I don't usually think too much about violence on television. Accidents, civil strife, murder, mayhem, gore - they're there. I'm not happy about it. But you have to choose your battles. Limit your kids' exposure and get on with life, I say.
But two blockbuster prime-time TV shows duking it out for first place in the ratings - Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - have roused my interest. One could argue that these are just games. But there's something about these two shows that strikes me as a little weird. That weirdness is the innuendo of emotional violence within the good-clean-fun format.
It doesn't bash you over the head with shoot-em-ups or with the abuse you see in, say, the Howard Stern or Jerry Springer shows. There you can dismiss something, saying, "Well, what do you expect from Howard Stern or Jerry Springer?" No, this is something subterranean, something implied.
Which, of course, is the power of innuendo. You can't quite pin it down and make it account for itself. Maybe you don't even suspect it's there.
Let's start with Survivor, the less subtle of the two. It's been the talk of the neighborhood. "Good God," people say with awe. "It's just like Lord of the Flies. The implication is that, without a thin veneer of civilization, we will do horrible things to each other, including for fun.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire looks like a classic trivia quiz show. But have you noticed the set design? Contestants sit in a dark room, speared by bright lights reminiscent of an interrogation.
And they're sitting high up, in a large open space, with feet far off the floor. Maybe they don't feel defenseless in that position. But they look defenseless.
Then there's the music. If music is woven skillfully enough into a scene, the audience doesn't think, "Say! How about that music?" Maybe blood pressure rises and pupils dilate, but it's no big obvious deal. This is a dark and malevolent music full of implied threat, a sense of danger.
It's all theater, of course, designed with precision to heighten viewers' involvement. And I can hear the chorus: Aw, come on! It's just a game!
But the question, and it's old as the hills, is this: Why do we enjoy watching people who suffer, who've been made to feel threatened or humiliated? Are we no different from the ancient Romans who were amused to see Christians flung to the lions and gladiators fighting to the death?
Suggestion, innuendo: they have a hidden power of their own. To what
extent do they control us - and define us?