TV's Uncontrollable Urge to be Gruesome

After the Columbine High School massacre a few years back, there was a spirited debate about the role the entertainment media had played in encouraging the two monsters savagely to murder their classmates. The head of the WB network pulled the final episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" because he deemed it too violent. CBS entertainment chief Les Moonves likewise yanked a planned Mafia mob war series from his schedule and went a step further in a statement about the cause-and-effect of violent programming. "Anyone who thinks the media has nothing to do with it," he said, "is an idiot."

That was then, and this is now, and just as critics proposed would happen, Hollywood waited until the storm clouds passed to return to their old ways. But in one sense we were wrong. What Moonves and Co. are now putting on the air makes the most violent programming in 1999 look like "Gilligan’s Island" by comparison.

According to TV writer Tom Shales of the Washington Post, the trend: The new season "is dominated by a new brood of a relatively new breed: shows that are horrific on purpose, with gore as graphic and grisly as in many a monstrous movie." The examples of CBS’s grisly "CSI" franchise and ABC’s creepy "Lost" have been copied, and then copied again.

Fox’s "Bones" has its forensic-anthropologist star poring over grotesquely aged corpses. A mad scientist trains poisonous spiders to crawl around on the faces of vulnerable young beauties in the ghoulish premiere of Fox’s "Killer Instinct." Hunky young brothers chase ghosts that tear victims limb from limb on the WB’s "Supernatural." And that’s just for starters.

How awful is the latest CBS crime spinoff, "Criminal Minds"? Read the words of TV writer Robert Bianco at USA Today, who writes that with each new TV crime series, "the level of revolting, sadistic violence inflicted on women goes up, as each show seeks to capture our attention with the darkest, most disgusting crime yet. If it’s a contest, let’s declare ‘Criminal Minds’ the sick winner and call the game off." Its plot with a caged woman with duct tape over her eyes screaming for her life, Bianco writes, "plays like a how-to guide for sexual predators." Bianco is unconditional: "But really, once you plummet below a certain level, trash is trash, and gradations become virtually meaningless. The only fix is a quick cancellation followed by an apology from all concerned."

These are the TV critics, folks. These are the people who usually ridicule those who complain about the need for more decency on the tube.

Then there’s Fox’s "Prison Break," the less-than-credible drama about the guy who gets convicted of robbery so he can spring his wrongly convicted brother out from Death Row. In the Sept. 5 episode, a prisoner is looking for a grisly weapon of torture, and another inmate presents him with a weapon known as "The Gutter," which he describes at length: "You jam it up there in his stomach, and these bits right here hook the intestines, and you give it a pull back. The poor sucker’s guts are hanging right out of his stomach, and he’ll get a real good look at them ’cause the wound’s not fatal, at least until the infection sets in."

All that’s on broadcast television where, supposedly, those who use the public airwaves agree to conform with community standards of decency. But cable TV is where this trend started — and continues.

FX’s thoroughly sickening plastic-surgery series, "Nip/Tuck," is back for another degenerating season. In its premiere — sponsored in its entirety by the gang at Sony, a company so devoid of any sense of corporate responsibility that no one should buy any more of their products — viewers witness doctors removing a morbidly obese woman from a couch to which she had become grafted. Extreme close-ups of flesh being cut, gaping wounds and blood-soaked surgical tools were shown. In another surgery scene, leaky breast implants are removed and replaced. The camera shows the doctor’s hands grabbing a woman’s breasts, slicing into them and the surgeon’s hand being thrust deep inside the breast to grab and yank out the defective implant, a bloody, stringy mess. The chest is then violently refitted with new implants and sewn back up.

In an article in the New York Post, lead actor Julian McMahon proclaimed of the show’s sex and violence, "I’d like to be even more brutal and more weird … I feel very lucky that we’ve gotten away with what we have, but I’d like to go even further." Which his industry will, at least until the next Columbine, at which point they’ll all be oh, so upset again.