Winter defends the violence on "Boardwalk Empire," which stars Steve Buscemi as political boss Nucky Thompson, as appropriate for the themes explored in a gangster drama.
"If there's an increase in violence, it's due to the circumstances on the show, where everybody is under pressure," Winter said. "In terms of how we show violence, it's meant to be disturbing and jarring."
Winter, a former writer and executive producer on HBO's landmark series "The Sopranos," compared "Boardwalk" to his previous series: "There has to be a point where the audience says, 'These are horrible people. They're not supposed to be likable. They're killers.'"
Sutter's "Sons of Anarchy" is characteristically less graphically violent than most of the other shows, though he points out that the series "takes place in a fairly dangerous world."
Referring to the scene where Juice shoots his attacker in the face, Sutter explained that the story needed "something graphic that Juice would feel responsible for and would push him over the edge. It needed to be extreme. But I always try to root these things in character and the world so that it never crosses the line into being gratuitous."
And television writers maintain they have their limits. Winter chuckled as he said, "I will never show Nucky Thompson eating the intestines of a dead body."
To be sure, all these series are set in dark, violent worlds (both "Breaking Bad" and "Sons of Anarchy" take place against the background of illegal drugs) and are centered on deeply flawed antiheroes. Audiences may simply have become anesthetized to TV violence, which has been steadily ratcheting up in noteworthy series, including "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "The Shield" and "Deadwood."
The topic remains a delicate one — several network heads declined to comment on the issue. FX President John Landgraf, who has overseen "The Shield" and "Sons of Anarchy," said the top creators of TV's violence-charged dramas are following in the tradition of Shakespeare, displaying artistry comparable to that of acclaimed filmmakers such as Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola ("The Godfather").
"There was a time when this sort of artful work was only being done in films," Landgraf said. "There has been this migration of some of the finest creative minds into television.
But some cultural observers suggest another spark fueling the extreme violence: the influence of the Internet.
"There are no limits on the Web," said Jeffrey Cole, director of USC's Annenberg School for the Digital Future. "And there is competitive pressure on TV to show more provocative content." Cole, who has conducted prominent studies on television violence for network and national government use, added, "Graphic violence now has gotten to be very artistic, and some of the special effects indeed are very cool."
But viewers who focus on violence can miss the point, Gilligan said. Far more disturbing than the carnage in "Breaking Bad" is the emotional wreckage its protagonist, Walter White, brings upon himself, his family, friends and others.
"The bloodshed does not stick with me as much as the lies Walt tells," he said. "And unfortunately, the horrible things that happen on this show don't hold a candle to much of what goes on in real life."
PHOTOS: Hollywood Backlot on the set of 'Breaking Bad'