Friday, April 20, 2007

THE TASTE POLICE

"His writing was always kinda peculiar..."


I was about an hour into Monday night's coverage of the tragedy in Virginia, watching Greta and Geraldo, unable to fill their reportage with any new or firm facts, beginning to spin speculative and increasingly unhinged motives for America's latest bloodbath. Then somebody brought up our "culture of violence", positing that the killer might have learned his craft from television. And I thought, "Oh, God -- here we go again..."

And, indeed, there we went for the next couple of days, as the predictable parade of crazies, moralists and axe grinders all got a chance to insist that TV violence, video games, rap music and anything else they don't like, can't understand or choose to finger, is responsible for everything bad that goes on in the world.

There was a new villain trotted out on Monday night, the relatively new online community, Facebook. Facebook has been in the news a lot recently, apparently home to all kinds of racists, fascists or adolescent teacher haters. A lot of schools are now banning students from gathering on Facebook. I'm not sure how that's accomplished, or what it really accomplishes. But I guess it's an act of self-preservation that also saves teachers from actually having to "engage" their students and understand what's going on in their heads and their lives.

But I digress...Back to Monday...

I insist on getting my American news from FOX because it's become such a caricature of newscasting that you don't need Jon Stewart or the writers from "Saturday Night Live" or "22 Minutes" to add any jokes. FOX is pretty much ludicrous right out of the gate. So you get the same facts you'll get from MSNBC or CNN but with that little something extra to keep it in perspective.

The concept that "Shit Happens!" does not exist on FOX. They always find somebody to blame.

Around the time the Virginia State Police were concluding the shooter was of Asian descent, Geraldo was outing a young Asian male named Wayne Chiang as the potential shooter based on his Facebook pages. It turned out, Mr. Chiang was very much alive, and by next morning was dealing with numerous death threats, slanderous accusations and had lost service on his cell phone because of all the crank calls.

As he dryly put it, "I guess I was five for five: Asian, lived in the dorm, go to V. Tech, recently broke up with my girlfriend and collect guns."

I don't know if FOX ever apologized to Mr. Chaing. I do know they didn't bring up the possibility of any gun-toting psychos having a page on MYSPACE, the competing online community that they purchased last year.

Next morning, Bill Hammer interviewed a gentleman who insisted that the Virginia Killer had been addicted to the same first person shooter game as the Columbine Duo and a number of other homicidal maniacs. This "expert" claimed that the Washington Post had unearthed the same information. Mr. Hammer, having retained some journalistic cred from his days at CNN, pointed out that he'd been unable to find that information in either the Post's online or print editions.

That statement of fact didn't stop the rant.

By Tuesday night, we'd learned that the Virginia Tech madman was an English Major with a bent for writing material his classmates found disturbing and gruesome.

"When we read Cho's plays, it was like something out of a nightmare... They had really twisted, macabre violence... When the students gave reviews in class, we were careful with our words in case he decided to snap."

I never achieved a degree in psychiatry, so I can't say whether the killer's writings foreshadowed the rampage he brought to life. But I tend to agree with Stephen King -- "On the whole, I don't think you can pick these guys out based on their work, unless you look for violence unenlivened by any real talent."

Will all these debates prevent this kind of tragedy from recurring? I guess you can hope they might, but I doubt it.

Twice in my career I've been in charge of the writing on shows considered the most violent on television. During the late 80's, "Friday the 13th" was both a hit on late night TV and continuously attacked by the then fledgling "Religious Right" who saw us as "Satan worshipers" bent on corrupting the youth of America, turning them to demonology, human sacrifice and relentless blood-letting.

To be sure, the series featured characters meting out death and meeting their own ends in painfully creative ways. Our world was filled with serial killers, diabolical scientists, vampires, werewolves and yes, crazed teens filled with vengeful rage.

But we also engaged in a lot of soul searching, analyzing and otherwise deconstructing what we were doing. Scripts were written and rewritten. Final cuts were recut, screened repeatedly and tweaked to make sure that while offering hard core horror we weren't doing anything that would indelibly warp the average viewer.

The key word there is "average". You simply cannot tailor any creative work to neither offend nor provoke someone with a different agenda. Even the Mona Lisa has been razored and splashed with paint for her supposed sins.

During the run of F13, I got dozens of incoherent letters from "fans" including a 3" thick scrapbook of blood colored scrawls the sender insisted had been dictated by Lucifer himself.

On the other side of the ledger, I received many calls from those who had received a personal message from God to save my soul. Apparently God could find their number to deliver his message, but not mine.

We went through our, at times agonizing, process to make sure we didn't get a visit from what we called "The Taste Police". These fictional authorities weren't representatives of the show's opponents. On the contrary, they represented the guardians of our own critical faculties, who would come for us if we did anything shoddy, irresponsible or just plain stupid.

A year or so later, I was writing and producing "Top Cops" acknowledged by no less an authority than TIME Magazine as "the most violent show on television".

