Sex on Broadcast TV Needs Plot: Networks that use intimacy merely to titillate are stripping themselves of integrity
Who among us hasn’t wanted to find a way to honor the spirit of “Porky’s” and “Caligula” within the narrow confines of a broadcast-television drama? The CW may be on the verge of success.
“Reign” is the network’s promising new entry centered on a teenage Mary, Queen of Scots. Set to debut Oct. 17, following the CW’s flagship “Vampire Diaries,” the pilot contains scenes that could mash even the most hardened couch-potato.
In an eyebrow-raising sequence set in the episode’s second half, Mary and friends peep at a newly married couple consummating their union in front of an audience (a practice at the time for royals who wanted to prove their line would continue). So flummoxed is one of the group that she rushes up a staircase to pleasure herself. While she is in the midst of doing so, the King happens upon her and the two become so caught up in desire they immediately proceed to have at it.
Naturally, this is still network TV, so the money shots are suggested rather than shown, but the intent is clear. And let’s be blunt: This is all kinds of ridiculous. While such elements are bound to drum up extra attention for a program that might not normally get it, they also call into question when and how broadcast TV should play the sex card in an era when rivals on cable, and especially on pay-TV can — and do — get away with nearly anything. Fans may flock to this stuff, but some advertisers will run the other way.
If you think some of these suggestive scenes don’t belong on network TV, well, you should have seen the pilot before new, tamer, scenes were added. The self-pleasure scene is now much shorter, though the camera makes sure viewers know exactly what is going on: hiked skirts, rustling hands, etc. By the end of this oddball tableau — the King asks “May I?” as he begins to clutch her — it’s unclear whether we are watching a clever teenagers-in-wayback-times drama or an expertly cut riff on a scene from a ’70s porn pic.
The CW, jointly owned by Time Warner and CBS, has developed a flair for this sort of thing. Isn’t this the network that in 2008 suggested a teenage boy receiving oral sex in the front seat of a parked car in the debut episode of “90210”? Last season, the CW even pushed the limits of TV language in the now cancelled “Emily Owens, M.D.” by having one character refer to the protagonist as a “krunt.”
So this is part of the network’s DNA, and why not? The CW has been trying to broaden its audience with superhero and sci-fi dramas. Surely a medieval orgy has some pull.
With MTV generating reams of social chatter thanks to an off-color performance by Miley Cyrus in its recent Video Music Awards, and with HBO’s “Game of Thrones” winning acclaim with nudity at its core, what’s a broadcast network that promotes itself as airing “TV to talk/tweet/Bing about” to do?
Even so, there’s pushing the envelope, and there’s dunking that envelope in a sink full of bourbon and trying to light it on fire.
There has always been a place for intimating sex on broadcast TV, no matter how many groups of concerned citizens profess to get the vapors when they encounter it. In retrospect, much of the flesh-baring on ABC’s “NYPD Blue” was gratuitous, but it certainly helped create the notion of a grittier police drama at a time when cable was making inroads with more mature stuff. A 1999 scene featuring Fox’s Ally McBeal (strategically clothed) having sex with a random stranger in a car wash emphasized the character’s single-and-looking personality.
A 2010 episode of CBS’ “The Good Wife” may have played it best. In a torrid scene, wayward husband Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) prepares to engage in oral sex with his estranged wife (Julianna Margulies). The camera artfully slips away at the appropriate moment to focus on Margulies’ blissful face. The scene may have shocked, but it also underscored how much the character wanted to be back with his spouse. No word on what advertisers whose products appeared right after the scene felt about how it affected the perception of their pitches.
All of which is to say: CW, let your characters emulate as many moments from sexy cinema as they like. But put the hot-and-heavy in the service of the story, not as a means to generate empty buzz. Heard any clamor for a remake of “Porky’s” or “Caligula”? There’s a reason why.