Romance: Can It Survive On TV

True love is hanging tough on the small screen

By AARON BARNHART - The Kansas City Star

Last week a study found that 53 percent of all TV programs contained either references to or depictions of sexual activity.

Am I the only one who thinks that number is too low?

We've always known that when it comes to television, sex sells. But in recent years, the mechanics of sex have been rehearsed and rehashed with increasing frequency, on sitcoms, talk shows and now even the news.

If this sounds like an age-old complaint, in part it is. (The first issue of Reader's Digest in 1922 had an article titled "Is the Theater Too Risque?")

But the most disturbing part of this trend is that, with few exceptions, sex is becoming disconnected from any of the other elements of human happiness.

Love, as Valentine's Day reminds us, is more a spiritual and emotional matter than biological. Television is the opposite. TV is a naked grab for your attention -- and the more naked the better. It divides and conquers, pitting the id against the superego for ultimate control over your remote-control thumb.

The decent, upstanding viewer in you would really like to watch The Learning Channel. But wait -- here's a couple on ABC getting it on!

Under those conditions it's a miracle any show survives on TV without giving its viewers a formulaic jolt every few moments. But some creative people in television have been trying to change the rules. Some have even managed to slow down the frenetic pace of courtship long enough to work in a little romance.

One example of this countertrend is "Ally McBeal," quite possibly the oddest show on the air that doesn't feature a Teletubby. It's ostensibly a no-laugh-track comedy about young lawyers who work only on offbeat cases and are entangled in each other's lives. But at the heart of the show is Calista Flockhart's Ally, a woman whose terrible track record in relationships hasn't deterred her from thinking true love might some day come her way.

"I don't mean this in an insulting way, but you're not a sexually spontaneous person," Ally's roommate says to her. "You don't go to bed with a man unless you storyboard it first."

For the better part of two years, Ally has seemed immune to -- even slightly nauseated by -- the coupling going on around her. But over the past year, she has been carefully nurturing a relationship with a patient and handsome doctor she once defended in court. After a breakup, they appear to be an item again. What's surprising given the sexual electricity that pulses through this show, thanks to the sure hand of its creator and head writer David E. Kelley, is that Ally is being allowed to cultivate her love slowly, like a pumpkin patch.

But that's because "Ally McBeal" is a hit show with a devoted audience. That was not the case with one of the season's brightest new shows, "Cupid," another romantic comedy but one much less sexually charged -- and, unfortunately, scheduled at a much less opportune time.

A one-hour series that debuted last fall on ABC, it starred Jeremy Piven as a matchmaker who believes that he's the Cupid of Greek myth. In his mile-a-minute soliloquies, Piven's character would argue for the necessity of hot, mind-blowing romantic ecstasy, as though it were a vital nutrient missing from the diets of most people under the age of 30.

On "Cupid," every week a different twosome was matched by the would-be Eros. Remarkably, few of these couples actually wound up in the bedroom at episode's end.

Yet when you think about it, in an era of AIDS and economic uncertainty, such endings are a lot closer to the real thing than two people taking a roll in the hay every week. So why do we see so little of it on television?

To understand how this happened, we need to rewind to the mid-1980s, when the business of TV began a series of turbulent transitions that are still under way.

Up until then, a viewer could be sure of two things: a paucity of choices and something called broadcast standards. TV stations still commanded 80 percent to 90 percent of the audience, and the people who ran those stations had strong ties to their communities. Sex was a component in many hit shows, but it had to be suggested or else risk the censor's red pen.

But by the '80s, cable TV had begun to draw viewers away from local stations. At the same time, giant corporations were gobbling up the networks, while stations were being sold to publicly traded companies whose loyalties slowly shifted from Main Street to Wall Street.

Today, with dozens of channel choices available to the average TV watcher, networks and their affiliates are desperate to hold on to viewers, especially the young adults that advertisers pay big bucks to reach. When a network is being battered by R-rated movies on HBO and sex talk on MTV, the only standards that mattered anymore were those of the people buying commercial time.

The network that responded most aggressively was NBC, which built up its prime-time schedule with half-hour sex comedies and, thanks largely to them, became the top-rated network of the past five years. Now that NBC's ratings are dropping, the network's new head of programming says he wants shows with less overt sexual content.

"I think we could use a few more words between `Hello' and `Would you sleep with me?' " said executive Scott Sassa. "We just need to be careful."

Sex, love & marriage

On practically all the top-rated comedies on TV today, the jokes revolve around sex -- getting it, talking about it or planning new conquests. The very best -- "Friends" and "Frasier," for example -- are cleverly written and performed by some of the best comic actors working. The worst are simply offensive, like a bad comedy-club act.

What no one doubts anymore is that there are too many of them (53 sitcoms were on the schedule last fall) and too few talented people making them. NBC has said it plans to trim its arsenal of sexy sitcoms, although it hasn't said what it will use to fill the void.

Maybe it will come up with more shows like ABC's "SportsNight," an unusual half-hour comedy about life behind the scenes at a TV show. Thanks to Aaron Sorkin's tightly paced scripts, "SportsNight" has a thoroughly romantic temperament. It idealizes the workplace; more than once a character on the show has referred to the crew as a family.

And that '90s throwback to the innocence of the '50s known as "geek love" is embodied in one of the show's central relationships, a budding romance between a producer and a nerdy statisticianMDNM.

About the only chance romantic love has to survive on TV, besides one-of-a-kind producers like Kelley, seems to be on sitcoms about married couples. They, after all, experienced the novel thrill of sex long ago; once it becomes routine, as the old saying goes, getting there is half the fun.

There's no great secret to what makes married romance work on TV: you just need a TV couple that looks like they might actually be married. Two shows leaving the air this season, "Home Improvement" and "Mad About You," are great examples. Tim Allen and Patricia Richardson have been rehashing the same two or three story lines for years. But viewers haven't tired of them, nor they of each other. Despite their years of TV togetherness, their on-air chemistry hasn't lost its luster.

And that's what a good marriage is about, right?

To reach Aaron Barnhart, television writer for The Star, phone (816) 234-4790 or e-mail