Tuesday, January 11, 2011

PG: Too racy for TV

When I was a kid, I remember very clearly a friend of mine boasting to me that he had gone to see an R-rated movie in the theater with his father. We were something like 11, maybe even younger. Never wanting to be bested, I tried to one-up him by telling him I'd gone to see a PG movie without my parents. I think I knew my feat was considerably less impressive than his, but it was all I had to go on.

That was back when PG really meant parental guidance -- or so we thought at the time. There was no PG-13 rating (although there soon would be), so the Motion Picture Association of America theoretically allowed a lot more racy content into PG films than they would today.

Today, I feel like any movie rated PG is too vanilla by half. I'm not talking about animated films -- animated films are obviously a different story. You wouldn't expect many of them to get a PG-13 rating. But for live action, PG-13 seems like the minimum rating for a movie to intrigue me.

And so it was with a bit of surprise that I watched, a week ago now (it's been a busy week), Extraordinary Measures, the medical drama starring Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford. I noticed before the movie started that it was rated PG, "for thematic material, language and a mild suggestive moment." This sounded like the definition of vanilla to me. Considering the standard set by the "mild suggestive moment" -- a french kiss, maybe? -- I figured the language would consist of one of the characters saying "shucks" or "darn."

Nope. There were at least several "bullshit"s and I think exactly one "asshole."

Which means that Extraordinary Measures could not be shown on most television networks without being edited.

(For the record, the "suggestive moment" was Fraser and his wife, played by Keri Russell, being caught making out with most of their clothes still on.)

It got me thinking about the difference in decency standards we apply to the movies and to television. By anyone's assessment, Extraordinary Measures would be considered family-friendly entertainment. Sure, it's pretty serious in the sense that there are two children who have diseases with a 100% fatality rate. But the movie is made kind of like a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, with the music swelling at all the right spots, and a definite sheen of appropriateness for the whole family. After all, it's a product of the film division of CBS, the squarest of all major networks. (And for the record, I thought it was nicely done for what it was.)

Yet it could not air on CBS without being edited. They might slip that "asshole" in there, but those "bullshit"s would have to go.

So why would a movie that almost any parent would show to their whole family be prevented from airing on network television in its original cut, while shows like the CSIs, where blood is spattering against the wall in every other shot, are given a pass? Even on CBS, the squarest and most wholesome of broadcast networks?

It's an interesting question, and makes me think again of Kirby Dick's thought-provoking documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Dick's film is an inside look at the MPAA rating body, a highly secretive organization that he tried to penetrate with private eyes and spy techniques, with only moderate success. Dick's film is more about the line between R and NC-17, how a flash of pubic hair in a movie can give it the latter rating, whereas a hundred decapitations would rest a movie comfortably in the former. But it asks interesting questions about the lines we draw in general, and why we draw them.

So let's look at the flip side of things, a show like AMC's The Walking Dead. The show does not shy away from almost any of the violence you would see in a cinematically released zombie movie. In fact, in the last episode I saw (we're going slowly through the season, relishing it on our DVR), human characters were seen driving pick-axes into the skulls of corpses, without the camera pulling away.

If released in the theater, The Walking Dead would almost certainly receive an R rating. Of course, it would also be full of f-bombs, which would make the decision easy. That's the curious way that TV has learned to manipulate its own standards for decency. These days, you can show almost anything in the way of blood and guts, as long as you put it late enough at night. But foul language -- language you might see in a PG-13 or even PG movie -- will get you booted from TV. Yeah, the basic cable networks can get away with the word "shit" (a limited number of times) and "asshole" (probably more, but it's a word that comes up less frequently in a normal script). The f-word is still off limits. But The Walking Dead is a funny example -- it's something we never would have seen on TV even just five years ago, or if we did, it would be on HBO. It's funny to see such gore alongside such relatively genteel language, because the language is the part that trips you up, not the seemingly more disturbing gory images.

In a way, though, the language standards have gotten stricter in the movies as they've gotten looser on TV. As recently as five years ago, shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad would never have been able to get away with the word "shit" -- now they can. On the other hand, the MPAA seems to be getting more conservative if anything. One of the first times I remember considering the language vs. rating issue was in Spaceballs, which came out in 1987 -- in other words, well into the PG-13 era. Spaceballs was given a PG rating, despite an incident where a character says the word "fuck." Would "fuck" even be permissible in a PG-13 movie today?

I don't know, it's just interesting to consider.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

There are many factors here. First off, you're dealing with movie ratings vs. TV ratings. They may overlap using the same letters, but the standards are different.

Second, you're comparing network TV to cable. Since network TV is essentially free (or it was when this system was set up) they have stricter standards than cable, who has much looser restrictions. (Your examples of Walking Dead or the language in shows like South Park or It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia).

Frankly, I'm kind of surprised that a movie with that kind of language rates a PG.

Vancetastic said...


I realized as I was writing that my comparison of apples to apples was a bit sloppy in this -- thanks for calling me out. I didn't intend the actual ratings given to TV shows to enter into it, however. I don't make it a practice to necessarily understand or even notice how TV shows are rated. I just notice what gets through and what doesn't.

And yeah, network TV is a different animal than basic cable. I should have concentrated solely on network TV, because I clouded the waters by talking about the permissive standards of basic cable. The nuts and bolts of my argument is that a typical episode of CSI is a lot more adult-oriented than Extraordinary Measures, yet one can be shown on TV and the other can't.

Thanks for the comment!