Sex on TV is... ...Not Sexy!

  • Bob Dole should have tipped us off. When even the stoic standard-bearer of the Greatest Generation is discussing male plumbing problems in public, you know sexual dysfunction has permeated the culture. And when two of the season's most talked-about films, Summer of Sam and Eyes Wide Shut--the latter a gothic sexual hell that would do a medieval allegorist proud--center on orgies that go terribly wrong, a horny romp like American Pie seems quaint. So it's only fitting that TV, long charged with glamorizing lust, is airing images of sex that are not just unglamorous but also neurotic, guilty, antagonistic, even scary.

    Consider. A man breaks up with his new lover, deciding that he prefers his porno tapes to her ("I've only known you for a few weeks. But I've been involved with some of those women for years!"). To win fabulous prizes, a woman mocks her lover's after-sex ritual--"a ham sandwich and ESPN"--in front of a studio audience. A girl loses her virginity to her boyfriend--who turns into an evil vampire. Sex on TV is still plentiful. A study this year by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that 56% of 1,351 sampled shows, and two-thirds of prime-time ones, had sexual content. But when TV turns a critical eye on the subject, it's often anything but sexy.

    In the decade of Hill v. Thomas, the Spur Posse and impeachment, sex is war. How appropriate, then, that MTV should get the director of The Killing Fields to offer a take on young love and sex. Roland Joffe's Undressed (weeknights, 11 E.T.), premiering this week, ambitiously interweaves 23 story lines of sexual confusion, selfishness and experimentation--it's Lust, American Style. Shot almost entirely in interiors--the insides of vans, apartments, bunk beds--it has a stuffy, caged-heat vibe, sharing with Eyes the suggestion that if you leave two people alone in a room, they'll be tempted to start rutting like rabbits. Take Dave and Katie, a couple in a sexual slump. Katie shags a bartender while Dave sleeps nearby, and for an encore she beds the waitress Dave brings home as revenge.

    Well, if you can't be with the one you love, humiliate the one you're with--that's the spirit behind two raunchy anti-dating games, MTV's The Blame Game (weekdays, 2:30 p.m. E.T.); and the syndicated Change of Heart. On Blame, a court-show parody (its slogan: "Love. Heartbreak. Justice.") aggrieved partners "sue" each other before a hooting audience of their peers. Change fixes up each half of a troubled duo on a blind date, then has them taunt each other about their nights of wine and sweet talk ("He liked that I wasn't wearing grandma panties") and decide whether to split or stick it out. It's enough to make one pine for the innocent days of Studs.

    Amy Sohn, sex columnist and author of the novel Run Catch Kiss, suggests TV's new sexplorations offer a safe outlet: "Sex is scary for a lot of people. These things don't require that we leave the house." And perhaps the audience, surfeited with sexual fairy tales, is ready for reality. How else to explain Darren Star, father of the giddily ludicrous Melrose Place, creating a show that's a tour de force of sexual honesty?

    Just nominated for an Emmy in its second season, Starr's Sex and the City (HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m. E.T.) follows sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker, also an Emmy nominee) and the three over-30 professional friends who provide her material. The show has gained notice for its frontal nudity, lewd puns and sex moves that Mike and Carol Brady would never have contemplated. But really, Sex and the City is groundbreaking because it's about the mundaneness of sex--to fake or not to fake, how to coach a man in bed. Even the sex scenes are comic because, like good art and bad porn, they show sex in all its sloppy awkwardness. When Carrie is introduced to a New York Yankees star, he's impressed by her job. "Nothing dull about that," he says. "You'd be surprised," she retorts.

    The cast personifies four adaptations to a harsh dating scene--detachment (inquisitive Carrie), aggression (lusty Samantha), caution (timid Charlotte) and neurosis (tense Miranda, played by Cynthia Nixon with a smile as brittle and quivery as the crust on a creme brulee). They're looking for not just love but also victory, over male entitlement, over a culture that despises older single women and over myths they can't compete with. In a pointed scene, the four watch a video in which a woman climaxes two seconds into a sex scene. "No wonder men are so lost," Miranda says. "They have no idea there's more work involved." City is a fantasy, yes--few viewers will ever access its designer-clad uptown monde--but it's as real as TV sex has ever been.

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