A few days ago, the LA Times/AP reported that CBS is annoyed w/ television critics. The network feels that several of their “'buzz-worthy” series, NCIS and Criminal Minds in particular, just aren't getting the attention they deserve
The latest CBS whining is yet another indication that almost two years after critics rightly cornered CBS' Criminal Minds producers over their gratuitiously violent content, the network is too enamored of itself to absorb critical feedback - namely that much of their programming is unwatchable trash.
The other night I stumbled upon a NCIS episode – okay , I admit it, I was channel slumming. It was something about models making a military training film until the shooting schedule is rudely interrupted when one is found hanging off a fence after dying of a drug overdose.
The feelgood subplot/cliche (the morality part - just so the audience doesn't feel too dirty after watching an evening about women hanging off fences): Gibbs (Mark Harmon) fails to show up and collect an award at some big ceremony organized in his honor because – you guessed it – he’s such a humble hero.
The writing is so bad, so clichéd, so middle school, it’s downright embarrassing.
Not getting enough attention, CBS? Perhaps it’s time for a little network soul searching.
During their years at Vassar my daughter and her friends (now freshly graduated), were loyal CSI fans. A DVD screening was an event. They’d crowd into their campus apartment to watch and any interruption was met w/ a chorus of annoyed “shhhhhhhhhhh!!!!”s
But they stopped watching and started complaining, vociferously, as only Vassar girls can, about the relentless violence against women. The Vassar crowd can be intense - opinionated, confident, and radicalized. So, I committed myself to screening an entire week of broadcast net procedurals to see if the content was as dire as they described.
I barely lasted two hours. It was a year ago, a Wednesday night during sweeps. After just 20 minutes my husband, shorn of the remote for the night, announced “this is torturous,” and left the room to download a Battlestar Galactica episode off iTunes.
Let’s look at just one CBS evening, Wednesday, February 1, 2006.
Criminal Minds focused on a serial killer who invades homes w/ young children, lingering in the house for days as he forces the father to watch one agonizing murder at a time. This was nothing less than a snuff film.
CSI NY: the gossamer thin plot starts off w/ a, um, bang - a couple having hot sex against a wall on a rooftop, the woman stripped to the waist to expose her lacy, black bra. Their activities come to a halt when they're both shot through w/ a single arrow, pinning them to the wall.
The next morning, the CSI team arrives to investigate, laughing and joking and goofing around the crime scene while the still half-dressed corpse hangs limply on the wall, still pinned in place by the arrow, on display like a trophy animal
I seem to recall that Kankaredes, clearly the life of the party, shows up on scene brandishing a chain saw. She grins and quips, "this is the part of the job I love!” before she cuts the body from the wall, slinging woodchips like confetti.
In the morgue, Gary Sinese rolls the body around on the exam table as if he’s preparing steak tartare. Later on, there was lots of discussion about pubic hair on the page of an appointment book.
As I watched, I couldn't help but wonder if Kankaredes and Sinese - both fine actors - aren't deeply embarrassed. I often wonder if they go home at night and think about how they might reshape their lives so they don't have work this way.
As the interminable episode slogs on – and, yes, this all takes place in the same episode - the suspects in a different murder case are members of a female rock band called Rough Sects. The rockers are under so much pressure to make it big they crush some poor guys larynx w/ an electric guitar after they catch him papering over their billboards.
and I'm only giving you the faint outlines of the evening. The CSI-NY promo featured the bra-clad corpse pinned to the wall. Promos for upcoming procedurals screamed rape.
Watching this bloody stuff in HD on a 42 inch plasma screen - oh, joy!
(Curiously, one of the sponsors that night was M&M celebrating their candies w/ a neon bright, kaleidoscopic ad. It was the most fun I had all evening.)
The Vassar posse are dedicated television watchers, just the demo you’d think CBS would want to cultivate. But comments by the posse indicate the demo has abandoned the network.
Julia H. says she turned off to CSI after a teen girl was raped and later murdered by her killer.
