With various parts of the world at war, more or less perpetually but particularly now, it might seem trivial to complain again about violence on TV. But if warfare represents the failure of humans to coexist peaceably, violence in TV and movies represents a failure to come up with something saner, more imaginative, and less debasing than brutality and call it entertainment.
Violence reminds us we are animals. Art tells us that at least we are among the higher forms of animal. You see a lot more violence than art on television these days.
Although the Academy Awards made it look like movies are going through some sort of humanistic golden age, that's hooey. Movies are more violent than ever. And since television has become the principal medium for marketing them, the violence in movies infiltrates and pollutes even the most nonviolent TV shows.
In Washington, Philadelphia, and many other major cities, reruns of Seinfeld, Roseanne, Home Improvement, and other off-network sitcoms air during the early evening hours, between the news and prime time. These are, for the most part, family shows, but at any given moment the show will stop and a commercial break will burst forth -- and "burst" is just the word because many of those commercials are for vicious, brutal, R-rated movies.
Obviously, some episodes of Seinfeld are strictly for adults, but the fact is, kids are attracted to the show by the presence of Cosmo Kramer, the hilarious doofus played by Michael Richards. Some of his comedy is wacky slapstick.
When you sit down to watch such shows with young children -- let's say 12 and under -- you'd better have the remote in hand, because Seinfeld also attracts affluent young adults, and movie studios see them as major moviegoers -- people from puberty on up to about middle age (after which nobody cares about you -- movies or TV shows).
Bang, crash, boom -- the screen and soundtrack are filled with violent images: 12 guns a-shooting, 10 windows shattering, eight cars a-crashing, six monsters leaping -- and, believe me, no partridge in a pear tree. If there were a partridge in a pear tree, a monster would be about to pounce on it or Arnold Schwarzenegger would be taking aim at it with a portable missile launcher.
Those who make these movie ads pack as much pure "pow" as they can into a punishing 30 or 60 seconds. Just unrelenting mayhem and aggression -- blam, blam, blam.
While it's true the commercials do not usually show actual gore from the films -- flesh being riddled with bullets and that sort of thing -- the ads are still odes to brutality of every imaginable kind. No matter how diligently parents may try to shield their kids from excess violence, these commercials come along and blast their efforts to smithereens.
In recent weeks, syndicated reruns of family comedies like The Simpsons have been interrupted by horrific pitches for such films as Panic Room, with women huddled trembling while bad guys armed to the teeth try to kill them; and Resident Evil, an Alien-like thriller in which the good guys battle vicious dogs who want to rip their throats out. Plus a whole new array of war movies glorifying violence of that kind.
A half-hour comedy may contain several ads for movies that are rated "R" for gore, brutality, and nightmarish peril. The result can be nightmares, all right -- for little kids who see these images. The sitcoms often air five or six nights a week, and simple multiplication tells us that children will see dozens and dozens of violent images during that otherwise peaceful time.
There ought to be a sanctuary, a haven, a safe place in every broadcast day -- a period during which parents can feel safe about their young children watching TV. Violent imagery should be kept off the air, in programs and commercials, until the later hours. Cruel, disturbing, potentially traumatizing movie ads shouldn't air when children are likely to be watching. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, yes, but, more to the point, a young mind is a terrible thing to assault. To paraphrase an old Christmas song: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with what children are exposed to on television.