Thanks to “NYPD Blue” creators Steven Bochco and David Milch and ABC executives Robert Iger and Ted Harbert, writers and producers for top-quality network prime-time dramas can now paint their visual stories with a bluish hue previously restricted to pay cable and, less often, public television.
And they are doing so:
Three Thursdays ago, the most popular drama on television, NBC’s “ER,” offered an unmistakable glimpse of a patient’s bare rear-end, courtesy of those accursed tie-in-the-back hospital gowns.
Two Fridays ago, sexual tensions built up over 2-1/2 seasons within sheriff’s deputies Maxine Stewart (Lauren Holly) and Kenny Lacos (Costas Mandylor) on CBS’ “Picket Fences” exploded in a sizzling sex scene.
The only reason assorted body parts were not visible was that hands were clearly at work on them.
A recent “NYPD Blue” on ABC included shots of Detective Bobby Simone’s (Jimmy Smits) backside, as well as sidelong glimpses of the flanks and breasts of his TV-reporter paramour.
Last week, a story line about breast surgery and reconstruction figured prominently in CBS’ “Chicago Hope” hospital drama, including operating-room closeups and a post-operative shot of the teenager’s upper torso.
The Feb. 1 “Law & Order” on NBC began with a tame pre-wedding bachelor party at which guests were watching a rented porno tape. One scene on the tape turned out to be a rape that was later prosecuted. Nudity was avoided, just barely.
A few weeks ago, a bitter marital breakup scene between two characters on NBC’s Friday-night “Homicide: Life on the Street” included a fleeting shot of most of the wife’s bare breast.
Quick glimpses of nude murder victims are not unusual.
In other words, it is now possible for prime-time network dramas, under specific conditions, to include parts of the bare human body and depictions of sexual activity at a more intense level than before.
The most important prerequisite is that the series itself clearly be a serious, high-quality program.
Viewers who seek out shows like those mentioned above do so precisely because they appreciate the programs’ frank, grown-up approach to drama.
Thus, they are likely to accept occasional nudity or adult language as part of the package.
By the same token, the network that tries to shoehorn some bare butts and breasts into the likes of “Walker, Texas Ranger” or “Models, Inc.” will be hard-pressed to mount a legitimate, artistically based defense of its decision.
There’s also a question of propriety.
“Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “Lois & Clark” are fine programs, but their content, tone and time slots obviously disqualify them as potential candidates for nudity or semirealistic sexual encounters.
Finally, these more adult elements must make sense within the context of a show’s plot and/or character development or revelation.
Anyone who has spent any time in a hospital, for example, knows that the naked rear-ends of strangers are an all-too-common sight. Why shouldn’t “ER,” which tries to capture the chaotic sights and sounds of a hospital’s busy emergency room, include one now and then?
In the “Chicago Hope” episode about breast surgery and reconstruction, the young patient’s fear of disfigurement was a natural and realistic story element, which, in turn, justified showing the results of the operation.
Dramatically justified or not, of course, none of this would have been possible had ABC’s Harbert and Iger not given Bochco and Milch the freedom to pursue their vision of “NYPD Blue.”
Nor would it have been possible if the network had not stood by the show despite protests from special-interest groups and pre-emptions by worried affiliates until the viewing public and, belatedly, advertisers had the chance to demonstrate their support for it.
MEMO: See sidebar that ran with this story under the headline: Network programmers flesh out the naked truth