Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2003 / 2 Adar I, 5763

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Depressing news from TV nation | I want to say something wise and enlightening here, but I keep coming back to the same question:

What in the world were they thinking?

I am talking about 20-year-old Jason Bautista and his 15-year-old half-brother, Matthew Montejo. Law enforcement officials reported last week that these two young men, both from Riverside, near Los Angeles, recently got it in their heads to murder their mom, 41-year-old Jane Marie Bautista.

Apparently, the brothers were television fans. Or at the very least, fans of "The Sopranos." Because they allegedly took their how-to cues from that HBO mob drama. Specifically, the episode where Tony Soprano strangles Ralph Cifaretto and decides to dispose of the body by dismembering it.

What worked seamlessly in fiction, however, did not work nearly as well in fact. Oh, the strangulation and mutilation apparently went just fine. But a security guard allegedly spotted two men attempting to stuff into a trash bin a sleeping bag containing mom's remains; her foot is said to have been sticking out. The men fled with the corpse. After hearing that Jane Marie Bautista had turned up dead in a California forest, the guard notified authorities.

Reporters have dutifully sought out the producers of "The Sopranos" for comment but they have not, as of this writing anyway, obliged. I hope they don't. It would only lead to the usual debate about media responsibility and First Amendment rights. And that would be a cop-out, placing the onus of the crime on actors and writers instead of on the alleged criminals. I repeat: What in the world were they thinking?

I'm not talking about the murder itself. There have been claims that Jane Bautista was emotionally unhinged and that her sons were abused, so it's best to withhold judgment on that aspect until more is known.

But on the alleged means of disposal, there's no need for reticence. The idea that two men could chop their mom into pieces because they saw it done on the small screen speaks volumes about life here in TV Nation.

Which is what our country has become. One nation, under television, with "Seinfeld" and "Simpsons" for all.

In TV Nation, the camera never sleeps. In TV Nation, you can be an unknown today and a star tomorrow if only you'll marry a perfect stranger or slug your philandering spouse before a live audience. In TV Nation, stardom is the only valid reason for existence. In TV Nation, we confess our sins to Oprah, tell our secrets to Jerry, get dieting tips from Katie, feel incomplete because we don't look like (or date someone who looks like) Jennifer.

I feel it necessary to say at this point that I'm not a TV snob. I probably watch 10 or 15 hours of tube a week, "Simpsons," "Sopranos," "ER," Lakers games. But I am a wary fan, always glad to turn the thing off. Because in TV Nation the boundary between what is actual and what is only imagined has been all but erased. Television has the unique ability to make us forget what is real.

If you don't buy that, take this simple quiz: have you ever compared your family, unfavorably, to the Cleavers, the Bradys, the Huxtables or some other idealized clan that never existed?

Assuming the answer is yes - and I'm betting that it is - then the thing these two young men are alleged to have done has to it a certain horrifying logic, a certain awful predictability. It is an extreme, yes. But the difference is only one of degree.

Take that out of the equation and Bautista and Montejo seem not terribly unlike anyone else who ever believed a thing because the tube told them it was so. And it occurs to me that the question I keep circling back to probably proceeds from a false assumption.

What in the world were they thinking?

I'm not sure that they were. I'm not sure that they could.

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