The late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said in regard to pornography, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."
Describing "bad violence" in television and movies has often defied simple classification as well. Violence in those media, after all, can be brutal, cartoonish, graphic, educational, gratuitous, repulsive and at times downright thrilling. Some parents have no problem exposing their kids to certain kinds of violence, from "Stars Wars" (unless all those action figures are being purchased by stockbrokers and lawyers) to "Schindler's List." Others consider Wile E. Coyote getting an anvil dropped on his head absolutely inappropriate for young eyes.
Given this disparity of opinion, it's less surprising legislators balked when Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) introduced a measure that would in essence have expanded restrictions governing explicit sexual material to encompass violent images. Even many conservatives--most of them no fans of Hollywood--voted against the bill, expressing concerns the wording was vague and would create a bureaucratic nightmare.
All of which brings us, in a strange way, to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," whose once-postponed season finale surfaces tonight, seven weeks after its originally scheduled air date.
Rightfully heralded as one of the best reasons to watch the WB network, "Buffy" has developed a loyal following. Many of its admirers include TV critics--hardly a group that reflects the WB's stated 12-to-34 target age bracket--who have lauded the program's clever writing, sly humor and terrific cast, led by title character Sarah Michelle Gellar.
"Buffy" is also, no two ways about it, violent. The teenage protagonist is a "slayer," a birthright she wears reluctantly, since fighting off vampires, werewolves and demons puts a real crimp in a girl's social life. These menaces regularly plague Buffy's town of Sunnydale, Calif., which unluckily sits atop "a mystical porthole where all the demons of the nether world converge," making the place only slightly more terrifying than high school.
Fanciful as Buffy's world appears, the show's violence--coming on the heels of school shootings in Littleton, Colo.--prompted the WB to take what it admits may have been an overly cautious step: delaying the May 25 episode because it featured a sprawling battle involving students, vampires and a giant serpent at Sunnydale High's commencement ceremony.
"Given the current climate, depicting acts of violence at a high school graduation ceremony--even fantasy acts against 60-foot serpents and vampires--we believe is inappropriate to broadcast around the actual dates of these time-honored ceremonies," WB chief executive Jamie Kellner stated at the time.
Watching tonight's program, however, provides a perfect example of how much is in the eye of the beholder in terms of propriety, since the sequence that ostensibly prompted the WB's action is much less provocative than another that occurs earlier. Anyone who snickers when critics talk about vampirism as sexual metaphor, in fact, should tune in if only for a 75-second interlude that comes about as close to simulated sex as anyone has seen on a broadcast network before 9 p.m.
The only penetration here involves the fangs of Buffy's vampire boyfriend, Angel (David Boreanaz), who must drink from her to save himself from a fatal illness. As he does, she wraps her legs around his shirtless form and the two writhe on the floor together, thrashing around in a manner that takes its toll on nearby furnishings.
"Their nervousness about the attention [to media violence after Littleton] sort of let us slip one by," "Buffy" executive producer Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the episode, said regarding the WB. While he felt the scene was handled responsibly, Whedon conceded his own friends and colleagues found the sexual overtones in that moment far more boundary-pushing in terms of broadcast standards than the climactic fight.
Still, Whedon also sees the network's concerns as being focused in the right direction. "I'd rather it be about violence than about sex," he said. "In a way, [the school shootings] skewed their priorities, but it skewed them correctly."
Some might find the biting-as-metaphor-for-sex concept gratuitous, others riveting. Clearly, it's a ey moment in the life of the show, helping establish why Angel is leaving Sunnyvale--that is, beyond the crass reality of the WB's plan to spread the wealth, featuring the Angel character in a spin-off series that will make its debut in the fall.
Though some may tune in looking for violence, eager to see what all the fuss was about, this episode possesses a little something for everybody: romance, emotion, not-quite sex, nifty special effects for a TV budget, confusing mythical mumbo-jumbo, and a big, rousing battle where no one really important gets hurt.
Somehow, though, you get the feeling Rep. Hyde, who was forced to admit to his own "youthful indiscretion" during President Clinton's impeachment hearings, wouldn't approve.
Popular as the show is with teenagers, "Buffy" understandably prompts greater concern about imitative behavior than, say, "Walker, Texas Ranger," which plays to an older audience. Yet as Whedon noted, there's a difference between the violence here, where skewered vampires disappear in a puff of glistening smoke, and "Pulp Fiction"--a distinction frequently glossed over by researchers counting "acts of violence" on television.
"We're very careful about the delicate balance between balletic, chop-socky [martial arts] demon-fighting and real human violence," he said.
In this episode, at least, the producers act considerably less cautious in their handling of eroticism and the messages they might be sending to more impressionable teens.
One can nevertheless argue that this is just whimsy, a mythical being cavorting with a female superhero. Many youthful "Buffy" fans, in fact, have expressed anger the network didn't trust them to understand such things, to recognize that context, when it comes to sex and violence, is everything. It's a contention that brings us back, in a way, to where this whole circuitous conversation began.
How much is too much? Like Justice Stewart, you no doubt feel you know when you see it. Yet because people view that breaking point through so many different prisms, this debate seems far less likely to die than one of those vampires in Sunnydale.
* "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" airs at 8 tonight on the WB. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).
WB CEO Jamie Kellner will discuss the season finale today at 4:30 p.m. on America Online, keyword: AOL Live.
Brian Lowry's column appears on Tuesdays. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.