Sunday, March 13, 2016

DONALD, OJ, AGATHA, FRANK & VIOLENCE ON TV

Original caricature by Jeff York of Donald Trump (copyright 2016)
In 2006, a Senate study reported that the average child in America will see over 16,000 murders on TV by the time they are 18 (http://bit.ly/1lF403V).

Is it any wonder that the violence and rage at the Trump rallies almost plays like just another episode of reality TV viciousness. Look! The popular villain whom the audiences “love to hate”, is wreaking havoc, saying the most outrageous things! This seemed to be the response to the last 10 months of Trump's atrocious campaign up until this weekend when the threat of a riot broke out at one of his rallies in Chicago. This isn’t manufactured Hollywood pabulum, despite the reality TV star at the center of the storm. It’s about the future of our country.

Last week on Ashleigh Banfield’s CNN show, they cut to a Trump rally to watch him pontificate in a similar bellicose way that he has done at all his rallies, inciting his crowds to chant and rage like their schoolboys holding the conch in Lord of the Flies. Finally, after about 15 minutes, CNN returned to Banfield and her guests, when one of them complained that the GOP frontrunner said nothing new and had wasted the network’s time. Banfield responded by agreeing with her, but noting that Trump made for “great television.”

Think about that for a moment. All the hate, all the bile, all the threats, all the divisiveness - that's great TV? How can cable news and Trump's party stand so blithely by and still cajole the monster's rampage of hate? Remember how the Huffington Post announced it was going to put Trump on its entertainment page, and not on its news page, because they didn't deem him a serious candidate? How tin-eared could Ariana and her editors be? Indeed too many in cable news media have helped create this monster and now it's to a point where the genuine threat of death shows up at his rallies. It seems that they've forgotten that at the end of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, the doctor and creature are all that each other have left. And they’re doomed to an arctic wasteland together.

One wonders what will stop this crazy horror show being broadcast nightly on CNN, Fox and MSNBC. Trump’s likely going to be the Republican presidential nominee, so what then? Will it take a Trump supporter killing a protester on live TV to change things? Perhaps Trump himself shooting someone with a gun on 5th Avenue as he bragged he could do without consequence? Then will this cease to be “great television”? 

And many on those cable news shows and on the debate stages still don't get it. They'll keep interviewing him or saying they'll support him if he's the nominee. They're all as tin-eared as HuffPo was earlier this political season. It’s especially disingenuous when you have Trump on stage telling his followers in clip after clip to to express their rage through violent acts against the protestors, and precious little is done about it or even expounded upon. Only Rachel Maddow seemed to truly understand exactly what was going on in Chicago this weekend and why it came to a head.  (http://on.msnbc.com/1QUfmhp ).

Are we all too desensitized by all those murders we see on TV, those 16,000 by the time we reach adulthood? Is violence and death really that common place to us that we miss the clues of a demagogue urging his followers to send protestors to the hospital?  


Shockingly, there are currently three scripted TV shows on that seem to understand far better the implications of such words and actions of violence and the fallout from them, and they are now serving as a form of antidote to this side show of vicious words and actions that have plagued the airwaves since Trump starting running. And while these three scripted entertainments are still entertaining, their responsibility in examining the issue of violence is mature and thoughtful in ways that cable news simply is not often enough these days.

The first is FX’s incredible miniseries AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON. For many like me who lived through the murder trial of the football superstar in the mid-90’s, to revisit that era is a disturbing time machine back to awful events that launched our nation’s obsession with “reality television.” The trial of Simpson became a real-life shit show that paved the way. Its soap opera-esque theatrics usurped legitimate soaps on TV and proved no scripted daytime drama could ever match its outrageousness. And the ratings went through the roof. Thus, more and more such unscripted dramas were ordered for TV.

Soon more Kato Kaelin's and Mark Fuhrman's were needed to satiate our appetites for larger-than-life characters and TV scrambled to come up with more oddballs and villains and train wrecks to watch. That's when reality TV starting makes stars of loathsome types like Richard Hatch, Omarosa, and those gauche real housewives on Bravo. TV was now pushing the crazy to new levels and viewers became more and more enthralled. 

But if you watch the miniseries THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON, you’ll not only see how the trial made Kardashian a household name, but also how shrewdly the creators of the show are drawing attention to the devastation inherent in the violent deaths of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. Despite the numbing of viewers to 16,000 of them in the media, these two carry weight. 

The truest point of the show is how it reminds us that even more awful than the creation of reality TV was the horrible chaos created around these very real homicides at the center of Simpson’s crimes. Nowhere was this point better demonstrated than when Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) sat down to talk in her DA office with Ron’s devastated father Fred Goldman and his sister Kim in episode five.

