Television Review

Robert Hanks
Tuesday 03 August 1999 23:02

IT'S OFTEN noted that in our modern, sanitised world we have become disconnected from the facts of life and death. For example, how many of us have ever seen a dead body? In one sense the answer is clear: very few of us; we leave corpses to the specialists. In another sense, the answer is that nearly all of us encounter death every day. As is also often noted, corpses, real and fictional, are served up by the dozen on our televisions, and we can probably look on the image of a dead body with an unconcern that our ancestors could never have mustered.

This new view of death, at once distant and familiar, goes some way to explaining a novel attitude to the body that appears to inform a disturbingly large proportion of modern television. It is most obvious on Channel 5, where the search for ever-cheaper thrills has led to programmes such as Impotence and Animal ER. And now we have Autopsy, a five-part anthology of pathologists' case-notes in which sick and dead bodies are displayed, nominally to edify us, but actually to shock a little frisson out of us.

To be fair, Autopsy is at the less graphic end of the range - the odd picture of an arm after it has been vomited up by a shark, that sort of thing - but it makes up for that in sheer shoddiness, what with its low-quality video footage and flat voice-over. And it exemplifies this new view of the flesh - instrumental, utilitarian, the body not as a casing for the soul but as a mechanism that sometimes needs to be fixed or, failing that, sliced up to find out what went wrong.

A more palatable version of the same attitude is implicit in A Change of Sex (BBC2) - in George, now Julia's, belief that what is wrong with his life could be solved with hormones and a few nips and tucks. In last night's programme, a psychiatrist observed that Julia talked about her surgery and her body in isolation from her feelings. Perhaps Julia was telling the truth, though, when she said that she didn't talk about her feelings because she was at peace with herself.

In this film, made in 1994, she appeared remarkably settled as a woman - the air of oddity that clung to George had evaporated. Next week's film, which brings the story up to date, promises that Julia will find happiness, but that sort of resolution seems unnecessary: we have already seen her more at home with herself than many people will ever manage.

A more old-fashioned view of the flesh - as something to be fought and conquered - is available in NYPD Blue (C4), which has revived amazingly since Jimmy Smits's overblown departure. That is largely thanks to the arrival of Danny Sorenson (Rick Schroder), a troubled puritan forever unsettled by the flesh, and particularly by the way his flesh reacts to that of his colleague, Diane Russell. The constant wrestling with his conscience, his perpetual search for the good in everybody, gives the character an unflawed complexity that television cops are rarely allowed - this week even leaving him momentarily sympathetic with a paedophile who confessed that he had done the least his sickness would allow. If it could resist the temptations of the cliff-hanger ending - last night, Sipowicz's wife ended up with a bullet in the gut - NYPD Blue could be a serious moral drama.

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