Aftershockingly sleazy TV

Sep 23, 2002  •  Post A Comment

In the second or third wave of emotional aftershocks from 9/11, after the first tremors of disbelief, horror and outrage it seemed there might be certain ironically positive residual effects. People both in and out of the television business predicted that TV programming might become less unsavory, more hopeful, less edge-obsessed, more humane.
Looking at pilots and samples of new fall shows and squinting real hard, one can find evidence of a kinder and gentler television. But you have to look hard, harder than I thought would be the case. It’s as though an event even as monstrous and unforgivable as 9/11 can be absorbed into the culture and eerily accepted-except on its anniversary, of course-or that its effects can be confined to a particular sphere and not resonate and reverberate further into American life and the popular arts.
To a dismaying degree, the annual rite that officially begins today is The New TV Sleaze-On again, with lots of stooping to new lows in the pursuit of cheap laughs and cheaper thrills. For every attempt at a sensitive, family-friendly series, there’s another that’s dark and sodden or brutal and cynical.
Fox’s “Fastlane,” one of the most-hyped and prematurely acclaimed new shows, is nothing but wall-to-wall violence scored to gratingly loud rock with the occasional soft-core porn scene tossed in; some critics, perhaps to establish their credentials in cool, are lapping it up. Twice in its fall preview issue, TV Guide, partly owned by Fox, calls the show a “guilty pleasure.” That phrase is tossed around a lot about new fall shows.
The series, though, seems a lot more guilt than pleasure. Where is the pleasure exactly-in watching the naughty girl stick her hand down the hero’s jeans and grope him; in seeing a bad guy punch her, hard, in the stomach; in hearing one man threaten to remove another man’s “nut sack” as if he were a pair of pliers; or in just the numbing cacophony of squealing tires, roaring engines, fiery crashes and punishing gunplay? This is not entertainment for a healthy society.
Fox executives, who seemed to be ramping up the network’s overall quality with last fall’s new slate of shows (some of the better ones, alas, since canceled), seem almost to take a perverse pleasure in wallowing around at rock bottom. Thus in November, they’ll introduce “The Grubbs,” which appears to have a lock on worst and lowest-minded new series, or at least sitcom, of the season.
It’s about a family of drooling goofs in which one smart boy, Mitch, struggles to survive and bloom, like that poor old desert flower in “Duel in the Sun.” Typical and symptomatic joke from the pilot: In a “Today I’m going to” montage, Dad (Randy Quaid, who must really need the money) vows, “I’m going to dig the underwear out of my crack.”
OK, harmless vulgarity. But a later exchange between father and son suggests the pendulum has swung way too far and makes political correctness start looking pretty good again. Mitch: “How do you get a girl to like you?” Dad: “I don’t know. Get her pregnant.” Mitch: “No, I mean before all that.” Dad: “Oh. Get her drunk.”
“The Grubbs” has something in common with “Still Standing,” an embarrassing mediocrity from CBS. On both shows, supposedly manly, macho fathers berate their sons for being studious, for trying too hard at school. Oh this is great stuff for kids, and parents for that matter, to see. On “Still Standing,” Dad complains of his son that “all the kid does is homework” and warns the boy he’ll be doomed to the “never-touch-a-booby” tribe if he doesn’t act more like a “jerk.”
This so-called father-this moron, this cretin, this apelike buffoon-is supposed to be lovable. We’re supposed to like him, even when he jokingly asks his son if he’s “going to blow up the school”-a line that, in light of Columbine and other school tragedies of recent years, CBS would do well to edit out before the episode airs.
Obviously, sitcoms can’t go back to jokes about burnt pot roast and inviting the boss to dinner, and no reasonable person could expect or want them to. There are very healthy things about the way “All in the Family” and later “Roseanne” and other shows liberated sitcoms from old restraints. ABC’s new “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” could have been smarmy and smutty, but good writing and a big boost from John Ritter’s performance as the father of two teenage girls keep it on a relatively high plane. It’s not innocuous, but it’s not squirm-inducing either. You don’t need eye-wash after watching it.
Then you have junk like NBC’s “In-Laws,” a blatant rip-off of the movie “Meet the Parents” about a sadistic oaf (Dennis Farina) who lets his daughter and son-in-law move in-basically so he can keep them from having sex. Yup, this is going to be another show all about coitus interruptus, with Dad hovering and leering.
Kelsey Grammer, one of the executive producers of “In-Laws,” has benefited hugely from the public’s patronage; what bad form to respond with something as low-minded as this.
On NBC’s “Good Morning, Miami,” there’s lots of chatter about the difference between “bonking” and “boinking,” a street-talking nun who works as a weather forecaster (“You’re firing me? I’m a freakin’ nun!”) and a salty granny (Suzanne Pleshette) who asks her grandson, “So, why aren’t you getting laid?” He produces a local talk show, and she says she has “had pelvic exams that are more fun” than his shows.
Father-daughter night
Of course it’s just standard smutcom stuff, but some of us were hoping maybe the networks could move up to something a little better. CBS executives are really letting viewers down with their new addition to the Sunday night lineup, a sitcom called “Bram and Alice” about a merrily promiscuous author who in the pilot discovers that he has a grown daughter as the result of a past affair. At first he hits on her, thinking her just another babe-for-conquest. Later, when he’s been told her identity, he thinks he sees “my eyes, my nose” in her features and she says, “Yeah, I had your tongue an hour ago.”
Eeewwww. And this is CBS’s new prescription for Sunday night television? NBC looks very, very strong on Sunday and by putting on junk like “Bram and Alice,” CBS is begging to get its butt kicked, perhaps even losing the grip it’s had on Sunday nights for such a long time.
Generally, the new dramas are better than the new sitcoms. NBC’s “Boomtown,” another reason for CBS to shudder about Sundays, has the makings of a classic, an innovative storytelling breakthrough to rank with “ER” and “Hill Street Blues.” On the other side of the street, in more ways than one, there’s ABC’s “MDs,” about two caricaturish gonzo docs-one of whom shows a girlfriend how to get a buzz from a vibrating cellphone in one of the show’s first, and worst, scenes.
What’s dismaying is how violent, foul-mouthed and cold-blooded too much of the new programming is, and how few of the more sanguine predictions about post-9/11 television have come true. A network executive I spoke with a week or two after the attacks in 2001 felt certain that fewer producers would aim for “darkness”-dark themes and dark subject matter-in shows created in the aftermath of 9/11, but the nation deserves a far brighter light than the new fall season emits. Business-as-usual has triumphed-as usual.