WITH ALL DUE RESPECT TO THE entities sponsoring “Reality Television: How Far Can You Push the Envelope?” — a panel scheduled for this week — they’re posing the wrong question.The reality is that reality can’t advance much farther without becoming the stuff of science fiction, a la “The Running Man” or “The Truman Show.” Producers can tinker with formats and dabble in greater unreality, but barring killing a guy or letting one kill himself (as Danny Bonaduce attempted during his VH1 train wreck), the lawyers would step in before things descend to that level. To drive this point home, so-called reality just captured four of nine spots on the Parents Television Council’s “Best Shows for Family Viewing” list (they apparently couldn’t come up with a 10th), thanks to fare like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and NBC’s “Three Wishes.” These programs represent the new strain of “feel-good” reality, which stuffs the envelope with a flag and then mails it to Jesus. Where the envelope is actually being pushed and pulled — and in some instances spindled and mutilated — is dramatic television, which in part explains the genre’s popular resurgence. There is some truth to the notion that audiences like being challenged, surprised and treated to something new, which becomes increasingly difficult given the volume of media clamoring for attention. Failing to play with the form doubtless contributed to comedy’s decline, where envelope-pushing was limited to language and sexual innuendo that quickly yields diminishing returns. Dramas, meanwhile, have been edgier than ever, exhibiting scant evidence of the chilling effects some anticipated after the morality police raided TV with renewed fury last year. Even by HBO standards, the new period drama “Rome” features several “No, you didn’t just do that” scenes in its latest flight of episodes, including a May-November lesbian affair, brutal flashes of violence and a plot line involving incest. Beyond that Roman bacchanal, FX’s “Nip/Tuck” is embroiled in what’s surely its darkest season, including a story in which the central couple’s embittered teenage son grapples with a transsexual who promises him “the best of both worlds.” As PTC founder L. Brent Bozell III’s advocacy group laments, there’s also an unspoken contest in crime drama, where the glut of “CSI” wannabes (CBS alone has nine crime hours, 40% of its primetime schedule) has triggered an unappetizing game of one-upmanship in finding new ways to maim, torture and kill. Setting those programs aside, the reason series such as “Nip/Tuck,” “Rome” and “Deadwood” work is precisely because the heightened level of R-rated action feels organic to those worlds, which is more than can be said for boundary-testing in reality. Indeed, during the stretch when reality shows grew wilder, they began to play like conscious provocateurs, unlike dramas that earn the right to press further by establishing characters viewers will follow along these decadent journeys. Nor is the envelope-pushing confined to those old favorites — sex, violence and language. Dramatic storytelling itself has become more demanding, as evidenced by the maddening “Lost,” which has taken an almost surreal turn this season, spreading tantalizing new layers upon its existing mysteries. Family-values advocates can rail all they like, but there’s an audience eager to be shocked and awed by such programs, in a way “reality” can’t without crossing lines even bottom line-driven moguls would be uncomfortable defending. Where, then, will storytelling breakthroughs come from in the next few years? Tear open the envelope, and my guess is drama will spill out of it.
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