Sep 15, 2003  •  Post A Comment

`Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of fall.”
OK, the quotation is really “let loose the dogs of war,” but we’re repurposing it to apply to the new TV season. Not that all the shows are dogs-no, just a majority. The sad thing is that while there’s general agreement about which new show is the worst of the lot, or at least the most likely to be canceled first (ABC’s murky “Threat Matrix”), there really isn’t one standout contender that everybody thinks will be a big fat smash.
Madison Avenue apparently looks fondly on “Two and a Half Men,” an agreeable ABC sitcom starring a slightly sullen Charlie Sheen. It’ll basically be a time-slot hit if it’s a hit at all, but it’s a tolerable example of good solid fluff.
No harm done-though that can’t safely be said for all the new shows. To meet competition from cable (not just pay but basic, which has grown still smuttier with the recent arrival of the sophomoric Spike TV), networks are further diluting the old strictures on sex and violence. Words that can’t easily be printed here will pop up with increasing frequency, especially on the crime shows-of which there will be more, it seems, than ever.
TV depictions of crime were once so genteel that network censors prohibited showing a corpse with its eyes open; that was considered excessively grisly. On the pilot for the CBS crime show “Cold Case,” by stunning contrast, there’s a shot of three men lying bloodily slaughtered on a bathroom floor; it has nothing to do with the plot, which is a thinly disguised rehash of the Michael Skakel case.
“Cold Case” will air on CBS Sunday nights at 8, once Ed Sullivan’s family-friendly home. But the “Cold Case” pilot is raw and tawdry. The heroine, a Philadelphia cop, at one point uses a crude slang term for “erection.” Of the police commissioner she says, “Screw him.” Very graphic sex talk later includes, pointedly, the subject of masturbation, and for good measure we see the crime re-enacted: a young woman molested and then beaten to death with a tennis racket.
There may be trims before that episode airs, but it’s still going to be awfully sleazy stuff for a Sunday night. Jerry Bruckheimer, Hollywood’s vicar of violence, is the executive producer, expanding his TV empire with this as well as with “Skin,” Fox’s sensational and campy melodrama about a Romeo who’s the son of a district attorney and a Juliet whose father runs a pornography empire.
“Skin” obeys one of the new rules of TV drama, adopted from the kind of movies Bruckheimer produces (some of them very good ones): When in doubt, insert a scene set at a strip club, no matter how irrelevant. When it comes to cheap titillation, there’s nothing like nearly naked showgirls caressing metal poles, themselves or each other while an audience of dirty old men and the nation’s TV viewers look on.
The strip club in “Skin” is called The Midas Touch, and since it’s blown sky-high in the pilot, it may not be reappearing in the series, at least not until the porn king can rebuild it. The strip club is the site chosen by Mr. Porn for a meeting with a drug dealer and money launderer.
“The Handler,” a seedy and confused CBS series that stars Joe Pantoliano as an FBI agent specializing in sting operations that involve pretty girls, predictably enough includes a strip club (The Play Pen) among its locations. Coke-snorting creeps occupy a back room. “Shank” is used as a street term for “penis.”
ABC’s “Karen Sisko,” starring the impressive Carla Gugino, also includes a strip-club scene on a flimsy pretext: The cops visit it in search of a fugitive. Well, as long as we’re there, we might as well ogle those undulating babes.
At least the strip-club scene in NBC’s “Las Vegas” makes dramatic sense. Such a place would be a natural part of the landscape. More contrived is a tossed-in scene of two exhibitionists who like to have sex naked in a casino’s elevator, well aware that surveillance cameras are watching.
I haven’t seen all the new shows yet, so I can’t give you an authoritative count on gratuitous strip-club scenes. But it does appear to be one of those coy ploys that producers will find hard to resist as the season creeps on.
Fox’s “Skin” isn’t all about sex-it’s about crime and teenage romance, too-but sex is about the only thing NBC’s “Coupling” has on its mind. This exercise in not only double- but single-entendre is a key component in NBC’s desperate struggle to maintain its longtime ratings dominance on Thursdays, one of the biggest advertising nights of the week.
The “Coupling” pilot endows words such as “swallow” and “coming” with sexual innuendo. The expression on a man’s face in one shot lets us know that the naked girl he’s facing has shaved her pubic hair. And so on and so on and scooby-dooby-doo.
If this is what it takes to prevent more audience erosion, then so be it. Nobody complains much anymore; there are now so many shows with amplified sex and violence that even once-tireless pressure groups appear to have given up. The pressure groups are not missed; they gave the impression that you have to be a nut, a prude or a fanatic to dislike smut on network television. They picked targets capriciously and, over the years, accomplished little that was positive.
But what if the great mass audience decides the sordid stuff is getting out of hand? Could the network strategy backfire and actually send more viewers scurrying to cable instead of luring them away from it? That hardly seems likely. If they scurry to cable, they’ll find that things are only worse. If they scurry to radio, they’ll run into shock jocks by the dozen, heartaches by the score.
There really are no more safe harbors; the dogs of fall can feel free to run riot.