Sep 29, 2003  •  Post A Comment

I finally caught Michael Moore’s film “Bowling for Columbine” on pay-per-view the other night. Moore can alienate even those in basic agreement with some of his ideas, as he did with his calculated misbehavior at the Oscars. It was galling, too, that he trotted off to Cannes with his film to compete for (and win) a top prize there; when shown in other countries, especially those hostile to the United States, “Columbine” becomes rabble-rousing anti-American propaganda. And no rabble are roused so easily as French rabble.
But viewed in its native land, the film is impressive both for its sobering analysis and for sequences that are stunningly insane, like the opener in which Moore discovers a bank in Michigan that gives away free guns to new customers. Near the end, Moore interviews a befuddled Charlton Heston, who gets mad and walks out indignantly, even though the interview takes place on his own property. Heston is no Dorian Gray; all his words and deeds are right there in his grisly visage, topped with a hairpiece that appears to have fallen haphazardly out of a tree.
What makes the film relevant to television are the segments devoted to what Moore sees as America’s culture of fear, and these portions are more relevant now that many shows of the new fall TV season have premiered. They prove again that fear is good business and that those in a position to exploit it for profit can make themselves tidy, if unseemly, fortunes. Night after night, it’s murder murder murder. Crime shows are nearly as dominant as Westerns were in their prime.
On any given night of the week, you can cuddle up with crime and crimefighters. Yes, most crimes are resolved and criminals apprehended in each of these hour-long ordeals, but having a prime-time schedule so overloaded with mayhem and menace has to be unhealthy. It encourages fear instead of allaying it, contributing to what media scholar George Gerbner once dubbed the “mean-world syndrome”-the TV-fostered impression that the world is even more fraught with peril and horror than it actually is.
The world changed, of course, on Sept. 11, 2001. At the end of the great British film about the Titanic, “A Night to Remember,” a surviving officer says he doesn’t think he’ll ever feel certain about anything again. When airplanes crashed into the towers, and another into the Pentagon, some Americans had to be thinking they would never feel safe again. We are all still living with a communal version of post-traumatic stress disorder. A shock like this may never be shaken off, nor perhaps should it be.
Isn’t it disturbing, then, considering the cloud of danger under which we all now live, that so many television shows exploit the fear of being harmed or killed and now even deal specifically with the terrorist threats of a post-9/11 world ? The premiere of CBS’s wildly unnecessary “Navy NCIS” conjured an attack on the president himself and had agents running all over Air Force One looking for a terrorist on a mission of murder. That new series leads off an entire night of law and order on CBS: “NCIS,” then “The Guardian,” then “Judging Amy.”
ABC has made Sunday, of all nights, terror night on the network. “The Wonderful World of Disney” has been banished to Saturday-even on this Disney-owned outfit-and once “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is out of the way, ABC spooks viewers with “10-8,” a show about cops fighting crime on L.A. streets (there’s a fresh concept for you); “Alias,” about a shapely and sultry CIA agent fighting international criminals in her jogging bra; and “The Practice,” reconfigured and recast but still about murders and the folks who commit them, and intent on being “shocking.”
CBS gave one of the week’s most prominent pieces of real estate, Sunday night at 8, after “60 Minutes,” to “Cold Case,” a very well-done but very violent new show about a shapely if not sultry policewoman who digs up old unsolved murders and tries to close the books on them. The pilot included gruesome shots of dead bodies as well as graphic flashbacks to the killing in question. That’s another fairly recent development in the increasingly competitive network world: Blood-spattered corpses and close-ups of gashes and wounds, once verboten, are now commonplace.
Even CBS’s aggressively wholesome new “Joan of Arcadia,” about a 16-year-old girl who gets personal visits from God, has to include a serial killer at loose in at least the show’s first arc. The ratio of serial killers on TV to serial killers in real life must be about 2,000 to one. That goes for the movies, too, of course. Killers, killers, everywhere. You watch enough TV, you get the idea that a trip to the supermarket is like a dash through a minefield, like going to the boundary between North and South Korea and making faces at the commie guards.
Blaming “the media” for violence in America is specious and cheap. But in letting the current crime wave get out of hand, and all in the pursuit of a competitive advantage and more ad revenue, the networks are acting irresponsibly. Maybe they’re doing it just so that those of us who used to say “please, no more sappy sitcoms” will feel remorseful and chagrined. OK, fine. Herewith a request: More sappy sitcoms, please. Even more embarrassing “reality” shows and no-talent talent contests and peephole tours of Smut Island and Foreplay Hotel.
Anything but another hour of prime-time terrorvision-because there’s a lot more at stake here than ratings, shares and demographics.