Sisterhood, Frankly Speaking

HARRY F. WATERS

A new NBC series that just won't shut up about sex

It's not every dramatic series that kicks off with a group of women chatting about multiple orgasms while lolling in a sauna. In fact, at a January screening of NBC's "Sisters" before the nation's TV critics-always ready to combat the forces of prurience-the sauna scene raised such a fuss that NBC programming chief Warren Littlefield felt obliged to issue a policy statement. "Corporately," he straight facedly proclaimed, "we believe in orgasms." Everyone chuckled, and the fuss subsided. But last week Littlefield's face wore a vivid shade of red. NBC announced that it was excising the orgasm discussion "in order to respond to certain constituencies of the network. . ." Translation: a major sponsor had threatened to cancel $500,000 worth of ads. Corporately, it seems, NBC's belief in its programs ends where a menace to its profits begins.

None of which alters the fact that "Sisters," the intertwined stories of four dissimilar siblings premiering May 11, is decidedly hot stuff. "Look, we all talk about sex and we all deal with it, " says executive producer Anita Addison. "So why not put it on the air in as frank a manner as possible?" Why not, indeed? Meet the sisters: Alex, Frankie, Georgie and Teddy (yes, Dad was hoping for a son). If their monikers seem a tad weird, their types are reassuringly familiar. Call them the Princess, the Driven, the Victim and Major Trouble. From the top: Alex (Swoosie Kurtz), the wife of a rich plastic surgeon and a world-class spender; Frankie (Julianne Phillips, formerly Mrs. Bruce Springsteen), a Wall Street climber who programs her career moves the way the Wehrmachtplotted invasions; Georgie (Patricia Kalember of "thirtysomething"), the saintedly supportive wife of a would-be lounge singer and everyone's all-too-compliant crying towel; and Teddy (Sela Ward), a divorcee, alcoholic and crypto-nympho. Or as Frankie fondly describes her, "a destructive, deceitful, spiteful, immature bitch."

Obviously, as studies of sisterhood go, this ain't Chekhov - or even Woody Allen. What "Sisters" does offer is an irresistibly tangy stew, laced with caustic commentary and, when least expected, poignantly affecting moments. As the siblings grapple with failing marriages, a son's leukemia or What To Do About Mom, the series employs "think-backs," in which each character interacts with herself as a child. In lesser hands, the device would seem hokey; here it illuminates how personality and behavior become forged. All the actresses are believable, especially Kurtz, who at one point manages a sly takeoff on Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara. The only time the writing breaks down is when a man pops up. Trying to rekindle her once-sizzling relationship with her ex-husband, Teddy pants: "You and I are like lovers on those Grecian urns. We're in this for eternity."

As we were saying, "Sisters" is hung up on sex. These women constantly brag about it, complain about it, fantasize about it, even learn things about it. In one episode Alex discovers that her husband is a secret cross-dresser when she finds him in a hotel room garbed in a gown. What seems truly odd is that no one found that scene objectionable. Maybe, in matters of sex on TV, the kinkiest sin is straight talk.