But the joke's on all of us because we're all in favor of censorship; we just get clever about what we call censorship. For example, unless you think profanity, violence and hard-core sex should be legal on broadcast television during the after-school time slot, you're for censorship. We're also all for criticizing bad behavior, bad language and the rest. But because we don't want to think of ourselves as scolds or censors, we make ourselves feel better by calling our positions "common sense."
The problem is that the definition of "common sense" is a moving target. What was once verboten is now commonplace and vice versa.
Marc Cherry, the creator of ABC's "Desperate Housewives," told an interesting story to a gathering of TV critics recently. Cherry had screened a scene for a network censor in which the character played by Eva Longoria beds her 17-year-old gardener. Afterward, she enjoys a post-coital cigarette. Cherry said the censor asked, "Does she have to smoke?" To which Cherry replied: "So you're good with the statutory rape thing?"
And the answer is "yes." Hollywood is good with the statutory rape thing. But it's not good with the smoking thing. If I were to criticize Hollywood for the statutory rape thing, the Hollywood crowd would whine about how I'm a prude and, ultimately, a censorious enemy of free expression. If I were to complain about the cigarette? They'd say, "Good for you."
What's fascinating about the "24" controversy is how it highlights that there is one permanent exception to the rule: success. Joel Surnow, co-creator of "24," has jokingly described himself as a "right-wing nut job." The critics complaining that Hollywood is dangerously influencing behavior are from the left. And folks like Rush Limbaugh are saying: "It's just a television show! Get a grip." Needless to say, this is not the typical conservative position when Hollywood mocks Jesus or promotes the "gay lifestyle." Meanwhile, "24" gets lavished with Emmys and praise. Why?
Because one of the reasons Hollywood resorts to "nightmares of depravity" is that it's in a constant race to the bottom to keep our attention. Anybody who figures out how to do that is a hero in Hollywood. "Right now, they have to be nice to me," Surnow told the New Yorker, speaking of his liberal colleagues. "But if the show tanks, I'm sure they'll kill me."
That's Hollywood common sense for you.