From the Editor

John Turner

Maybe I'm just getting squeamish in my old age but it seems to me that the violence depicted on television is not only ubiquitous but increasingly creepy. I understand that there are fashions in popular culture which TV producers will exploit. Even so I wonder if a majority of the people has as much taste for serial murderers, the rape of little children, forcible incest, cannibalism, thrill killing, and sexual torture as current programming seems to indicate.

Maybe. Who knows? I don't support censorship. If somebody can make money by portraying the torture, murder and subsequent cooking and ingestion of little boys, I don't want him to be thrown in jail. But I would just as soon see people find other themes for their melodrama. Quite often after an evening of TV watching, I go to bed in a doleful mood. Is this what the human race is really about? I ask myself as I drift into troubled dreams.

I suspect that we're caught in a cycle of one-ups-manship. If 24 has twelve thousand killed in an episode then some other producer will want to wipe out a hundred thousand employing a device that will cause the flesh to melt off their bodies and run down into little puddles. There's much work for special effects guys in that kind of show.

Think how things change. Jane Austen was able to write six novels that have entranced generations and, as far as I can remember, there's not a single murder in any of them. Catherine Morland does imagine a murder, but it's just the workings of an overheated teenage sensibility.

Quentin Tarantino has tried to make campy humor out of excessive violence in films like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, volumes one and two, and I suppose he has succeeded to some extent. But the stories in series like Criminal Minds, Numb3rs, the three versions of Law and Order, and the trinity of CSIs don't have much humor in them. They're just creepy -- and, of course, highly moralistic. The moralism, though, functions mainly as an excuse.

People with upright liberal standards -- and religious fundamentalists -- say you just shouldn't watch TV.  But since I don't fall into either camp that's not a solution for me.

I suppose I'll keep on going to bed with a sick feeling in my stomach. Perhaps there's a mysterious discipline in that I haven't yet discerned. To tell the truth, the political talk shows don't make me feel more wholesome. After a couple hours of the talking heads, I can turn, with a kind of relief, to an anguished and pure hero -- generally a functionary of some quasi-fascist organization -- chasing psychopaths and terrorists across the grand American landscape.

It's a great world, after all.



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Harvard Square Commentary, January 29, 2007