TV Ethics, Viewed From A Sickbed

This isn’t how I look. This guy looks BETTER than I look…

[ As regular readers here might have guessed, I am ill, and have been since Thanksgiving. I can barely read, can’t really research, and whatever appears below was composed in 10 minute increments with hours or days in between. I’m hoping to be catching up very soon. Thank you for your patience]

What do you do when any movement or exertion makes you cough your guts out, when you can’t sleep but have to rest, when your brain is so blurry from viruses and medication that you can’t even compose a blog post for three days? (Sorry.) If you are me, and I hope for your sake that you aren’t, you watch TV.

I got one jolt of legal ethics horror that I hadn’t remembered re-watching Kevin Costner’s “The Untouchables,” directed by Brian DePalma. In the movie’s climax, Al Capone’s trial on income tax evasion has come to a crisis point, as Elliot Ness (Costner) realizes that the jury has been bribed to acquit him. Despite documentation of that fact, the corrupt judge tells Costner that the trial will proceed, whereupon Costner extorts him to prompt “a change of heart.” Now the judge shocks the courtroom by announcing that he is trading juries with another trial next door. The new, un-bribed twelve will decide Capone’s fate.

This is, of course, beyond ridiculous. Adversary attorneys must be able to choose a jury in voir dire, where each potential juror is questioned. Trading juries just invalidates two trials. Even if they could trade juries, which they couldn’t, the Capone trial would obviously have to start all over again since the new jury wouldn’t know what was going on.

None of this occurs to Al Capone’s panicky lawyer, however, who, realizing that the jig is up, announces that “we” are changing “our” plea to “guilty.” Chaos reigns. Capone (Robert DeNiro) punches his lawyer in the face, and I don’t blame him one bit.  A lawyer can’t plead guilty against the wishes of his client! The judge couldn’t accept such a plea, and Capone wouldn’t be bound by it. This would be an embarrassing distortion of the justice system in a Warner Brothers cartoon, but for a movie based on historical figures and events to sink so low is unforgivable. (“Carrie” aside, Brian DePalma was a hack.)

There sure are slim ethics pickings in the afternoon, even on satellite, unless you have a bottomless appetite for “Family Feud,” cooking shows, NCIS re-runs and news blather. Yesterday I was driven to watching back-to-back episodes of “Roy Rogers” and “The Lone Ranger,” with both episodes so weird that they made me wonder if I was getting delirious. Roy was chasing bad guys in a motor boat, which was completely bewildering, especially since there was no explanation for it in the episode, and Roy kept saying things like, “Well, I better get my motorboat!” I also noticed that because Roy’s acting was earnest but, er, limited in range, the producers of his show apparently never cast anyone with thespian abilities above the level of a below-grade community theater children’s troupe, making Roy seem like John Guilgud-on-a-horse (or in this episode, -in-a-motorboat) in comparison to everyone else, especially his “comic side-kick,” Jeep-driving Pat Brady, who brought new meaning to the term, “mugging idiot.”

“The Lone Ranger” episode that followed was even stranger, with TLR and Tonto foiling a plot by a con man who had taken over “green-horn” DeForest Kelley’s family ranch, beaten up the future Star Trek doctor, fired all the loyal hands, and was preparing to sell the ranch and pocket the profits. Now it was the Lone Ranger showing his community theater creds, as he had Tonto, who apparently was a crack make-up artist in his spare time, disguise him as an old man–complete with  beard and wig, and no mask!—so he could pose as an agent for a “prospective buyer.” Meanwhile, he rounded up all the fired hands, which he dubbed “old-timers,” and had them prepared to rush the ranch and the gang of bad guys when the moment was right. Apparently, in the old West, when you hit 60 you instantly grew a scraggly beard, shrunk to about 5’6″ and started walking and talking like Walter Huston in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”

I didn’t remember the Lone Ranger as such an old softy. When this mismatch of a battle finally arrived, Lone told Tonto that he felt the two heroes should help “the League of Old Timers” defeat their younger, meaner, better-shaven adversaries but secretly, so they would “feel good about themselves.” “Aim for their guns,” he told Tonto. Then, after reducing the gunfight to a fist fight, he and Tonto took turns tripping the bad guys or jumping out and hitting them over the heads when the “old-timers” weren’t looking. “Tarnation! Guess I’m better at fightin’ that I remembered, by cracky!”  they each exclaimed in various colorful ways, looking down at the unconscious villains.

