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TV Trends

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The Fall 2009 Season: Fox

By Christopher Gildemeister



Since its premiere in 1987, the Fox broadcast network has frequently aimed at the lowest common denominator in much of its programming. From Women in Prison and Married with Children then to the network’s hour-and-a-half Seth MacFarlane Sunday block now, Fox has rarely resisted the lure of the tawdry and violent in its shows.


This season, not much has changed.


Indeed, this season literally not much has changed at Fox, as the network has introduced only three new shows – as a look at Fox’s fall schedule reveals.


Monday brings viewers a renewed visit with the sarcastic, oft-times abusive diagnostic genius House (8:00 p.m. ET), a program which varies in its level of problematic content. The season opened with a two-hour premiere featuring House confined to an asylum – where, through sheer coincidence, he just happened to have an affair with a random woman visiting her friend. But while House remains as acerbic as ever, his speech dominated by off-color sex jokes, the program as a whole typically features only a handful of episodes per season with content of great concern. 


Similarly, Lie to Me (9:00 p.m. ET), about an investigator who has the talents of a human lie-detector, also varies in terms of seamy content. Last season, some episodes featured such storylines; others didn’t. But both of the episodes aired so far this season have focused on sex. The first featured a woman with multiple personality disorder, one of whose personalities was a prostitute (of course it was). The second centered on a college football player’s statutory rape of a high-school girl who, it turned out, had made a pact with other high-school girls to have sex with older men. It is to be hoped that this is not the show’s new trend in storylines.


Tuesday nights on Fox exemplify the network’s often schizophrenic approach to quality. So You Think You Can Dance (9:00 p.m. ET) is a solid counterpoint to the network’s spring program American Idol: a talent competition featuring dedicated amateur dancers, the show is a family-friendly celebration of the joy and artistry of dance. To all appearances, the producers make an effort to keep the program clean and appropriate for all ages. So You Think You Can Dance is generally a reliable choice for the family seeking safe and fun entertainment. 


Yet what does Fox schedule the hour before this truly delightful family show? The profanity-peppered cooking competition Hell’s Kitchen (8:00 p.m. ET), featuring foul-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsay. Actually, “peppered” is incorrect. The amount of foul language on this show is so great that it cannot be said that the show is “peppered” with profanities – nor even “laced” with them. In fact, so frequent is the abusive language on Hell’s Kitchen that it seems to constitute a basic ingredient of the program. (So fond is Ramsay of profanity that another series featuring the chef is titled The F Word.) But even given this, the show has managed to cook up an even more emetic recipe this season: now, rather than simply hearing Ramsay abuse the contestants, the viewer frequently has the opportunity to hear the contestants shout back, proving themselves every bit as proficient at profanity and deficient at polite interaction as the cursing chef. One early contestant even threatened Ramsay with bodily harm before leaving the show in a huff. All in all, Hell’s Kitchen is a stew that will turn family viewers’ stomachs.


Wednesdays continue the pattern of combining programs safe for children with those definitely not. At 8:00 p.m. ET, another installment of So You Think You Can Dance airs. At this point, the program is still in its audition phase; once the competitors are selected, this Wednesday night time becomes the “results” episode, showing which dancers America and the show’s judges voted to remove or retain.


Nine o’clock ET brings the most prominent – and definitely the most publicized – of Fox’s new fall shows, Glee. Since its first sneak-peek preview after the penultimate episode of American Idol last spring, Glee has been relentlessly shoved in the faces of potential viewers of every age. Posters, billboards and bus advertisements proclaimed the show “the most-loved comedy of the year!” – a ludicrous claim, given that at the time the ads appeared, only one episode had aired. Similarly, Teen Choice Awards attendees were deluged with songs and actor appearances related to the show. Admittedly, Fox’s marketing onslaught worked; Glee is now favored by critics and popular with many, particularly young viewers, thus making the show’s massive ad campaign a self-fulfilling prophesy.


The show’s premise features a high-school glee club and the romantic, career and interpersonal entanglements of both the school’s staff and students. Created and produced by Ryan Murphy, the show also is larded with smirking innuendo and open references to teen sex. Glee supposedly reaches for a more optimistic, feel-good atmosphere; but it is more than a little rich to hear the creator of FX’s sex-and-gore drama Nip/Tuck complaining that “there’s nothing like it on the air…everything in the world’s so dark right now.” Although Murphy claimed in Entertainment Weekly that he was “interested in expressing something other than depravity,” in the same interview, Murphy also claimed that he didn’t want to “offend the 40-year-old mom watching with her eight-year-old daughter.” Apparently, Murphy thinks that the simulated oral sex in Glee’s first episode, the teen pregnancy of the head of the school’s Celibacy Club and the show’s other references to fellatio, premature ejaculation, and the absolute inevitability of teen sex ARE perfectly appropriate for eight-year-olds. Although the program appears to be gaining popularity among teens, parents should beware. As the PTC has previously warned, Glee is definitely not High School Musical.


