- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

Sexuality came jiggling into prime time in 1977 with the debut of ABC’s “Three’s Company.” Last week’s untimely death of actor John Ritter just days shy of his 55th birthday brought the expected avalanche of clips from his television and film career, which reached its peak with his “Company” role.

The slapstick-heavy sitcom typically hinged upon the misheard conversation du jour, not unlike many a farce before it.

What set “Three’s Company” apart was its reliance on sexual innuendo to fuel each 30-minute crisis.

Today we barely bat an eye when “Sex and the City“‘s cast breaks down the mechanics of lovemaking like it was an old De Soto. Not to mention the proliferation of racy television fare in the Clinton years — shows like the “Lehrer News Hour” and “Meet the Press.”

But through most of the ‘70s single characters on prime time TV weren’t really getting a lot of action. Think about it. Mary Richards was still looking for Mr. Right, not Mr. Right Now.

Then came “Three’s Company,” and network television started to catch up with the rest of that sexually promiscuous decade.

Mr. Ritter’s spotty legacy includes some stellar supporting work, in such films as “Sling Blade” (1996), as well as forgettable ones, like the “Problem Child” films and “Bride of Chucky” (1998).

His endearing turn on “Three’s Company,” however, is the role for which he will be remembered.

In the show, a spin on the English sitcom “Man About the House,” Mr. Ritter’s Jack Tripper shared a pad with two curvy roommates, Janet (Joyce DeWitt) and Chrissy (Suzanne Somers), a menage a trois of implied sexual tension. The trio lived under the suspicious gaze of first the Ropers (Norman Fell and Audra Lindley) and, later, landlord Ralph Furley (Don Knotts). In order to placate the “uptight” landlords, Mr. Ritter’s Jack pretended to have no interest in the opposite sex.

The homosexual ruse may seem tame today, but each time Mr. Ritter struck an effete pose the laugh track exploded with guffaws and, it seems, so did much of America, giving ABC a ratings smash.

“Three’s Company” survived a seismic cast change when Miss Somers pulled out in 1981 over contract squabbles. A pair of lesser actresses, first Jenilee Harrison, then Priscilla Barnes, tried to follow in her footsteps as billowy blond archetypes, but neither possessed the innocent spark Miss Somers brought to an otherwise one-dimensional role.

But whoever happened to be onboard, “Three’s Company” trekked where few shows had dared to roam — to the sexual frontier.

Jack flirted, teased and trailed both Janet and Chrissy around their very ‘70s pad, looking for a chink in their virginal armor.

Upstairs neighbor Larry (Richard Kline) was constantly on the prowl, weaving a tapestry of lies, concocting one scheme after another to bed women. That he rarely succeeded was beside the point.

Even Mr. Furley’s character had his share of lustful moments, particularly whenever late addition Lana (Ann Wedgeworth) sashayed by.

But for all its double entendres, “Three’s Company” still preserved a modicum of modesty. Sure, Miss Somers wore outfits meant to flatter her curves, but her attire pales compared to what a Pamela Anderson might don in any given show. And characters weren’t seen in the bedroom, about to get busy.

The bulk of the action was implied, and even then in terms most teens today could grasp.

Sexuality on TV has taken a long bumpy ride in the days since Lucy and Ricky shied from the term “pregnant” to describe her impending motherhood.

“Three’s Company” may have served as the bridge between the unintentionally funny Victorianism of the medium’s youth and the unintentionally sad prurience of its present.

Watch the sophisticated “Sex and the City,” and thank Mr. Ritter and company for paving the way for frank relationship chats. Watch “Blind Date” or “Temptation Island,” on the other hand, and…well, perhaps now is not the time

Mr. Ritter returned to television’s winner’s circle last year with ABC’s “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.”

The show proved a much needed boost to the network. Its premise: Uptight dad strives to preserve the sexual modesty of his uninhibited, thong-exposing teenage daughters by policing their wardrobe. It’s pretty much a losing battle. His daughters just don’t recognize a lot of rules in that department.

His teenage daughters are Jack Tripper’s daughters. And these days, for better or worse, they’ve got a lot of company.

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