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Two cities' tales of sex and violence

Published Sep. 3, 2005

It was the numbers, the arithmetic of her vulnerability on police posters around town, that broke your heart.

She was 3-foot-6, 40 pounds. Five years old. One front tooth missing.

Samantha Runnion was the fifth little girl snatched away in a split-second from places that seemed safe. Even after a suspect, Alejandro Avila, was arrested on Friday in the rape, murder and desecration of Samantha's tiny body, mourners kept coming to the sheltered courtyard where the pretty little girl had lived.

"I drew a picture of a unicorn with sprinkles, a dog and a happy face for her," said Samantha's classmate, Jenny Cisneros, 7.

Gray-haired Esther Valdez keened softly: "This was always such a happy place _ kids on bikes, skateboarders, children sharing Pokemon cards." Now the grassy lawn is a shrine to caution.

"Before, the greatest fear here was kids' getting hit by a car," said Lydia Petrey, a neighbor of Samantha's mother, Erin. "Now we just have to tell our children over and over again about evil. But it's terrible to put that fear in the heads of innocents."

Here is the tale of two California cities: Stanton, in the soulless landscape of the Orange County strip-mall sprawl, is shattered by sex and violence. Forty-five miles away, Pasadena, the lush enclave of palm trees, Moorish mansions and pampered matrons, is showcasing sex and violence.

At the summer TV tour at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena, TV suits and stars arrive in limos to hawk shows exploiting America's morbid fascination with the erotic and psychotic. News reports about traumatized Stanton were intercut with titillating promos for She Spies, NBC's syndicated clone of Charlie's Angels, with Natasha Henstridge and two gorgeous friends in skintight outfits karate-kicking and punching guys.

Crime shows cascade across network schedules: CBS' Without a Trace with Anthony LaPaglia, about FBI agents who investigate missing persons cases; CBS' CSI: Miami, with David Caruso and Kim Delaney, about forensic police investigators; CBS' Robbery Homicide Division, starring Tom Sizemore and produced by Michael Miami Vice Mann, about law-abiding L.A. cops; NBC's Kingpin, with a Sopranos-like protagonist/antagonist, a Hispanic drug lord; CBS' Hack, about a disgraced Philadelphia cop who becomes a vigilante cabdriver; Fox's Fast Lane, a latter-day Starsky & Hutch, with two hip cops in L.A. and tons of gunplay; and Dick "Law & Order ad Infinitum" Wolf's revival of Dragnet on ABC.

David Kelley, who sautes all his shows in sex, has created Girls Club for Fox, about three sexy female lawyers in San Francisco.

In ABC's MDs, a rakish Scottish doctor finds an erotic application for his vibrating pager. CBS' Presidio Med opens with the sultry Dana Delany, naked under a blanket, having an extramarital fling while on a humanitarian mission in Pakistan.

The pilot of CBS' Bram and Alice, a sitcom about a womanizing New York writer who meets the young, blond daughter he never knew, hinges on incest jokes.

Even comedies tailored for the family hour are laced with teen sex. John Ritter is back on TV with two nubile roommates, but this time they are his teenage daughters, who flaunt thong underwear and hot high school romances. Asked if that was appropriate, Tracy Gamble, creator of the ABC show, 8 Simple Rules, replied, "It's part of a teenager's life."

And, of course, the reality shows are more sex-driven than reality ever is. ABC will broadcast The Bachelorette, with the rejected runnerup from The Bachelor, Trista Rehn, turning the tables to choose from among 25 "lovely bachelors."

"Given that a lot of people in the country still have a double standard about sexuality for men and women," Gail Shister of the Philadelphia Inquirer asked ABC executives, "how are you going to keep the "bachelorette' from being perceived as a slut?"

A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that people who watch shows drenched in sex and violence can remember only the sex and violence, not the ads. If companies take that to heart, they may decide to advertise on more sober shows, like PBS' NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, where their products would shine more vividly.

And wouldn't that be the ultimate titillation, if TV big shots were hoist on their own pandering?

Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service