No 'shield' against bad taste

Brent Bozell

4/10/2002 12:00:00 AM - Brent Bozell
During the late 1980s, Rupert Murdoch's Fox television network revolutionized the entertainment industry. Fox's brand of lowbrow, often gutter material not only created that all-important "niche" for the upstart network, but its success spurred ABC, CBS and NBC to lower their standards in the quest for TV's lowest common denominator -- the brain-dead viewer. In early 1992, Rick Du Brow of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "It could easily be argued that the ... suggestive dialogue of such [Fox] series as 'Married ... With Children' has ... had its effect on the Big Three's ... shows, which increasingly have taken liberties that often offend traditional viewers." It looks like Murdoch is going to do it again, this time on -- or should I say to -- basic-cable television. In 1994, the FX channel launched, one of an alphabet soup of rerun-heavy enterprises on cable. It's been lost in the maze all along -- until now. In mid-March, Murdoch's FX debuted the police drama "The Shield," and it immediately established itself as the single most vulgar piece of prime-time, basic-cable garbage ever produced by Hollywood. Stark nudity, unbelievable obscenities and sexual dialogue, graphic ultra-violence -- a man doesn't just get shot, he gets shot in the face, and we're given close-ups of his face with an impossible-to-miss bullet hole in his cheek -- "The Shield" has it all ... and just about nothing else. Naturally, most TV critics have given "The Shield" the thumbs-up. To them, it's a "gritty" police drama, and somehow artistic license must be given for this kind of show or else, well, it won't be "gritty." What nonsense. Everyone knows that real-life police officers deal with the sordid side of humanity, and a high-quality police show needs to convey that, but it can be done artfully, with class and without resorting to R-rated content. Twenty years ago, Steven Bochco's "Hill Street Blues" demonstrated that it could it be done this way, and no critic complained about a lack of "grittiness" just because he stayed out of the gutter. "The Shield," on the other hand, represents the belief, widespread in the television business, that what ultimately makes a program compelling isn't high-quality writing and acting, but rather graphic treatment of seamy subject matter. "The Shield" shines with plotlines like the one concerning a man, suspected of assault and attempted rape, who keeps jars of his own semen in his refrigerator. At the police station, the suspect, addressing a female officer, in the crudest terms possible, demands the use of her vagina. (Oh, by the way, in keeping with the Hollywood tradition of portraying opponents of abortion as hypocritical, repressed, or worse, this sicko, for no good reason, identifies himself as "pro-life.") The problems with "The Shield" don't stop with disgusting detail about crime and criminals. A central theme in this show is that the police are corrupt and the officers' behavior itself is disgusting. In the premiere, a woman is found dead on her kitchen floor. She is completely naked, save for the oven mitt that covers her pubic area. A male detective comments on the woman's breasts: "Nice. You do not see a rack like that every day." Later, cruel, tasteless jokes are made about how the woman's sister, who fell to her knees in grief in front of this detective, supposedly performed oral sex on him. The second episode returned to the same topic -- so much for imagination -- as cops take a rookie officer through his "B&B" initiation, which consists of drinking beer, then being fellated. Amidst all the marketing hoopla, the premiere of "The Shield" drew the highest rating ever for the first episode of an original basic-cable series, and it seems that the show has hung on to most of that audience. The likely result: More crass programming on FX, and, if that succeeds, expect basic cable as a whole to ratchet up the raunch. FX entertainment president Kevin Reilly tells Entertainment Weekly that "cable has to be an alternative, so by definition we want something bolder in tone and concept than what you would get on broadcast." Don't you love the way those Hollywood guys talk? Instead of the mega-pretentious "bolder in tone and concept," why couldn't Reilly just be honest and say what he means: filthier? And why is the cable "alternative" almost always more stomach-turning and shocking than broadcast, not less? Broadcast TV is plenty "bold" these days; you can count on one hand the number of prime-time shows that are acceptable for children. If the Reillys of Hollywood really wanted to provide a true alternative, they'd invest in that elusive commodity called "taste."