Portraying Some Women as 'Babes Underneath.' (Television and Sex) (Column)

Article excerpt

"Let's talk about sex, baby..." goes the refrain of a popular song. And on TV these days it seems that's what everyone's doing -- either talking about it or doing it. And it's not Madonna's fault.

As always, throughout her career, Madonna Ciccone (of the famous aluminum Sex book) is only a hypersensitive weather vane accommodating the prevailing cultural trends. Slowly but surely, for at least the past five years, voyeurism has been replacing auteurism as the guiding force in America's popular arts. And finally, with the certainty of death, taxes and market research, the hypersexuality of the century's end has reached the mainstream, prime-time TV airwaves.

Of course, there have been fundamentalist complaints about sex on TV for so long (at least since the late 1970s) that we are tempted to view current discussion about tube sex as simply more of the same. But, in fact, some genuinely new things have happened.

Everyone knows the daytime soaps have been getting steadily steamier. And at the other end of the broadcasting day, the ads for those 900-number phone-sex lines have become much raunchier and more omnipresent in the past year.

Meanwhile, "Studs," a mutant offspring of the old "Dating Game," has plumbed new depths in coarse and downright dehumanizing sexual innuendo and invasion of a contestant's privacy. And we've all noticed that, with each passing season, the networks seem to leave in a little more when they air an R-rated Hollywood movie.

But the most notable tube-sex landmarks came in the opening month of the fall 1992 television season, when two prime-time hourlong network dramas, "Going to Extremes" and "Civil Wars," featured female nudity of the sort that would have earned an R rating at the movies 15 years ago.

"Going to Extremes" is a new series from the makers of "Northern Exposure." You could call it "Southern Exposure" because it features a group of young Americans who couldn't get into U.S. medical schools and so are doctors-in-training somewhere in the English-speaking Caribbean.

Remember the great Grenada "rescue mission" of 1983? Well, these are those kids. Except the show is filmed in Jamaica, which has better air service to Los Angeles.

Just to set the properly clinical "anatomy and physiology" sort of tone, the first episode of "Going to Extremes" featured series regular June Chadwick in a full, unobstructed rearview nude shot.

"Civil Wars" was discussed (and dismissed) in this space when it premiered last year. It features a bickering male-female legal team specializing in divorce cases. "Think |Moonlighting' meets |L.A. Law,'" said the producer to the network executive.

Mariel Hemingway plays the female half of the legal team. And last month her duties were somehow stretched to include posing in the buff for a fictitious photographer. The result was network television's first full-frontal exposure, save for a hand and a cute camera angle.

There was a time when complaints about TV programming focused on "sex-and-violence," a phrase pronounced so often that it became a single word. You may have always suspected that the "violence" part of the catchphrase was tacked on simply as the right-wing puritans' sop to queasy liberals, who might be more or less in favor of sex but ideologically allergic to force. And you were probably right.

But a check of the network prime-time schedules today reveals considerably less violent entertainment programming than at anytime in my three TV-watching decades. That owes mostly to the neardemise of two generic standbys, the Western and the cop show.

"Young Guns" and Clint Eastwood to the contrary, the Western is finally played out as popular genre in American entertainment. …