Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Without a Trace of Shame

Crime dramas are so reliable, even in this post-postmodern age where the good guys sometimes don’t get the bad guys (or at least they don’t get convicted). They are games, with a series of clues, some of which may not lead to the right answer. The important thing is there are always right answers, and our satisfaction comes from watching our heroes solve problems.

Or, more properly, our satisfaction comes from enjoying the smugness of our heroes as they solve problems. In order to be a TV detective, you’ve got to be smarter than everybody else, and at the same time you’ve got to know you can rely on your team to be almost smart enough to take over for you if you happen to have the flu or something. Watching the detectives is akin to watching a great chess match – except this game has rules we can all grasp without being taught – with color commentary from the players themselves. The trash talk of choice is a cute little pun. I love puns.

Anyway, last night, I watched an episode of “Without a Trace,” a detective show starring Anthony LaPaglia as the guy who’s smarter than everybody else. The twist on this show is it’s not usually about murder. LaPaglia searches for missing persons, and the show updates us constantly on how long it’s been since so and so went missing. I’m not always clear why the FBI, which is his agency, is involved in these cases, but that’s alright. I’ll play along.

By the way, here’s a rule of thumb for this blog. If you don’t want to know how a show or a movie turns out, you should be aware that I’ll spoil it for you darn near every time. I’m looking to talk about what something means, and often, that requires talking about the ending.

So, on last night’s show, this 16-year-old girl is missing. Her 16-year-old friend is capable of lying with a completely straight face to powerful, well-trained federal agents, not once, but two or three times as evidence keeps turning up to contradict her previous stories. The gist of it all comes down to this, though. The missing girl is eight months pregnant, the result of a single encounter at summer camp with a particularly self-serving young man. She swears to her mom when she tells of her initiation – and, how many 15-year-old girls ever try to casually mention such a thing to their mothers – that she used a condom. But, as the abstinence-only educators are so fond of telling us, condoms sometimes break. Or, as I’m so fond of saying back to them, albeit in my dreams, condoms can be a little trickier to figure out than you’d think they are, so you should really teach people how to use them properly.

Moving on, the girl is missing because she went into premature labor – did I mention she hid her pregnancy from everybody else mostly by wearing an ugly poncho starting at the 7th month? – and her friend the liar helps her deliver the baby in an office by reading instructions printed on the internet. I gotta tell you, that was one of the sickest funny scenes I’ve encountered in a long while. I mean, it was horrible, but you could easily see it being true. And that darn internet, it never gives you every detail you need, does it?

The lying friend has to go to school to take a test or something right after the baby is born, so she still doesn’t know where the new mother is. Wandering around town aimlessly, the young miss encounters a friendly nurse who happens to be a smoker. This woman offers to get something to clean up the baby, and to teach the girl how to breast feed it, but of course, she’s having nothing of that. As Cat, my wife pointed out, if this were a medical drama, the nurse would have seized the infant.

Eventually, Anthony LaPaglia finds the bonding mother and child, and he tells her all about the wonders of motherhood. She was afraid her mother wouldn’t forgive her – I guess the surprisingly disturbed tone Mom took when her daughter told her she’d had a one-night stand at summer camp made her think there wasn’t much hope for Grandma to be on her side – but Judd reassures her that being a mother means always wanting to hold your child, no matter what happens or how old they get. Then, Grandma popped out and much crying ensued.

This whole last bit was what got me to write about the show at all. The girl didn’t get an abortion because she didn’t find out she was pregnant until four months in, and apparently, that’s not something that’s an option. I thought it was, but I admit I’m no expert. Still, she was afraid, and she didn’t want to have the baby, so she tried taking drugs on a regular basis to induce a miscarriage. Eventually, she hit upon the plan to run away to California and have the baby with the aid of the lying friend’s older sister. All of this negative feeling went away, however, once she sat long enough with the baby, and especially once LaPaglia extolled motherhood in such a sappy manner.

I understand that this was a drama concerning one individual girl, and I admit there were some good bits of acting to convince me she might have gone this way. But, I was pretty pissed off at the overall belief that women are destined to be mothers, and that mothers will always be perfect. Not that my mother isn’t perfect, mind you, but that I don’t think motherhood is some innate switch that gets turned on once the baby is born. It’s not a destiny, it’s a learned response, and some people are going to be better at it than others.

I once dated a woman who had a child at 16, and by the time I met her, she’d had 19 years of being pretty good at parenthood. But, I’m reasonably sure that she was an exception, and that most teenage mothers are going to have their lives turned upside down in ways this show didn’t acknowledge. The girl knew when she found out she was pregnant, she just seemed to have all that wiped out by the physical reality of her baby. I just hope there’s not a sequel to this episode in a year or two, when that kid turns up missing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You work well in this freeform posting outlet. I really dig.

As it happens, this episode was my first encounter with this series as well. Funny that what offended me most was the very public encounter with the free clinic doctor who, turns out, was innocent of any badguyness. Is it so much to ask for a 10 second scene where they thank the doctor after the interview in his waiting room for his cooperation, rather than leave him to tell his receptionist, Um, it wasn't me, honest.

Otherwise, I have no doubt that your reading of the episode is righter than mine. I didn't get a maternal instinct taking over so much as a personal responsibility, and in that a sort of personal redemption after the awful crap she had pulled previously trying to remove or hide the baby. But you're right, his speech was heavy with the momhood vibe.

And but the smoking nurse? What a fine human being she was. Don't see that often in these crime drama things.


8:38 PM  
Blogger Steve Pick said...

Thanks for the compliment, Becker. I'm certainly enjoying this.

That's an interesting take on the personal redemption bit, though I don't think it contradicts my reading about the glories of motherhood. As long as the show puts forth the idea that personal redemption and natural motherhood are intertwined, we're both right.

6:48 AM  

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