Viewer Discretion is Advised

After a protracted state of writing-ennui (unresolved as yet, but perhaps winding up after several nights of insomnia, pounding through my various neuroses) I can rely on television for springing me to action. Last night after a grueling bout of putting the bun to bed (a baby relay between the husband and myself--apparently neither of us had what the bun needed and thus he remained awake for what seemed an interminable duration) I was completely drained. Plunking my ass in front of the computer wasn't enough of a distraction; I felt that to complete my ass-widening I needed the idiot box simmering in the background, to add a certain three-dimensionality to my loafing, as it were.

The television hasn't been turned on in weeks; since my favorite shows were shit-canned I haven't had any reason to watch it, so this was a special occasion to be sure. After flipping through our six channels (we don't have cable, aberrant freaks that we are) I settled on CSI, which I enjoyed once upon a time. But this was less about watching television and more about loafing, and I listened to it like background music while looking at trashy websites about Hollywood gossip.

So CSI was bleakly unfolding in the background as I surfed completely inconsequential websites. It was the usual CSI plot every time I looked up: corpse, dissection of corpse, 3-D imaging of the inside of corpse, clever plot twists about corpse. I had no idea what these particular plot twists were, but I could clearly spot the criminals by the edgy way the investigators questioned them. The television was serving its purpose: it would distract me briefly from the internet, which was a distraction itself, and I never got invested in either medium as I fulfilled my loafing destiny.

As the hour ticked by, I surmised from Marg Hellenberger's sober tones that she was just about to tie up all those loose ends regarding our weekly ne'er-do-wells, a youngish married couple who, to the best I could tell, nagged at each other for the entire hour while passing the buck of who did what to whom. It was only natural that I would look up at this point: it was like getting the reward for watching the show without putting in any of the effort of following the story line.

I glanced up as Marg earnestly addressed the couple in interrogation. I could tell without listening that she had gotten the case sewn up; the couple looked increasingly agitated as she connected the dots for them, laying out one after another of the infinitesimal hints that they, in their impossibly human way, didn't account for in their fiendish plan.

It was here that I began to sense a flaw in my own fiendish plan: my happiness while loafing with all of my senses overloaded hinged on the media I was utilizing being complete fluff. But as Marg spelled out the couple's crime, I had the sinking sensation of being duped: the crime which she was describing was not the crime of two heinous and unlikable scumbags, easy to despise and dismiss as completely deserving of their future jail terms. No, it turned out that they were parents of a child with Tay-Sachs, a disorder that is so mercilessly cruel that one wonders at evolution for creating such a wretched fate for tiny children.

It unfolded in front of me just like a slow accident that I could have avoided if only I had taken a left turn instead of a right. But now I was committed to following it through, straight to the end with the screeching tires and smashing glass, and there was no doing anything but watch as I slid into it.

And so I watched, as it blossomed in perfect CSI form, Marg describing what clues she had put together as the scene played out in shimmering, slightly blurry flashback. The couple's first child had died a grueling, torturous death from Tay-Sachs, and it looked as though their second child, a tiny, sweet little boy about six months old, had also lost the genetic lottery and was destined to the sa\ me horrible fate as his sibling before him. Rather than suffer the misery of watching their second child live out a painful, torturous and long death, they made the impossible choice to take their son's life. Of course, because they were distraught and confused and generally out of their gourds (and it's television), they decided to let him die of heat exposure in the car, thereby serving the dual purpose of making it seem accidental and saving their son the misery of an abbreviated life lived in slow, depressing deterioration followed by his inevitable, ultimately desirable death.

At this point I realized I had been completely Shanghaied. I had learned about Tay-Sachs when I had to make all the decisions about what sort of genetic tests I was going to have done when I was pregnant. Because I'm of Jewish heritage, Tay-Sachs was mentioned as one possible genetic worry amongst the many that I had to be concerned with when growing the bun. Not too worried, but it was mentioned. To be at risk of passing on Tay-Sachs, both parents must carry it themselves, and then it's a 1 in 4 chance your child will develop full blown Tay-Sachs. But most people don't carry the gene at all, and far fewer married couples both have it, so it's very rare. So I was never personally worried, but it was one of the many varieties of horrible illnesses one has to consider when you're pregnant.

The National Tay-Sachs & Allied Diseases Association describes Tay-Sachs like this:

    A baby with Tay-Sachs disease appears normal at birth and seems to develop normally until about six months of age. The first signs of TSD can vary and are evident at different ages in affected children. Initially, development slows, there is a loss of peripheral vision, and the child exhibits an abnormal startle response. By about two years of age, most children experience recurrent seizures and diminishing mental function. The infant gradually regresses, losing skills one by one, and is eventually unable to crawl, turn over, sit, or reach out. Other symptoms include increasing loss of coordination, progressive inability to swallow and breathing difficulties. Eventually, the child becomes blind, mentally retarded, paralyzed, and non-responsive to his or her environment.

