Sexuality on TV heats up — kinda

Cable starting to push puritanical boundaries

The film channel IFC devotes four consecutive nights this week to “Indie Sex,” a documentary whose insights reinforce the notion that while American filmmakers are swell at blowing things up, since the blockbuster mentality took over they have lagged well behind Europe in their boldness regarding sexuality.

Television’s version of the independent sphere, however, appears to be gradually challenging this puritanical streak — a rebellion, perhaps, against the censorious attitude that transformed a fleeting glimpse of a breast during the Super Bowl into a cultural holy war.

Given the robust income of the porn industry, the public’s healthy appetite for sex is no surprise . For the most part, though, mainstream movies and broadcast television have pushed more freely ahead in violence and language than in sexuality, a fact that is underscored by the explosion of crime-oriented primetime dramas and the lucrative cinematic genre dubbed “torture porn.”

Showtime and HBO , however, are advancing into this void — the former with “The Tudors,” an Elizabethan serial more notable for its sexual cavorting than court intrigue; to be followed in August by “Californication,” which stars David Duchovny as a writer who takes solace from a busted relationship in the arms, thighs and bosoms of compliant women.

As for HBO, the more powerful pay service has witnessed the formidable pushback that unflinching sexuality can trigger in the squirmy response at the TV critics’ summer tour to the channel’s upcoming series “Tell Me You Love Me.” A dramatic look at various couples, the sex scenes are graphic enough to have provoked speculation among the scribes as to whether they were real or simulated (it’s the latter). Then again, that alarm shouldn’t be taken too seriously, inasmuch as some of the critics give the impression they haven’t gotten laid since the Reagan administration.

HBO stressed that “Tell Me You Love Me” isn’t about exploitation but rather about frankly exploring intimacy, which is largely accurate and speaks to a certain irony in this mini sexual revolution. Because while the sight of bare breasts is instantly presumed to target men, it’s women who will dictate whether these programs survive even in the rarefied air of premium cable.

Men, after all, have no shortage of options where they can espy exposed flesh, as well as sex that’s hotter (or at least dirtier, heh-heh) than any of these dramatic exercises. One need only scan the near-plot-free movies that populate Cinemax and Showtime after hours or HBO’s assortment of “Real Sex” documentaries to see how many men rationalize their monthly pay TV subscriptions — an expense totally separate from the cost of the porn they can buy, download or try to watch scrambled.

Women, on the other hand, are historically more willing to commit to story, and though many consume porn as it lurches toward the mainstream, depictions of sexuality that appeal to females still primarily occur in the context of relationships — the same realm of intimacy upon which “Tell Me You Love Me” professes to focus.

There is already some evidence of this based on the way in which women have warmed to HBO’s “Big Love,” which just earned a third-season pickup. Unlike “The Sopranos,” which crosses gender lines with its mix of sex and violence, demographic breakdowns indicate the character-driven serial about a polygamist and his three wives skews heavily toward women.

Cable’s move into sexuality might not reflect any master plan, but it does come with a high degree of logic. Broadcasters find themselves under renewed siege by decency crusaders in Congress, and major movie studios currently cater to a youth market more comfortable with action than sex or mushy relationships. And while cable can’t rival feature budgets, programmers can fill a grown-up niche by tackling adult situations that no longer have a home in those other venues.

Consider it symbolic, in fact, that as cable tests these boundaries, the fall’s most-buzzed-about network series, ABC’s “Pushing Daisies,” centers on an impossible romance between a man and woman who can never touch each other. As co-star Anna Friel quipped to reporters last week, if the show works, it will be “the longest foreplay ever.”

The good news for those interested in seeing less chaste visions of love is that they’ll be readily available just up the dial. Yet as is so often the case, it’s going to cost them.

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