Television Review

Robert Hanks
Thursday 04 February 1999 01:02 GMT

IT IS ODD, you have to admit, that a society as smut-centred as America can produce television which is chaste to the point of prissiness. On the big screen, Hollywood is prepared to show any amount of flesh in increasingly surprising permutations; but on television, sex has, for the most part, to be covered up by sheets, camera angles and double entendres.

Hence the hype surrounding Sex and the City (C4), an American series which supposedly treats nookie with a new frankness. The series is based on a weekly column in the New York Observer by Candace Bushnell - who is here transformed into Carrie Bradshaw and played by Sarah Jessica Parker. Every week, she and her girlfriends discuss the awfulness of being unmarried in your thirties, and define some new aspect of male callousness and amorality. The basic joke is that however low you think men can stoop, they will stoop lower. In the first part of last night's opening double-bill, Carrie set out to see if it was possible to have sex like a man - that is, without feeling anything afterwards. When she succeeded, she was gobsmacked by the realisation that men are not hurt by such treatment; they love the idea of commitment-free sex. Another woman refused to sleep with a man on their first date. They kissed and he told her that he respected her but, since he really needed to have sex, he was heading off to a party.

By the standards of US TV, the show is certainly explicit - the second episode included a couple of nipple-shots, and the characters say "fuck" with a matter-of-factness which would make DH Lawrence blush. But underneath the modern exterior, its view of sexual relationships seems dreadfully old-fashioned. Boiled down: it's a sex war, with women looking for Mr Right and men looking for anything they can get away with. And these smart, sexy people with their teenage libidos, middle-aged bank accounts and polished putdowns - what do they have to do with the real world of tired people with low job satisfaction who are struggling to be liked? Far more than Friends, this seems like a bulletin from another planet, which might explain its curiously bland insights into the human condition. The gorgeous Derek, an underwear model, confessed to Carrie that he missed his native Iowa and felt alone in New York. "I found it hard to believe that someone so beautiful could ever be lonely," says Carrie. Wow, like, deep.

As far as I can gather, most women in their thirties just don't have the obsessive interest in sex that Sex and the City postulates. Instead, they have ER (C4) and George Clooney. Last night's episode featured a couple of types familiar from recent episodes of Holby City, including the student who is academically bright but doesn't know how to communicate with people. But the industrial bustle and the way the camera dives into the middle of it all, lifts it onto a different plane. And because of its pace, it can permit itself a crudity of gesture - the griev-ing widow comforting the tiny daughter - which could otherwise look mechanical and cheap. American television can make foot ulcers and brain-death into moving and funny drama; sex, it can only turn into a vehicle for cheap laughs. Explain that one.

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