Executive Director of the Lincoln Center Institute
For this column, I thought I’d stray a litle bit from my usual concerns,
namely the state of arts in education. Just a little bit, mind you: I want to
talk about a favorite television program and, after all, being aware of the impact
a powerful medium can have is part of my work. Besides, my concern today is certainly
as universal as anything I might deal with in my professional life: it is the
concern of a parent.
I enjoy good television. I do not believe that absolutely nothing besides Masterpiece
Theatre or Live from Lincoln Center is worth watching. I also don’t choose
my TV fare solely for its high-brow merits, any more than we at Lincoln Center
Institute choose our artistic repertory because it qualifies as “high art.” We
choose it because it is, without exception, of high aesthetic quality. Television,
too, has produced many works of great quality: they can be—dare I say it—art,
and watching them can be an aesthetic experience. By “aesthetic experience” I
mean, for example, an episode of ER that moves me because the script is strong,
and the characters are convincing and appealing. In their joys and tragedies
I can find reflections of the larger human condition, moments drawn from almost
frighteningly recognizable episodes of our own lives, and from the joys and tragedies
that touch us daily on the evening news.
More’s the pity to have witnessed what I can only qualify as a gratuitous
pull at the heartstrings. Dr. Carter left ER last week after 11 years on the
show. He gave a moving speech to his fellow emergency room doctors and nurses
and then he was gone. Forever. I hoped to be able to bask in the afterglow of
the season’s finale, with that happy-sad feeling one reserves for departing
old friends and good TV cliffhangers. However, the show did not end with Dr.
Carter’s leaving: it ended with a ten-year old boy named Alex, son of
a nurse, running away from home, hitching down the highway, on his quest to
find his father. He is picked up by a man in a truck. Gone. End of show. The
scene was haunting, chilling, surreal. And I hated it.
I fear this as much as any parent. Kids are abducted all year long, from home,
from school, from stores, from churches and temples. All of us dread the phone
call, the empty space in the playground. We don’t need the fear assault
from the frames of our favorite TV shows. But it is not only on our behalf that
I resented that ending. Television should not exacerbate this—all too realistic—fear.
There is a distinction between a parental warning, cautiously thought out,
and an emotional manipulation, accompanied by strategic shots and subliminal
music (or uneasy silence) depicting children being picked up by strangers.
The fact that we do not know—won’t know for months—how the
story resolves itself, makes it worse. It departs from reality in favor of blatant
pandering to the morbid thrill. Maybe the truck driver will turn out to be a
good Samaritan and will immediately call the boy’s mother from his cell
phone. Maybe the worst will happen. Not knowing may be good strategy to keep
the show’s fans in thrall, but is that strategy worth crossing the moral
line into territory where our worst fears are trivialized in the name of ratings?
I do not bristle when I see the grittiness of life shown on TV, and I do not
wish to debate whether TV depicts too much violence and sex. Simply, I wish to
present a plea to the decisionmakers in the world of television, and, indeed,
all media: when your product has the rare and delightful opportunity to be both
entertainment and art, please keep the art in entertainment.#
Scott Noppe-Brandon is the Executive Director of the Lincoln Center Institute
for the Arts in Education. www.lcinstitute.org