I’m not making this up.

Genuine ethics viewing opportunities started arriving in the early evening. I got to watch two of my favorite ethics movies, “Lonesome Dove” and “Groundhog Day,” in my fevered state,  as well as several, like “The Wizard of Oz,” “A Few Good Men” and “The Longest Day,” which are great movies with substantial ethical content. I also watched, with regret, the terrific John Wayne comedy “McClintock!” forever ruined by its wife-beating finale, with Wayne paddling estranged spouse Maureen O’Hara with a fireplace shovel as the own folk cheer. It’s amazing to think that this was ever considered benign and an appropriate “gag” for a family movie, but it was. Yes, we know it’s all a riff on “The Taming of the Shrew,” and yes, we remember a similar tiff between the same actors in the classic “The Quiet Man,”, and yes, we know O’Hara was (and is) a proto-feminist who gave back as good as she got. and that she and Wayne were pals. It doesn’t matter. Spousal abuse is ugly, and just doesn’t make sane people laugh any more. There you have it, my friends, an otherwise entertaining film rendered unwatchable by changing societal ethics standards.

Sunday is ethics central, with most of TV’s prime time ethics shows on display—Showtime’s “Homeland” and “Dexter,” Robert King’s “The Good Wife,” and  AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”  The remaining cream of the TV ethics crop are Kelsey Grammer in Starz’s “Boss.”HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” and AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”

I confess to not watching either of the last two with any regularity. This is pure bias on my part: the ethical dilemmas faced by drug dealers and bootleggers don’t intrigue me, nor do I care for dramas without protagonists who I can respect. “The Godfather” films covered this unpleasant ground well, I got it, and the relentless cynicism of the form wears me down. Cynicism is a constant peril in my field, and I only allow myself so much of it—less than ever, after the 2012 Presidential campaign.

You will note, as I do, that all  ethics shows involve unique ethical cultures where standard ethics either don’t work very well, or are frequently inapplicable. They are Bizarro World shows, in other words, positing problems in an alien ethical environment, or an environment with no ethics at all. Law (“The Good Wife”), politics (“Boss”) and the international intelligence intriigue (“Homeland”) all fit the mold. “Homeland” is especially good at exploring the mixed motivations behind conduct that may materially change its ethical nature. Is Carrie (Claire Danes) working to keep double-agent/Stockholm Syndrome-addled/U.S. Congressman/ proto-terrorist Nick Brody in line because that’s her job, because she wants him as her lover, or both, and how can she be trusted by the C.I.A. when they aren’t sure which is the case?

“The Walking Dead” is the ethics standout of the group, despite its science fiction/horror premise. Its ethical questions cover the survival ethics spectrum as well as subtle ends vs. means balancing and difficult ethical conflicts, including family loyalty vs. group loyalty, fairness vs. justice, security vs. autonomy, and the central, haunting question that increasingly shadows the whole, depressing saga: is there  a point at which life just isn’t worth fighting for? It’s a shame that such a thoughtful ethics drama requires such a strong stomach, as the series includes more violence, gore and definitely more rotting ambulatory corpses than any previous hour permitted on television.

The show I cannot abide at all is “Dexter.” As with “Breaking Bad’s” drug-dealing “hero,” I cannot bring myself to care what happens to a serial killer protagonist, even one who goes out of his way to slaughter those who are arguably worse than he is. The show’s ethical “dilemmas” are  excessively contrived, and since I don’t see a difficult call in deciding that a serial murderer shouldn’t be a police forensic specialist and running amuck, no matter how many villains he carves up, the series just annoys me. You are a police lieutenant, and you discover that your brother, a forensic examiner on your own force, is killing criminals. What do you do?

What do you do???

You arrest him, that’s what. It’s not a difficult question, merely an unlikely one. Now Dexter has a girl friend who is also a serial killer, one whom Dexter’s police lieutenant sister can’t seem to get enough evidence on to arrest. Frustrated, she asks bro to kill her. Dex refuses, saying he would be making sis an accessory to his evil ways, corrupting her. Or is it just that he wants to keep sleeping with the Black Widow? Is he doing the right thing for the wrong reason? Would killing his trusting, loving girl friend for doing the same thing he does be a good thing, or unethical? Am I going crazy here? The man is serial killer, killing people is wrong, killing people without due process of law is wrong, and watching Dexter is as likely as not to leave you more unethical than you were when you started. “Serial killer ethics” is an oxymoron, no matter how cleverly the issues are packaged.

