Columnists > Judgment Calls

Channel slumming

A foray into the disgusting, debauched cable culture

Issue: "Progress in Hollywood," March 23, 2002

I don't have cable and I don't have time, so by default if not by virtue I am out of the loop of much culture. To give you an idea of the deplorable depths of my disenfranchisement, I am the only person on the planet who had never seen Seinfeld in its umpteen years' run, and had to make amends by tuning in to the last hyped episode to avoid total cultural irrelevancy. Reaching back for the next nearest floe on a sea of ignorance, I recall the program I Spy with a young actor named Bill Cosby, and after that everything goes to fade-out.

But I brought myself up to speed lately, feeling constrained as the cultural gatekeeper at this address, and am now impelled, by a horror that needs venting, to commit to paper what may be news to only one or two other Rip van Winkles out there.

Take your most prurient, perverse, debauched sexual fantasies of puberty, the ones that periodically ambushed your teenage thinking and that you never breathed a word of to anyone because they were straight from the pit of hell and you were sure that no one in the world, not even Hugh Hefner, had ever thought them. These are standard fare on TV now-daytime, prime time, anytime.

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But to begin with the merely disgusting, check out the "mook," an MTV (parent company Viacom) creation, the anti-role model pitched to your adolescent son-gross, obnoxious, in-your-face. The most bankable of Viacom's brainstorms, his multifarious forms include Howard Stern, Tom Green of The Tom Green Show, the daredevils of Jackass whose dignity-defying feats include a stunt called "poo diving" (don't ask), and the frat boys with their whipped cream-clad girlfriends on MTV's recurring Spring Break specials.

Was your role model as a youngster Matt Dillon or Little Joe Cartwright? Your son looks to the crude cartoon cutouts of South Park and the nauseating eating contests of The Man Show, courtesy of MTV's sister network, Comedy Central. Was professional wrestling with its Neanderthal 300-pound body slams the outpost of the fringe element of society in your day? Today it is the most popular form of entertainment among the 18 to 24 male demographic.

Now we get to the bad stuff. While your son is merely being groomed to be a gross-out, your daughter, who may or may not have heard of Joan of Arc or Deborah, has Britney Spears's songs committed to memory (uplifting titles like "Baby, One More Time," "I'm Not That Innocent," and "Oops, I Did It Again"), and is getting down "the look."

"The look" is that come-on expression that overnight transforms the innocent, open-faced 10-year-old girl who cuddled Beanie Babies to the sultry, soul-dead, jaded, been-there-done-that seductress that MTV aggressively markets. It is itself a ground for indictment in the Bible: "The look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it" (Isaiah 3:9).

"The look" is a phenomenon of some interest to me, especially since I traveled to Korea three years ago and saw that it is international now. Who would have thought that a country deepened by millennia of suffering could so quickly fall to what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called "the revolting invasion of commercial advertising, TV stupor, and intolerable music." Visits 20 years apart to the former "land of the morning calm" revealed a nation of cacophonous MTV clones on wall-to-wall television screens in every house and tabang of Seoul. The domino theory lives.

Meet one of its perpetrators, WB network, which, shall we say, had its heart in the right place for about 15 minutes with its slogan "Where America's families can watch television together," and the relatively benign teen drama 7th Heaven. But what's a network to do when it's up against the likes of Beverly Hills 90210 and other risqué teen fare? Answer: remake the image and produce its own 90210 knock-off, Dawson's Creek, about a gang of sex-obsessed high-schoolers on Cape Cod. And slot it for 8:00, formerly "family hour."

Now we've upped the ante, but it must keep upping because this is the name of the game in entertainment today. WB is topped by MTV with its salacious offering Undressed. At your cineplex, the envelope is further pushed with the 1999 teen flick Cruel Intentions, where the gauntlet thrown down is incest, that last frontier of titillation for a jaded, self-debased culture.

I remember, last time I checked in with entertainment in the late '60s, that there was still a gap between my culture and the improbable story in Genesis 19. Ladies and gentlemen, Sodom and Gomorrah have arrived; look no further down the road. So be an angel and take your son and daughter by the hand and flee. For we know what happens next.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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