In forging a well-deserved reputation as perhaps the most sex-driven broadcast network, Fox has been subjected to frequent whackings from television critics and cold shoulders from the industry elite. The ribald "Married...With Children" and the steamy "Melrose Place" drew plenty of viewers, but little favorable press attention and few award nominations.
Now Fox is trying something a little different. It has put together a Monday-night lineup of what might be called "smart smut." That term is plausible because the programs in question, the new drama "Boston Public" and the long-running "Ally McBeal," are the brainchildren of David Kelley, who two seasons ago helmed both the Emmy winner for best comedy ("Ally McBeal") and for best drama ("The Practice"). Previously he took home Emmys for his work on "L.A. Law" and "Picket Fences." His characters often say Witty Things and debate Weighty Issues.
Even if Kelley's series are more thoughtful than typical TV fare - no major accomplishment - "Boston Public" and "Ally McBeal" are indeed, by broadcast standards, smut. "Boston Public," which deals with the life and times of high-school students and teachers and airs in television's so-called family hour, is especially noxious.
During the "Boston Public" premiere, one female student facetiously told a male teacher that she masturbated while fantasizing about him. Another surveyed male students about which teachers they'd most like to have sex with, then informed at least two of those teachers of the results. A week later, female students in one class went braless to thumb their noses at the teacher. And, establishing just how tasteless he can be, Kelley referred to a cartoon on a student's website in which a teacher was shown (not on camera) taking down his pants, bending over, and eating his own excrement.
In the most recent episode, a male student agreed to withdraw from the election for senior-class president and endorse a female candidate - if she would fellate him. She did so, in a hallway at the school. Welcome to Bill Clinton High. As if that weren't enough sensationalism, when two boys fought, one bit off part of the other's ear, then spit it out; it hit a teacher in the forehead.
Appalled? You ought to be, and yet "Boston Public" may not be the most objectionable new Fox show. "The $treet," from Darren Star (producer of HBO's "Sex and the City") featured in its premiere a man receiving oral sex from his fiancée; a graphic scene with a stripper giving a lap dance; another stripper, this one a hermaphrodite, sleeping with a stockbroker; and another broker making a deal with prostitutes to exchange stock tips for sex.
"Sex and the City" itself may soon become much more accessible to a mass audience. According to Variety, HBO is shopping an edited version of the series to such basic cable networks as Lifetime, USA, TNN, A&E, and Comedy Central. Although HBO has filmed, in Variety's words, "alternate 'cover' footage for the extensive nudity and the four-letter words [in 'Sex...'] many of the episodes are so suffused with boundary-stretching sexual themes that advertisers may shrivel up at the prospect of associating their brand with such a program."
Or not. Comedy Central, for example, has grown increasingly filthy over the past few years. A slightly modified "Sex and the City" would not be any more offensive than "South Park" or "The Man Show."
At least one prominent critic is bored with a great deal of this raunch. Reviewing the new NBC show "Cursed," the Washington Post's Tom Shales writes, "The formulaic comedy writing dutifully follows the rules: a funny name for genitalia ('Bennie and the Jets')...a couple of gay jokes and strategic placement of words like 'ass.' Put it all together and it comes up empty." As pathetic as his statement sounds, Shales has hit the nail on the head.
Returning to Fox, a recent Daily Variety report said that the network has ordered a pilot for "Town Slut," about "a thirtysomething [woman] who resides in a stuffy small town [and] finds herself trying to shake her rep[utation for being] 'loose.'"
The concept is promising - after all, it sounds as if the woman may be striving for redemption - but remember, this would be a Fox show. It would be virtually groundless to assume that "Town Slut," aired on the network that's brought us "Boston Public," "The $treet," and so much other libidinous programming, will offer a positive view of traditional sexual morality. That's true whether it's utter trash or an Emmy winner. Dumb or smart, smut is smut.