The return of glamorous violence

Posted: Jan 31, 2003 12:00 AM
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 machismo." 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.