The New Face of Sex on Television
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Funny thing. When I wrote my recent Blowfish review of the Sex and the City movie my friends all had just one question:
What did you think of Swingtown?
(I guess they figured out what I thought of Sex and the City without need of any more questions ... )
I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it, but until I started getting these questions, I hadn't even heard of Swingtown. I'm not sure how a prime- time major-network TV show about swinging escaped my notice. But if you don't mind, I'd like to let my lack of pop-culture coolness slide for the moment, and just talk about Swingtown. And Secret Diary of a Call Girl.
And a new face of sex on television.
To some extent, I'm reserving judgment on both shows. I've only seen a couple episodes of each, and it's way too early to get into the serious socio- politico- sexual analysis of either one. But it's not too early to say this: I'm watching. I'm curious. I care about the stories and the characters, and I want to see what happens next.
And that's because the characters are -- dare I say it? -- human beings.
Which is an exciting new development in the relationship between alternative sex and television.
Let's take Swingtown first. A new prime- time drama on CBS, Swingtown is about Susan and Bruce Miller, a couple who move to a nice Chicago suburb in 1976 and are introduced by their neighbors to the world of swinging. They're clearly intrigued by these new possibilities; at the same time, they're clearly freaked out, and not at all sure where they want to go with it or even if they want to go with it at all. Adding to their confusion are their old best friends, Janet and Roger, a more conservative couple who disapprove heartily: of all these new '70s shenanigans in general, and of their friends' new friends in particular. Susan and Bruce -- especially Susan, who's clearly the central character -- feel increasingly torn between the old friends and the new -- a conflict that symbolizes, and gets tangled up in, their conflicted feelings about the new sexual world that the decade is offering.
I'm not sure where the show's going with this. And I'm not sure what its attitude toward swingers and swinging will ultimately be. On the one hand, the swinging neighbors, Trina and Tom, are a little too evangelical about swinging: a little too convinced that it's the solution to all life's problems, and a little too cool-kid superior about people who don't want to play. On the other hand ... well, that is a reality. I've met people like that. I've been people like that, in my younger days. And while Trina and Tom definitely have a high- school cool- kids vibe, they also come across as very genuine, complicated and three-dimensional, with honest affection for Susan and Bruce, and a strong marriage that works for them.
And while the show may be a little pissily judgmental about Trina and Tom, and may even be gearing up to play them as sophisticated seducers who blindly fuck up a happy marriage, it isn't playing Susan and Bruce that way at all. It may be setting them up for a fall, but it isn't being judgmental of them for being curious and open- minded and willing to try new things -- and new people -- in bed. They are the moral center on which all these social changes are pivoting ... and they're making friends with committed swingers, and taking baby steps into trying out that world for themselves.
Secret Diary of a Call Girl (Showtime) is nowhere near as complex or subtly shaded as Swingtown. It's definitely a bit in that lurid, gratuitous, "how can we put sex on our network today?" vein that Showtime is so good at. (Not that there's anything wrong with that) But it also shows its characters -- prostitutes and customers alike -- as very real and human indeed: funny and poignant, anxious and clueless, selfish and touching.
The show is based on the blog of a real (or supposedly real) high class London call girl, Belle de Jour. And reality is a major player in the story. While it definitely shows the sexy, entertaining, soft- core- pornographic side of Belle's work, it also shows her as a thoughtful, quirky character, someone who basically likes her job but has issues with how it affects her non-working life. And in these early stages of the show, it's not yet clear how that conflict is going to play out.
In fact, in the first five minutes of the first episode, Belle puts it this way, in what may amount to the show's mission statement: "There are as many different kinds of working girl as there are kinds of people, so you can't generalize. But I can tell you about me."
And that, folks, is what I've been waiting to see in mass- media depictions of non- mainstream sex. Not role models; not shiny happy people with perfect lives. Just people: people who want freedom and who want security, people who love sex and who are cautious about its power, people who think carefully about their sex lives and who make hasty, impulsive decisions about it. People who aren't based on stereotypes or formulas, and whose actions can't always be predicted.
Like I said, I'm still reserving judgment on both programs. I'm waiting to see whether Swingtown goes for the easy and predictable arc of seduction and ruination -- which it might be doing -- or whether it goes for a more complex, ups and downs, plusses and minuses vibe -- which it might also be doing. I'm waiting to see if Secret Diary of a Call Girl comes up with any real analysis of sex work, or just winds up showing pretty pictures of sexy people.
But the point is that I'm waiting. So far, both shows have been about human beings, every bit as unpredictable as non- fictional human beings are. And I'm just going to have to watch, and wait, to find out what happens next.
Which is one of the biggest compliments I can pay to any show on TV.