Leave it to me to be pissed off by a listicle. This morning I read an article on Salon titled “The 7 most offensive TV shows ever” a typical minimally researched Buzzfeed-y slideshow with a vague-yet-provocative, shareable headline. For purporting to be the definitive account of “ever,” the list doesn’t even cover the history of television. The earliest program is from the ’90s, so apparently Beulah was just fine, sorry NAACP. But anyway what annoyed me was the justification for the inclusion of the Comedy Central cartoon Brickleberry.
The line of thinking seemed to be that the inclusion of taboo subjects like violence, rape, stereotypes, racism, sexism, were fine as long as they were pursued for some end, which is left totally undefined. There’s an implication noble and ignoble intentions exist, Mad Men and Game of Thrones being examples of acceptable forums for the exploration of the forbidden while Brickleberry uses offense for the sake of offense and is therefore hollow and valueless.
I’m all for the existence of a spectrum of morality, and no doubt centuries of art criticism is based on assigning moral/societal value to works under the guise of objectivity. That seems to be the inherent problem with any form of criticism or journalism or human existence; we can’t get away from our own biases. But claiming that a critically acclaimed drama is ‘allowed’ to push boundaries, while a comedy show is too irresponsible to be trusted with that sort of power, seems like a flimsy argument even for a listicle. For one, it’s elitist, the only programs deigned respectable enough to push boundaries by critics are those with the critical stamp of approval, a concept of decency that just perpetuates its own taste and point of view.
Not to mention it completely ignores context. Lets remember one show includes a talking bear.
The article’s specific criticism is that the use of the taboo in Brickleberry is unacceptable because it is “nihilistic.” I realize nihilism is associated with depressed mall punks and the kinky Germans from The Big Lebowski, but I’m pretty sure the actual concept of nihilism is not exactly apathetic. In fact, I’m pretty sure nihilism is the view that some or all aspects of the human experience are a construction, therefore there is no absolute truth to be used as a barometer for human action or thought or achievement or morality, which is a pretty damn radical mode of thinking.
And coincidentally kind of similar to Brickleberry.
If everything is offensive then nothing is. Inundated by jokes about abortion, plot lines about bestiality, characters that so embody racist and sexual stereotypes that they become stereotypes of stereotypes, in Brickleberry all benchmarks for morality are lost, like a moral sensory deprivation tank. Whereas instances of rape in Mad Men or Game of Thrones are shocking because they mark a departure from the norm, the environment of Brickleberry creates a flattening effect. Brickleberry uses taboo subjects so excessively that events with a natural tendency to create dramatic effect are transmuted into neutral events merely in service to the plot. Bear rape and picking up the mail become equally mundane. It’s not amorality, but the experience of moral relativism. Societal norms about what subjects are approachable and how they can be spoken about are stripped away. Brickleberry isn’t celebrating rape or violence or racism, but it is doing a number on the hierarchical structure and labyrinthine code of ethics we must abide by in order to talk about them.
You don’t get a monopoly on meaning. I recognize taste is subjective, but too often people want to regulate who is allowed to say what and how it is said. Rape, violence, sexism, racism, homophobia are all unfortunate parts of the human experience, and dictating that only Kenneth Brannaugh in a powdered wig is allowed to mention them is like saying the patricians get to use 26 letters of the alphabet while everyone else gets 20.