Friday, October 27, 2017

“S--t!”: On Network TV, Another Taboo Falls, but Nobody Notices

By Nicholas Stix
July 2, 2002
A Different Drummer/Toogood Reports

“S—t!” groans ER's "Dr. Mark Greene" (Anthony Edwards), as he tries to get out of bed, only to collapse on the floor. Though a young man, Dr. Greene is dying. A tumor is impinging so on his brain, that like a stroke patient, he has lost feeling and control over one side of his body.

Foregoing treatment that would prolong the inevitable for a few days or weeks, Dr. Greene has chosen to go with his family -- his second wife, Dr. Elizabeth Corday Greene, their newborn daughter, Ella, and his estranged, teenaged daughter, Rachel, from his first marriage -- to Hawaii, to a rented beach house, to die like a man.

Greene's mixed-up, hormone-driven teenager is angry -- at her slutty, neglectful mother, who wasn't much of a parent, even before she left Greene for the judge she clerked for; at her father, on principle; and at the world, because ... she's a teenager. She's also been into some of her father's vicodin. Greene understands the anger, if not the vicodin, as per the saintly side -- but not the only one -- the show's writers had long ago established for his character.

Alternately patient and desperate, Greene tries to get through to the girl, attempting to teach her how to surf and how to drive a stick, all the while telling her stories of her childhood that she had long forgotten -- of how she would drive her mother crazy, by always releasing to the sky balloons she'd just been given, of the song ("Over the Rainbow") he would sing her to sleep with. "Why are you telling me these things?" she whines. "Because I won't be here to tell you."

Finally, Dr. Greene does get through, as you know he will. On his deathbed, his daughter comes to him, with a walkman recording of a New Agey/Caribbean version of Judy Garland's signature song. Rachel puts the headset on her father's head, and leaves the room. Listening to the music, Greene smiles serenely. He is standing on the beach, watching Elizabeth and Ella. He is observing Rachel flirt in the surf with a young Hawaiian boy from a sporting goods store they'd been to. Greene had set up the flirtation, by finding a pretext to bring the family back to the store, after observing the chemistry between the two the previous day. He sees himself standing, all alone in the ER, back on the beach, and finally, alone back in the empty ER, for one last look. And then he's gone.

The funeral scene passes tastefully, wordlessly, in a few images. The producers lured back former cast member Eriq LaSalle (Dr. Peter Benton), which was a nice touch. But there was no appearance by Julianna Margulies' "Nurse Carol Hathaway" or George Clooney's "Dr. Doug Ross."

The show, which aired on May 9, was called, simply, "On the Beach." Perhaps the title was a pun on the beach house death watch, and the end-of-the-world, nuclear holocaust film by the late Stanley Kramer, based on Nevil Shute's novel.

Many of the mavens at Jump the Shark, a web site devoted to marking the moment when TV shows decline (based on an episode of Happy Days), beginning with a desperate ratings ploy, routinely mock the TV institution of the Very Special Episode, but I'm a sucker for VSEs. VSEs are always written for sweeps months -- November, February, and May -- when ratings determine ad rates, but that's no knock on them. Because every show needs the ratings boost of blockbuster episodes, ambitious scripts are written, often by brilliant producer-writers, which at their best, transcend the cliches of a show's ordinary episodes. At their worst, VSEs are reducible to politically correct concepts: A middle-aged character who has been a lifelong heterosexual, has a lesbian affair, and leaps out of the closet, as the LESBIAN AVENGER; a man shoots up a playground, which underscores the need for GUN CONTROL; RACISM (white racism, natch, what other kind is there?) rears its ugly head.

ER's popularity is based on its dramatic weakness: the unrealistic, hyped action of the emergency room, in which the camera cuts between two operating rooms, in which doctors -- sometimes running between the rooms -- try to save patients at death's door. The scenes are chopped up into morsels, to feed the limited attention span of the MTV generation. And when the action stops, too often we get only soap opera.

In my experience, ER's best episodes have been change-of-pace stories that took place away from the workplace.

In the second season, the drowning-boy-in-the-aqueduct episode ("Hell and High Water," episode 2.7, written by Neal Baer) let George Clooney's character, "Dr. Doug Ross" play a solo for the first time. In the sixth season, Dr. Greene's widowed father, Colonel David Greene (played by the great John Cullum), succumbing to lung cancer, spends his last days in his son's apartment, telling the son who now bathes him of how he bathed him as an infant ("Loose Ends," episode 6.20, also written by Neal Baer).

