Callous Case

I very much enjoy the show Cold Case. Not in the way I enjoy something like Lost which I actively look forward to each week, but it’s something that doesn’t sit in the TiVo queue very long.

My interest in the show is a little unexpected, really. It’s basically a standard police procedural with the oh-so-clever “twist” of having the cases be ones that were either previously solved (incorrectly, natch) or were shelved as unsolvable. Not exactly the most creative of show premises, but it works as it allows the producers to work in a lot of flashbacks and incorporate time-specific soundtracks (the show relies a lot on musical montages) which keeps the often standard pick-from-about-four-possible-perps formula interesting enough. While it doesn’t really try hard to be ground-breaking or anything I like it because in a manner similar to Law & Order, it sort of pushes the principal’s character development to the periphery and lets the immediate story of the week take the forefront. Only Cold Case isn’t as smug as Dick Wolf’s ubiquitous NBC franchise(s).

That is, until last night’s season premiere. The primary story revolved around a couple of badgered teenagers who went on a Columbine-style rampage in a mall before taking their own lives. The twist was a hidden video camera that was recovered and contained footage of the massacre that revealed there may have been a third shooter.

Okay, fine. But as soon as they mentioned that the two shooters had played a ludicrously titled online video game, I groaned. “Here we go.” Sure enough, it was only a few lines of dialogue later that the detectives latched onto the concept of the video games as being the ultimate cause for the teens’ cruel, vindictive shooting spree, going so far as to take heavy pains to touch the parents of one of the kids with sympathy.

I don’t really want to get all in-depth in the whole “video games are corrupting the youth of America” faux-debate, but being a reasonably well-adjusted lifetime gamer myself, I’m sure you can guess where my opinion lies.

What I did find outrageous or ironic or whatever was that after forty-five minutes of not-so-subtly laying the blame for the kids’ actions on the doorstep of their (obviously unhealthy) interest in video games, the show proceeded to depict the entire massacre in exquisite, almost loving detail. The teenage characters roared with glee as red-tinted corn syrup flew and horrified-looking extras staggered under the weight of their fictitious wounds and the music swelled with emotion-rending schmaltz. I watched with a curled lip and a bitter disposition.

Perhaps it was my cynical streak leaping forward again but I couldn’t help but think of the insanity of having a television show (you remember television, right? That’s the medium that used to be corrupting America’s youth before video games came along and magically made TV a bastion of wholesome, educational entertainment) blaming a video game for causing a horrible event that it in turn cheerfully re-enacted for the sake of some ratings points. The basic problem is that entertainment is just that: Entertainment. It’s impact on people cannot be measured; people are stupid, weak-willed, unstable and in some cases flat out crazy. But people are also discerning, resilient and generally smarter than they’re given credit for. Blaming one facet of society for all of the perceived ills is ridiculously limiting and narrow minded.

I don’t think Cold Case’s depiction of their story is going to irreparably damage society. I do think it was a bit irresponsible but then again I don’t think Grand Theft Auto is training an army of youthful murderers but that doesn’t mean I refuse to believe it (and other video games) could be irresponsible; I think video games cross that line a lot. But there’s a difference between entertainment products being inappropriately marketed or crossing a line into bad taste or pushing an envelope that maybe didn’t need to be pushed and those that erode our moral fiber. You know what the difference is? If Cold Case’s handling of the story had been less idiotic and if the final shootout scene had been handled more tastefully, it might have been good. Quality and taste often go hand in hand, even if there are elements in there that are of questionable benefit by themselves. It’s like cooking with lard: Sometimes it’s just the right ingredient for the job, but you don’t want to sit down to a nice slab o’ lard sandwich, you know? You have to know how to blend things together in the right way.

And this time Cold Case got it all wrong and left a bad taste in my mouth.

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