We soon put that moniker down to the growing American hysteria about runaway production when we learned that a scene in which an unresisting suspect was handcuffed and placed in a squad car accounted for "Three aggressive and violent incidents" those being the attaching of the cuffs, the arm on an elbow in escorting the suspect to the cruiser and the officer's hand on his head (insuring he didn't injure himself) while being placed in the back seat.

"Friday the 13th" eventually lost its three season battle with the Reverend Donald Wildmon and others of the Religious Right. Enraged, we surmised, by an episode in which all the bad guys were members of the Ku Klux Klan, they went after our advertisers, most of whom were new to this kind of publicity and eventually caved.

For our final episode, we decided we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and made it about everything they had accused us of being. Instead of turning out tasteless and crass, it was one of our best pieces and the script was nominated for a Gemini award.

The Taste Police kept us in line.

"Top Cops" did not suffer the same fate. But we were sued almost weekly by someone who felt they had been harmed or offended by our recreations of actual crimes. We never lost one because the Taste Police once again kept us from being the pointlessly violent series our detractors insisted we were.

Our worst moment came the day after we had done the story of serial rapist who had terrorized New York City. That morning, The Daily News front page screamed "RAPED ON TELEVISION" and told the story of one of the rapists original victims who had been traumatized when she saw herself being attacked all over again on the show.

As the day wore on, she was on talk shows and newscasts, recounting the pain and humiliation she had suffered at our hands. The story was everywhere. I was getting calls from "Nightline" and "Entertainment Tonight" as well as newspapers I'd never heard of, all wanting a statement to feed their hungry media machines. All we could tell them was that we had done nothing wrong. And we hadn't.

In fact, the Taste Police had made sure that the our recreation of the events had completely concealed the identities of the victims and made certain they could not be identified. None of the attacks were even depicted. In addition, we'd contacted all of the victims personally, making sure they knew what we were doing, and that there was nothing inadvertently overlooked that could cause them further pain and embarrassment.

In the end, the case was dismissed as baseless. That story didn't get a single mention in the media.

I know there are creative works released into the world that have little redeeming value. But I refuse to believe that they cause the harm that is so often credited to them. In the 1930's the demons were gangster films, in the 40's it was comic books, followed by rock 'n roll, porn, video games, rap and now Facebook.

As of tonight, we know the Virginia shooter was mentally ill, terribly alienated and desperately lost on so many levels. What he did was horrendous and unfathomable. His victims deserved their fate no more than the victims of drunk drivers, deluded Presidents or a tidal wave in the Pacific.

Lay blame somewhere that fits your prejudices if you must, but the truth is -- sometimes Shit Happens...

5 comments:

Kelly J. Compeau said...

I was a huge fan of Friday the 13th, Jim. I always found it entertaining but never outrageously irresponsible in its storytelling methods. Indeed, it was one of the earliest examples of Canadian-made television that inspired me to take a crack at producing my own horror genre series here in Canada.

KJC (who thought the series finale was worthy of a Gemini nom)

Bill Cunningham said...

Jim -

Any thoughts as to why we haven't seen a FRIDAY THE 13TH DVD set?

I was always a huge fan of the show. In particular I liked the Dracula episode where they traveled back in time and met Bram Stoker. If I remember correctly, the director of that episode went on to direct the DARKMAN D2V sequels.

jimhenshaw said...

I've had a couple of people tell me they've seen a DVD set in Japan being sold in a coffin shaped box, which I thought was cool. But no idea when they will be released here, or whether the Asian version is legit.

And yes, Brad May did both of the D2V Darkmans.

Kelly J. Compeau said...

Yeah, that was one of my favourite eps, too. Another was 'The Prophecies' parts I & II where series regular John LeMay bids fairwell to the show as his character is transformed into a 10 yr. old boy. It was sad to see him go.

nicholas galvante said...

dear mr. henshaw.

i actually bought some f13:ts off you long time ago on ebay. thanks again!!

the charnel pit is one of my all time favorite episodes. it seemed like a natural fitting progression to go that route in the third season. sure, many people didn't like it. but i love the whole humanity and evil aspect. i still wonder what a season four would be like...

or a new f13: ts with me producing... :)

just wanted to say everything you wrote in your blog is right. SHIT HAPPENS.

i still don't understand why a great show like F13 got canned compared to all the crap that's on tv right now in the uncertain future...

f13 was one of the shows that made a big impression on me when i was eight/nine years old. it did teach me about right and wrong. it's still a great concept to me. "what if you could make a faustian deal?" "would you use a cursed object?" like my right arm... i had an accident one day a couple of years ago. and i would think to myself... "hmm.. should i?" it's a joke of course. but again, knowing what the consequences would follow, i wouldn't...

i looked up to the ryan dallion character. and as silly as this may sound, i thought to myself... "when i grow up i want to hunt down cursed objects..." obviously, that was fiction... but that show made me appreciate antiques... and i plan to run a shop like "curious goods" one day.

f13 had a lot of heart. the show still holds up today. that's why i'll always respect you as a writer.

thanks for being an inspiration
n. galvante

(oh, is it okay if i show the charnel pit or repost your blog on my page?? i have a section called cult tv where i put up underappreciated shows of my time...)