Yes, says Ken Tucker, but the real question is if, in every other way, network TV is too safe

By Ken Tucker
Updated July 06, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: The Sopranos: Anthony Neste
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Is reality TV excessive?

There have always been dumb, even sadistic shows on the air (and we’ve provided a time line to prove it). But the new crop of hurt-‘n’-humiliation shows — MTV’s ”Jackass,” NBC’s ”Fear Factor,” and the same network’s ”Spy TV” (”Candid Camera” for sadomasochists) — ratchet up the pain and degradation to such a degree that some are suggesting TV has finally gone too far.

But here’s my question: Why is it that whenever television embraces excess, it’s always for the wrong reasons? Why doesn’t network TV go ”too far” creatively? Case in point: Exec producer/ writer David Chase first brought ”The Sopranos” to Fox. Did that broadcast network rush to get a mile high quality show on the air and snag possibly huge ratings by taking a chance on a series that has all the stuff programmers deploy cynically — that is, coarse language, sex, and violence — but does it with the redeeming virtues of magnificent writing and acting? Of course not.

Chase has implied that a broadcast network probably would have never let him cast James Gandolfini as the lead actor — i.e., instantly robbing the series of one of its central assets — because Gandolfini isn’t your conventional sleek charmer. Fox passed, and it’s just as well, since the network undoubtedly would have wanted to tone down all of Chase’s most extreme notions. The result would have been mediocrity — an example of TV not going far enough to present the best work possible.

From best to worst: ”Spy TV”’s June 21 premiere offered viewers an innocent fellow who thought he was taking a test drive in a used sports car with its owner. The jaunt turned into a terrifying joyride (the ”owner” was a stunt driver who made vicious swerves just this side of ”The Fast and the Furious”). That segment was a lot more objectionable than any swear words, sex, or violence that appears on ”The Sopranos.” Why? Because HBO’s award winning series insists that deplorable behavior has severe consequences, whereas ”Spy TV”’s message is something like ”Hey, this is all in fun! See — the guy didn’t get hurt, he signed a release, and he got to be on TV!”

True, he didn’t get ”Jackass” hurt. But the petrified horror on his face as he yelled for the driver to let him out was more appalling than seeing Joe Pantoliano’s character beat a dancer to death on last season’s ”Sopranos.” ”Spy TV” preyed on a civilian’s guilelessness for cheesy titillation, whereas the Pantoliano scene featured performers enacting a horrific event that, among numerous other subtexts, exposed a character’s amorality and condemned it.

Look: Like everything else, distinctions have to be made. For the sake of argument, you can lump together ”Fear,” ”Spy,” and ”Jackass.” But me, I like the latter show’s host, Johnny Knoxville. I’m not surprised he’s suddenly making lots of movies as an actor; he’s got charisma to burn whenever he’s not risking burns by throwing himself on piles of hot coals. By contrast, ”Fear Factor”’s gross out endurance tests — the second episode had contestants lie down with worms instead of rats — aren’t so much shocking as tedious: already a tired formula.

For a concise summary of the whole whither TV controversy, I bow to the brilliant June 20 season premiere of ”South Park,” in which Cartman and Co. speak a common four-letter expletive for excrement exactly 162 times (the show provided a convenient count in the lower left hand corner of the screen every time it was uttered). The episode also included a parody of a news poll that said that 24 percent of the public thought using the curse word on TV had ”pushed the envelope too far,” while 76 percent ”don’t really give a shit.”

Seems about right to me. TV really goes ”too far” when its all news channels and network news shows seize on a sensationalistic event such as the killing of five children by their mother. These outlets clear their desks of reports on government policy and overseas conflicts in order to go all murder, all the time. That’s the real fear factored spy TV — and far more offensive than squirmy worms or copycat jackasses.

Read EW’s July 13, 2001, issue for more on the ”Jackass” nation.


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