Envelope-pushers losing their edge

Posted: May 14, 2004 12:00 AM

 Lost in the hype over the wildly overpublicized finale of "Friends" was its legacy: horny sex chat is now part of the family hour. Because of "Friends," parents now have the unwelcome opportunity to explain (or more likely, dance around explaining) things like premature ejaculation to grade-schoolers.

 Die-hard fans are calling it the end of an era, but all is not lost. Children getting off the school bus will probably be able to see the same old "Friends" sex follies at mid-afternoon every day in syndication on local stations or cable outlets, including on TBS, where it will probably air next to the edited reruns of the bed-hopping hotties of HBO's "Sex and the City." These shows may have fanatical followings and hipster credentials, but it's awfully hard to imagine them as classics in a television museum -- unless someone 100 years from now wants to see how at the turn of the century we were so sexually enlightened we just couldn't shut up about it.

 There's more dying here than just the show.

 Individual careers, like television shows, wax and wane, and one of the less publicized trends is the decline of some of television's hardest envelope-pushers. The once-hot producer Steven Bochco is getting ready to wrap up the final season of "NYPD Blue," the ABC drama with the very irregular schedule and the regular nudity. By this point, getting naked is so blase that it doesn't excite anyone except denizens of the "Mr. Skin" Web site wanting to know when they can see actress Charlotte Ross's tush on free TV.

 It seems to be an even harder fall for producer David E. Kelley. Just five years ago he was presiding over both the Emmy winner for best comedy ("Ally McBeal") and the Emmy winner for best drama ("The Practice"). Previously he took home Emmys for his work on "L.A. Law" and "Picket Fences." But his recent slate of programs has been a succession of train wrecks. The 1999 ABC spy drama "Snoops" was quickly put out of its misery. His 2002 Fox show "Girls Club," about female lawyers played by three charisma-challenged actresses, was literally on the air for only two weeks before it, too, was mercifully yanked from the schedule. Last fall, his CBS drama "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire," tried to center a show around three fat, middle-aged white brothers with sexual problems. You can guess how long that lasted.

 A few months ago, Fox pulled the plug on Kelley's high-school shock-drama "Boston Public," a new standard-defying low for Kelley. It premiered in 2000 by sticking its scaly, dirty fingers right in the viewer's eye. A female student facetiously told a male teacher that she masturbated while fantasizing about him. Another surveyed male students about the teachers with whom they'd most like to have sex, then informed at least two of those teachers of the results. A week later, Kelley even referred to a cartoon on a student's Web site in which a teacher was shown (not on camera) taking down his pants, bending over and eating his own excrement.

 I'm sure absolutely no one outside of Kelley's cast and immediate family is mourning this show's demise.

 Even "The Practice," Kelley's once-successful show, publicly dismissed most of its cast in a financial dispute after ABC moved the supposedly prestigious drama around the prime-time schedule. Since this year's patchwork "Practice" showed actor James Spader can be a TV star, Kelley is building his only remaining drama around the Spader character for next fall. But Television Week reports that Kelley will not be actually writing that show -- the first time Kelley hasn't been writing and producing a TV show since Reagan was president.

 This is not a bad thing. It's hard to forget some things Kelley has written, like the Catholic-trashing episode of "Ally McBeal," when Ally defended a nun who wanted to have sex and still be a nun, too. Ally said to the sister, "Making love is wonderful, but ... nuns are not supposed to have sex, you know, except with other nuns." In court, a lawyer for the Church says to the nun, "You had sex with a man." The nun responded, "A priest has sex with a boy, he gets transferred. At least my lover was of legal age, for God's sake."

 Eventually, even the envelope-pushers can lose their edge and go from boiling-hot to has-been in Hollywood. Even so, it must be noted that the envelope was successfully pushed. The bar was successfully lowered. The stain on our culture remains. There's not much joy in watching the torch of trash get passed to a new generation of garbage-makers.