"I see dead people." It’s not just a line proffered by a young boy with an exceptional range of vision, it’s now the case for all those working stiffs in search of emotional consolation who plump themselves down in front of the boob tube during prime time.
What the latter viewers are likely to see on network television has changed considerably over the years. "I Love Lucy" comedies and "Bonanza" Westerns morphed into "Laugh In" irreverence and Norman Lear commentary wrapped in domestic dysfunction. More recently viewers were treated to "Married With Children" cynicism--sit-com sleaze with a smirk. The question that then arose for TV moguls was this: Where do we go from here?
Having sated audiences with visions of firm flesh--and having convinced them that casual copulation after puberty is infinitely less important than inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke--the folks who regularly substitute shock-value for dramatic depth were perplexed. It wasn’t just a matter of where to push the envelope. It was a question of what envelope to push. As his "Crime Scene Investigation" programs indicate, producer Jerry Bruckheimer topped the long-standing industry obsession with sex with a clutch of shows featuring vivid images of death.
"Corpses R Us" might be an alternate title for these forensic dramas that exchange a fleshless Freddy Krueger for grotesque shots of bodies lying in various states of disrepair--either at the crime scene or atop an autopsy table. Close-ups of no-longer-vital organs being probed for admissible evidence prompts visceral reactions from viewers no longer aroused by gratuitous shots of animate mammary glands. Highlighted tissue isn’t distinguished by its beauty, but rather by its vulnerability to decay and displacement. Over against this vision of decomposition, the lyrical assertion: "All we are is dust in the wind," seems positively romantic.
On top of these haunting visual displays, CSI Las Vegas patrons are often treated to philosophical disquisitions that equate human life with the remains accessible during a post-mortem exam. "That’s all we really are," observed the bearded protagonist whose eyes gleam when discussing roller-coaster thrills but (like almost all the dramatic cast) has no room in his life for unnecessary chemical baggage--i.e. a wife and kids.
Donald Bellisario’s NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), joins Bruckheimer’s small-screen trio in exploring the commercial possibilities of pathology. Besides mortuarial moments that match anything displayed by CSI., NCIS adds to the scientific mix a brilliant, dark-haired woman who "just happens to be" a fan of BDSM. Her spiked necklace and Gothish appearance don’t make it clear whether Abby inclines more to the BD or the SM side of the erotic ledger. But her expertise and perkiness make one thing perfectly obvious--what once was considered perverse, is now just another day at the office.
It isn’t surprising that folks in the entertainment business--bereft of intellectual depth or moral insight--should grasp at any straw they can lay their hands on to get an emotional rise out of audiences. In lieu of dramatic intensity, they settle for envelope-pushing. For creativity they substitute titillation. Instead of works that give to virtue a local habitation and a name, they peddle spiritual pornography. Anything for an audience.
As snuff-films and "bug-chasing" erotic parties grimly testify, the last rung on the cultural ladder that leads to oblivion is a preoccupation with death--a desperate fascination born of the belief that only a random biological fluke distinguishes a living soul from a corpse.