Art & Commerce: Nobody Does It Better

In this fall television season, already noted for failing to produce any breakthrough new ideas, there are two series that may end up making TV history. Although neither is a masterpiece or a blockbuster, Showtime’s Californication and HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me are two series that may go down in television history.

Naked people having sex, of course, are nothing new to television, or, for that matter, to any of the visual media throughout history. Paintings on the walls of Pompeii, naughty French postcards, stag films, X-rated movies, the adults-only room in the video store, the Internet: Any medium or technology capable of showing pictures has always, sooner rather than later, gotten around to showing pictures of people doing it.

For obvious reasons, however, the television series moved cautiously, when at all, into this territory. Extreme nudity and implied intercourse have always been relegated to pay-per-view channels and the late-night hours of premium cable. Indeed, an entire genre of soft-core series has emerged with titles like The Best Sex Ever and Beverly Hills Bordello. The half-hour installments of these series are better produced than a lot of what you might rent at the video store, but for the most part they exist for the sex scenes, four or five of which are stitched together with silly dialogue, bad acting, and flimsy fantasy stories in the “Penthouse Forum” tradition.

These new shows, though, are something completely different. The sex and nudity can be every bit as graphic as in the old standbys, but Tell Me You Love Me is to Hotel Erotica what The Larry Sanders Show was to 1st and Ten. The stories are complex and literate, the characters behave like real human beings, and the acting can be subtle and sophisticated. Showtime and HBO have taken a major step in making soft-core sex respectable. They are claiming new cultural real estate in the name of quality TV.

For starters, these programs occupied a much classier neighborhood this fall than their predecessors ever had. They played in prime time, not late night. On the In-Demand channels, shows like Cathouse or Passion Cove are found in categories labeled “Late Night,” “MAX After Dark” and “After Hours.” Californication and Tell Me You Love Me, on the other hand, are grouped in “Series,” right next to all those Emmy winners and nominees. They also feature pedigreed actors like David Duchovny and Jane Alexander, whose reputations were built in work outside the skin industry. More importantly, these shows were actually reviewed by critics, sometimes positively.

The Sopranos managed to present extreme violence and really crude language at the same time it was being hailed by many as the greatest television show ever made. Something similar may now be happening with frank and graphic sexuality, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, sex itself is not indecent. It wasn’t the stork or the cabbage patch that made parents of the Parents Television Council. The sex act is, biologically and emotionally, one of the cornerstones of the human experience, and therefore something we would expect to be explored in all its details in our national drama. Some argue that sex is too private to be appropriately incorporated in our public storytelling. But the inner psyches of the characters in an Eugene O’Neill play are also highly private, yet we have no problem exposing them to the footlights.

Tell Me You Love Me and Californication are no Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but they are significant baby steps. They suggest that candid, explicit sexual content doesn’t necessarily have to be leering and lurid.

More than 20 years ago, Ruth Westheimer suggested the same thing. Earnest and sincere, she managed to utter—frequently—words like “erection,” “masturbation” and “orgasm” on commercial TV and sound like a grandmother offering her recipe for bundt cake. In a nod to the pioneering Dr. Ruth, Tell Me You Love Me includes a sixtyish therapist, whose advice links the three couples featured in the show.

As “adults-only” programming, both Californication and Tell Me You Love Me have gone way beyond the usual variations on the theme of a lonely wife answering a knock on the door from the hot, young pizza delivery guy. Here, characters are fleshed out in some harrowing emotional stories. Furthermore, in Tell Me You Love Me most of the sex goes on within committed relationships. Of the four couples (including the therapist and her husband), three are married and the fourth has already selected a china pattern. One is trying to conceive a child; another reads their kids to sleep.

Although the artsy X-rated film never quite made it out of the art house, the potential for TV series that are both high quality and highly explicit is enormous. There’s no reason that a programming niche for “couples” (which might include material that’s intelligent as well as hot) couldn’t thrive alongside those carved out specifically for women or men. In fact, HBO aggressively attempted to nurture this niche with Tell Me You Love Me by running a series of three-minute programs showing couples reacting, together, to each episode.

Sex and the City started slouching toward the idea of literate soft-core in 1998, but now even commercially supported shows are getting in on the act. TNT’s Saving Grace not only has lots of sex, but it’s also a pretty smart show about God. (It got a positive, if measured, review in Christianity Today.)

We’re not there yet, of course, but when and if this genre starts consistently yielding programs of excellence, the heretofore sophomoric debate over television “indecency” might get an interesting new wrinkle. Janet Jackson was an easy target; really good stuff might be a different story.