Television show represents misuse of hard-won freedom

July 03, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

ELEVEN SCORE and six years ago, our Founding Fathers -- a bunch of white guys who today are maligned for being politically incorrect -- gathered on a July day in Philadelphia to draft what would become the Declaration of Independence.

They mentioned some things about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and made reference to a supreme being no fewer than four times. Thirteen years later, they ratified a constitution for a nation they hoped would be based on freedom, responsibility and reason.

Every July 4, we celebrate what those men did in that meeting hall. We unfurl the flags, break out the grills, hold the cookouts and let the merriment commence. From that great meeting hall in the sky, the Fathers look down on us and all the progress we have made in the 226 years since independence was declared.

They probably wonder at the freedoms we've granted women and the blacks who served some of them as slaves. They must marvel at the inventions our ingenuity has wrought: electric lights, radio, jets, telephones, moving pictures, television.

Then they probably look at some of those shows on television and must wonder: Is this what we wanted our descendants to do with the freedom we risked our necks to give them?

"You aim for the palace and get drowned in the sewer," Mark Twain once said, noting how sometimes we aim high but miss the mark widely. Today, writers, producers and directors for television aren't even aiming for the palace. They're deliberately aiming for the sewer and often finding their mark.

Let's use as an example a new TV show that comes straight to us from the sewer. It's called The Shield. You can find it stinking up the airwaves on a regular basis on cable's FXNetwork. In the first episode, an honest cop infiltrates a corrupt detective unit headed by one especially brutal officer. Another detective finds dog excrement in his desk, and the honchos who put this garbage on the air couldn't resist showing us a shot of the offending stuff.

At the end of the first episode, the head of the corrupt unit shoots the honest cop dead. In future episodes, another officer in the unit uses racial epithets liberally and urinates on a suspect. Of course, the guys in the corrupt unit are the bad guys, right? There are good cops around somewhere dedicated to purging them from the ranks, right?

Wrong. The head of the corrupt unit is the star of the show. He's the hero, the moral center of The Shield. Detective Vic Mackey, described by his captain as "Al Capone with a badge," is the cop of the 21st century whom Hollywood figures Americans should root for.

Reaction to The Shield from critics has been, to put it kindly, interesting. The show has been called astonishing, edgy, serious and graphic. Some critics have raved about its moral ambiguity and called it a series "richly imagined" and "the best show on television." It's as if the word "trash" has disappeared from their collective vocabulary.

These same critics missed the best show on television last season. It appeared about the same time The Shield premiered. On one of the shows, the police chief in a small town calls together men from the two local dailies. One is the editor of a paper, the other the son of the other paper's owner/editor.

A child has been kidnapped, the chief tells both men. For the child's safety, he wants them to keep that news under wraps until the kidnapper is caught. Both men agree.

The owner/editor, learning of the news, tells his son he had no right to make such an agreement. He's a newspaper editor, he says. It's his job to print the kidnapping story. He does, and immediately falls into conflict with the police chief, his son and the entire town.

That is real moral ambiguity. This show had more drama, better writing and better acting than any episode of The Shield. It got its point across without the profanity and the shots of doggy doo and urination that have come to characterize the exploits of Lt. Mackey and Co.

That second show was called Deadline Decision. It first appeared on television in the mid-1950s as part of a television series called The 20th Century Fox Hour. It has resurfaced recently on the Fox Movie Channel as the Hour of Stars. The differences between The Shield and the Hour of Stars show how far from the moral center America has moved since 1955.

From that great meeting hall in the sky, the Fathers must look down on us and think, "As much as we've been maligned for our sins and our political incorrectness, at least we knew where our moral center was. Where's yours?"

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