My favorite was what I call the "Route 66" episode ("Fathers and Sons," episode 4.7, written by John Wells). Doug Ross learns of the sudden death, in a head-on collision on a lonely highway in the Southwest, of his louse of a father (who had been played by James Farentino) and the man's girlfriend. In a leisurely journey of the soul, Doug and Mark drive from Chicago down Route 66, including a side-trip to San Diego, where Greene sees his parents, then both alive. Greene's ailing father, with whom he has an uneasy, distant relationship, does not let his emphysema deter him from smoking.

I call this the "Route 66" episode, because of the road the characters took, and because it was surely inspired by the old Herbert Leonard-Stirling Silliphant series (1960-64), which was then a great innovation, and which made stars of the young George Maharis and Martin Milner, and which was accompanied by Nelson Riddle's great, jazzy theme music. Like the ER episode, Route 66 portrayed two youngish, grown men wandering the road. (And if memory serves, when Glenn Corbett replaced an ailing George Maharis, Corbett's character, Linc Case, was searching for the father who had deserted him as a little boy.)

By its continuous nature, the best dramatic TV series -- China Beach, thirty-something, Once and Again, EZ Streets -- can penetrate behind the lines of heavily guarded emotions, and strike deeper into a viewer's heart than can a movie, which is a one-time spectacle. A movie's strength, however, is in its closure. That term, abused and turned into such a cliche by TV reporters, has no place in this life. There is no closure for someone whose loved one has been murdered (think 911), or died in a tragic accident. Ever. However, there are realms in which "closure" rightfully belongs: Dramatic art and religion.

Art and religion have traditionally sought to give coherence and order to our largely incoherent, disorderly lives in this vale of tears. Post-modernism sneers at such a duty, but then, who actually reads academic, postmodern fiction? And today's decadent, activist, liberal churches and synagogues exist as fronts for the Totalitarian Butcher of the Week, rather as homes for the souls who stay away from them in droves. It's no mystery, that the new-old-time Christianity of Pentecostalism is the world's fastest-growing religious denomination.

Popular culture is today often superior to the pretenses that pass for "high culture," because its purveyors remember their job: To tell credible stories with distinctive, fleshed-out characters and climaxes that let viewers experience catharsis, and denouements that bring them back to earth.

But the most popular culture form has its own problem, which often arises as well from dereliction of duty. Artists, whether popular or pretentious, need to make money off of their works. While there is no necessary conflict between commercialism and aesthetics -- a lousy storyteller will find himself without an audience -- too much success can be a bad thing. A successful show will be renewed by its network, even if the show's creative team has run out of gas. And so, instead of coherence, order, and closure, they try ever more variations on the forced opening: So many new characters, you think you're passing through O'Hare; story lines that multiply like fungi; characters that are put through uncharacteristic "makeovers"; and all-pc, all the time. (Recall the Lesbian Avenger. And when the ER character "Dr. Luka Kovac" (Goran Visnjic) kills a mugger, the perp is a white skinhead. What are the odds of being mugged in Chicago by a skinhead?)

And then there is the Michael Michele ("Dr. Cleo Finch") phenomenon: The affirmative action hire who is supposed to broaden the show's demographics -- but doesn't, and get the NAACP off the network's back -- but doesn't, and who is the dramatic equivalent of a "DNR" ("Do Not Resuscitate") order. As one Jump the Shark habitue put it, "This woman (I can't say actor with a straight face), first helped to destroy the best show on TV (Homicide) and now is at ER during its death knell. She is the female Ted McGinley." (Actor Ted McGinley has so often been added to casts just as a show starts to founder, that he is considered at JTS to be an omen presaging cancellation.)

When primetime shows attack, they desperately seek to create buzz -- through pc shtick, which masquerades as "pushing the envelope," when it really is safely inside the new envelope (remember Ellen Degeneres' coming-out party, all the lesbian kisses, and racial profiling story lines?); through skin (NYPD Blue's bare tuchuses and almost bare breasts); and through sex (24's first episode showed two teenagers engaged in simulated coitus on a bed in a furniture store).

But none of this shocks anyone any more. On an episode of Once and Again last season, two teenaged female characters kissed, and, it was suggested, had sex. But no one wrote about the scene, which was not produced to cause controversy, and which did not help the anemic ratings of one of TV's most powerful dramas.

After the ER episode, I checked the New York papers for mention of the farewell episode or the s-word by the TV critics, but found nothing. None of the 28.7 million viewers who tuned in that night, did so because they knew the show would present a character saying a cuss word. And so John Wells, the ER producer who brilliantly wrote and directed "On the Beach," helped make America a slightly less civilized place, while gaining nothing from the obscenity.

