As Seen On TV


Robert Leleux

For the last three months, I’ve been in Nashville visiting sick relatives. This time has been filled with an array of experiences—a flood, for instance, and unfathomable amounts of fried food. But mostly, what my time in Nashville’s been filled with is TV. Because if you show me a sick old person in America, I’ll show you a television set with the volume raised higher than the flag on VJ Day. Let’s be clear, friends: I worship the TV. Back home, there are very few un-fried parts of my day as pure-d delightful as watching Glee, or Damages, or my dearly departed Ugly Betty.

But I’ve learned during my Tennessee sojourn that these programs fall under the heading of “Prime-time television,” a category that has little to do with its redheaded step-brother, “Daytime.” Broadly speaking, Daytime TV can be divvied up into three categories—idiot cable news, soap operas and true crime shows. It’s with some pride that I tell you that my family resides firmly in the camp of true-crime offerings like Cold Case Files, Forensic Files and FBI Files. These shows dominate entire cable networks like Reality TV, Tru TV, ID (Investigative Discovery) TV and A&E, and there’s a very good reason for that: They’re fabulous.

I mean, these shows have it all—drama and mystery and courtroom intrigue, and, with few exceptions, neat resolutions by the end of an hour. For a Texan, they also inspire a certain home-team pride, since (and this is no idle boasting) we are home to the most fascinating homicidal tendencies in the country. Particularly if you factor in that campy, Wild West weirdness that seems native to our state’s criminal element—like mothers who hire hit men to mow down their daughters’ cheerleading competition. No other state’s gonna top that. Not in reality, and not on the true-crime shows—shows that have a claim to conveying reality since, after all, they are retelling real-life crimes.

This claim on reality leads directly to the most basically satisfying aspect of these programs: They allow the viewer to see creepy-looking white guys (most of them), with squalid haircuts and vile tattoos, get squashed like bugs by the mighty hand of the American justice system. And in some horrible Shirley Jackson-ish way, this is an extremely enjoyable sensation. Especially if you don’t examine it too closely.

Because if you do, you can’t escape the conclusion that these shows, magnificently entertaining though they are, probably have—shall we say—a deleterious influence on civil society. They breed class prejudice (see the paragraph above). They promote fear. They give the false impression that our criminal justice system actually works. And they inure us to violence by presenting it as entertainment—particularly violence against women.

Not that these wonderful shows are particularly obliged to fact. And that’s really my basic problem with them: For programs with such a seeming commitment to verisimilitude, they certainly point the finger of civic ire in a peculiar direction. Toward, for instance, serial killers. You can’t swing a dead cat around Daytime television without somebody being knocked off by a serial killer, despite the fact that, in reality, your chance of being killed by one is less than being killed by lightning or an asteroid or a tsunami. All of which obscures the fact that if you’re going to be battered or bumped off in Texas or America, it’ll almost certainly be by somebody featured prominently on your Facebook page.

And that, folks, is the elephant in the living room of true crime programming—the fact that domestic violence represents half of all reported violent crime in America. According to the Ms. Foundation, more than one in five women in this country will be assaulted by an intimate partner throughout the course of a lifetime. But you won’t see that on television—or in the court system, for that matter, since only about half of all domestic violence cases are even reported to the police. Here again, Texas “leads” the way. In 2002, the Texas Council on Family Violence found that 47 percent of all Texans had experienced some form of domestic violence, while only 20 percent had “actually call[ed] the police when they or a family member experienced domestic violence.”

So, true believer that I am—confident that there’s nothing wrong with TV that can’t be solved with more TV—I’d like to pitch a series. How about a squad of women detectives with Louisville Sluggers, who travel around the country beating the living hell out of the wife-beaters of America? It would certainly make a lot more sense than all those serial-killer shows. And I know I’d set my TiVo for it.