Beware the entertainment critics who, after sitting through
years, if not decades, of repetitive entertainment, of love stories and
crime stories and war stories and supposedly funny stories, are bored. These
eye-rubbing analysts have a tendency to worship any TV or movie producer who
can break down the walls of convention by inventing something new, something
that will get their attention.
Add a few sparkles of artistic excellence -- good acting, good
writing, an entertaining pace -- and the critics lose all moral qualms.
Squeezed out of the equation is any consideration for the broader culture.
All that matters is having something to tout as "hot," new and improved, or
all the rage.
In the last few years, that pause that refreshes was HBO's "The
Sopranos," the beginning of a new trend celebrating what's called the
"criminal protagonist," in this case a murderous crime boss we can learn to
love. He pours out his problems to a psychiatrist. Get out a hanky. How
charming. That concept has also inspired two comedies, "Analyze This"
(hilarious) and "Analyze That" (awful), with Robert DeNiro as the comic
crime boss and Billy Crystal as his shrink.
Sadly, they're not the only copycats. Real people are also
finding real inspiration. Associated Press recently reported from California
that two brothers, aged 20 and 15, strangled their mother. One confessed to
the police that they cut off her head and hands to escape police detection
because they'd seen it done on "The Sopranos." HBO is not responsible for
the killing. These depraved young men are. But showing graphic scenes of
killing and dismemberment, even on pay TV, can desensitize.
Entertainment producers and critics alike love "moral
complexity," but what they're sowing is moral confusion. They think good and
evil, black and white, is so old hat. Let's coat everyone and everything
with a lovely shade of gray -- as the red blood flows.
In recent years, free TV has been much more buried in sexual
innuendos than it has been in violence. But all the raves over "The
Sopranos" are threatening to change all that. Imagine my shock -- and the
shock of millions of others -- coming across FX's wicked-cop series "The
Shield" on Jan. 19. The show ended with "criminal protagonist" Vic Mackey
gratuitously shoving a man's face into an electric burner. Watch the melting
flesh as Fox counts the advertising dollars.
Now, NBC is trying to copy the gory formula with a new series
called "Kingpin." NBC signed up not long after Chairman Bob Wright sent a
memo to his Hollywood team, along with a particularly violent and sexually
explicit episode of "The Sopranos," wondering why HBO was getting all the
attention and eyeballs.
The graphic stuff is moving from pay TV to everybody's TV. Our
"criminal protagonist" this time is Miguel Cadena, a Mexican drug lord and
troubled family man. One "Kingpin" critic promised: "In the opener, we see
mucho murders, buckets of blood and a dead guy's severed arm being thrown to
a tiger by Miguel's nutcase brother ... There's rough language, naturally,
hot sex and at least two scenes where men grab their crotches in displays of
Their primary disappointment seems to be that there's not
full-frontal nudity, and the tiger's lunch (the unlucky "dead guy" is a
murdered drug agent) "is no more graphic than many scenes in 'CSI,'" as Time
explained. Is there no moral difference between criminalists solving a
murder and criminals committing one?
The show will also be shown on Telemundo and on Bravo, which
will feature a "director's cut" -- not in this case a term that means more
artistic vision, simply a higher quotient of sex and violence for cable, not
to mention DVD sales down the road.
As we begin, Miguel finds the family business of milking
addiction is being bungled by his uncle and his cousin, so he "whacks" them.
Telemundo President Jim McNamara said he's sure "Kingpin" will be a hit
because "our viewers love to watch families on TV overcome obstacles they
themselves have faced." As in Telemundo-watching families regularly kill
their cousins because it's good for the drug-running business? Even
Washington Post TV writer Lisa DeMoraes, no crusading moralist, immediately
followed this quote by writing: "I'll give you a minute here to ponder the
sheer 'is he out of his mind'-ness of that statement."
What's more amazing is the lack of outrage from any prominent
Latino activist group complaining about how this rare Latino-helmed series
focuses on ruthless Mexican drug-runners. Where is the general outrage over
this disturbing trend?
Don't count on the critics. "There's enough black humor to lighten even the
darkest stories," Newsweek promises about "Kingpin." That means more deaths,
more blood, and the culture sinks a little deeper into a desensitized mess.