The Boob Tube #29: Television Taboos
I found this silly little article from an old magazine from 1949. (I'll sprinkle clips from it throughout this post.) It seems to relish the opportunity to be naughty in the name of journalism. It's similar to how news shows today will condemn the sex and violence on TV..... whilst showing those exact scenes in the background! I swear to God I saw a side bush on Fox News the other day during a piece on how bad television has become. Go figure.
Anyway, it got me thinking about the ebb and flow of TV taboos. Considering the Supreme Court has actually weighed in on the issue lately, it would seem a particularly timely conversation.
I could bore you with a mile long treatise on the subject, but the facts are pretty clear and don't need much elaboration. Television was extremely tame and heavily censored until the early 1970s. This decade brought you very realistic depictions of rape, drug addiction, sex and any before untouchable taboo you could think of. On one hand you had Archie Bunker's wife getting sexually assaulted and on the other you had Paul Michael Glaser on Starsky & Hutch strung out on heroine.
You had very sexually oriented programming via Three's Company and weekly conversations on losing ones virginity on One Day at a Time. And the trend continued into the 1980s with similar hard topics being broached via Diff'rent Strokes, Family Ties, and Facts of Life. I get more uncomfortable watching an old Family Ties episode (i.e. Malory getting molested) than I do with any of the garbage on today.
Today's television IMHO is much more tame in terms of tackling issues and subjecting viewers to anything even approaching "jiggle TV" in its prime. However, in a strange twist of fate, it's also much more in the sewer than it ever was. Say what you like about Starsky & Hutch, Bosom Buddies and One Day at a Time, they may have pushed the envelope, but they never wallowed in the sewer.
These ridiculous CSI shows have an absurd amount of violence, and the "reality" shows have a similarly absurd level of smut. But they are both empty calories. They have no substance. Your average After School Special broke more taboos and crossed more lines in the sand than any episode of CSI: Tupelo could ever dream of crossing. And while Jersey Shore may have more smut than anything on the small screen in the 70s, The Gong Show could be just as sexually oriented, but it was all for fun - with none of that sad voyeuristic nihilism.
I will qualify my statement somewhat and say that this does not apply to many cable and premium channels. Rome, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Dexter, The Sopranos, American Nightmare, etc. have pushed boundaries without being mindless empty-calorie fluff. And that, perhaps, is a reason to feel positive about the direction we're headed.
But then again, is pushing the envelope and crossing boundaries of 'good taste' really a good thing? Wasn't TV just fine during the days of Gilligan's Island and Dragnet? This is where things get complicated, and I can foresee this post stretching onward to eternity as the argument gets more and more muddy. So, I'll stop there and give you a chance to chime in on the matter. What say you?