“I don't watch any shows on CBS because that story content is not appealing to me, whether it's in a court room or in a jail cell…. “ she says,
It’s not the violence per se that disturbs Julia, it's the context. She praises writers of HBO, Sci Fi Channel and CW series for their deft handling of difficult subject matter and/or their sensitivity toward their audience. “If a show is going to be violent or depict abuse of any kind (sexual, drug-related, etc.),” she says,” let it have a purpose and teach something to the audience. The Wire is a good example of this. It's brutal, but it seems real, and it's not just people shooting people for entertainment...
When somebody dies or is attacked on shows like Veronica Mars and Battlestar Galactica - my two favorite dramas - it's extremely upsetting. But my reaction has never been, 'Oh god, this is so violent and disgusting.' TV writers know how attached viewers can get to a character and to harm them in a brutal or gratuitous way can be a disservice to the audience, and the character they've developed. "
The problem w/ procedurals, she points out, is "the producers know they can get away with showing certain things because there's no emotional tie to a victim.”
Veronica Mars had a rape story arc this fall, says Julia, and “the writers got flack for it because it's not the most savory of story lines. But VM is a mystery series, and I felt like they handled it delicately and intelligently.”
Nina F. was at one time an L&O and CSI enthusiast. “I used to really like CSI and Law and Order. I thought CSI especially was a great idea for a show, and had engaging actors and good pacing. I feel like as its popularity grew, it got more sexual and increasingly more violent towards women.”
Nina is particularly disturbed by what she calls the sexualization of the dead.
“[It's not just that] these shows bombard you with the dead, sometimes mutilated, bodies of women every single episode, it's that they sexualize the dead,” she observes, “The women are usually naked, almost always raped, and most of the time are involved in interesting sexual exploits that they [the writers] love to reenact.”
One of the last straws for Nina was a Law and Order episode in which she says a women wearing revealing clothing was found murdered behind a dumpster. “The detective and the coroner,” reports Nina, “had a five minute conversation about how they would have liked to ‘get a crack at her,’ had she not been clubbed to death the night before.:
Nina says she's angry and fed up. “Raped dead women are the norm, and I'm tired of it. I stopped watching all those shows.”
Who clears this stuff for production anyway, I ask? CBS is the worst offender. How many women have to be found hanging off fences, held captive in cages, or found dead in sexualized circumstances before we conclude that some CBS executive in charge might have some pretty serious kinks?
Instead of whining about the lack of attention they’re getting from the critics, maybe CBS programming execs should pay attention to the Vassar girl bellweather. They drifted away from CBS shows over a year ago and, instead, gave their considerable young devotion to CW, SciFi Channel and ABC.
And campus habits are finally being measured. Last Thursday was the first time that dorm viewing was included in the national sample. ABC had its best Thursday night in 15 years, crushing CBS. Grey's Anatomy opened up the biggest advantage to date over CSI (6.8/16, 21.49m), according to Variety, supporting what the Vassar girls have been saying for some time.
Like Julia, Nina is a devoted Veronica Mars viewer. “The writing on that show is phenomenal, and they were able to deal with a whole season of campus rapes pretty tastefully and well. Also, they portray women my age as thoughtful, sarcastic and interesting, which today on television, is a revelation.”
Nina's other television addictions include Ugly Betty and Lost although she complains “this season [of Lost] sucks compared to the last two.”
Perhaps a word of caution to ABC, given that the Vassar girls seem to be something of a bellweather. Says Nina: “I've been sucked into the vortex of this season of Grey's Anatomy, even though I hate myself for it. I'm just watching it for Sandra Oh, who rocks. That other chick [Ellen Pompeo] is waaaaaay too skinny and whiny for me to take her seriously.”
Update: Feb. 6, 2007 Go here to Aaron Barnhart's blog for a morsel of mayhem. Says Aaron: "You know, it seems like only yesterday that David Spade was on Comedy Central — about the coolest thing David Spade has done in years — making fun of CBS with a hilarious clip reel lampooning its blood-soaked procedural dramas." Follow the link to the clip reel.
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