The cover of the August 11 Entertainment Weekly blared, "Are There No Limits? Filth, Raunch, Violence & Hate Rule Pop Culture - Has Showbiz Finally Gone Too Far?" Sure, showbiz went too far a long time ago, but it's always good to see someone in the cultural mainstream acknowledge this, even if it's a few years late.
But then you read the piece - and groan. Lisa Schwarzbaum's article reeks of Establishment media elitism. The answer to the cover's question is basically: Maybe, but it's not that big a deal.
The piece has two huge flaws. First is Schwarzbaum's bias, by which I mean not so much her own expressed opinions as her choice of sources: Everywhere she turns for expert opinion she finds someone who will minimize, even dismiss, the problem.
Granted, some embarrass themselves grandly in the process. Adam Carolla, co-host of Comedy Central's crass "The Man Show" and MTV's sexually explicit "Loveline," is a good example: "When it comes to sexuality and profanity, TV and movies have got a long way to go...I've never killed anybody, but I use the F-word 350 times a day and I [masturbate] ten times a week. So I've seen killing on TV for the last 30 years. I've never seen anyone [masturbate] on TV and I've never heard anyone say 'f--' on TV."
One effect of television on Carolla seems clear: it has softened his brain.
Joy Behar, co-host of ABC's frequently racy daytime talk show "The View," says, "I don't find things shocking. I just find them either stupid, annoying, or too much information." Please note the absence of any moral consideration; Behar's worldview simply rejects the existence of that view.
Then there is the truly bizarre spin. Tom Fontana, producer of such television shows as "Oz" and "Homicide: Life on the Street," states, "I think, as a country, it's not like we're spiraling downward so much as it is we're being more honest with ourselves. 'Oh, the president can be a fool.' It's possible. We want to pretend that they're all Martin Sheen, but the truth is they're not." To which Schwarzbaum adds, "No, no, they're not. We're not. We're just human. (So, too, is the president, which infuriates many.)"
How silly. Bill Clinton's problem for the last eight years, we are to believe, has been that he fell just short of those impossibly high standards we set for him.
Even though Schwarzbaum doesn't allow those who consider cultural decay a truly serious matter to speak for themselves, she acknowledges their existence with a back-of-the-hand quip: "Talking about this, in Entertainment Weekly, makes me sound like Bill Bennett with a wedgie."
The article's other major failing is that it gives short shrift to the effect of poisonous entertainment on the young, which is today's salient cultural malignancy. Vulgar, amoral popular culture can irritate, bore, and depress adults, but it damages children. That's the crucial difference.
(Only a sidebar by another EW writer, Tom Sinclair, deals with children and entertainment at any length, and it is primarily concerned with a very narrow topic - the anti-homosexual rhetoric of the rapper Eminem.)
Back to Schwarzbaum. "The fence that separates the decent from the indecent," she writes, "has so many holes in it...that homophobes, racists, misogynists, and common potty mouths step right through...Smirking all the way to the bank, they're indistinguishable from artists and innovators of real, if disturbing, substance."
You want to agree with her, even salute her, but then she gets specific and declares that certain trash is fine: "I have praised the liberating humor of the Farrelly [brothers'] gross comedies" - e.g., "There's Something About Mary." Moreover, "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" was one of her favorite movies of 1999 "because it's as funny and profound a social satire as it is profane."
So: Gross, profane, insulting potty humor is A-OK after all.
Apparently we're supposed to be grateful to Schwarzbaum just for paying attention to this issue: "Some of my colleagues disagree about the need for this essay, not just because I may be accused of hypocrisy or moralistic finger-wagging, but because they don't think there's anything new or rotten in the state of entertainment."
I'll pass. It speaks volumes about the cultural intolerance of this industry that such a meek, equivocating "criticism" could be deemed controversial, "moralistic." Only in Hollywood.