Two's company, three's a crowd and four—well, four is downright neighborly. So it goes in the sultry '70s world of Tom and Trina Decker, one of the free-spirited couples who inhabit "Swingtown," a new drama series premiering this week. In the pilot, the Deckers invite the newest arrivals, Bruce and Susan Miller, to their backyard Bicentennial blowout. The couples all kiss tenderly as showers of sparks fill the night sky. Later, after the other revelers have gone home, Bruce and Susan relax on the Deckers' couch, while Bruce gives Susan a foot massage. "Why don't the four of us go someplace a little quieter?" Trina says. That's when the Millers find out that the Deckers' welcome wagon is hitched to their king-size headboard.
If you're feeling scandalized by that scene, you probably haven't watched much television lately. TV sex has become more frequent—and much more graphic—in the past year, thanks to a spate of new programs unafraid to show, in startling detail, what goes on behind its characters' closed doors. In Showtime's "Californication," David Duchovny plays Hank Moody, a debauched writer who constantly hops into bed with psychotic women, one of whom happens to be a teenager. The hyperexplicit soap opera "Tell Me You Love Me" even allows for anatomical correctness in some of its sex scenes, thanks to the miracle of prosthetics. Meanwhile, in development is "Hung," a new comedy about a man who learns how to use his unusually large endowment to become a superhero of sorts, one that would make Superman regret using his X-ray vision.
All these shows, however, come courtesy of HBO or Showtime, the pay-cable networks. If "Swingtown" were premiering there—or even on the randy basic-cable FX—the Decker-Miller merger would be marked by celebrity skin and artfully choreographed writhing. Instead, "Swingtown" is premiering on fusty CBS, so despite the lengthy sequence at a drug-fueled, partner-swapping Fourth of July bacchanal, the only real fireworks we see are the ones with fuses on them.
A frank exploration of the sexual and social liberation of the 1970s, "Swingtown" was originally meant for HBO, which ultimately passed on the show because, according to the show's creators, the channel's schedule was already chock-a-block with intimacy-laden shows, including the Mormon polygamy-themed "Big Love." But CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler intervened and wooed creator Mike Kelley and director Alan Poul to bring it to network television. Naturally, this meant that the show had to be bowdlerized, and as a result, "Swingtown" is coy, perhaps even frustrating. But it's also, at least according to Kelley and Poul, better. "When we sat down to rewrite the script, it was actually less difficult, less painful and more rewarding than we'd anticipated," says Poul. "We came out with something stronger." Kelley adds: "It just allowed us to be freer to explore the characters without having to make as much happen in the bedroom. It's about the relationships that develop outside of the sexual moments. It's refreshing, frankly."
For Poul and Kelley to argue that the absence of sex creates for a better show is so counterintuitive, it is to television what the Atkins diet is to nutrition. But it's hard not to think they could be on to something. Consider the trajectories of some of HBO's flagship series: "Six Feet Under" migrated to Bravo, "The Wire" to BET, "The Sopranos" to A&E. All have been bleeped, blurred and snipped at to repurpose them for basic-cable syndication. When "The Sopranos" debuted on A&E last year, the first episode drew 4.4 million viewers, a sizable audience that apparently thought they could still feel a part of Tony Soprano's world without seeing what he sees at the Bada Bing. Granted, those were great shows in which sex was just part of the milieu. But what about a show that has sex at its core, such as "Sex and the City"? A big reason "Sex" has remained in the public consciousness—and won new fans who didn't catch it on HBO—is its sanitized, syndicated episodes on TBS. "Sex" certainly shows lots of carnal activity, but it was also a show about relationships and the enduring friendships of four single women. The characters and stories did not suffer for not having the license to actually show the slapping and tickling. It's difficult to make the case that copious sex makes for a better story if it can all be edited out with little impact on the narrative.
So why is there so much sex on television? Duh. Viewers like the prurient thrill of watching characters having private moments. Particularly when those private moments are as taboo as those on a show like "Secret Diary of a Call Girl," a British drama that Showtime has imported for premiere later this month. "The first thing you should know about me is that I'm a whore," says Belle (Billie Piper), whose secret diary we're peeping into. What follows is a how-to manual on how a lady becomes a tramp. One tip: find out what the client wants as quickly as possible, like, for example, the fact that the john likes his dirty talk with a farming motif. Even for the most high-minded television viewer, such a sales pitch may be hard to resist.
But the reason these shows are appealing isn't just because they are explicit. Explicit television and quality television have become conflated in the public consciousness, largely because of HBO's success. In its golden age, HBO continually pushed the boundaries. This is because pay-cable networks are beholden only to subscribers, not controversy-shy advertisers. The accolades followed, and with them came the illusion that the shows were good because they were more "authentic." In a "MADtv" spoof of "Sex and the City," the cast tweaked the network's famed tagline: "It's not TV, it's porn with Emmys." Graphic sex is not a necessity of good storytelling, but rather a job perk, not unlike, say, flextime or Free Massage Wednesdays. It's a carrot the cable networks use to attract creative talent, people who have visions and don't want them compromised. That is, until the lucrative syndication deal comes along.
As ever, though, a good story comes first. After all, if people want explicit sex without pesky dialogue and character development, isn't that what pornography is for? Not to mention the many shows—"The Office," "Lost" and "30 Rock," to name a few—that succeed creatively despite showing less skin than a Lands' End catalog. For Kelley and Poul, this means a trial by fire. There's a risk that "Swingtown" will find itself in an awkward middling place, too tame for some viewers, too suggestive for others. But the sex is just window dressing. If the story isn't up to snuff, regardless of the exotic couplings, triplings and quadruplings, the audience will know that even though they aren't seeing the nudity, the emperor has no clothes.