After this grueling marathon, the child expires by no later than five years of age, unable to even breathe by his or her own lung power any longer, a yawning vacuum where once there was a child full of potential.

I was recalling this horrible disease as I watched Marg explain to her perps what the crime scene had revealed in the murder of their little boy. And of course it seemed a merciful death compared to the drawn out deterioration of a helpless child. I'm watching this unfold, and I'm trying to look away because I know what's coming: the ghastly killing itself, replayed in grim muted color flashback, the moment when they put the tot in the car, knowing that they won't be getting him out again, and I'm trying desperately to look elsewhere, anywhere but the television, but I can't, and they buckle him in the baby seat lovingly, and I'm covering my mouth in horror as the tears literally explode from my eyes, and they kiss him as he coos and babbles with his chewy toy, and I want to run from the house but I'm stuck there, forced by some will not my own to continue watching.

Then they cut away from the flashback to give it a dramatic pause, a little visual comma before cutting back to the scene as Marg describes the one point upon which the case hinged: the autopsy on the child had revealed that the baby had ingested Baby Tylenol before he died. Back to the flashback as Marg's earnest voiceover continues: "You gave him Tylenol because you didn't want him to suffer," she says as the father leans into the car with the medicine dropper, the very same one I used two weeks ago on my own son to deliver the grapey, purpley pain reliever. This tender act, this act of mercy, so personal and small just about sent me to the mental ward.

I fell apart. The delivery of the pain reliever tipped the scales enough that I was audibly sobbing, wishing that I too could die, at least until the show was over, but it kept unfolding before me: now the couple is standing beside the car, now the son is falling asleep, now the wavy heat lines on the screen illustrate the rising temperature in the car, now the couple turns away, now the blurry close-up of the son giving up quietly and sadly to the elements, his tiny head falling limply forward in his car seat. I'm gasping behind my fist which is pressed against my mouth in misery, and my eyes feel as though they've got little homing devices that force me to watch even as they dart around the room desperately looking elsewhere but are drawn back and back and back again. I feel like I've been horribly manipulated, that each new scene has been crafted especially to drive me to the brink of complete hopelessness. I feel like I want to crawl into my son's crib, hugging him and rocking back and forth like an autistic, shutting out the world and miserable television shows like this one.

As a final insult, Marg explains to the distraught and hopeless couple, the son tested negative for Tay-Sachs. They had killed a perfectly healthy child.*

Then into the show's denouement, which I blocked out because I was now firmly in the grips of desperate misery. I sat there sobbing, wondering how life could be so cruel, but more, how could the scriptwriters be so cruel?

I realized then that I am too fragile for much of what passes for entertainment anymore. I could never swallow the reality shows, which rely on humiliation and cruelty for their entertainment value. I could at one time watch the crime dramas without always falling apart. Sure, every now and then there was one that dug in under the horny lizard scales into the fleshy parts of my heart, but mostly I could see through the plot devices and manipulations enough so as to remain more or less impervious to the ghastly fictional crimes people perpetrated upon one another.

But since it has been so long since I have watched any television at all, none of my protective armor was on and I was laid vulnerable. I was naked in the landscape of cathode razor wire, and I got snagged viciously. And I realized something else: I don't necessarily want the armor back. If these shows have to work so hard at getting an emotional response out of someone, I suspect that we're all the worse for it. Being bombarded week after week after week with sex crimes and murders and fires and tragedies of one kind or another can only make us less sensitive, not more, or more paranoid and not less, and I don't want to lose my sensitivity or gain more paranoia. I want to retain my sensitivity for when my own son comes to me confused about what he sees and hears about death, I want to retain it for when I hear some grisly statistic about war and famine, homelessness, environmental destruction. I want to be sensitive to the real events that affect real people.

I believe that there can be great art that comes from television. I also believe that the reliance upon ever-increasingly horrific crimes to keep us interested in watching is doing us all a disservice. I want to watch the shows where they can keep the balance between emotional resonance and graphic violence. I'm not sure it exists in many places right now, and so my six channels may remain silent for a long time.

I'm perfectly happy watching Monsters, Inc. on DVD a million times with the bun. *It is interesting that the writers chose to make the kid Tay-Sachs free. If they had really wanted to write a tragedy, they would have indeed given the second son Tay-Sachs. Instead, their ending was a little too convenient and created moral simplicities that they didn't have to explain: "See, even though the couple's situation is gloomy and you could relate, now you can see that they still deserve to go to jail because they killed an innocent and are monsters."

But if the son actually had Tay-Sachs and it had been a mercy killing, the line would have been a lot blurrier and the grey areas reached much further to the edges. They still would have killed their son, and they still would have gone to jail, but everyone would have been much more sympathetic and thus the tale much more tragic. The fact that the kid didn't have it, coupled with the total implausibility of killing a child without finding out quantitatively that he had Tay-Sachs made the resolution a little pat.

And in the end, if I'm going to partake in this kind of tragedy by watching it, I would rather have a morally complex or ambiguous tale than a simplistic one.