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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Matlock and Deadwood

Why is it that shows like Matlock and Diagnosis Murder appear with such startling frequency on networks such as PAX or Hallmark? Networks that market themselves as aggressively wholesome, as "family-friendly"?

Part of the reason is surely demographic--these networks skew old and these shows are geriatic wish fulfillments. The old guy is always right and gets to ramble on and no one interrupts and he doesn't have to rollerblade or anything like in the soda pop commercials. Maybe if we treated our elderly better, we would be spared this kind programming. Matlock--the hidden cost of Medicare cuts. Write your Congressman, people.

But something else must be going on. PAX loves murder shows. Weekly killings as wholesome family entertainment. It's odd. These are odd shows. The murderee is nearly always an unsavory type--ruthless and greedy. No one is sad to see him go. This unlikeability means, of course, that everyone has a motive and that the red herrings can stretch out to 47 minutes of "drama."

It is an astonishingly nasty-minded set up. We are meant to cheer the doddering amateur sleuth for solving the mystery, but we are completely let off the hook as far as the dead guy goes. As far as the murder goes. There is no shock or horror in these deaths. The only moral center of these shows is that the main character is genial and smart and thinks that murder is wrong. But even this last quality is strained by the fact that some friend of the hero is almost always wrongly accused of the crime.

But having a likable, well-intentioned, decent character does not a moral universe make. Compare Matlock with Deadwood. Deadwood is brutal, foul-mouthed, it's murderers often unpunished and nearly always unrepentant. Al Swearengen is uncomfortably Satanic--you know he's not a good guy, but he's got all the energy and all the vision.

And yet, this show has a moral sensibility that outstrips anything seen on PAX or Hallmark.

What kind of impoverished moral imagination mistakes having a nice character with being decent and mistakes portraying wickedness with being wicked?

It's like saying that King Lear lacks a moral vision because Lear does. Cocksuckers.

The kind of dumb lawyer on Matlock was the chubby kid in River's Edge. The kid who murdered his girlfriend. Who knew? Is there nothing that can't be learned on

Addendum addendum:
Whereas the fat kid from Stand By Me is now some hotsy-totsy t.v. cop. Funny old world.