Clark opens their conversation by stating that she understands how Goldman feels, and the distraught father all but screams at her in his disdain, “Really? Did you have a son who was murdered?!” Clark freezes in the moment, as Paulson brilliantly essays that her character spoke way too soon. And as Goldman continues to lay out exactly what he’s feeling, that which she has no understanding of whatsoever, we too in the audience are shamed into recognizing that we’ve viewed his son’s death more as a plot point rather than the devastating loss that it was. Goldman (in an Emmy-worthy turn by Joseph Siravo) laments with great fervor that his son has been forgotten by the media circus covering the OJ show and that it is almost as painful to him. “My son is a footnote in his own murder!” is what he bellows at her. 

This drama adroitly reminds us not only of how the American justice system, media and rabid audience poured salt in the Goldman's wounds, but how this became the forerunner for the mentality that allowed a charlatan like Trump to hijack the GOP and the primary season as well, drawing all the energy from cable news day after day, night after night. It's "great television", so they say.


Another show that reminds us that violence should not be so easily trivialized is Lifetime’s two-part adaptation of Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Premiering Sunday, March 13, and concluding the next evening, this chestnut of a mystery has been around since 1939 when Christie’s book was first published. Yet this version adds a real sense of menace, dread and responsibility to its examination of 10 guests lured to a secluded island to 'stand trial' for the crimes that they got away with. 

The story became Dame Agatha's bestselling novel of all-time and it's been adapted into a play and many filmed versions of the tale. Some of the executions have been wonderful, like Rene Clair’s 1945 darkly comedic take on the material. Still others have been utter crap, like the god-awful international production done in1974 as a quickie flick to capitalize on the success of England's sterling film adaptation of Christie's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

Christie’s story is easy to get lost in, what with its intricate plotting and devilishly clever construct, but at the end of the day, the story is about bad people that got away with murder and their justified comeuppance for escaping the hand of the law. One by one, they’re knocked off in accordance to a children’s poem called 10 Little Indians that their demises echo. It’s a nasty work, but the Lifetime version, imported from BBC One, is the first one that I’ve ever seen where the implications of murder are not laughed at or the audience watching is not conveniently allowed to remain distant. Instead, we are shown the crimes, in flashback, and that front row seat is harrowing. 

This version truly drives home the fact that these ten are getting the justice they deserve. After all, they've blithely gone on with their lives despite their devastating crimes. If many of the takes on Christie’s greatest work in the past have suggested that most of the ten were mere victims of misunderstanding or manslaughter at best, this version makes it clear that all of them were guilty as hell.

In fact, watching Inspector Blore (Burn Gorman), one of the characters, beat a homosexual to death in a Scotland Yard flashback, is shocking, even after the 16,000 murders we viewers have witnessed. We can't wait for him to get what's coming to him after that. In previous versions, we rooted for the island’s guests to somehow figure out who is putting them through their paces, but here we count down the dead pool with the same sense of clear-eyed retribution that the island's judge, jury and executioner is experiencing too. 


Finally, another TV venture that really shines the light on violent words and actions is the fourth season of HOUSE OF CARDS that just dropped on Netflix two weekends ago. And this year, the  popular series is at its most devastating. Why? Precisely because it reminds us a great deal of the same monstrosities being perpetrated during our current primary season. 

In the first two seasons of the limited series, congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) lusted for power and went about eliminating any pol or spectator who stood in his way. His actions even included murder. But by the third season, he had succeeded so spectacularly that he became the President of the United States. And in the 13 episodes of that season, he turned into almost a sympathetic lead. He struggled to do some good things, like push through a jobs agenda, and he tried standing up to a ruthless Russian leader, who was cast to look uncannily like Putin. Suddenly, Underwood's underhanded bite was muzzled and his vicious behaviors curbed. But this season, he's back to being the awful scoundrel that he is and his treacherous behavior knows no bounds. He and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are one vicious duo who will do anything to keep their power. And they're terrifying, as they are meant to be on the program.

What are the lengths this modern day Macbeth and his lady will go to? In addition to ruining oodles of lives and careers, they play fast and loose with their facts, national and international policies, and demean others as the enemies of the state that should be condemned. (Is Trump getting his game plan from this show?) By the end of the fourth season, the Underwood’s have all but ensured they’ll remain in power by adding fuel to the fire of a nation’s terrorist fears. And as the Underwood’s coldly watch an innocent man beheaded on national television by an ISIS-like group, the trace of a knowing smirk turns the corners of their mouths upwards. They know that this strategy will work. Selling fear is their, ahem, trump card.

It’s probably good that scripted dramas like these want to do more than just entertain. They remind us of the devastation of violence and death. And they take a strong stand against of all of its enablers who make so much of the debauchery merely par for the discourse. From the law to the congress to the media to the audiences eating it up with a spoon, we all need to have our feet held to the fire. America is truly through the looking glass when such scripted programming stands with a better sense of moral outrage than cable news does. 

No comments:

Post a Comment