|Photo by Ron Tom/CBS|
Moral Majority types who claim that television is a bottomless pit of evil aren’t completely wrong. Rather, like a room full of stopped clocks, they’re right several times a day. I was reminded of this recently while watching a promo for some CSI reruns on Spike TV.
“If you’re looking for cool chicks who look good in red, and are all zipped up,” announced a gravelly voice, “skip the velvet rope and head for the yellow tape . . .”
The “chicks” were corpses, spattered with blood; the things being “zipped up” were not tight red dresses but body bags. The promo, which was about 15 seconds long, included shots of strippers, car chases, police photographers, and several dead women in various states of decay. One, laid out on a mortuary table, had no skin left on her body. She was the reddest of the “chicks who look good in red.”
You have to wonder about a culture that can produce something like that — and about what it’s doing to the rest of the world.
Years ago, when I first moved to America, I rented a room in New York that had just been vacated by a guy called John Kassir. There was a television on the floor, an old black-and-white thing he must have left behind. It didn’t work very well, but that’s where I got my first taste of American TV. (I’d been raised on the BBC.) I found it very strange — violent, surreal and slightly mad. Twenty years later I ran into Kassir on Melrose Avenue. By then, he was acting on television and I was writing about it.
And there, on CSI’s season opener (CBS, Thursday, 9 p.m.), was my man Kassir again. Such is the magic of Hollywood, he looks better now than when I first met him. He was only onscreen for a minute, standing in the doorway of a Las Vegas hotel room in a white dressing gown. A detective was questioning him about a murder that had taken place the previous night. Kassir mentioned hearing a man and a woman shout at each other in the corridor. What time was this? demanded the detective. About 10:35, Kassir’s character replied.
“Ten thirty-five? You seem to be pretty sure about that.”
“Well, I’d just ordered a pay-per-view movie, and it was just about to begin.”
“Which one was that?”
“You mean Armageddon.”
A look of understanding, almost of compassion, passed across the detective’s face. Of course: single guy, Las Vegas, hotel room, porn.
“Good movie?” he asked.
“Worked for me,” Kassir replied in a voice located somewhere between defiance and shame.
Well, it’s standard cop fare, of course. This is a genre that has always emphasized the seedy. And what else would a guy in a Vegas hotel room be watching? The Sorrow and the Pity? “Down these mean streets a man must walk,” as Raymond Chandler said of his hero Philip Marlowe back in the 1930s. But if he were writing for CSI, he’d probably replace “mean” with “sick.”
Later in the same episode, a bearded, middle-aged medical examiner standing over the usual gorgeous female corpse (this one had had her throat cut after a night of group sex) picked a tiny piece of silver paper from between the dead woman’s toes. One of those patented CSI close-ups revealed an “S” cut into the middle of it.
“Glitter?” the female detective with him asked.
“Yeah,” the examiner replied. And then, half-apologetically, added, “There is a strip club named Shimmer over on Industrial. I recognized the ‘S’ almost immediately.”
“You go, Doc?”
The doc, an eminently respectable man, gave her a small complicit smile that said: We all go, don’t we?
To which the honest answer is: Yes, we do. Most of us, anyway. And one way or another we always have. (Think of those Victorian wives who, on the death of their husbands, found dirty post cards hidden in a locked drawer.) What’s changed is our eagerness to emphasize the fact, along with our vastly expanded technological ability to titillate and scold. The question is, why are we so keen to stress the most joyless aspects of sexuality? Why is it so important to us? Why do we keep hammering away at this one theme?
“Who Are You?” sings The Who’s Roger Daltrey in CSI’s title song — written, appropriately enough, by Pete Townshend, who was arrested early this year on suspicion of downloading child pornography from the Internet. Who are you? You’re a pervert, says CSI. At the very least, a voyeur. Why else would you be watching?