"Heroes" and Horrors

People who do a lot of business travel find themselves killing time by watching a lot of airline movies. Since the flying public includes a lot of children, the movie studios courteously provide the airlines with the movies edited for sex, language, ultra violence, and the like. And here's the curious thing: I've never watched one of these movies and concluded at the end that it was cheapened by a lack of "gritty" (and I'm being kind here) material. Never in my life have I met a fellow passenger who suggested as much.

What these edited movies prove is that when nudity, obscenities and grisly violence much material is excised, and nothing of significance is lost, what gets removed meets the dictionary definition of "gratuitous" - uncalled for, unwarranted, unnecessary for the purpose of entertainment.

Many network television shows cry out for the airline-editing treatment. Some shows enthrall, and yet their producers feel the need to dig deep, deep into the muck of shock in search of the acclaim of jaded TV critics and the respect of their race-to-the-bottom Hollywood peers.

One of the most popular new TV programs this fall is "Heroes," an NBC drama about ordinary people discovering they have superheroic powers and a destiny to save the world from imminent destruction. A high school cheerleader can regenerate her body out of any injury. A politician can fly. A policeman can read minds. An excitable Japanese man can stop time and move through time. A painter can predict the future in his paintings. And he sees a future that binds these and other ordinary heroes together.

This sounds like good fun stuff. With its cinematic feel and heroic appeal, the show has a strong pull on the young audience, with an estimated 750,000 viewers aged 2 to 11, and almost a million viewers aged 12 to 17. It has the ability to attract many more who are older than that. So why do some of the scenes match the definition of gratuitous: disturbing, and utterly unnecessary to a captivating program?

Consider one character, Niki Sanders. She is presented as ... a webcam stripper living in Las Vegas. We're only five minutes into the "Heroes" season premiere when the audience watches Niki crawl across her bed provocatively in her underwear. Moving to the music, she begins taking off her shirt and bra for a live feed webcam. Once her bra is off, Niki covers her breasts and runs to the computer to solicit more money from her audience.

Then two thugs come to her house, and violently attack her. One thug strikes her in the face and knocks her out. When Niki awakens, she finds both men dead, one with a sharp object protruding from his neck; the other is sprawled out the floor. Torture devices are shown hanging from the walls and blood is literally splattered everywhere.

The audience learns that Niki's secret power is an alter ego capable of carrying out unthinkable acts of violence without remorse.

On another episode, NBC drew out a scene with Niki seducing the Congressman character into sex that would be secretly videotaped in order to blackmail him. This is NBC's idea of a "hero"?

Perhaps the most disturbing scene so far involved a teenage cheerleader character dying after impaling her head on a log during a rape. She later comes back to life in a grotesque spot: split open on an autopsy table. How much of this would make the airline version? And would it be missed?

But the networks today are focused on delivering an audience to advertisers focused largely on 25- to 54-year-olds with a lot of disposable income, and in an effort to grab eyeballs for the sleaziest advertisers, from Toyota to Target, from Apple to American Express, there seems to be no mountain of muck they won't climb. It is absolutely unnerving - and insulting - that they believe this age group must receive outrageous material in order to be entertained. It is offensive that every other demographic section of America is an afterthought.

Why can't a show like "Heroes" be pitched expressly at an audience as a straightforward superhero story - without the creepy dark themes, themes that seem to be strictly enforced as if there were some sort of pro-creepiness Hollywood union rule? Obviously, the dirty word in today's Hollywood is "innocence." A show that resembles an old-fashioned comic book would be scorned as hopelessly retrograde.

How much easier would the prime-time clicking decisions be for parents if the television networks could occasionally maintain the same cruising decency altitude as the airlines?