So I’ve observed at my gym a good proportion of TV screens tuned into House. A man after my own heart. With points for the actor for pulling off the American attitude accent with credibility. Good personal ratings. Plus the character’s got a disability. Not the kind that interferes with his face or sexuality, but the physical presence of pain and suffering gives him a VIP card into women’s hearts. The hero thing. We love scars, as long as they’re not vanity scars. Unfortunately it doesn’t work the other way. Men do not take naturally to the ‘caretaking’ role. Not in their genetics. They file the family tax return, take their office stress like a man, often adore their kids (the Brad Pitt syndrome)…but the average single man does not come on to a woman he knows has had some kind of hidden, possible disfiguring surgery. What builds character in a man should build character in a woman. Maybe, but the sex-appeal quotient is different.
Anyway, I notice on Tuesday a few people are actually grimacing and audibly registering disgust…so I am thinking-- what gives? Is there some ultra-bloody surgical monstrosity? This kind of reaction is highly unusual. And sure enough, as I tune in---the episode takes place on a plane, and passengers are turning green and puking in the aisles. Something we can all relate to.
Now, I am just a musician—never been to med school, drew the line at dissecting a fetal pig in Biology, even though it meant a C plus. No, thank you. I've also noticed in recent years my kids’ uncanny ability to sit in front of the TV totally unperturbed while onscreen fingers and ears are sliced off, political prisoners are tortured unmercifully, swords sliced through throat and spinal cords. Not only do they not flinch, but they are capable of eating through the whole ordeal. Now I remember feeling physically uncorked after Reservoir Dogs. Discovery Channel Style surgery, on the other hand, is occasionally interesting. Maybe because the victim is anesthetized. Maybe for me the threshold is not the blood but the pain factor.
So what gives with this House episode? Nobody gasps at ER. No backward jerks of the head or expletives when a severed arm is carried in, when an accident victim or a traumatized birth-mother bleeds out 5 pints on camera. But suddenly this audible expression of cardio-disgust, like a wave. What gives is that apparently vomit is the new blood. Actors used to turn their head, run off to the bathroom—we’d hear the sound effects, the gagging and the liquid splat, while we imagined the worst. But now, not just on House, : Full Frontal Vomiting. Nearly the entire gym was watching this. And like the passengers on board that airplane, definitely an empathic sort of nausea permeating the gym. Like a palpable sour smell in the room. I could have sworn to it. Real TV. Always pushing the envelope of shock, of audience tolerance, of taste. And come to think of it, would you choose vomiting over another evening of back-to-back episodes of I Love New York, the show that proved white trash and black trash equally non-entertaining? You bet. That yappy-mouthed crazy-assed bitch without the presence of the charming and always-lovable Flava-Flav. Like Lassie without the dog.
Actually, have any of the diet specialists thought of this as a way of brainwashing overeaters? To have them watch unrelenting footage of truly disgusting vomiting—not just the puke-yellow soupy stuff we saw on House, but pieces—New England Clam Chowder style. I’ll bet the dvd version would sell like gangbusters. Move over Richard Simmons and Jenny Craig. For those of us who aren’t gifted with our own over-developed gag reflex, it’s the full-frontal-vomiting deterrent diet. I’ll bet all those compulsive night-exercisers who are hooked on the food channel went home and ate less after the House episode.
Actually, vomiting has become so popular, they even feature bulimics now on those Intervention shows. They boost the ratings. The alcoholics and meth-addicts are not always as photogenic as the young-ish women with the eating disorders. I watched one entire episode with absolute prime-time rapt attention in which a young girl who looked like she had wandered off the set of the OC drove around in an SUV all day ordering super-sized meals and then puking them up by the side of the road. Then started the process all over until she was exhausted. And it was not just her life that was so simultaneously fascinating and horrifying way more than cutting or breast enhancement reality shows or surgery, but the fact that her entire existence had been reduced to eating and throwing up which was putting her into enough debt to have to work nights as a stripper.
The IFC and Sundance fans among us are well accustomed to seeing intimate human acts onscreen. Conversations on the toilet, body functions. But an entire real-life documentary with actual sequential vomiting-- the viewer realizing that a camera crew is following this girl around, riding in her car while she wolfs down bag after bag of fries, taco after taco, calls her Dad for money, and just matter-of-factly pulls up at these roadside dumpsters and does her thing, talks about how her parents would be horrified if they knew she stripped. And I began to think, it isn’t the men that will stuff bills into her G-string that are the voyeurs, it is the Intervention viewing audience, in which I now find myself. With the creepy sensation that some line of decency, some perverse invasion of humanity has been traversed. It is not just the edgy existence of this girl's life, but the fact that the packaging of this has become entertainment. And however they put the spin on these shows, however they claim to present a rehabilitative example and some kind of hope to the desperate and helplessly addicted population, this has become the lowest and lamest form of voyeurism. Because the worst addicts are rarely watching TV. And certainly people in denial do not choose to watch Intervention. Not to mention that the bulimics are too busy driving around and ordering food and quick-cycling it. As for me, I came away feeling disturbed and guilty. Like after a David Lynch film.
But at least I'm feeling something, because my kids are so inured to the gratuitous violence and sex, they actually laugh when someone’s head is lopped off after begging for mercy with an intensity that forces me to hold my ears from the kitchen. They weren’t watching House because they were checking out MTV’s latest reality show where skateboarders and mostly kids perform risky stunts and suffer excruciating real-life injuries on camera, in real time, just for the entertainment of these viewing teenagers. Just to up the ante of how much pain can be funny. Remember in some nostalgic era they once tried to ban the Three Stooges? Remember Mr. Bill? At least he was a puppet. My 17 year old cried at Bambi not so many years ago. Now we have the crash-ups, the injuries without the sport. Just fast-forward to the blood and guts. Cut to the chase. Or chase to the cut. Gratuitous and painful TV vomiting.
Do I sound like old Tipper Gore? At least in her day there was musical accompaniment. Are these the new Gladiators? Or is it just all 21st-century wholesome fun in the good old harmless name of .....That's entertainment!