American popular culture: From Insight to Skins

Once upon a time in America, there was a TV show called Insight, created and produced by Fr. Ellwood Keiser, a Paulist priest. The show, which aired weekly from 1960 to 1983, presented stories that illuminated the human condition—conflicts between fathers and sons, struggles of conscience over the Viet Nam war, the changing role of women, police brutality, integration, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, the loss of a job or a home, moral quandaries, issues of faith, and more. My late brother, Fred, and I were two of its faithful watchers, you should forgive the pun.

The thought-provoking series treated its contemporary topics sensitively, but not simply.  And the consequences of the characters’ decisions and actions were seen and understood each week.

It also featured some of the best actors of the day, including Gene Hackman, Ed Asner, Jack Albertson, Beau Bridges, Patty Duke, Cicely Tyson, Jack Klugman, Robert Lansing, Walter Matthau, Bob Newhart, John Ritter, and Martin Sheen. Incidentally, as a young actor, Ramón Gerardo Antonio Estévez asked New York’s Bishop Fulton J. Sheen if he could use his name professionally, and Martin Sheen was born.

In 2011 America, a show called Skins airs weekly on MTV. It depicts teenage life through a cast of “stoned and sexually crazed waifs,” reports the New York Post. “And it employs real teens—the youngest is 15—to populate its nihilistic vision of childhood.” The sexual activity portrayed is so explicit, groups including the Parents Television Council are questioning whether the series violates child pornography laws.

On Skins, there are no consequences to the reckless behavior of its characters, notes a Jan. 23, 2011 New York Times article on the show, “MTV’s Naked Calculation Gone Bad.”

“On Skins, a girl who overdoses and is rushed to the hospital wakes up to laughter when the stolen SUV taking her there slams to a halt. Teenagers show children how to roll blunts, bottles of vodka are traded on merry-go-rounds, and youngsters shrug off being molested and threatened by a drug dealer. And when the driver of the stolen SUV gets distracted and half a dozen adolescents go rolling into a river, the car is lost but everyone bobs to the surface with a smile at the wonder of it all.”

The piece concludes, “MTV leaves it to real-life parents to explain that sometimes, when a car goes underwater, nobody survives and that a quick hookup with a cute boy at the party may deliver a sexually transmitted disease along with a momentary thrill.”

I am put in mind of  Thomas Jefferson, who once said, “If God is just, I tremble for my country.”

Cynthia Starks is a freelance speechwriter based in Central Indiana.

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