On Thursday, Fox’s Family Hour entertainment consists of the forensic crime drama Bones (8:00 p.m. ET), about a brilliant but cold and aloof and her FBI associate. As with other forensic crime shows, Bones’ stock-in-trade consists of extremely graphic autopsies. But this year a new wrinkle has been added, one which further increases the explicit nature of the program: while in the past, Bones dealt only with post-mortem investigations, on the first episode of this season viewers got to see the murder taking place – a murder, moreover, involving a severed hand and a car being run over a corpse. Clearly, the show’s producers are concerned with keeping the program’s gore quotient up to par. And along with the violence, conversation among Bones and her comrades inevitably features discussions of their sex lives (just like professionals in the real world).     


By contrast, the science-fiction mystery Fringe (9:00 p.m. ET), by Lost creator J.J. Abrams, is if anything less gory than previously. Last season, Fringe was infamous for opening each episode with an extremely explicit scene of violence, with considerable bloodshed in the rest of the episode, as well. This year, violence is less explicit, less extravagant (and, one cannot help remarking, less expensive) than before. Thus far focusing more on the mysteries central to the program, Fringe’s problematic content has been limited to some non-sequitur sex references by the show’s mad scientist character Walter (who also makes his own medications in his lab, with comic results).


Friday at 8:00 p.m. ET brings viewers the second of Fox’s new fall shows, the sitcom Brothers. The story of a failed pro football star returning home to help his family run a restaurant, Brothers features some problematic content. The same can be said for its companion sitcom Til Death (8:30 p.m. ET); with sex and anatomy occasionally referenced or joked about, and some use of foul language. However, such is not done to an unreasonable extent -- not for prime-time network TV in 2009, at any rate. Thus, both shows in the first hour of Fox’s Friday night are innocuous fare. 


The same can definitely not be said of Dollhouse (9:00 p.m. ET), which features large helpings of violence and sex. The show’s seamy (and sexist) premise involves a female operative, called a “doll,” who can be reprogrammed via high-tech, Matrix-style brainwashing  to become whatever the person paying for her services wishes. Naturally, the most frequent assignments for lead “doll” Echo are either as a bodyguard/assassin (thus allowing her to maim and kill opponents), or as a sex toy (thus affording the viewer many scenes of Echo and her fellow “dolls” naked or provocatively dressed). Though series creator Joss Whedon (a genre favorite for his past programs Firefly, Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has promised his devoted legion of fans that the show’s outrageously misogynistic premise will ultimately be revealed to have a deeper, alternative meaning, one cannot help but note that, while this story is unfolding, the program has the opportunity to revel in scenes of Echo partially nude, having sex or killing someone…sometimes several of these at once, as with the episode last season which saw Echo fulfilling the fantasies of a man who slept with her, then tried to kill her. Echo completed her commission, then stabbed her assailant in the neck with an arrow -- thereby stoking the viewer’s sexual interest, satiating his bloodlust, and soothing his social conscience simultaneously.


Saturday night on Fox has remained unchanged for 15 years, with back-to-back airings of the reality show Cops (8:00/8:30 p.m. ET) and America’s Most Wanted (9:00 p.m. ET). (Though Fox’s longest-running program, America’s Most Wanted was not originally shown on Saturday night.) Cops follows real-life police officers as they intervene in largely minor criminal matters such as domestic disputes, drunk-driving stops and drug arrests. Though there is little overt violence or sex, the show does feature much bleeped profanity, as well as a relentless focus on the seamy side of life. Similarly, while America’s Most Wanted pursues a laudable goal – that of documenting real-life crimes and enlisting the public’s aid in finding and catching the perpetrator – parents should be aware that many of the crime reenactments shown are graphic and fraught with depictions of crimes like serial murder and child molestation.


Finally, Sundays bring a last ray of sunshine into homes at 8:00 p.m. ET with the comic misadventures of America’s favorite dysfunctional family, The Simpsons. While many fans complain that the program has declined in quality, it has maintained a consistently low level of offensive content. Mild double-entendres, mild cartoon violence and mild and rare epithets, along with genuine satire and humor, remain the trademarks of The Simpsons.


Just as the day’s last ray of sunshine is followed by darkness, the programs that follow The Simpsons…but what is the use? The rest of Sunday night is given over to shows created by Seth MacFarlane. This column has documented at length the disgusting content to be found on Family Guy and American Dad…and MacFarlane’s new program The Cleveland Show is merely more of the same. No doubt these shows will provide ample focus for future columns…but for now, the viewer is simply left to wonder why, with quality family shows like So You Think You Can Dance in its repertoire, Fox felt the need in this economy to pay Seth MacFarlane $100 million for his dubious services. Fox’s past programming may not have been stellar; but if MacFarlane represents its future, families have plentiful cause for despair.  

TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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