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Fewer guns, more eye candy on prime-time TV

By Robert David Sullivan

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  In a slyly self-referential episode of Sex and the City, Miranda dates a filmmaker who can't have sex without popping a porno video into his VCR. The relationship ends after the guy complains that Miranda's head keeps getting "in the way" during their lovemaking sessions. I wondered whether this scene -- which included some bare-butt shots from the troublesome video -- distracted any couple who like to keep one eye on HBO while snuggling under the sheets. Maybe this couple had become tired of sitting on opposite ends of their couch and grunting at each other while two lovers on ER had a heartfelt discussion about how they never seemed to communicate anymore. It was time for our hypothetical couple to move their dysfunctions to the bedroom, and HBO was doing its best to keep up with them.

If you've watched any significant amount of prime-time TV this fall, you've probably noticed that guns are shown about as frequently as cigarettes (most crime shows prefer interrogation scenes to shootouts), and there's so much sex that even non-smokers might be tempted to keep a pack by the remote -- so they can add a bit of verisimilitude to all the post-coital scenes. Don't worry, I'm not complaining. Those of us who react to 90 percent of all film trailers with "No way am I going to pay to see that" are grateful that the TV networks have concluded that it's politically safe to show bodies writhing in ecstasy rather than in pain. "Orgasms, not bombs," is the post-Columbine motto at the nets, and I applaud their moral turpitude.

A few specific patterns are developing in this season of sex. Sit-com double entendres are out, but bare skin is all the rage. And the nudity is mostly male, in keeping with the unexpected success of women-oriented shows like Providence and Judging Amy. I suppose that straight men are occupied with football, or they're slumming with cable and syndicated shows like Pamela Lee's V.I.P. Or maybe they're emulating Miranda's temporary boyfriend and heading straight for the videostore for their sexual thrills. At any rate, this fall on Once and Again we've seen Billy Campbell's derriere but not Sela Ward's; on Will & Grace we've seen the former, not the latter, bopping around his apartment in the buff; on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit we've seen Chris Meloni strip down to his bikini briefs for reasons that had nothing to do with plot development; and on Ally McBeal we've seen Lisa Nicole Carson and Dyan Cannon force male job applicants at their new law firm to shed their shirts. "We're the eye candy for our male clients," Carson's character explained. "So it's only fair that we provide something for the women."

Wait a minute -- 62-year-old Dyan Cannon is eye candy? Well, she was an early example of another trend on prime-time TV: older women with hunky younger men. You may recall that Cannon was introduced on Ally McBeal as a love interest for the early-30s Richard Fish, who has a thing for women with neck wattles. (Talk about encouraging wishful thinking among older viewers . . . ) Then we got Drew Carey hooking up with Shirley Jones on his sit-com; and Michael Badalucci falling for post-menopausal nymphomaniac Holland Taylor on The Practice, a union that charmed two acting awards out of geriatric Emmy voters. The pattern has continued this fall with 28-year-old Noah Wyle chasing after 38-year-old Rebecca De Mornay on ER; and bionic adonis Eric Close aching for supermom Margaret Colin on Now and Again (granted, his brain, which used to be housed in John Goodman's body, has a few years on Colin). And I haven't even mentioned cable TV, where 50-year-old fox Pam Grier turns the heads of men half her age on Showtime's Linc's and the women of Sex in the City seem to have no trouble landing younger guys -- Mr. Big being a conspicuous exception. I could also include Freaks and Geeks on this list, since the high-school freshman played by John Daley is smitten with a girl of graduation age. (Actually, I just want to mention this terrific series in every column I write until it becomes a hit or gets cancelled.)

It's ironic that David E. Kelley, creator of Ally McBeal and The Practice, has contributed so much to this trend. Kelley was a protégé of producer Steven Bochco, who prefers more traditional pairings between father figures and younger women -- the most infamous example being Michael Conrad and his high-school bride on Hill Street Blues, with Dennis Franz and Sharon Lawrence a more plausible union on NYPD Blue. I can only guess why the Kelley method has become more popular. Maybe it has something to do with Bill Clinton's giving horny older men a bad reputation. More likely, we're dealing with plain old demographics: there are more women than men in America, and also more gay men than lesbians, so it makes sense to add some beefcake to prime-time TV, especially since women are now less inclined to sit in silence while husbands control the remote. (Yet another gender advantage lost . . . )

So there are more shows about smart and independent women with active sex lives, which is fine, except that TV series require conflict and viewers don't like characters with perfect lives. The solution, epitomized by Sex and the City, is to give each of these women a parade of good-looking but deeply neurotic men to play around with. It's just like Dallas and Dynasty, but instead of discovering that rich people have tragic lives, now we're comforted by the notion that people who get laid as much as they want have their own set of problems (but not, God forbid, VD). Last week's season premiere of Ally McBeal -- in which Ally has a quickie with a stranger at a car wash and inadvertently wrecks a wedding in the process -- is the late-'90s equivalent of a soap-opera episode in which some rich bitch buys a ridiculously expensive sports car and ends up killing somebody with it.

