Rudeness is big thing on small screen TV: Sitcoms and dramas show scene after scene of incivility presented without criticism or correction. It's a lesson to us all -- especially to our children.

December 07, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It was opening day in a television season of too much incivility.

The very first words from the first new character this fall came in the following exchange:

The character's name is Jimmy, and he is the CEO of a small record company. As he walks into a meeting, an underling rushes up and says, "Hi, Jimmy. Hey, you look great, chief."

To which Jimmy replies, "Shut your piehole, snapperhead."

The sitcom is "Hitz" on UPN. Jimmy is played by Andrew (Dice) Clay, a foul-mouthed comedian whose verbal aggression makes Don Rickles and his "hockey puck" insults of yesteryear seem as tame as Mr. Rogers.

Clay has gone so far in his act -- doing stand-up comedy in a persona he calls the Diceman -- as to recommend that men beat up women. The fact that Clay has a Diceman-like role in a network sitcom suggests this might be a year of men and women behaving rudely.

And you don't have to look far to find more incivility, nor is it limited to low-rent, brain-dead sitcoms like "Hitz."

On the premiere of Steven Bochco's "Brooklyn South," which is now the highest-rated new drama of the season, insults and epithets were flying from the opening frame. The language was so intense that the only insult I can get into print is "you murdering scumface."

How about this exchange between a police sergeant and his wife in the lobby of the precinct house? She angrily demands to know what time he's coming home after work. He tells her through clenched teeth that he doesn't know.

"So once again your family is going to take sloppy seconds to a job that pays you $32,000 a year," she yells.

"Get your ass out of this station house," he hollers back at her.

And it is not just in crime dramas, which might be expected to have harsher language because of their life-and-death subject matter.

The second most successful new drama of the season is Fox's "Ally McBeal," starring Calista Flockhart as a young attorney.

One episode last month opened with her and an older woman getting in an argument at a supermarket over a can of potato chips.

After some vulgar insults about each other's age and appearance, McBeal trips the woman as she walks away with her shopping cart. And what happens to McBeal? The show ends with McBeal celebrated by friends and co-workers, including a judge, for being "a passionate woman who lets her emotions show."

Whether such rude behavior is at record levels this season is impossible to say, because experts can't agree on how to define civility, let alone measure the lack of it on television.

But there is enough of it for media analysts and social critics to be talking about incivility on TV this fall as a problem -- a problem that can have real-life consequences, especially for young viewers.

"There's little doubt that television plays a role in the matter of civility in society," says Pier Massimo Forni, a John Hopkins University professor who recently launched the Johns Hopkins Civility Project -- a series of research and outreach programs in the media and various social arenas leading up to an international symposium at Hopkins next March.

Incivility isn't new

Incivility has always been a big part of network television, and series that trafficked in it are among our all-time favorites.

Start at the beginning in the 1950s with Ralph Kramden, of "The Honeymooners," threatening his wife with: "One of these days, Alice, pow, straight to the moon."

The highest-rated series on network television from 1965 to 1968 was "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.," which featured a drill sergeant named Carter screaming insults at a private named Pyle, as in: "Pyle, you knuckleheaded idiot."

The 1970s were a kind of golden age of incivility. There was Archie Bunker, of "All in the Family," abusing his wife with such epithets as "dingbat." On "Welcome Back, Kotter," new sitcom star John Travolta, as a character named Vinnie Barbarino, popularized the expression "Up your nose with a rubber hose."

Spanning the 1970s and '80s, there was "Happy Days" with Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, who gave us the catch phrase "Sit on it."

The beat went on in the '80s with Bochco's first bad-mouth cop, Mick Belker of "Hill Street Blues," who brought the term "scumbag" into our living rooms. And let's not forget J. R. Ewing on "Dallas," or Carla Tortelli LeBec of "Cheers" and her machine-gun-mouth insults of Diane Chambers.

Real numbers

So is there really more incivility on prime-time network television today?

Proportionally, probably not. But in terms of overall volume, it certainly appears that there is.

With the exponential rise of cable channels, independent stations and fourth, fifth and sixth networks, there is so much more television than there was 10 years ago. And new networks often want to talk louder and harsher to cut through the clutter, draw attention to themselves and build an audience among young men, the most fickle demographic.

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