Monday, September 16, 2002

the devil's lantern

Remember when violence on television was a big deal? How, in the Eighties, parents all over the country began to panic about all the harmful outside influences to which their children were being exposed, over which they felt they had no control? How new moralist organizations sprang up like mushrooms, petitions were passed from door to suburban door, how chests were puffed, stands were taken, lines were drawn? Boy, was that ever a waste of effort.

Thinking about TV, of what was and what has become. (4:30 am, wide awake; what else is there to do?) When I was growing up, my parents were fairly strict about what we (my, brother, my sister, and I) watched on television. In our earlier years, I remember only a few nighttime shows – Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons – which I always thought were chosen on the basis of their "higher ideals" and lack of violent content. But in retrospect, someone was always getting trapped in a burning barn or kicked in the head by a mule or befallen of some such terrible misfortune in both of these examples, so then I guessed it must've been more about their religious overtones than anything else.

Later the list of approved material grew considerably, including the likes of Happy Days, The Muppet Show, Laverne & Shirley, and M*A*S*H*, but I know from watching reruns as a young adult that we kids can't have been old enough to comprehend much of the humor in these offerings. This is why I now believe my parents so loosened their restrictions on our viewing. How could we be influenced by subject matter we didn't understand?

Violence stayed an issue, however, most notably with regard to The A-Team. I remember the three of us unabashedly begging Mom and Dad to let us watch it, a request which was always met with round rejection. We've joked about it many times since, particularly my father and I; syndication made the show one of his guilty pleasures, and we talk about how no one ever dies on The A-Team, how a car never crashes without a lingering shot of its occupants crawling unharmed from the wreckage, how thousands of bullets are sprayed about yet never seem to strike anything but oil drums, gas cans, and dirt. This kind of sterile violence really does seem comical in light of the tremendously graphic programming that the networks currently broadcast. I wonder, though, if even the tame gunplay wasn't a gateway drug of sorts, paving the way for our latter-day excesses, all the way back to Dragnet.

I finally all but gave up on television about three years ago, refusing to pay for cable every month just to watch The Simpsons and nature shows. My last bastion was The X-Files (my own guilty pleasure), and once that too started to suck so definitively, I lost hope. Aside from a brief dalliance in California with The West Wing (which is admittedly superb), I've been tube-free ever since. But a couple of years before I surrendered the remote, I decided to introduce my parents to The X-Files, unable to contain my enthusiasm for it despite what I expected to be swift disapproval. They surprised me by not only liking but loving the show and, in the end, becoming bigger fans than I, watching faithfully even after it fell to shite in the later seasons. My mother's favorite episode is the one with the deformed inbred family living in rural Pennsylvania, the armless legless mother on a rolling dolly under the bed, the sons chewing up her food for her like birds, murder with axes and clubs -- yes, my own sweet mother, who was once made uncomfortable by the benign tough-guy banter of Mr. T.

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