I have three different possible explanations why the word was largely ignored, each of which may apply to different media types or groups. 1. TV has gotten away with so much, in the way of foul language and sexual explicitness, that the word was anti-climactic; 2. Some media writers didn't mention it, because they want to see more of the same, and fear that drawing attention to it will lead to a return of standards by an embarrassed NBC; and 3. It created no buzz among youngsters and 20-somethings, because they usually watch cable, where they hear that sort of language all the time.

Had I been in charge at NBC, I would not have let the word pass. It was wrong. With that said, I feel obliged to add that it was the most powerful use of the word imaginable. The character was dying in his prime, his bodily systems shutting down, one by one. But he could have said "damn" or "Oh, G-d!" (My editor pointed out that the latter case could be the greatest blasphemy of all; I am using the word in terms of conventional, blasphemous morality.)

The networks' "standards and practices" departments have always existed to ensure that no "magic words" escape on screen. When I was a child, TV actors couldn't say "Damn!" on air, or even mention that a female character was pregnant. Standards and Practices also made sure audiences saw only separate beds for husbands and wives. Those were the days, my friends. Now, the NBC brass oscillates between complaining about the liberties cable shows take, and seeking to ape them.

(According to TV Tome, producer David E. Kelley also once got away with having actor Mark Harmon say the s-word on CBS' Chicago Hope (1994-2000). And just the other day, I heard Maury Povich say the s-word on his syndicated show.)

Barbara Tranchito of NBC's press office, who is responsible for ER, did not respond to telephone calls and an e-mail, asking what discussions went on at NBC prior to the airing of the episode, what NBC's current policy on obscenity is, and what purpose, if any, the network's department of Standards and Practices still has. Tranchito's young assistants asked if they could help me, but when I mentioned the episode, they had no idea what I was talking about. I suppose they only watch cable. (My experience has been that many network publicists would more properly be called "privatists.")

I suspect that Standards and Practices' main job now is to ensure that the depiction of blacks, Hispanics, women and homosexuals is as dishonest as possible.

Back in September 1976, when I left home for college, one of the going-away presents my mom gave me, was John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, a non-fiction book about an old man who, nearing the end, hits the road with his trusty dog. How I marveled that Steinbeck could tell earthy stories without resorting to any blue language.

If nothing is obscene, there is no art. For the notion of obscenity presupposes limits, just as the notion of art does. An art work must have structure and discipline, which do not permit anything and everything within its confines. No structure, no limits ... no art. And no structure, no limits, no ... civilization. 


Anonymous said...

jerry pdx
I remember back when the late great Robin Williams was doing his Mork character on TV, amongst his patter he would mischievously pepper in questionable words to see what he could "slip past the censors", I recall him in an interview saying how hard it could be: The censors even knew that "Putz" was Yiddish slang for "penis". It wasn't an attempt to get anything really graphic on TV, just harmless fun. I would imagine he's spinning in his grave to know how things have changed, though it was happening even when he was alive.

The most obvious sign that a show has run out of creative gas is the introduction of lesbian characters and graphic lesbian sexual activity. This has been true for many, many shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roseanne being two notable ones. Two brilliant shows when they started out but when "lesbianism as revenge against heterosexual white men" became a theme both became agonizingly bad. The use of lesbianism to promote ratings first emerged back in the days of Donohue and other talk shows. I recall that Donohue used to have gays and Christian conservatives face off on stage, at first it was wild, the audience would get involved, people would yell and scream at each other. Then there was an episode where Donohue thought he staged a great conflict between the two groups but when he asked the audience if anybody objected to the gay platform, there was silence, even the anti gay religious people didn't have much to say. After that things changed, lesbians started appearing without gay men and made it clear, even to the point of stating it directly at times, that they became lesbians to get revenge on the scumbag hetero white males who dumped on them. It was contradictory to the gay party line that all homosexuals are "born gay" and environment has nothing to do with being gay but rarely didn't anybody seem to notice, a few times I remember an audience member suggest it in the Q&A portion of the show but he or she would get shouted down with accusations of being ignorant and bigoted. Afterward lesbians onstage as "revenge against straight white men" became a standard device, Jerry Springer made that his theme every other week or so. I believe this media promotion of lesbianism has increased homosexuality in young females dramatically. This is what happens when you have no limits or constraints, imagine what TV entertainment is going to do when they can show graphic lesbian sex anytime they want. Maybe that's why Robin Williams killed himself.

Anonymous said...

YEP! Foul language becomes the norm. Main streamed as they say. Always from the lefty too.

Those medical TV shows are laughable. The negro doctor always cures the patients no one else can cure. The colored doctor always too has to correct the mistakes of the dumb whitey interns. The Oriental interns make FEWER mistakes than the whites do also.