“Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don’t say any naughty words!” ~ South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

Before I get sidetracked, I must let you know: I am not writing a review of A&E’s recent screen adaption of Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain. I will sum up my opinion of it by saying that there’s no reason to go out of your way to see it, but if it happens to be on and you’ve got nothing better to do, there are probably worse ways of wasting your time. And if you happen to catch it airing on a Sunday afternoon you may find certain choices to be very interesting.

The wife and I decided to check out The Andromeda Strain this past Sunday afternoon because the Sox had a rain delay and the only other thing on was gymnastics. I’m not a fan of Crichton, but I did enjoy reading this particular book all the way up until the last chapter, where I think he realized he’d reached his word count and just decided to stop. Quite the letdown. Anyway, Mandy had caught the first half a few nights earlier and was curious to see how it ended, and from what she told me I got the impression that this new version diverged significantly from the events in the book. Which it did. All things considered, I’d say it was a not-half-bad made-for-TV movie. It was certainly more ambitious in its storytelling than the novel was, and it had a few powerful images. For the most part the acting was adequate, as was the screenplay itself. The directing left a little to be desired, in particular a scene in which three characters have to endure a decontamination process that is shot like the prelude to a three-way sex scene. I just don’t think that was the message this movie was shooting for.

But again, I’m not reviewing the movie.

It’s trite now to question our nation’s moral stances on sex and violence in entertainment. Everyone knows that Americans just don’t think like other people. When you think about it, it should not be at all surprising; our forefathers came here because, quite frankly, they couldn’t hack it wherever they came from. From what little I know of the religion-based motives that spurred many of the first European settlers to cross the Atlantic and shove the Native Americans aside, I get the impression that their fellow Europeans found their beliefs too conservative, too constricting, and too damn weird. And, as evidenced by the rise of the megachurch and the glut of religious programming clogging the airwaves, things haven’t changed all that much in the last six hundred years or so. This is all old news. However, occasionally I will still witness something that leaves my jaw hanging open in awe of just how screwed up we really are.

Mandy caught the first half late in the evening a few nights earlier, and mentioned to me that for a made-for-TV movie it had a level of swear-word usage she found surprising, and some moments of violence that were downright shocking. Neither of these things offend my wife, nor myself, so long as they serve the story in which they are employed. She indicated to me that in this case they did. When we watched it on Sunday afternoon, however, steps had been taken to make the broadcast “safer” for a daytime audience. What the censors removed, and what they allowed to stay, blew my fucking mind.

You cannot say a dirty word on basic cable on a Sunday afternoon. Every instance of “shit,” “god damn,” and even “ass” got the silent treatment — as in, the audio cut out when any character uttered the word. As per usual in such cases, it only served to punctuate the fact that somebody said something naughty. After the first scene or two we found it amusing. It might have made for a good drinking game. But Mandy observed that if these mere words could not be heard, then surely some of the content that was coming up would be excised completely from the broadcast.

Dude, there’s a scene where a guy chops his own head off with a fucking chainsaw. Shortly after that another woman covers herself in gasoline and lights herself on fire and you see every horrible moment of it. Later, another guy enters a diner and shoots three random people before placing the gun under his chin and blowing his own head off. The blood effects, CGI though they may be, were present, plentiful and gruesome. And let us not forget the repeated images of buzzards picking at dead bodies. That was a recurring motif. And all of this stuff was deemed suitable for an audience too sensitive to allow the word “ass” to sully their eardrums.

Now, before anybody thinks I’m a prude, I want to go on record as saying I oppose and abhor censorship in all its forms. If foul language or gorey violence or graphic sex is necessary for an artist to relay his message then he has the freedom to do so. On the flip side, if some “artist” wants to use such things for no reason other than he knows it will make money, well, he has the freedom to do that as well. I, however, have the freedom to choose what films or TV shows I watch, what plays I attend, and what books I read. Turns out, I like stories with a good bit of violence and dirty talk in them, but that’s just me. What I don’t understand is the prioritization. I do not understand how a single word of dialogue — little more than a lazy way to add emphasis — can be more shocking or offensive than a graphic depiction of self-immolation, or a murder-suicide, and therefore be more deserving of excision from the film. Hell, there are several scenes of animals doing normal Discovery Channel-style violence to each other that, were I a seven-year-old, would freak me out so bad I wouldn’t even remember that somebody said “shit” two scenes earlier. Just who do these censors think they are protecting, and what exactly are they protecting us from? What is the message here? Is there a message at all, or are they just paying lip service to some outdated concept of propriety, making a handful of simple audio edits to look like they did their job? Part of me wonders if it’s just laziness. In this particular instance most of those violent scenes could have been re-edited in a way that maintained the shock factor and preserved the integrity of the story while “protecting” the more fragile viewers from genuinely graphic imagery, but what a pain in the ass that would be. Am I right?

I can only assume that whoever made the decisions places a greater value on decorum than they do on human life. I can think of no other explanation for the choices made here. I suspect that there was some thought or discussion about “protecting the children,” but if so I have to worry about whether the censors who worked on this broadcast have children of their own. I plan on having kids of my own someday, and if I have to raise them in an environment that frets over their choice of words but allows expressions of violence to go unchecked, it’s just going to make my job as a parent that much more difficult.