If you're like me, at some point in the past few years you've had the conversation about why there are so many dead bodies -- fake dead bodies -- on television.
We have dead bodies lying on slabs in the morgue on most of the "Law & Order" franchises -- and there are three of them, plus endless reruns. We have three "CSI" (Crime Scene Investigation) franchises, one each in Las Vegas, Miami and New York. We have two naval crime shows, although only one has an autopsy component. And only one has Mark Harmon, which is reason enough for watching.
Then we have all the non-uniformed detective shows -- the dead bodies battered, spattered, tossed, drowned, ripped apart or what have you just to jump-start the plot. Plus the British shows which pop up on PBS stations. Even "Inspector Lewis," the upscale British mystery series set in the ancient town of Oxford, England, features an occasional conversation around a slab.
The television conversation usually segues into why there are so many reality shows. There are far too many of those, too, of course, although the torrent appears to be slowing down. Several really bad ones (how can they tell?) have been pulled off the air, although Hugh Hefner has three new girlfriends, so there's that. There are even shows and Web sites that exist mostly to recap and/or make fun of all these shows. The recent Balloon Boy hoax is a good illustration of the damage these shows are doing.
Why is America endlessly entertained by all this? All this fake and staged reality? Is it because real reality hurts too much?
After all, this is a culture that has banished death from daily life. In the old days, homes had a "cooling room" where a relative's body, washed and dressed, could rest while people paid their respects. Now people die mainly in hospitals, or, if they die at home, their bodies are whisked away by professionals.
Since death is a part of life -- a terrifying part -- we humans remain intensely curious about it. Can it be that the more it disappears from our lives, the more we crave to see it, know it, understand it, inure ourselves to it?
And reality shows? Well, if you're dealing with real reality -- which can include raising children, caring for elderly parents and trying to do the jobs of two or more people at work because the others have been "laid off for the good health of the company," or you're afraid of being laid off, or you've been laid off and your unemployment insurance is running out, or if you or a loved one is sick and facing bankruptcy at the hands of the medical establishment, or if you're struggling with the death of a loved one who died in harm's way, or if you're homeless, or jobless or hungry, or... I can go on, but you know what I mean -- then reality once removed may be all you can handle.
Can Americans no longer deal with real reality? Newspapers and television news think so. Afraid to offend, they are endlessly squeamish about showing real blood and guts. Remember the bodies falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11? Those images were the perfect icons of that horrible day. And they were quickly scrubbed from our sight. A few years later, when a sculptor recreated one of those images, there was a huge outcry against his work. The Bush administration tried to hide the photos of coffins returning from Iraq. Just recently, some newspapers ran a picture of a soldier dying in Afghanistan and faced a national outcry.
After eight years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's difficult to conjure up images of the war because there are so few. Compare that to the iconic photographs from Vietnam or Korea or World War II. The only iconic image we have is that guy standing on the crate with a poncho over his head, and that's not exactly a good advertisement for American democracy.
So what is this weird dichotomy, where people have no qualms about sitting down in front of the television and watching three hours of dead bodies or strangers fighting to stay on an island, yet are somehow offended by an image of what war really looks like?
Bodies are piling up around the globe from rape, war, famine, pestilence and environmental degradation. Perhaps it is to our credit that we reach out to understand the dark side of 21st Century existence through our entertainment.
But perhaps we need to cut out the filters. Perhaps we need real images and real information about the damage we are doing to our fellow man and to our planet. And soon.