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'Loft Story': Where Do We Begin?

Those poor, poor French intellectuals. All they want is to enjoy their oh-so-refined, oh-so-enlightened society and culture, but they can't, not fully, not when they have to put up with numerous vulgar American encroachments, notably our tourists, our language, and our fast food. Now it's our reality television.

Of course, the reality genre isn't ours. It originated in the Netherlands and England, then spread to the U.S., but it's true that only after it clicked here did France pick up on it. That's probably why one French lawyer associates it with us. "French people think Americans are crazy, and we are supposed to be the cultural exception," she told the Washington Post. "But now French people also want to see this trash TV."

What a pickle.

Over the past month, the trash TV that millions of French people have wanted to see has been "Loft Story." The show appeals especially strongly to the young; three-quarters of France's 15-to-24-year olds watched at least some of the first two episodes.

If you remember "Big Brother" on CBS last summer, the "Loft Story" concept will sound awfully familiar. The French program features a group of twentysomethings living in a large apartment and being monitored by twenty-six cameras and fifty microphones. Residents are to be voted out, one by one, until two remain. Those two win a house worth $400,000.

"Loft Story" has fallen victim to the usual analytical excess and rhetorical overkill from French critics. One deep thinker blasted the show's "intrusive maternal voyeurism," another declared that it might lead to "rampant fascism," while a third, not to be outdone, found it guilty of "totalitarianism."

Yes, these Gallic gasbags are amusing in their fashion, but they distract us from an important question: What does the massive success of "Loft Story" mean for the French television audience? One producer's comment to the Post suggests the answer: "They are already asking me for programs that are more crude and more violent."

If it's crudity the French are looking for, there are plenty of American shows that, as far as I'm concerned, they can have.

Steven Bochco's "NYPD Blue," for example. "Blue" was the first prime time series on which rear-end nudity was common (and I'd like to see the market research showing a demand to see Dennis Franz's rear end). But that breakthrough took place way back during Clinton's first term; it's time to push the limits once more. This season, the ABC drama, apparently bored by mere bare buttocks and desperately striving to be cutting-edge, has resorted to brief shots of a severed penis and a woman's pubic hair.

The French can also have the pilot for another Bochco series, "Philly," which premieres next fall on ABC. Reportedly, in that pilot, a woman exposes her breasts. You might contend that ultimately, this scene will wind up on the cutting-room floor, but former NBC executive Roz Weinman would disagree with you. "ABC has a history of supporting [Bochco], so I think he'll be able to shoot pretty much what's in the script," Weinman remarked to TV Guide. "The breasts will somehow get in." Given the recent history of prime time, I won't bet against her. And it could be worse. It could be Dennis Franz's breasts.

Since the French, among other Europeans, like to sneer at our new president, they most definitely can have Comedy Central's White House "satire," "That's My Bush!" In just the first few weeks of this gem from the creators and producers of "South Park," the George W. Bush character passed gas on a death-row inmate; the Laura Bush character broke her addiction to telephone psychics by drinking heavily; the first lady and the White House maid discussed graphically the president's impotence; the president's mother called his wife a "truck-stop slut," a "worthless whore," and a "hooker skank"; and an entire plotline focused on the president's unwillingness to perform cunnilingus on the first lady.

Finally, the violent, sex-crazed "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is moving from the WB to UPN. Why stop there? Why not ship "Buffy" across the Atlantic while they're at it? This spring, a staggeringly sexual "Buffy" episode centered on Spike, a vampire, having intercourse and oral sex with the Buffybot, a robot replica of the title character. They also talked extensively about...sex. In one charming conversation, the Buffybot said to Spike, "I think you can [bite me]. I think you can if I let you, and I want to let you. I want you to bite me and devour me until there is no more."

If the French really yearn for crudity in their entertainment, it's time for them to swallow their pride and acknowledge the obvious: they can't top Ugly America for ugliness.