Sex gets TV scribes’ attention

Scenes need to serve story, but there's no blueprint

When “Mary Kay and Johnny” debuted on the DuMont Television Network in November 1947, the discussion of depicting sex on television officially began.

Not only was the show America’s first sitcom, it was also the first program to show a married couple sharing a bed together, and when the show’s female lead became pregnant in real-life a year later, producers decided to write the pregnancy into the show. Early TV events like these gave birth to viewing audience’s infatuation with sex on the smallscreen.

“We’re hard-wired to be interested in sex,” says Michelle King, co-creator of CBS drama “The Good Wife.” “Otherwise, the species wouldn’t continue.”

When it comes to working the sticky subject into a script, many writers don’t see much difference between creating a steamy sex scene or a somber soliloquy. For most, it’s all about the story.

“It’s about what the character would do,” explains Nancy Pimental, writer on Showtime’s “Shameless.” “We want the story to be prevalent before the sex. But with that, we also want to be really honest.”

Alexander Woo, writer-producer for HBO’s “True Blood,” says: “At the heart of it, our show is still a character-based drama, which is what really allows the audience to form a strong emotional bond with the characters and make them want to come back week after week. There is an emotional integrity at the center of the show. If it were just sex for sex’s sake, audiences would tire of it very quickly.”

Cable shows have always had more leeway when it comes to what they can get away with, which does “change the creative process,” according to Woo.

“It’s much more freeing,” he says, “not just because there is less censorship and standards and practices to deal with, but there are fewer levels of bureaucracy. On a network show there are many levels of bureaucracy, and often creatively you start aiming for the middle. You’re looking to write the thing that is going to get past all the various gatekeepers, and it inhibits you from taking many chances. When writing for a cable show, you’re able to take more chances with everything, including sex.”

For some, the creative process changes when writing sex scenes for network versus cable. Before Steven S. DeKnight created “Spartacus” for Starz, he worked on network shows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.”

“You’ve got to be a little bit more creative when writing sex for network television,” DeKnight admits. “Not as creative as the old days, of course, where two people lit up a cigarette and then they’d flash to the train in the tunnel. On network television you can be sexy, but you can’t be as sexual, so you’ve got to tell a bit of a different story.”

DeKnight notes “Spartacus” aimed to put both genders on a level playing field.

“From the very start, we wanted it to be as equal as we could get when it comes to male and female nudity,” he says. “And I wanted nudity that wasn’t just in sexual situations, so in ‘Spartacus’ it was natural that when the gladiators were in the bath they were naked.”

Even with the overt sexuality portrayed in “Spartacus,” DeKnight is quick to explain those scenes are not included without thought.

“Every sexual situation must have a resonance for the characters,” he says. “It has a purpose and a meaning. But that’s not to say you won’t see gratuitously naked people in the background from time to time.”

Still, even cable networks approach certain scenes with extreme care.

In its debut season, “Shameless” tackled a storyline in which a drugged-up Frank (William H. Macy), possibly unbeknownst to him, had sex with his son’s underage girlfriend.

“We did dance delicately around the ‘Frank having sex with Karen’ scene because on the show she’s underage,” Pimental says. “Of course, in real life she’s not, but we still had to have multiple meetings about that scene.”

For Darlene Hunt, creator of Showtime’s dramedy “The Big C,” comedy can often be the key to writing sex into a script.

“Whenever I attack a sex scene,” she says, “I have to find where the funny is. I always have to look for what’s the truth or insecurity about the situation, what the funny piece of it is.”

Yet Hunt sees the sex, humor and the marriage of the two merely as tools in building solid storylines. “I don’t naturally err on the side of wanting to throw in a sex scene for the sake of a sex scene. All of our stories come from character,” she says.

Sex has always been a topic of discussion on “The Good Wife,” from the sex scandal that began the series to the highly anticipated hook up between Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Will (Josh Charles) that ended last season.

But Robert and Michelle King, the husband-and-wife creative team behind the show, have differing opinions about which one of them is better at fitting those scenes into the legal drama.

“I think Robert writes sex better,” Michelle states.

“Yes, but I think Michelle conceptualizes it better,” Robert jokes.

“There was a scene last season where Will kissed Alicia, but she walked away from it. That’s a scene audiences have seen before in a lot of series. But Michelle’s take on it was that Alicia would then immediately go home and sleep with her husband, so there was this sense that it was essentially like her sleeping with Will. So I think I tend to write those types of scenes better … but Michelle has the dirty mind.”

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