Television: No sex please, we're American

BRIAN VINER ON TELEVISION
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The Independent Culture
A couple of summers ago we had a family holiday on the coast of Maine. While our children frolicked naked on the beach, we were amazed to find them attracting hostile stares and even disapproving remarks. If they had been aged 18 and 16, the disapproval might have been understandable. We might have even joined in. But they were aged three and 17 months. "Wow, that's primitive," said a middle-aged man, loudly. It was made quite clear to us that we had flouted an unwritten code of public decency.

If a toddler's genitals are considered offensive, then consider what damage has been done to the nation's psyche now that Bill Clinton has admitted waving his tackle around in the Oval Office. America, to an extent I never quite realised until that holiday in Maine, is neurotically prudish. Take its television. Historically, sex simply didn't happen. When Lucille Ball fell pregnant in I Love Lucy, it was quite plainly a result of the first immaculate conception for 1,952 years. Anxious CBS executives vetoed the naughty word "pregnant" from scripts.

Years later, Steven Bochco pushed back the boundaries with NYPD Blue. But even then, nudity was only glimpsed - although in the case of Dennis Franz, it has to be said that a glimpse was quite enough. As for sexually explicit language, NYPD Blue's debut was postponed for an entire year while Bochco negotiated with ABC, which eventually settled on a delightfully arbitrary figure - 37 - as the number of rude words that could be uttered in a single episode. And the rudest of them was "douchebag". Yet still this was considered beyond the pale by influential religious pressure groups. In the Bible Belt, stations affiliated to ABC refused to carry NYPD Blue. And I'm not just talking about Hog's Crotch, Alabama. For a while, the series was prohibited in Dallas.

If anything, the same rules apply even more forcefully to comedy. So it is a measure of the genius of NBC's Seinfeld that it managed to be both funny and daring, and in one celebrated episode, to embrace even masturbation. Indeed, the contest between Jerry and George to see who could refrain the longest was all the funnier for its coy tip-toeing around the M-word. That, of course, was before America's obsession with another M-word: Monica. The television regulators must now be wondering why they bother to monitor primetime comedies and drama, only for the following news programme to refer, albeit obliquely, to what Ms Lewinsky did with the First Cigar.

Moreover, those regulators have little or no jurisdiction over cable channels, with the result that cable has dramatically altered the landscape of American television. And a dramatic altering of the landscape there generally means significant tweaks to the scenery here.

Every summer, British TV executives descend on Los Angeles for the so- called LA screenings. In darkened rooms, they watch 100 or more pilot episodes of new series earmarked for the main US networks, and then they bid against each other for the best. It is a tense business. Sometimes, the energy in a pilot episode is nowhere to be seen in the ensuing series. Or sometimes a lacklustre pilot offers no hint of the goodies to come. For example, in 1994 the pilot episode of Friends was relatively feeble, yet Channel 4 risked buying it and on the same afternoon took a slightly safer punt with ER. It turned out to be a memorable double-whammy.

In recent years, however, cable television has provided by far the richest pickings at the LA screenings. Last year, the network pilots plumbed unprecedented depths of awfulness - one, I am told, involved a talking chicken - and the Channel 4 team, headed by chief executive Michael Jackson, came back with only one acquisition. That was Sex and the City, a racy series based on Candace Bushnell's column in the New York Observer, and purchased for an undisclosed but doubtless large sum from the cable channel HBO.

Promisingly, HBO had previously made The Larry Sanders Show, which gets my vote as one of the top five comedies ever made, on either side of the Atlantic. In the absence of any taste police, The Larry Sanders Show contained language to make a navvy blush, but was also edgily, hilariously compelling. So would Sex and the City do for sex what Larry Sanders did for the talk show? Apparently. In America, to Channel 4's understandable glee, it replaced and then out-performed The Larry Sanders Show (which is still shown here by the admirable Paramount Comedy Channel, and by BBC2 around midnight on snooker-free Tuesday nights). In due course, acres of posters here more or less proclaimed the arrival of the brightest, wittiest, sauciest, and most original comedy in the history of television.

Which brings me, finally, to last Wednesday, and the biggest disappointment I have had in front of the telly since Hilda Ogden left Coronation Street. I thought that Sex and the City was awful. Truly, horrendously, monumentally dire. And no brighter, wittier, saucier or more original than On The Buses. In fact it is a lot less likeable, because it clearly thinks so much of itself. And the sex content, which has received so much turbo-charged hype, would look perfectly at home next to the Aga in a Joanna Trollope adaptation.

Even worse, there is no proper narrative and no real insight into human foibles. Women want sex with commitment, men want sex with models, except that sometimes men want sex with commitment and women want sex with models. That's last week's episode, in a nutshell. It had the depth of an earwig's spit. But the greatest crime of all is that there is nobody to root for. Everyone is either pathetic or spiteful. While her kindred spirits Ally McBeal, Bridget Jones and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson at least have their charms, there is nothing redeeming about smug, slick, columnist Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker). Even her face is off-putting. She looks like the love-child of Richard E Grant and Bette Midler.

Of course, it's early days. And I've been known to get things wrong. For instance, I gave the very first episode of Father Ted an absolutely scathing review, and have since been made to feel like the pariah in a Bateman cartoon - The TV Critic Who Hated Father Ted. Besides, everyone knows that it is unfair to judge a comedy after a single episode. And an American series that dares to show the odd nipple is revolutionary, in its way. Perhaps I'll give it one more chance.

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