Why can't we see more monogamous couples in these steamy sex scenes on TV? Dan Quayle's conspiracy theories notwithstanding, it's not because television writers lack family values. The problem is that it's so difficult to write for two equally strong characters and to make them believable as a couple. And even when the writing is stellar, there's no way to hide a lack of chemistry between two actors. That's why none of the girlfriends on Frasier had any chance of becoming a regular. On top of all that, viewers are generally cool to the idea of a series based on the ups and downs of a new romance. You couldn't get much better than Once and Again using such a premise, but that series is only a modest hit, finishing second to the single-woman drama Judging Amy in its time slot. Maybe Amy scores because some women like its "I can live without a man" attitude and some men like the conflict-driven courtroom plots. I find the dynamics of Once and Again -- how kids, siblings, and ex-spouses are all threatened by the romance between Ward and Campbell -- to be fascinating, but maybe they hit too close to home for some viewers.

The popular mates-for-life on TV mostly fall into two categories. First, there are the nostalgia figures who remind us of our parents: their love is inspiring but based on outdated gender roles, so they're useless as role models. Think of Archie and Edith Bunker, or the Cunninghams on Happy Days. As far as we know, their version of sex is chasing each other upstairs, where we like to think that they collapse on the bed, too tired for actual . . . uh, engagement. The other category includes the flesh-and-blood warnings against marriage: the Bundys of Married . . . with Children, or the Ropers of Three's Company, to whom sex is nothing more than a dirty joke.

Only a handful of couples have been both believable and sexy on a week-to-week basis. I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, for instance, are still popular after 30-plus years because they capture the excitement of being newlyweds. (It doesn't hurt that Lucy and Ricky really were doing it off camera.) There may be a lot more sex scenes on TV these days, but there still aren't many convincing couples. The pairing of Anthony Edwards and Alex Kingston on ER is only the most blatant example of throwing together two regular characters just to give them something to do. Likewise, the inter-office romances on The Practice and Sports Night still come off as little more than efficient plotting.

There are the occasional surprises. Matching Alex Kingston with Eriq LaSalle a couple of seasons ago on ER was an inspired idea -- LaSalle's prickly Dr. Benton became almost endearing as he let himself have a little fun -- and I still haven't seen any dramatic benefits from breaking them up. The gentle needling of each other by Matthew Perry and Courtney Cox on Friends is just as funny as when they first got together a year ago (they're turning into a younger version of Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette), and I can only hope that the show catches up to NYPD Blue in the nudity department.

Everybody Loves Raymond has one of the cutest couples around, but lately the show has been trying too hard not to be Mad About You. Note to Ray Romano: everybody got tired of the love scenes on Mad because Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt became so irritating on and off camera. You and Patricia Heaton are still fun to be around, and Raymond works best when both of you are united against the in-laws, or when the show flashes back to your courtship. It's not so funny when you turn on each other and try to imitate Basil and Sybil Fawlty.

The forbidden love between machine and mortal on Now and Again is sweet, and the similarly impossible affair between alien guy and alienated girl on Roswell has potential. At the other end of the maturity scale, there's the on-and-off relationship between seasoned entrepreneurs Pam Grier and Steven Williams on the barroom comedy Linc's -- sort of like Diane and Sam on Cheers, only with smarter characters.

But Once and Again is the only series that takes the risk of tying all of its plot strands to a single romantic relationship. So far, it's worked. The ripples caused by the affair between divorced dad Campbell and divorced mom Ward have provided enough dramatic tension that the writers don't have to break them up every other week just to fill out an hour. Instead, Campbell and Ward have been so careful not to upset each other that they've been royal pains to everyone else in their lives, which is a situation that almost all of us have experienced in one way or another. ABC has given Once and Again the green light to continue into the spring, so we'll see whether it's possible for a series to be both believable and titillating. There's a lot riding on Billy Campbell's butt.


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