A nod to cable TV that doesn't forget adults

September 21, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Newsweek reports that "Romance," a new movie from France, "pushes the envelope on sex." A recent New York Times headline announced, "Pushing the Bleeping Envelope: Fox Flirts With Serious Outrage."

The phrase "pushing the envelope," which comes from aviation, refers to pushing an aircraft beyond the "envelope" of design limits. Nowadays the phrase is shorthand for pushing against public standards of taste, if any remain.

Newsweek says the movie's envelope-pushing involves treating sex "explicitly." What boundaries of explicitness remain to be breached? Newsweek explains: "One erect penis on a U.S. screen is more incendiary than a thousand guns, and `Romance' has more than one."

Fox will try to titillate a large audience with the first episode of "Action" tonight at 9 p.m. A situation comedy about Hollywood, "Action" pushes the envelope by bleeping out expletives that are obvious from the context.

Fox labels "Action" as being "for mature audiences." Well. There is some repartee about penises. A studio cook, insulted by the protagonist (a vulpine young producer), urinates in the producer's Cobb salad. This constitutes "flirting with serious outrage," as distinct from the unserious sort.

A certain coarsness

The Times says the creator of "Action" asked Fox if it was prepared to air "the most outrageous show on television." Who, besides himself, was he kidding? "Outrage" is a noun that now denotes nothing much; it is a word pounded to mush by mindless usage. "Action" is evidence of how frantically producers now strain in search of something that can startle -- never mind shock -- America's desensitized audiences.

Some mediocre, and even some excellent entertainment that is not offered on the four major networks seems to tempt those networks toward coarseness. Network television is lurching deeper into urine-in-the-salad vulgarity to compete with limited-access television, such as HBO, that properly feels freer to depict sex and violence.

A mediocre series, HBO's "Sex and the City," features four single, thirtysomething Manhattan women of varying degrees of airheadedness, and unvarying lubriciousness. The half-hour show is formulaic -- sex followed by disappointment with the man of the moment -- and hence boring, in spite of all the skin.

But the scripts have their moments, not all of them ribald. The narrator describes a "downtown restaurant frequented by second-tier models and the men who buy them salads." And there is a nightclub named Denial -- "everyone wanted to be in Denial." "Sex in the City" is not Noel Coward, but it is an amusing illustration of (in Malcolm Muggeridge's phrase) sex as "the mysticism of a materialist society."

HBO's "The Sopranos" is superb. Tony Soprano is an awful husband, an intemperate and often loutish father, a criminal, a killer. A modern mobster, he takes Prozac prescribed by his psychiatrist. But fear not: He is not "sensitive." Because of the subtlety of "The Sopranos" scripts and the skill of the actors, viewers are drawn into an uneasy, guilty sympathy for three generations of northern New Jersey mobsters.

"The Sopranos" emphasizes quality over quantity. There have been just 13 episodes so far. Thirteen more are on the way, starting in January. It may be the closest American television has come to matching those British series -- "The Forsyte Saga," "The Pallisers" and others -- that have attracted American audiences by exploring the many facets of families in complex social settings.

In "The Sopranos," the violence is ample and graphic; the sex is ample and a kind of violence; the language, even of children at the dinner table, is numbingly ugly. But it all derives integrity from the artistic context. "The Sopranos" has the feel of fact -- but not the sort that should be broadcast on network television, without the filter of a choice to subscribe, as with HBO.

Television's audience has splintered. The share of the prime time audience held by ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox is less than half the share held by the latter three in the early 1970s. Network programs, such as "Action," trying to capture audiences with infantile vulgarity, may be a cost exacted by programming like "The Sopranos."

A high note

However, "The Sopranos" is a rarity, entertainment in which "adult" content does not serve sophomoric slapstick ("There's Something About Mary") or the cartoon mentality of the portion of the public that is arrested in its development at about age 9 ("South Park"). The Fred Astaire world of popular entertainment is gone, but in the resulting wasteland there are a few oases, such as "The Sopranos," where grown-ups can pause for refreshment.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

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