Recently, producer Steven Bochco had the bold idea to create an R-rated cop show that would deal as forthrightly with sex as his Doogie Howser has dealt with acne; after talks with ABC executives, however, his idea was downgraded to a PG version. When it comes to sex, it often seems that prime time is comfortable only with teasing, winking, and sniggering. Anything that might suggest the true heat, messiness, and exhilaration of sex seems forbidden on television; the only current couple that seems to Do It with guiltless joy is Holling and Shelly (John Cullum and Cynthia Geary) on Northern Exposure.
Most programming built around the allure of sex lurks in late-night hours, in stuff like CBS’ latest addition to its ”Crime Time After Prime Time” schlock action hours, Dangerous Curves. It’s about two young female security guards (Lise Cutter and Michael Michele) who chase criminals while straining against the confines of miniskirts and spike heels. A kind of sadomasochistic Starsky and Hutch, Curves features flashes of nudity in its overseas editions, undoubtedly as an added viewer incentive to overcome the show’s banal plots. But those scenes are primly trimmed for America, thus giving the lie to CBS’ ”Crime Time” ad campaign, the one in which an announcer with a leer in his voice rumbles, ”It’s too hot to sleep!”; ”It’s too tame to get you all hot and bothered!” is more like it.
More doggedly risqué is a new cable anthology show, Strangers. An HBO press release says the series consists of ”adult dramas focusing on the unexpected and often dangerous consequences when people stray from the familiar confines of home in search of passion and excitement.” Get the message here? Don’t go out to a bar and risk ”danger” — stay home with HBO to enjoy erotic escapism. Strangers’ first installment is ”The Last Game,” starring James Remar, fresh from his big role in this year’s Oscar-winning short film, Session Man. Remar plays Bernard, an American in Paris who, at the start of the episode, notices the woman he’s with, Helen (Linda Fiorentino), flirting with a Frenchman (Francois Montagut).
Bernard tells the fellow he’s just friends with Helen and encourages him to make more than a pass at her. It turns out that this is the ”game” in the episode’s title: Bernard and Helen are a married couple who enjoy luring men. ”It’s pathetic, isn’t it?” says Helen. ”My husband only loves me when he’s winning me” — still, the intrigue turns them on; she strings saps along, and then goes home with her husband. And we get to watch the result, shot in the gloom of a dark living room, but clear enough to earn racy-cable-TV status.
Strangers is a high-toned version of The Hitchhiker, another cable show with naughty bits created by Lewis Chesler. There are no regular characters on Strangers, and the series has attracted some widely known talent. A future episode, ”Small Sounds and Tilting Shadows,” features Twin Peaks’ Joan Chen as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown brought on by either a recent car crash or a guy who jilted her — sorry, but the script by Judith Rascoe (Havana) and direction by Wayne Wang (Dim Sum) make the half hour utterly, artily incoherent. In still another episode, ”Windows,” directed by the talented Joan Tewkesbury (Old Boy-friends), Timothy Hutton looks out the window of his hotel room and sees, in another apartment, that the waitress he’d met the day before has been gagged and tied to her bed by an amorous cellist. Tim comes to her rescue, but not before getting pretty turned on himself.
With such outre kinkiness and dialogue like ”God, Helen, I don’t know if it’s the light or the company, but you look beautiful tonight,” Strangers’ idea of erotica is invariably grim and humorless; every orgasm is an agonizing existential dilemma. That’s the problem with so much of television sex — it’s always one extreme or the other, played for cheap laughs or even cheaper tragedy. And in the midst of today’s AIDS crisis, it’s unlikely that this situation will improve, because TV, with its tendency to trample subtle distinctions, frequently ends up sending out the message Sex Is Bad.
Of course, sometimes sex really is bad. Later this month, Showtime will premiere Red Shoe Diaries, directed by soft-porn smoothy Zalman King (Wild Orchid). Diaries is Penthouse magazine crossed with a J. Crew catalog, a yuppie fantasy about the romance between a hunky young architect (The Rapture’s David Duchovny) and a lovely young interior decorator (One Good Cop’s Brigitte Bako). They’re hopelessly, drippily in love: ”He knows everything about me,” she writes in her diary, ”my troubles with my mother, the abortion I had when I was 18, my fear of the dark, my fascination with fire… ” (That’s the cable equivalent of ”It’s too hot to sleep!”)
Trouble arises when the interior decorator also falls for an equally hunky young construction worker (Billy Wirth) who has a part-time job as a shoe salesman; he sells her a pair of red high heels — excuse me, a $200 pair of Kenneth Cole red high heels, as is pointed out many times. She adores the architect, but come on, a construction worker with good taste in shoes — what’s a girl to do? Pretty soon, this one is snarling, ”My panties — rip ‘em off! Do it!”
For sheer sustained kookiness, Diaries is more entertaining than most sexy TV shows, but its insidious, numbing dumbness seems to demand some sort of protection — a new product, perhaps: a brain condom. Dangerous Curves: D- Strangers: D Red Shoe Diaries: D+