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A Long Way from a Clean Sweeps

At this writing, we're almost halfway through another television sweeps period, a time when the industry puts forth its best programming, which is to say the programming it believes will draw the most viewers. Quality as a standard is absent from the equation. The goal is ratings and the means is ever-cheaper sensationalism aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Remember when Ellen came out of the closet? That was a spring '97 sweeps stunt.

Sexual schlock is often at the center of sweeps sensationalism, but that poses a problem. There's already so much of it, and so much of it already is so crude, how does one reach a new high during a sweeps period?

Since sex is almost always at the center of NBC's "Friends," let's examine two installments of that long-running smutcom. The first of these actually aired the week before the sweeps period began, but its EPQ (Envelope-Pushing Quotient) was so high, it demands inclusion here.

In the pre-sweeps episode, Joey is on the verge of getting a part in a movie. But his character, who has a nude scene, must be uncircumcised, which Joey is not. He claims he is and wonders aloud to Monica what he'll do when he meets the film's director, who'll be inspecting his genitals.

Monica thinks she might be able to help by devising a fake foreskin using "double-sided tape and some sort of luncheon meat." As she surveys the contents of a refrigerator, she muses, "Turkey. That won't work. Cheese. That won't work. Olive loaf. I hope that won't work." She ends up creating a trayful of choices, both meat- and non-meat-based, for Joey, who opts for the one made of Silly Putty, which, alas, falls off when he exposes himself for the director.

The next week, for its sweeps kickoff, "Friends" resorted to what for Hollywood has become a traditional plotline featuring lots of talk about a past lesbian kiss and then two full-on-the-lips, woman-to-woman smooches, one of which involved Winona Ryder. Obviously the homosexual schtick is getting worn, which explains why "Friends" producers apparently felt both the sensationalism and the big-name guest star were needed in order to draw the voyeur audience.

Oh, yes: "Friends" is a family-hour show.

Now, if you're the creative mind behind the WB's teenage sexfest "Dawson's Creek," which already features a gay character, what do you do during sweeps? You - I'm not kidding here - delve into the lives of two gay male high-school students and their brushes with heterosexuality ("She takes my hand and she sticks it on her crotch, and she says, 'You may think you're gay now, honey, but give me an hour'"); their first heartbreak (for one, it was a "guy [who] was so good-looking...He was like one of those Disney-character versions of a human...the prince from 'Snow White' or something"); and, finally, their first kiss with each other, at the prom.

This is sweeps, so this couldn't be any run-of-the-mill homosexual kiss. "I timed it," gushed Scott Seomin of the gay-activist outfit GLAAD. "It's like a five-and-a-half-second mouth-to-mouth kiss. We haven't seen anything like this before on network TV...This is a huge leap...We might now start seeing physical affection and romance between other gay characters." I can't wait.

Oh, yes: "Dawson's Creek" is a family-hour show, too.

CBS's "Judging Amy" airs at 10 p.m., presumably meaning its audience is adult. What to offer the grownups during sweeps? Hollywood rolls out its sophisticated plotline for them.

"Judging Amy"'s contribution concerned a second-grade boy named Carl who started exhibiting "non-conforming gender behavior" at age two and "wanted to be Cinderella for Halloween when he was four" and now has decided, with the support of his parents, to live as a girl named Sasha. He wears a skirt when he appears before a judge and tells her he'd like to grow his hair longer "so my mom can teach me to French-braid it."

The real-life equivalent of this boy, assuming he exists, deserves our pity. The producers and network executives responsible for such rank exploitation, sweeps or no sweeps, deserve our scorn. The millions of people who choose to watch this garbage and then complain about the sordid state of popular culture deserve - nothing.