On TV, it's hard to tell reality

Barbara T. Roessner

November 08, 1993|By Barbara T. Roessner

WHILE pondering the television- and movie-viewing public's inability to distinguish what's real from what's not, I happened upon a little scene from this week's "Murphy Brown" that seemed to crystallize the issue.

I had been thinking about fire on "Beavis and Butt-head," highway pranks in "The Program" and what to do about copycat violence among our young, when Murphy started moaning to Miles about her sleazy assignment covering the case of a high-priced prostitute to the pols.

Why, Murphy demanded to know, couldn't she apply her formidable skills to more substantive matters? Why not health care, Somalia, Serbia? Why the contents of some little black book?

"This isn't 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' " Miles fumed. "There aren't people out there laughing at every little thing you say. This is the real world!"

Well, no wonder we're disoriented. Television makes fun of television with a joke about not being another television show that makes fun of a television show. Jeez. This is one heck of a hall of mirrors we're supposed to negotiate here. No wonder we're having trouble finding our way to the exit sign.

Murphy initiates this game with some frequency, of course. She's the one who had Katie Couric and Paula Zahn to her baby shower. She's the one who made Dan Quayle the laughingstock of the nation (or its hero, depending) when he had the stupidity to ream a fictitious person for giving birth out of wedlock. But really, can you blame Dan? Wasn't Murphy asking for it?

The crux of the problem, I think, is that when it comes to separating fiction from fact, we all want it both ways.

We parents -- and now Congress and Attorney General Janet Reno -- wring our hands over the deleterious effects of a couple of pyromaniac cartoon characters and some daredevil movie stunts. But what about "Free Willy"?

When our kids took that one literally, we applauded it. We thought it was so sweet, so cute, so touching, the way schoolchildren across the country started their own little movement to actually free Willy, the real killer whale who does, in fact, live in abject captivity.

But remember, kids. Don't believe anything you see on TV or in the movies. Remember, it's all fake.

The other night was the scheduled weekly showing of my favorite new nighttime drama -- the infamous "NYPD Blue," which creator Steven Bochco once described as the first R-rated television series.

Considering all the brouhaha over allegedly pornographic love scenes and gratuitous blood, the only really shocking thing about the show is that there's so little nudity, so little graphic violence. And yet, the network feels compelled to open with ...*...*TC warning about "mature subject matter" and "viewer discretion." Translation: Be prepared for the occasional bare butt.

Meanwhile, the far more disturbing television fare -- stolen babies, knife-wielding wives, the loving-husbands-turned-vampires -- is routinely broadcast without any controversy whatsoever, let alone a warning to unsuspecting viewers.

At the risk of allying myself with the likes of . . . gulp . . . Tipper . . . gulp . . . Gore, I have no problem with voluntary warning labels on television shows. I don't think they're tantamount to censorship, as some claim. In fact, they're probably the fairest and most effective way of staving off the kind of ad hoc censorship taking place today, and the threatened interference of the federal government.

The difficulty is that standards are highly subjective and changeable. Violence that spurs one child to a copycat tragedy has absolutely no effect on another. And what constitutes violence, anyway? Beavis and Butt-head chuckling over a burning cat, or Wile E. Coyote getting flattened by a speeding train?

Given the vagaries of taste and sensibilities, the only meaningful warning, especially to our children, is: Think critically! Don't believe a word of this!

And remember, even when Miles tells Murphy this is the real world -- even when he tells her there's no one laughing while the laugh track roars -- it's only television. Miles is a liar.

Barbara T. Roessner is a columnist for the Hartford Courant.

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