Sexual conflicts shown on TV's prime-time lineup get complicated, serious

April 12, 1992|By John J. O'Connor | John J. O'Connor,New York Times

Sexual harassment and date rape. No issues are being brought more forcefully into the public arena. From sitcoms to dramas to the coverage of real trials,television has become a powerful conduit in the process -- sometimes in curiously offbeat ways.

After the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings last year on her charges of sexual harassment, the CBS series "Designing Women" wasted no time in producing a scathingly outspoken episode, including clips from the Senate subcommittee sessions, that came down unmistakably on the side of Ms. Hill.

A few weeks ago, with an obvious nod to the rape trial of the former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, "L.A. Law" on NBC had Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey) irritating her colleagues by agreeing to defend a baseball player accused of rape. The final twist found the acquitted athlete admitting to a troubled Van Owen that he was indeed guilty. Surrounded by adoring groupies, he walked off with a sheepish smile.

There seems to be no escaping the issues on prime-time entertainment. They have popped up in various guises on sitcoms like "A Different World" on NBC and such dramas as ABC's "Civil Wars."

Elsewhere, the Court TV cable channel can offer, as it did recently, a condensation of a real trial in which the plaintiff charged sexual harassment. Then there was the galvanizing spectacle of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the rape trial involving William Kennedy Smith.

The vast majority of sexual-harassment and date-rape charges are, of course, levied by women, and television entertainment just about always comes down on the side of those women.

Cynics might note that women viewers are especially precious to the television industry as far as ratings are concerned. But, gradually, treatment of sex issues is becoming a touch more complicated,more sophisticated. That recent "L.A. Law" episode let no one off the hook.

Machines are to blame?

Now, in an intriguing twist, some prime-time fare is going so far as to suggest an analysis that might, quite insidiously, let everybody off the hook. The real culprits are not men or women but machines, not fully in control of their own actions.

That approach is getting sincere treatment in "Clarissa," the current tenant, Sunday nights at 9, on "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS (Channels 22 and 67 on Maryland Public Television). And it is being given a flip but provocative spin on "Mann and Machine," a new NBC series on Sunday nights at 8 (Channel 2 in Baltimore).

Tonight, reaching the second of its three episodes, "Clarissa" gives us the saintly heroine of the title (played by Saskia Wickham) being hounded and abducted by an unscrupulous rake who is convinced that she really means yes as she keeps saying no.

Robert Lovelace (Sean Bean) eventually drugs and rapes her because he finds "all that purity and virtue so tantalizing." He has his moments of introspection -- "Can I be a villain to such an angel?" -- but as he confesses to a close friend, "Too late for retreat, Jack, I have become a machine -- farewell conscience!" Harassment in the 18th century was, evidently, rarely a subtle matter.

"Mann and Machine," on the other hand, jumps to the year 1999 and approaches relations between the sexes in an often light and playful manner. Here it's the woman who is a machine, literally. The police detective Bobby Mann (David Andrews) gets as his new partner an advanced cyborg named, naturally enough, Eve (Yancy Butler). No fan of faulty robocops, he is assured that this one won't need a tuneup every six months. Developed by the department's Artificial Intelligence Unit, Eve has the ability to learn from experience.

The hitch: she has an emotional age of 7. Mann will have to help develop that side of her. This futuristic male fantasy is, not surprisingly, the handiwork of men, including Dick Wolf ("Law and Order").

Back in the 1700s, Samuel Richardson did not have a cyberpunk culture to draw from when, approaching 60 years of age, he wrote "Clarissa."

No "Terminator 2" or "Blade Runner" in that so-called age of enlightenment. Richardson focused on the there and then, his epistolary novel capturing a world of scoundrels, hypocrites and libertines, the bourgeois counterparts of the aristocratic poseurs skewered in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."

Clarissa may be a wealthy heiress, but her world is controlled by men like her nasty brother, who schemes to marry her off to a ridiculous, fortune-hunting fop. Her mother, accepting the social order, offers only practical advice: "A woman must know when to bend, or else she must surely break."

Actually, the fiercely independent Clarissa could love the dashing Lovelace if he did not insist on viewing women as sport. For a time, fleeing her parents' home, she even considers Lovelace her liberator.

But Lovelace the machine cannot help himself, and tragedy is inevitable. Lovelace repents, but the dying Clarissa refuses to see him. Richardson does throw a last-minute sop to male fantasy:

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