Culture > Television

TV: The limits of V-chips

Television | Cultural conservatives should be careful what we ask for: While The West Wing is violence-free, it's more offensive than the violent Harsh Realm-a key distinction

Issue: "Gunpoint evangelist," Oct. 9, 1999

The opening scenes of Harsh Realm's pilot are intensely violent-this could be the most violent network television series ever. For that reason alone, Harsh Realm is objectionable. The West Wing, on the other hand, isn't violent at all, and it even goes relatively light on the profanity. But it is deeply offensive, contending, for example, that it's fine to demonize the Christian right "because [the] group has plenty of demons." Harsh Realm opens with a firefight; a patrol of U.S. Marines is pinned down in Bosnia. They go to extraordinary lengths to shield a group of children; when one of the soldiers is hit, his buddy crosses a no-man's-land to rescue him. They cover themselves with a mattress as the American air support arrives with its missiles. The rightly named Thomas Hobbs emerges from the Bosnian conflict a hero, the government's chosen man to fix a glitch in its new virtual-reality training system, code-named Harsh Realm. He must go in and eliminate a VC-virtual character-who has gained control of the virtual world. He agrees, and dons VR gear. (The VR chair bears the words, "Siege Perilous," which was the name of the chair at the Round Table reserved for the worthiest knight, Sir Galahad.) But getting back out of Harsh Realm won't be as easy as getting in. Hobbs wants out-he had a week left in the service, and his fiancée had just picked out her wedding gown. "How do I get back to you?" he asks aloud, thinking of his fiancée. "All I can think is I must finish the game." The game is violent; there's plenty of gunfire (but little blood; when virtual characters die, they merely disappear in an electronic flash). Warning: This program is not Seventh Heaven, not even Seventh Heaven with automatic weapons. Yet, while it attacks our sensibilities, it does not attack our beliefs. That's exactly what The West Wing does. It's more than a little heartening to note that the overnight Nielsen ratings showed more people watched the Country Music Awards than watched the premiere of The West Wing. Still, The West Wing's numbers were respectable (a 12.0 rating and a 19 share, meaning nearly 20 million people tuned in), and it won't likely be leaving office any time soon. The show centers on Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), the Stephanopoulesque deputy communications director for the White House, who faithfully serves a Democratic president (Martin Sheen). We are supposed to root for the harried White House staffers, the female political consultant sleeping with a senator, even a part-time law student/full-time prostitute. We are supposed to hiss the bad guys, who are all on the Christian right. Staff member Josh is in trouble for telling a Christian on a talking-heads program, "Your god is too busy being indicted for tax fraud." Poor Josh, forced to apologize, laments: "Two centuries of presidents are rolling over in their graves." But President Martin Sheen has it right: He castigates Christians because someone sent his pro-choice activist, 12-year-old granddaughter a vicious message (a doll with a knife stuck in it). In coming weeks, look for Washington to target Harsh Realm for harsher criticism, and to applaud itself in The West Wing. The two programs show that cultural conservatives must be discerning. Those who appealed to Washington for less violence on television have brought forward a V-chip that will block Harsh Realm but not The West Wing. This is not progress.

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