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'Buffy,' 'Oz' raise questions about violence and intelligence

Tuesday, July 13, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

If it's not conservatives chastising sex on TV, it's liberals throwing a fit about violence. That's the way it used to be, anyway. Lately, however, it's become a free-for-all with political ideology taking a back seat to condemnation of television and the mass media from all camps.

Much of it is richly deserved. TV has sunk into the gutter, especially when it comes to sex and innuendo.

But for all the wailing about violence on TV, I haven't seen much lately in prime time on the broadcast networks. Sure, there's the nastiness of Fox's now-canceled "Millennium" and snuff-film-like reality specials. The raunch of wrestling on USA Network is unfortunate. But outside of cable, violence isn't as prevalent as trashy talk.

Still, it wasn't surprising violence on TV came to the forefront after the shootings at Columbine High School. CBS pulled an episode of "Promised Land," NBC made changes to its mini-series "Atomic Train," and The WB pulled two episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Tonight at 8 The WB finally airs the "Buffy" season finale, "Graduation Day Part 2."

Skittish network executives pre-empted the episode during May sweeps because they were afraid some crazy student would shoot up a high school graduation ceremony and news outlets would instantly show footage of Buffy and the gang attacking their commencement speaker after he turns into a 70-foot-tall demon.

    TV Reviews

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

When: Tonight at 8 on The WB.

Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan.


When: Tomorrow night at 10 on HBO.

Starring: Terry Kinney, Ernie Hudson.


The episode aired in Canada, and fans recorded the show there and posted it on the Internet for all to see, breaking copyright laws but avowing their devotion. At 7:30 tonight the guy who made the decision to pre-empt the season finale, WB CEO Jamie Kellner, will chat with angry fans on America Online.

Should the "Buffy" season finale have been yanked? That's a difficult call. If a big deal hadn't been made about the episode, the Columbine tragedy wouldn't have occurred to many viewers of "Graduation Day Part 2." After all, there are no shootings (kids defend themselves with flame-throwers and crossbows) and any violence by the students comes out of self-preservation, not an effort to rampage.

More disturbing is the scene where Buffy encourages good vampire Angel to drink her blood to heal himself.

As "Buffy" episodes go, "Graduation Day Part 2" doesn't rank as one of the best. It's fine, just not exemplary. Too much needs to get done: plan for the ascension of the evil mayor (Harry Groener), write off Angel (David Boreanaz) so he can star in his own show this fall and deal with the aftermath of Faith's fight with Buffy from the previous episode, "Graduation Day Part 1."

The season finale was written and directed by "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon and features his typically zingy writing.

"Congratulations, you all proved more or less adequate," Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman) tells the graduates humorlessly. "This is a time of celebration, so sit still and be quiet."

With so much story to churn in an hour, dialogue is sparse. However the final line in the episode perfectly captures the show's tone and makes clear violence is not at the root of "Buffy's" storytelling.

With that in mind I saw a bootleg copy of "Earshot," the other "Buffy" episode pulled for violence after Columbine.

"Earshot" has not been rescheduled, and with this one it's easier to understand why. There's a direct correlation between the plot of "Earshot" and what happened at the Colorado high school, as Buffy gets the power to overhear others' thoughts, including one person who threatens to kill everyone in the school.

While there's a twist to the outcome that renders it less Columbine-like, for most of the hour it's easy to see comparisons. Plus, the dialogue is riddled with observations and dark humor that have a lot more punch now than when the episode was filmed early this year.

"I'm still having trouble with the fact that one of us is just going to gun everyone down for no reason," Xander (Nicholas Brendon) says.

Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) sarcastically responds, "Yeah, because that never happens at American high schools."

"It's bordering on trendy at this point," the always-serious Oz (Seth Green) adds.

Kind of stings, doesn't it?

Uncomfortable dialogue aside, "Earshot" is a superior episode to "Graduation Day Part 2," closing some of the gaps in the season's continuing story and surprising regular viewers with revelations via Buffy's new sixth sense.

Still, even in "Earshot," the series' prevailing anti-violence ethic is apparent. When Buffy confronts the student she thinks will shoot her classmates, she tells him even the beautiful, popular people face confusion and times of loneliness and unhappiness.

"Well, mass murder, not really doctor-recommended for that type of pain," Buffy says. "Actions [have] consequences."

There's no sense of compassionate understanding in the third season premiere of the ultra-violent prison drama "Oz" (10 p.m. tomorrow on HBO). Then again, this isn't a show aimed at teens, and it does air on a premium cable network. Plus, the show paints prison as an ugly, dangerous place.

Once you're behind bars, anything goes. Oh sure, you kill someone and you end up in solitary, but on "Oz" that's not so much a consequence as it is a different set.

Although I grew tired of the show's soap opera theatrics in the early episodes last season, the first five episodes of the new season are easier to embrace.

There's a crazy new female guard (Kristin Rohde) who comes on to Oz chieftain Tim McManus (Terry Kinney), a private firm takes over the prison's medical facilities, Muslim leader Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker) finds himself ostracized, inmates perversely ogle a buxom children's TV show host, and the son (Fred Koehler, the son on "Kate & Allie") of Nazi skinhead Vern Schillinger (JK Simmons) gets thrown in the same prison as his dad. Add to that an inmate who purposefully infects another jailbird with AIDS-tainted blood and several grizzly, unexpected murders by razor blade and you get the oh-so-bleak picture.

Clearly "Oz" is not for everyone. In fact, it's probably not for most viewers. Frequently I find myself wincing at the brutal depictions, but I keep tuning in because the characters are engaging.

They're not nice people and even the "good guys" are horribly flawed (this applies to both correction officers and prisoners). But their explosive exploits and the surprising plot twists keep me coming back.

I would never allow children, even teens, to tune in to "Oz," and HBO doesn't want that either, wisely scheduling the show for 10 p.m.

That's far more responsible than the likes of USA and soon UPN, which air profanity-filled, middle finger-waving WWF wrestling at 8 p.m. Or NBC, which allows the sexual innuendo of "Friends" to go unchecked at the same too-early hour.

Even "Buffy" should air at 9 p.m., and it can be argued the world would be a better place without "Oz," no matter how engrossing its unrepentant violent melodrama. But I'm still more comfortable with TV airing these two sophisticated dramas than the brain cell-depleting and more-likely-to-be-imitated antics found in wrestling and "The Jerry Springer Show."

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