Rated TV-MA: How Sex Came of Age on Television

11/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mr. Skin The world’s foremost authority on celebrity nudity

Sunday's 61st Primetime Emmy Awards saluted television's finest accomplishments this year, and it was a daunting task, to be sure -- but perhaps not in the way it seemed for most of the previous six decades.

For whereas FCC chairman Newton Minow famously declared the medium a "vast wasteland" all the way back in 1961, today's TV landscape has blossomed - here a Lost, there a Mad Men - to supersede movies as popular culture's premiere venue for, indeed, culture.

Or, as Newsweek noted: "Film has always been The Four Seasons to television's Motel 6. Not anymore."

Another way of looking at it is that TV long ruled as the "electronic babysitter", programmed to pacify while mom and dad enjoyed a night out at the theater.

Now television is what adults stay home to do while the tykes get their brains blown out by the latest CGI humungous at the multiplex.

TV has grown up and, as with all maturation processes, a lot of that has to do with sex.

Of course, sex has illuminated the boob tube -- pun, of course, intended -- probably since the first Miss America Pageant aired and most notoriously during the 1970s "jiggle TV" phenomenon of Three's Company and Charlie's Angels.

But consider that point of view -- leering, giggly, adolescent and, it seemed at the time, permanent.

By the 1980s, sitcom couples, married or otherwise, could share a bed (a hard-line taboo in the days of I Love Lucy and relegated from there to The Munsters and The Flintstones until, in the revolutionary year 1969, Mike and Carol snuggled a blow for liberation on The Brady Bunch).

Broadcast outlets kept sex in the background while pay cable channels such as HBO and Showtime put it sharply in the forefront, first with subscriber-baiting softcore concoctions such as The Hitchhiker and Red Shoe Diaries and, then, in the programs that have come to define the great mass-consumed art of the modern era.

You know: the ones that contain nudity.

Many cite HBO's 1999 debut The Sopranos as the genesis of this modern, previously unimaginable phenomenon. And it's certainly hard to argue against what that moment made possible: The Wire, Six Feet Under, Big Love, Damages, Entourage, In Treatment, Sons of Anarchy, and so on.

And in a clear case of competition proving to be a good thing, the networks followed suit with House, Grey's Anatomy, The Office, 30 Rock, Gossip Girl, etc.

Now think about the quality of Hollywood movies congruent with that same decade. We can even extend that challenge even to independent and foreign films.

Can you name one title that you'd group in the same league as those programs? Indeed, what was your last experience in a theater that moved you in a manner typical of what one can find these days with a remote control?

Has there been a suspense film as nerve-rattling as 24? A comedy as uproarious as Curb Your Enthusiasm? A police saga as intense as The Shield? A chiller as sardonic as Dexter?

As for the heady pleasures of on-screen sex and nudity, cinema is not the place to look. At least not at those prices! So let's follow the money.

Observers point out that big-screen movies cost so much that studios dare not diminish the size of the largest possible (paying) audience. Television, by contrast, can afford to take risks. It can fund creative visionaries (Aaron Sorkin, David Milch, Denis Leary) and their often palpably adult visions (The West Wing, Deadwood, Rescue Me).

In the event of failure -- which almost all TV shows prove to be -- reality programming saves the day and keeps the machine fueled, literally, by cheap thrills.

Another issue arises as to what it precisely is, then, for which we wish to pay.

Movie-going today is very often about experiencing sensory overload: astounding visuals and gut-shaking sound-effects that are not possible on even the most elaborate of home theaters. Explosions and mechanical mayhem have supplanted plot and character at the movies and, thus, the simple art of storytelling has moved into living rooms (and bedrooms).

And where plots develop and characters grow, sex happens (particularly when there are no giant robots rampaging in the way).

Underlying all this is that all on-camera erotic entertainment -- from hardcore porn to Baywatch -- has been automatically consumed at-home since advent of the VCR a quarter-century ago.

Just compare the prospect of paying to view a fleeting nude scene in public, surrounded by strangers, to the same opportunity at home, behind a closed door, with fast-forward, pause, and rewind buttons.

Nudity is no longer a draw at the box office, but it does remain a tantalizing sales-point when a customer considers making the leap from basic to premium cable.

As such, naked vampires on True Blood will grab more eyeballs (and dollars) than any equivalent playing at a theater, even if Kate Beckinsale were to lose her leather catsuit in those Underworld movies.

This circumstance also indicates why the film Powder Blue (2009) - which contains the debut nude scene of universally lusted-after A-lister Jessica Biel -- just barely warranted a theatrical release in three small markets, and why it is guaranteed to run on cable in perpetuity.

Had the former TV sweetheart of Seventh Heaven deigned to first bare flesh on an episode of Entourage, for example, her revelation would have generated record ratings and word-of-mouth on par with, say, Sharon Stone's leg-crossing in Basic Instinct from all the way back in the olden days of 1992.

In time, TV nudity will doubtlessly be supplanted by technology that may very well beam images of unclothed starlets directly into our brains.

But that's then. TV is now. And it is the height of what's hot to remain tuned in and turned on.