For all the sexual content on prime-time television, it's been quite rare to see two characters engaged in simulated coitus. You'd see them portrayed right before, or right after, or both, but hardly ever during.
You can now add that restraint to the trash heap. This season, one broadcast series is offering in-the-sex-act depictions as a virtual staple. Incredibly -- and certainly deliberately -- the series in question, UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," airs at 8 p.m., in the -- pause for rueful laughter -- family hour.
Over the past several episodes, the title character and Spike, a vampire, have carried on a low-romance, high-lust relationship. Scenes of their intercourse, with Spike's hip thrusts front and center, have become a common occurrence on "Buffy." The unmistakably sexual action is so striking that you hardly notice that there's virtually no skin on display.
But that's not the extent of the program's erotic envelope-pushing. In one episode of this drama aimed at youngsters, Tara and Willow, a lesbian couple, are sitting on a bed. Tara glances toward her crotch, then lies back. Willow slides out of the frame, in the direction of you-know-where. Soon, Tara is so ecstatic, she levitates.
"Buffy," which moved to UPN this past fall, had plenty of racy moments in its four-plus years on the WB, but has never put the pedal to the metal as much as it has this season. So outrageous has it become, Entertainment Weekly's Lynette Rice wrote last month that "UPN should consider slapping a TV-MA rating on 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' and quickly." EW being an establishment media outlet through and through, there was no chance that Rice would have written, "UPN should consider that 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' is flirting with kiddie porn."
When Rice asked "Buffy" executive producer Marti Noxon why the show has grown more explicit, Noxon responded, in part, "Maybe there's some small psychological factor, like 'Let's see what the new dad will say.'"
Noxon's explanation is, basically, a joke. UPN already is the most permissive dad on the broadcasting block. To suggest that the network that brought the World Wrestling Federation's garbage to prime-time broadcast TV might have vetoed this new raunch because of ethical concerns is preposterous.
In a subsequent EW interview, Noxon offered another defense: "I think the censors understand that if you're a kid of a certain age, you're not going to get it. And if you're old enough to get it, then, well, you get it."
Where does a 12-year-old fit into that equation? Because he "gets it," then it's acceptable? What about a 10-year-old? An 8-year-old? On different levels, they "get it," too. By Noxon's obnoxious reasoning, it's therefore OK to give it to them.
Once upon a time, Hollywood put stock in another commodity -- taste.
Think of the scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's movies in which fireworks and trains represented the sexual activity that was going on offscreen. Ronald Reagan would point to a more simple technique: The camera would leave the actors and go to the open window with fluttering curtains. Adults knew what this meant, and young viewers' innocence was protected.
Now it's just the opposite. The child's innocence is being ruined, and parents can't understand why Hollywood is committed to that.
Noxon also told EW, "I'm sure we have some challenges ahead (with the network), because it's not going to get less sexy for a while." My guess is that short of extreme material such as frontal nudity, UPN will let Noxon and company get away with pretty much whatever they want to do. Come to think of it, what is there to stop frontal nudity, too?
All this makes "Buffy" one of the coolest, hippest shows on the broadcast networks. It's the same thinking that celebrates, as the best of what the television industry has to offer, HBO's boorish "Sex and the City." This series has only one theme -- raw sex -- and because of its extreme material, including frontal nudity, it's the rage for TV critics.
Late last month, Us magazine's Russell Scott Smith breathlessly reported that "Sex" "continues to push the limits of propriety. Having notoriously featured a character nicknamed Mr. Pussy, a gherkin-sized male organ, and a 6-foot-tall close-up painting of Charlotte's genitals, the show's new season kicked off with an episode that featured not only a naked Samantha ... but also, for no more than a second, a full-frontal nude shot of her boyfriend." There was even
more graphic material on the Feb. 10 episode -- and you don't want to know what it was.
"The only other time you get stuff like this," "Sex" executive producer Michael Patrick King told Us, "is in pornography." "Other time"? There is no difference between "Sex" and porn -- and "Buffy" is just two steps behind.