs right as Kravitz is saying “We are living in the time of Facebook” is actually the proper response to that played-out observation — and also a fairly common event on television these days.
It may be pushing it to suggest that vomiting on TV is a trend, especially since people on television shows have been throwing up for decades. For as long as you’ve been watching TV, probably, you’ve watched shows in which characters puke, either because they’re nervous, or pregnant, or drank too much, or, on the more dramatic front, witnessed something shocking, like a murder. But in recent TV seasons, instances of more graphic ralphing have been on the rise. That’s right, America: Not only have we hit Peak TV, we may have hit Peak Puke TV.
In the past two months alone, yawns have gone technicolor, to varyingly disgusting degrees, during episodes of Baskets, Review, Santa Clarita Diet, Harlots, Girls, Love, the aforementioned Big Little Lies episode, the upcoming Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, and two out of the five Amazon pilots. Seriously, name your favorite shows from last year and there’s a good chance you will be able to come up with at least one moment on that show when someone blew chunks, often in a notably grotesque way. Mr. Robot: Remember that time Elliott sorted through his vomit to find some pills? Game of Thrones: Man, people barf on that show all the time, whether they’re seasick or just booting and rallying. The Americans: To be fair, contagious diseases were a major issue last season. Even the final season of Downton freaking Abbey gave us a major yack scene when Lord Grantham projectile vomited blood all over a dining room and his wife.
In summary, this is a trying time to be an emetophobic TV junkie, or just someone who likes to eat in front of a screen. In every binge-watch, it seems, there must be a purge.
I am not the first person to notice this, either. Three years ago, Neil Genzlinger wrote a piece for the New York Times about how (ahem) widespread “graphic and gooey” vomiting had become, calling it “a TV trend that deserves to die.” It’s only become more prevalent since then, partly because there are more TV shows and therefore more opportunities for retching, but also because even more buzzy TV now comes from cable networks or streaming platforms, where standards are much looser. It’s still somewhat rare to see an incredibly gratuitous vomit scene on a network like NBC or ABC. But everywhere else, it’s gag on.
Which raises the question: What does all this meticulously depicted heaving achieve aside from shock value? Genzlinger’s opinion was: not much. “Expanding boundaries needs to have a purpose,” he wrote. “Graphic vomit rarely passes that test.” He added that throwing up is not particularly illuminating and, in comedies, tends to be more juvenile than funny.
As a general rule, I agree. Sometimes it’s used to gratuitously to make it clear that a show’s sensibility is no-holds-barred. For example, Drew Barrymore’s character, Sheila, throws up to an excessive degree in the first episode of Santa Clarita Diet in a way that establishes that this series will revel in its grossness. The amount of puke damage she does to a master bathroom suits the tone but doesn’t necessarily add any obvious narrative value. Similarly, do we really need to see Sam getting seasick in the fifth season of Game of Thrones? Probably not, but Game of Thrones has well established itself as a series that shows us gnarly things we don’t need to see. Some visible barf is in keeping with its brand.
This is true of other, more character-study driven shows as well. In the second season of Love, the disgusting evidence of Gus’s prayer to the porcelain gods in episode 11 isn’t particularly amusing, and it definitely does not feel necessary; the episode easily could have lived without it. On the other hand, it is messy, and that’s very much in keeping with who Gus is as a character and the show’s tone.
In that sense, vomit speaks to a common denominator in so much of TV right now, especially in the kinds of series that pop up on HBO and Netflix, which is: a commitment to showing humans in all their ragged, jarring reality.
Few physical reactions speak to a loss of control to the same degree that throwing up does, and that’s certainly one of the reasons why writers and directors keep going back to its nasty well. Vomiting is also what the body reflexively does to get rid of something that doesn’t belong inside of it, which makes it an appropriate — if, perhaps, overused — metaphorical act for self-loathing, neurotic, or conflicted people.
There are times when a throw-up scene can be used very effectively to subtly highlight those qualities, even if the vomit itself is not subtle at all. Earlier this season on Girls, when Hannah’s mother Lureen starts spitting up on herself in the middle of a restaurant while discussing Hannah’s pregnancy, she does it the same way an infant might: right down the front of her shirt with no bib in sight. It’s funny because Lureen is the mom here and yet everything she does in the episode — eating pot gummies, running away from Hannah, telling on Hannah by acknowledging her pregnancy to Elijah — is childish and forces Hannah into the position of responsible grown-up, with the barfing being the exclamation mark on that point. That moment in the restaurant serves as a sign that maybe Hannah is ready for parenthood, because she’s effectively mothering her mother already, as well as a sneak preview of what’s in store for her. It also says, loudly and clearly, that even adults still act like babies sometimes, no matter how old they are. There’s a lot to unpack in that upchuck.
I also think the vomit scene on Big Little Lies works because it is so genuinely surprising. The last thing you expect to witness during that dinner conversation is Madeline Martha McKenzie, wearing what I assume is a Draper James dress, horking all over the place. The reason it’s such a shock isn’t simply because of all the green glop that comes out of her mouth, it’s because of who she is. You don’t expect such a polished woman— she’s Reese Witherspoon, for God’s sake! — to do something so sloppy and humiliating. And that speaks to the central theme of the whole series: that no matter how perfect these wealthy, gorgeous, hyperengaged moms try to seem, unseemly, unstoppable truths keep bubbling out from underneath the facade.
Imagine that episode without that scene, or with the same argument between the couples, minus the barfing. It wouldn’t be nearly as memorable; if Madeline hadn’t embarrassed herself so violently, I’d also argue that she might not have confessed her affair to Abigail afterward either.
That’s a test that more TV writers and showrunners should start administering when they get tempted to add a really gross moment of reverse peristalsis to an episode: If I wipe away the vomit, so to speak, will the overall story or scene still work just as well? If the answer is no, leave it. But if the answer is yes, maybe consider getting rid of it or downplaying it a bit. Like too much of anything, too many throw-up scenes can easily seem like lazy regurgitation of what’s been done before. And lazy regurgitation? That’s the last thing I want to see on TV.