The Lord works in mysterious ways. or at least his surrogates in the TV biz do. Last week several nbc affiliates booted God, the Devil and Bob from prime time, questioning the taste of an animated sitcom that depicts God as an aging baby boomer who wears sunglasses and drinks beer (most injurious to the doctrine of divine infallibility, it's light beer).
Sadly, the tempest in a tabernacle simply increased, loaves-and-fishes-style, the publicity for a lame, tame series--in which telling Satan "Go to hell!" passes for a punch line--that a merciful deity would have let expire silently by April. Which raises a now familiar situation for a critic. You'd like to stand up for GD&B. Because that's your job, right? To defend viewers' free choice? To save misunderstood works of genius from the philistines? Except GD&B isn't a work of genius. It's just an inept sitcom that lucked into some free media.
Sigh. Critics used to have it easy. Saving art from censors used to mean fighting for Ulysses, or at least the Smothers Brothers. Once, thought-provoking series like All in the Family and M*A*S*H stirred turmoil. But recent TV history, from upn's The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer to Fox's Simpsons rip-off Family Guy, is instead littered with idiotic series under idiotic attacks from would-be censors. Thus the job of pushing society's buttons and fomenting public discussion--once a hallmark of "quality TV"--has largely been taken over by TV's most mediocre shows.
The trend perhaps started in the late '80s, when Michigan housewife Terry Rakolta crusaded against Married...with Children, elevating the Bundy-family saga from crapola to cause celebre. Now the job of shocking an increasingly unshockable bourgeoisie falls ever more to commercials, ratings stunts like Ally McBeal's--you'll be stunned to see these hot women kissing!--or worse. No one will rank Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? with Roots, yet what good TV program has lately stirred such debate about feminism, money and a holy sacrament?
Hence the critic's dance: parry censors with one hand; hold your nose with the other. And it's not limited to TV. Look at the art world, where aesthetes regularly defend the rights of heavy-handed art--Sensation, Santa on a cross--that would be lucky to grace the editorial page of a second-rate alternative newsrag.
It's not that there's a dearth of good art, nor of good TV; in fact, this is the best time in history to be a viewer. But good TV, in this less ideological age, is much different from what it used to be. TV's best series, from Felicity to Friends, tend to be introspective rather than aimed outward at the larger society; they focus on relationships over radicalism, the personal over the political. (Even The West Wing takes pains not to alienate mass audiences.) Controversies over TV's best shows are rare (e.g., Italian Americans' plaints against The Sopranos) and inadvertent (Seinfeld's desecrating a Puerto Rican flag).
In this environment, a show like South Park is, perversely, the most retro rarity on TV: an offensive and intelligent series, satirizing religion and society with proud coarseness (just as All in the Family did in its own way). South Park's bigoted, foulmouthed Eric Cartman may go to hell for it. But unlike GD&B's creators, he'll at least have something to show for his trip.