Well, back to bed.

10 thoughts on “TV Ethics, Viewed From A Sickbed

  1. Too bad you didn’t get stuck with the original Batman and Robin! Of course, it was self parodying, but still you had to wonder how much they were poking at the viewers instead of themselves. But here’s my best get well wishes, and I’ll be praying for you.

  2. It’s too bad you left out all the “reality” shows.

    With regards to Dexter, someone who propagates their own value system as the true ones, however on retrospect internally affirms they need to be sneaky. His position at a police station as a forensic blood-spatter analyst offers the possibility of “anyone can be a serial killer”. Given his values were attributed to him via his father (also a police detective), and familial connection within the police department (also, not unheard of), this poses as a very likely possibility into abuse of power/corruption that extends it’s reach beyond the hours of duty (also, a very well known fact, but difficult to prove in many cases — as is the case with Dexter). His sister (the lieutenant), is (as she put it) “in love” with him, and given the crazy things people do when they are “in love” and the familial bond within the force spanning at least two generations, leads to an ideal scenario for a “cover up” — which is also not uncommon for police to back each other up, even when they know that what is being done is wrong. This extends on some of the ethics views you pointed out regarding persons in power, and the “ends justify the means” mechanism, to which some cases, argument could be made that Dexter is doing the “right” thing where police have failed. Although, many of his “victims”, death, is a welcome sentence in comparison to what they deserve. I think this is a show intended to vest a view into the mind of a serial killer that has potentially a better ethic system for dealing with those who will not do what should be done, or because they “slip through the cracks” of the legal system. Having watched this series from the beginning and followed it’s twists and turns, I find it rather entertaining, however what entices me is how has this guy not been caught yet due to the fact of footprints, etc, and several scenes where fingerprints were definitely left at the scene on key objects.

    There have been a couple situations where his “experience” has assisted in saving lives in a life or death struggle. More so, there was yet another mass-murderer in the series from the police department — a retired high-ranking officer, whom Dexter caught. The question of Ethics here is –

    When someone does wrong, should others have the power to judge and condemn that person ? — and if so… what should the penalty be ? The series addresses the inherent flaw in our system where so many “bad” people are set free because of money, or internal corruption of evidence, etc — who watches the watchers ?

  3. Jack,

    You almost have it as bad as I’ve always imagined psychologists to have it. I always figure psychologists CANNOT interact with people meaningfully, not even their own spouses without jumping into analysis mode.

    So you can’t enjoy TV!!! Unless of course it is my current favorite show – Walking Dead.

    But you do have fair concerns. TV, although meant to be entertainment, is still MASS CONSUMED and still conveys a Message. Regardless of being brushed off as ‘entertainment’, the message still impacts the way people think. Dangerous conditioning ability.

  4. “The Walking Dead” is the ethics standout of the group, despite its science fiction/horror premise.”

    Despite? Its because of its science fiction/horror premise that it succeeds so well in addressing these issue. Science fiction, horror , speculative fiction no matter what you call it has always addressed those issues better then mainstream fiction. Just look at the George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead or read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. They both address social issues wrapped in the guise of horror / science fiction. All the best science fiction does that.

    The Untouchables is as based on fact as Winnie The Pooh is on the life of a real bear. And I dont fault the director on that scene but the writer David Mamet.

    • You’re right—Mamet should get the lion’s share of the blame, but the director could (and should) have insisted on a re-write. It might be the worst distortion of court procedure in the history of film.

      • I get up on my hind legs over “The Untouchables”, too. As you say, the crew took some SERIOUS liberties with history. One of the worst was when Ness (Costner) takes Nitti (Drago) and “puts him in the car”… from about twenty stories up! First- that’s cold blooded murder. Second- it never happened! Frank Nitti outlived most of the characters in reality. Nor did he look a thing like Billy Drago, who may be the most evil looking actor since The Creeper. (Was his name Raymond Hatton? He was disfigured in World War I and turned it into an acting asset!) And when’s the last time Costner made a credible film and didn’t ruin the career of his leading lady in the process? Movies really stink these days. I prefer Roy Rogers and Clayton Moore. You should have appreciated them better while in the throes of your fevered dementia!

  5. Oh and I was going to argue with you about De Palma being a hack but then I looked on IMDB.COM and all the movies he has made and I have to agree with that statement. Except for Dressed To Kill and Carrie he has made some really bad movies.

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