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Any self-respecting TV viewer has got to wonder
why CBS, the former champagne network, would air “Helter Skelter,”
based on the true story of the Manson Family murders at this particular
time (May 16) in American history. Did the network programmers really
have to fill the vacuum left in the wake of the three-hour finale of
“Survivor All-Stars”? Did CBS really need, of all themes, to dredge up
this highly publicized 1969 murder non-mystery lest they lose precious
Sunday primetime advertising revenues? Only a couple of weeks earlier
the very same network disclosed on its award-winning “60 Minutes”
newsmagazine a brand new sordid affair when it showed the shocking
photographs of Iraqi prisoner abuse for the first time. Which begs the
question why was CBS inclined to reprise the Charles Manson terror as
though it was breaking news? Couldn’t they have waited for the Lynndie
R. England story to be filmed in time, or are they saving that
screen-gem for the Fall sweeps?
I don’t have any answers. But I do have a question?
CBS was obviously banking on Manson’s disturbing legend to seduce
audience share (perhaps away from the “Sopranos”), as evidenced by the
unremitting promos aired during the week leading up to the “World
Premiere,” as well as the “where are they (the Family, that is) now”
related news features, in addition to some costly full-page newspaper
advertisements, notably one published in The New York Times
main news section opposite the jump of a front-page story about Lynndie
R. England and her MP colleagues who are charged with the Iraqi abuses.
My question is not about the efficacy of showing or even advertising
this TV movie in the wake of a real-life scandal; the question is why
is it that in the newspaper advertisement the portrait photograph of the
actor playing Manson is scarred with an X mark on his forehead rather
than the backwards Swastika that the real Manson carved into his skin a
few years after he was incarcerated?
Is it acceptable on primetime to show killer Charles Manson turning a
group of sexy hippie chicks into cult-enslaved, cold-blooded killers but
offensive to recreate the graphic symbol he is seen wearing in many
news photographs and videos. The hooks of the Hakenkreuz (or hooked
cross of the Swastika) are removed leaving what amounts to the logo for X
Box. Could there be a subliminal tie-in here? I doubt it, but could it
be that the advertising standards and practices department made the
decision that promoting a tale of horrible ritual murder is fine, but
Nazi iconography steps over the line? Actually, the Swastika Manson
painfully tattooed onto his brow was not an evocation of Nazism but
rooted in the ancient history of the symbol as a sign of good fortune
that dates back perhaps thousands of years to Hindu and numerous other
early cultures. If such a highly publicized tattoo is removed from the
virtual Manson, doesn’t it make one question the voracity of all TV
docu-dramas and advertising in general? Okay, it doesn’t really make one
question what is accepted as “faction,” but it is nonetheless curious
that the network would go to all this trouble to falsify something so
well-known, while only a few weeks before it opened up a Pandora’s box
of real scandal and incrimination.
Incidentally, this new television movie is based on the true story of
the infamous Tate/LaBianca murders, as chronicled in the bestselling
book Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the Manson
case. Various books, including Ed Sanders’ disturbing “The Family,” were
published about Manson, who also appeared on the covers of Life, Rolling Stone
and other magazines in the late 60s and early 70s as the veritable
cover boy of hippy-drug-rock-music-inspired depravity. Manson's
followers, at his instruction, brutally massacred seven people over two
consecutive nights in Los Angeles, and scrawled bloody messages on the
walls of the crime scenes, including the title of the Beatles' White Album song “Helter Skelter.”
Six years after the horrific event CBS broadcast the mini-series “Helter
Skelter,” based on the Bugliosi book, which was the highest rated
two-part made for television movie. It focused on the investigation of
the gruesome slayings and the trial of Charles Manson. In this era of
revivals, the new “Helter Skelter” focuses, states CBS’ publicity, “on
who Manson was, why he did what he did and how this morally corrupt
ex-con persuaded the members of his Family to commit such horrifying
Thirty-five years and an untold number of horrible murders later, some
people may still be interested in knowing how this particular
megalomaniac convinced others to do his evil bidding. But any semblance
that “Helter Skelter” offers more than a voyeuristic peek at madness is
underscored by the falsification of the mark on Manson’s face. There is
nothing worse than an exploitative, sensationalistic show that also lies
in its advertisements.
Can branding by any other name smell sweet? Caplan gets a sour taste (and smell) from all this branding consciousness.
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