Horrors, you're f_cking right," says Al Swearengen in episode one of year two of HBO's Deadwood. "He don't know if he's breathing or taking it in through f_cking gills. He is that f_cking c_ntstuck. They're afloat in some fairy f_cking bubble lighter than air. Him, her sn_tch and his stupid f_cking badge."
Now, Ian McShane's character is from Manchester, England, and a little more than self-educated, so he delivers this lecture in the tone of someone doing a classical monologue to get into Juilliard. Way off camera right, in the halls of Congress, lurks an observer, one Theodore Stevens, U.S. senator and third in line for the presidency after Dick Cheney and Denny Hastert. Sen. Stevens, he is not impressed. The Alaskan Republican, who one supposes would have a libertarian bent up there in the most libertarian of states, thinks rather that the government, in the form of the FCC and congressional watchdog committees, has evaded its responsibility to the ears of America by allowing cable TV and satellite radio to avoid their righteous oversight.
"Jesus Christ, Bullock! The world abounds in c_nt of every kind including hers," Swearengen offers up a little later, combining a possible offense to the genuinely pious with an enunciation of the network-banned (and Adweek-banned) c-word.
Rep. Joseph Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, steps out of the world of oil and the exchange of money to agree with Sen. Stevens. But Barton has a different angle: He believes the government has not been fair to the broadcasters, the stations supported by advertising. The government regulates only regular TV stations and AM/FM radio and lets cable TV and satellite radio operate free of supervision, thus giving the latter an unfair competitive advantage.
"We're joining America," says Dan Doherty, Swearengen's button man, "and it's full of lying, thieving c_cksuckers that you can't trust at all. Governors, commissioners, whatnot."
Now, the viewer was warned at the head of the show about GL (graphic language), GV (graphic violence) and N (nudity), but there was no warning of Dan's AS (anti-statism). Or later, Swearengen's AS (anti-semitism), when he suggests a palliative for a storeowner who has passed out from a gunshot: "Wave a penny under the Jew's nose ... brings them right around." Warnings could run longer than the credits if one has an eye for this sort of thing.
But what is to be done? Barring my appointment as Laissez-Faire Decency Czar and a new bull market for First Amendment lawyers protecting calls on Time Warner Cable and Sirius Radio stock, the solution—as it is for most things—is the free market.
If you think Deadwood is James Gandolfini without the sfogliatelle, and you didn't care for The Sopranos either, then drop the subscription, ban the program from your home. If you think Deadwood is the greatest show in TV history ("It's not a metaphor for contemporary commerce, it's even better. It's a metaphor for an 1870s gold rush town in Dakota"), then renew the sub, get digital and watch it on-demand enough times to pick up some Chinese from Mister Woo or "Heathen-talk" from the "dirt-eating Sioux."
If you fear the intrusion of Howard Stern on Sirius in your car, keep your AM/FM radio, or listen to Shakespeare (there's a new collection of his entire works on CD from Arkangel, well acted and with good sound).
A facile solution, but it hasn't solved the Vast Wasteland problem, the menace of broadcasting on the regular channels.
Brent Bozell, grandson of the founder of Bozell & Jacobs and founder himself of the Media Research Center and the Parents Television Council, nails the solution in his March 6 column. He describes a scene in the NBC show Committed which "made a mockery of the sacrament of the Eucharist." He quotes William Donohue of the Catholic League: "By far the most offensive scene occurs when [male characters] Nate and Bowie accidentally flush what they think is the Host down the toilet. ... To say that Catholics are angry about this show would be an understatement—the outrage is visceral and intense."
Bozell doesn't go looking for Congress to give out fines or the FCC to revoke licenses. He doesn't ask for a cop-out at the head of the show: "Catholics, Christians, people who respect religious observance, be warned that some of the scenes in the show will possibly cause you pain."
What Bozell does is publicize the advertisers on the show, thanking them "for bankrolling this anti-Catholic bile." No doubt the advertisers would counter that they were buying audience and not content. But that alibi wouldn't hold in TV networks free of oversight by the state.
And if Rep. Barton wants to provide an equal playing field, there is a better solution than putting the captive media in the same handcuffs as the free media. To even things, just remove the government oversight of broadcasters' content. Let their advertisers be subject to the critical eyes, ears and noses of the consuming and potentially boycotting public.
Editor's note: We apologize to Tom Messner for asking him to write a column about indecency and then not having the b_lls to publish the c-word, even in quotes from Deadwood. Fuck, we're ok with. C-word, no. We didn't even know we had this policy until this week, so we thank Tom for enlightening us.