- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

Is the wheel of sexual standards on the airwaves turning? Two new fall series Fox’s “Skin” and NBC’s “Coupling,” got the axe last week. Both emphasized sex, sex and did we mention sex? Both had abysmal ratings.

Can those nostalgic for the days when Barbara Eden was not allowed to bare her navel on “I Dream of Jeannie” take heart from the failure of “Skin” and “Coupling”? Could it be that Americans have finally gotten their fill of flesh and are signaling that they are sick and tired of TV looking like the International Male or Victoria’s Secret catalogs?

Do the twin cancellations, along with the capitulation of CBS to public pressure to dump “The Reagans,” represent another unaccustomed victory for the Brent Bozells of the world?

Or do the cancellations mean only this: Smirking sexual innuendo and teasing flashes of flesh have no market on network television because viewers can get the real thing (especially if it’s disguised as news documentary or investigative “expose”) on premium cable? Interestingly, premium cable looks like it has also become the outlet of choice for political porn. CBS palmed “The Reagans” off on its Viacom sister channel, Showtime Premium cable, which can get away with lots more than the networks; it’s not restricted to that bong-chica-bong-bong coyness that proliferates on network sitcoms and mini-series. Compared to the baroque sexual invention and exhibitionism of HBO’s “Real Sex,” the tarts of network TV are just so many Girls Gone Mild. If visitors from another planet had only TV to go by, they might conclude that all Americans are pneumatic blonds with spray-on tans who pause from re-enacting the Kama Sutra only to drink low-carb beer.

There may be some truth to the idea that television is glutted with flesh. Sex has become, in the words of a recent article in the New York Times, like “wallpaper.” Internet porn, cybersex, sex on cable, networks, DVD and video it’s all a blur of breasts and thighs and rippling abs. Like wallpaper, it is a repetitious, indistinct pattern. Nothing more.

These days, sex on network TV would really have to be something special to pop out from the default desktop background of carnal images. And neither “Coupling” nor “Skin” were anything to cause Larry Flynt or Joe Francis to lose sleep.

“Coupling” was a limp imitation of the hit British TV show about six single people who bed-hop more frequently than Dr. Phil slaps food out of fat people’s hands. The original was admittedly sleazy, but hearing randy dialogue delivered in an English accent somehow gave off a sophisticated, “PBS After Dark” sort of vibe.

A few episodes of the American “Coupling,” by contrast, made you want to take a day-long shower. All the social commentary (man’s inhumanity to woman and vice versa when it comes to scoring) and acid wit of the Brit-com were neatly excised in the NBC version, leaving nothing but the puerile bedroom jokes. And by puerile, we mean humor so juvenile that a habitual viewer of “Bob the Builder” might look up from his Fruit Roll-ups and think, “This is what I have to look forward to when I grow up? It’s the Peter Pan Syndrome for me.”

“Coupling” mined such comedic gems as “The moment fire was invented we didn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s cook!’ We said, ‘Great! Now we can see naked women in the dark!’” Oh, network TV! Where is thy zing?

And the title “Coupling” had an archaic, euphemistic strangeness. They might as well have called the show “Biblical Knowledge” or “They Lieth with Multitudes.”

“Skin” was the brainstorm of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, he of “CSI” fame and a lucrative string of car crash-and-body count blockbusters. But Mr. Bruckheimer outdid himself with “Skin,” an update another one of “Romeo and Juliet.” Ron Silver, who must be hard-up for work, played a porn magnate whose daughter falls in love with the son of an ambitious district attorney up for re-election and out to destroy smut-peddlers. The Bard would have been so proud.

How could a show like that lose? Fox touted the show as the network’s answer to “The Sopranos.” Oddly enough, “Skin” didn’t even offer up naughty eye candy, save a few glimpses of bethonged flesh. Porn was just something daddy did to bring home the bacon not a rampant social scourge that needed to be stamped out.

There’s something sad and discouraging about the state of television when sex is nothing but wallpaper or a job description. But wait. It gets more depressing: Fox is replacing “Skin” with “The Next Joe Millionaire.”

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to stomach shows like “Coupling” or “The Reagans.” It would be all “Frasier” and “History Detectives” all the time. But this is the real world of television (an oxymoron if there ever was one). And if we must compromise with baser visual appetites, then leaving the Jenna Jameson-style sex to the cable industry is not such a bad thing.

Cable doesn’t come uninvited into the homes of everyone with a TV, a near-universal appliance. You have to order cable, pay for it monthly, and pay even more for the premium channels. Many cable and direct TV suppliers also offer parental controls, to keep the kiddies out of “Taxicab Confidential.”

Siphoning explicit sex off the public airwaves and onto cable makes pretty good sense. Why should it be free, anyway? If viewers want to play, they should pay.


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