by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
December 12, 2005
THE SLIME BEHIND THE COOL VENEER
LOS ANGELES, Dec. 12, 2005 -- In the cycle of television programming fads, we are now in the Crime Scene Investigation era, a genre that proclaims its innocence loudly but succeeds by catering to guilty pleasures. This format shares perverse underpinnings with the ever-popular hospital dramas, even if the connection is not so easily apparent.
In this year 2005, prime time is full of criminalists and medical examiners and trauma surgeons by the dozen. What psychological need do they serve?
In a word, morbid curiosity.
We have the Las Vegas, Miami and New York crime labs on the three subspecies of CSI, we have a Canadian version called the Da Vinci Inquest, we have Crossing Jordan and a knockoff called Bones, and we have the slightly more venerable NCIS. There is even a medical drama about a slightly psychopathic (but brilliant) physician named House, who solves medical mysteries by breaking into homes and offices when he isn't abusing his patients.
These shows have something for the male audience in the form of quirky, perky, terribly attractive female investigators. For viewers lacking a Y chromosome, there are hunky males who just happen to combine the observational skills of Sherlock Holmes with a knowledge of analytical chemistry that would shame a Ph.D. candidate.
At least at this level, we should be grateful. The producers have served up an environment in which the goal is not to have beauty or to have brains, but to have beauty and brains. In a way, it is the one little bit of subversion that television allows itself, by creating characterizations that undercut the traditional anti-intellectualism that pervades our pop culture.
Think of it this way: in television and film, wholesome good looks are the identifying badge of virtue. (There are exceptions, especially when a director is playing against type in a thriller, but for the most part, we root for Paul Newman and John Wayne.) Ordinarily, virtue is confirmed by emotional display. In the traditional format, women can be ditsy but loving. Men can be dumb but reliable. Villains, on the other hand, are coldly calculating.
CSI and its progeny turn this around, requiring that its heroes and heroines hold on to rationality. It's a form of virtue in their world, at least according to the rules of the genre. By normal tv and movie standards, this is quite the turnabout. CSI allows its protagonists some leeway in their personal lives, but they are required above all to solve the difficult riddles that are tossed in their way.
So at this surface level, CSI is a positive force for rationality and education.
It's the other side, the side that the crime shows and the medical shows have in common, that seems to be overlooked by drama critics and media critics alike.
What they all have in common, to put it bluntly, is the presentation of dead human beings, wounded and mutilated people, body parts and organ fragments, all served up in barely-living color (mainly red). There are skeletons and severed legs. In one CSI rerun being shown as of this writing, a boy opens a newspaper rack only to find a severed human head.
For the ER fan, this is nothing new. The prototypical scene is a patient whose chest cavity has been opened. Of course there are the personal issues among the doctors and nurses, but they are more like an old tv habit that dies hard. We can get the same subplots on the Drew Carey show or any soap opera. Think of the unrequited loves, the love triangles and the occasional successful romance as the lingua franca of television writing. These plot elements are present as much out of habit on the part of writers and producers as anything else.
Take one part longing glance, one part sarcastic banter, and one part office intrigue and you have Drew Carey. Take one part longing glance, one part sarcastic banter, and three or four morbidly injured people and you have Gray's Anatomy. Take the glances, the banter, and a fresh corpse and you have CSI.
What makes the crime investigation shows and the hospital dramas different from what went before is the direct depiction of gory detail. The new form is so much more graphic (to use the term colloquially, if inadequately). The most telling example is the role that autopsies have come to play in so many shows, and how they are depicted. The shot of scalpel cutting flesh (particularly that of the deceased) is something that would have been scandalous in an earlier era. Today it is commonplace.
Admittedly, there is a historical background to all this ooze and blood and slime. It probably goes back to the horror films and slasher pictures of the past two decades. Somehow though, what was a sub genre of the film industry with its own target demographic has been transmuted into the everyday visual language of the massiest (and messiest) of the mass media. Instead of paying nine dollars to sit in a dark theater and be scared, you can witness the act of evisceration in the comfort of your own easy chair, portrayed as an emotionally neutral act carried out by a loving professional.
What all of this means in terms of our culture and national character remains to be completely understood, but it certainly represents a big difference over previous eras.
I have never quite understood the allure (if there is one) of Late Late Show host Conan O'Brien. It took a while to find the right words to describe his personna, but eventually they did come. Conan is sort of like the sophomore who lords it over the incoming freshmen the first week of school. The supercilious sneer, the posturing, the not-quite-effective attempts at cool are all symptomatic. What is missing is any emotional connection with the guy out there on the other end of the signal.
Now Conan has competition in the form of Craig Ferguson, a Scottish transplant who previously was famous as Drew Carey's boss. He played that role essentially as a cartoon figure, but in the late-night host role has shown a rare talent. He is everything that Conan is not.
At a more somber level, the scheduled execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams continues to bring out the worst in the media, not to mention in politicians. The Saturday evening broadcast on KFI (AM 640) had some caller suggesting that "they put the whole thing on pay per view." It is the sort of comment that allows the host to show maturity, but this one took the comment and went with it seriously for a couple more minutes. In the spirit that we should not enable graffiti artists or terrorists by publishing their names, this host will remain anonymous in this posting.
Meanwhile, the governor has been put on the spot, and he is struggling to get off. In an interview with the press that might as well have been held at the Waffle House, he explained that even after holding a meeting to discuss clemency, he had not yet made up his mind. If Schwarzenegger allows the execution to proceed, a reporter from our juvenile-delinquent station KFI will be in the witness group.
It will be interesting to hear whether he maintains the puffed-chest bravado that has characterized KFI commentary, particularly after seeing the real thing. In a way, the radio community has been presenting the execution as the same sort of sadistic thrill that viewers get watching the crime and hospital dramas.
I suspect that faced with the reality, KFI's reporter will feel a little differently about things, even if the reality of continued employment gets in the way of his being honest about it.