And now, let’s talk about sex. The very short history of TV sex, to be exact. Why short? Because until recently, prime-time television didn’t dare to aim its cameras bedward. Forget the 1950s, when Robert Young and Jane Wyatt lay under their blankets, in their robes, rigid as mummies. Of course, they must have traversed that interbed moat to create Princess, Bud, and Kitten, but that’s like thinking about your parents: You know it happened, but who wants to dwell on it? The 1960s brought The Dick Van Dyke Show’s undeniably affectionate Rob and Laura Petrie; still, Eskimo kisses were as far as they ever went on screen, which, as students of the carnal base paths will note, is barely halfway to first. Even the sexiest series of the 1970s, Charlie’s Angels, was a show about an old guy calling up three babes and giving them orders via speaker — in other words, phone sex, which didn’t count.
No, TV sex didn’t rear its unembarrassed head until around 1978, which makes the phenomenon 13 years old — and if you’ve been around any 13-year-olds lately, you know what a giggly, smirky, elbow-in-the-ribs age that is. But not all TV couplings have been adolescent in tone; some have been mature, others hilarious, others downright sizzling. Below, TV’s 10 most memorable horizontal holds:
1. Lucy Ewing and Ray Krebbs
When Lucy caroused with ranch hand Ray in the Ewing barn, she got a severe case of hayloft burn, and TV viewers, after enduring decades of innuendo, finally got a look at the joys of recreational sex. The scene became even more lurid in retrospect; years later, the barnyard buddies learned they were related.
2. Joyce Davenport and Frank Furillo
Hill Street Blues, 1981.
TV offered its first grown-up, sheet-rumpling romp when police captain Frank and public defender Joyce, snarling rivals by day, got down to cases at the end of Episode 1. Their lazy pillow talk was sexiest in the first weeks, when their relationship was secret.
3. Diane Chambers and Sam Malone
Finally, TV posed a more engrossing question than ”Who shot J.R.?” — namely, ”Will they or won’t they?” Sam and Diane pecked and pawed at each other throughout Cheers’ first season, and the build-up to their consummation became TV’s first (and best) use of getting physical as a cliff-hanger.
4. Ann Kelsey and Stuart Markowitz
L.A. Law, 1986.
The Kama Sutra as told to Steven Bochco, TV’s Innuendo King: When Stuart brought home the secret of the Venus Butterfly, a titillating (and, we emphasize, fictional) bedroom technique, Ann — angry, ramrod-stiff Ann — actually blacked out from passion. Viewers begged NBC for instructions, figuring that if courtly, portly Stuart could master the butterfly stroke, it couldn’t require anything too acrobatic.
5. Maddie Hayes and David Addison
Build-up, foreplay, intercourse, letdown: Moonlighting was the first series to base its entire run on the anticipation and consequences of one night of lust. When David finally breached Maddie’s defenses to the strains of ”Be My Baby,” his achievement was treated with the countdown-crazed portent of a NASA launch. The rest was one long Morning After.
6. Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine Benes
TV entered the Age of Skittishness with the first couple to do all the good stuff before the first episode aired. Elaine and Jerry began Seinfeld as exes who’d parted so they could stay friends, turning their relationship into an endless epilogue. This was when TV sex went from being dirty (as in good, simple fun) to messy (as in bad, complicated, and no fun at all).
7. Hope and Michael and Melissa and Lee and Russell and Peter
What other show could have turned sex so engagingly into A) a group experience and B) something you do so you can talk ceaselessly about it afterward? Among this show’s barrier breakers were Melissa and Lee steaming up the windows of her loft several times daily (we know this because, of course, she told everyone); Russell and Peter hitting the sack as censors looked on in terror; and Michael atop Hope, whispering, ”I’ll pull out.” Funny — that’s just what advertisers said, only they weren’t whispering.
8. Brenda Walsh and Dylan McKay
Beverly Hills, 90210, 1991.
Prom night deflowering made it to TV, and unlike the movies, 90210 had no knife-wielding maniac stalking the halls — just anxiety, fear, self-doubt, and even some actual passion. The result: TV’s first depiction of teen sex that didn’t sound completely like a public-service announcement.
9. Rebecca Howe and Sam Malone
The show that made sexual entanglement hilarious in the ’80s limped into the no-fun ’90s with Sam and Rebecca’s let’s-make-a-baby plan. When Cheers presents sex as a joyless, inconvenient, purely procreative act, perhaps it’s capturing the mood of an era…or perhaps it just needs to lighten up.
10. Maggie O’Connell and Joel Fleischman
Northern Exposure, 19??
Don’t worry — they’ll get there…and when they do, we want a ringside seat.