. . . And for the (Bleep) Words
TV used to be this pleasant, happy-family experience, a generally bloodless amusement. But change set in--"The Untouchables,” with submachine guns blasting across the screen, Elvis shaking himself in front of Ed Sullivan, the celebrated bigotry of Archie Bunker.
Each new season brings new challenges to the old order.
Tonight, for example, the first line from the first episode of “Uncle Buck” (at 8 p.m. on CBS) has a 6-year-old girl, Maizy, yelling at her 8-year-old brother, “Miles, you suck.”
When Sharon Gless returns to CBS next Monday as a public defender in “The Trials of Rosie O'Neill,” her first spoken line is an earthy reference to having her breasts reformulated.
The new Fox series “DEA” makes liberal use of a bleeper during its bad language. On “Against the Law,” another new Fox series, one coming episode is about a comic who gets busted for raucous talk; it counts 36 bleeps during the hour.
There may still be plenty of the Old Television left, but it’s in the nature of the New Television to push boundaries--and the pushing this season is what producers and executives keep calling “reality,” including gritty language. It promises to pervade a gritty new season--including the first hour of prime time when children make up a large part of the viewing audience.
Producers and network executives surveyed by The Times about the effort to deal with changing tastes attributed the experimentation this season to the increasingly fierce competition for viewers--not only from the cable networks, which aren’t constrained by federal regulations in matters of indelicate content, but also from the young and aggressive Fox Broadcasting, “Bart-net” (after Bart Simpson), which is producing nine new series this fall and expanding to five nights.
Indeed, Sascha Schneider, a producer on NBC’s “Parenthood,” said that “If we were at Fox, you could go, say, 20 degrees more toward the reality level, both with words and action.”
A philosophical Alan Gerson, vice president for program standards and broadcast policies at NBC, maintained that the changing standards should be seen as part of a continuum: “You don’t get up in the morning and the world has changed,” he explained.
Al Schneider, ABC’s vice president for policy and standards, who’s been at the network since the early ‘60s, agreed that there has been a verbal evolution “from ‘hells’ and ‘damns’ ” (although they still draw complaints, he added).
As for Maizy’s word, “Well, to a person of my age, it has always been a vulgarity and disturbs me,” he said. “But my children use it all the time. So in the context of their usage and their terms, it is not a vulgarity.”
In one frantic day-and-a-half last fall, Tim O'Donnell hit all four networks peddling the idea of a perky little TV series based on “Uncle Buck,” the feature film about a slob uncle who raises his dead brother’s three kids. All the networks were interested, but when CBS offered the best deal--13 episodes--Universal Studios, which was funding the show, chose to make it there.
O'Donnell was recalling last week that he used the words edgy and risky in his sales pitch. But little did he realize that those are the buzz words for the new television season and that “Uncle Buck” would become a legend before its own time period.
He seemed puzzled by the furor: “I think ‘Uncle Buck’ is a very, very warm show about this big goofy guy who cares very deeply for these kids. That’s the tone of the series, not ‘sucks.’ ”
For all the fussing and fuming over Maizy’s line, the producer emphasized that in the very next line, Uncle Buck chastises her for her language.
Critics counter that the laughter on the soundtrack in response to the opening line makes that language seem funny to child viewers. They also have complained about other language in the episode, including some sexual references between Uncle Buck and a woman, and further note that while the show is seen at 8 p.m. on the East and West coasts, it will air at 7 p.m. in the Midwest.
Nonetheless, O'Donnell, who has three children himself (17 to 21) and who toiled five years as a producer-writer on “Growing Pains,” has won wholehearted public support from top CBS executives, and subsequent episodes reflect the raucous flavor of tonight’s pilot.
He said that the standards department permitted the Maizy line to go because it helped establish the characters and their relationship in a new show.
O'Donnell noted that his co-executive producer, Richard Gurman, was supervising producer for three years on “Married . . . With Children.” “They constantly got notes from Fox (saying) ‘Can we make Al more likeable?’ and ‘Do we have to make Kelly such a slut?’ . . . Well, if they’d taken those notes, that show would be a footnote instead of one of the big stories of the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he said.
“I don’t want to do ‘Married . . . With Children,’ ” O'Donnell continued, “but I think America said loud and clear with ‘Roseanne’ that they were ready for that--obnoxious kids, disrespectful kids, a mother who tells them to . . . off, a father who screws up his jobs and is talking about climbing into the sack with her.
“America is not running from that; America is embracing that. They’re recognizing that as something they’ve seen before--in real life, not on television. There’s a message out there somewhere.”
At the end of the pilot episode, which had been widely pre-screened by critics over the summer, Maizy tossed off a put-down line when her 16-year-old sister departed the house in a snit: “Don’t mind her, she’s ovulating.” It also drew heavy criticism.
O'Donnell said out last week that even though the CBS brass was willing to let the whole pilot episode air, word for word, he changed the line voluntarily. He said that he preferred to end on what he thinks is a stronger and less complicated line--"Hang on, it’s going to be bumpy.”
CBS, third in the viewer ratings and resultingly more desperate, seems to be taking a softer position than ABC and NBC on harder language. Another case in point is the Sharon Gless series, which premieres next Monday night at 10 with a tight shot of the star speaking to her therapist. Her husband has left her and she’s digging out of her morass. The premise of the series is she has quit corporate law in Beverly Hills in favor of down-and-dirty public defender duty downtown.
She blurts, “I’m thinking about having my tits done.”
Or maybe, she goes on, she’ll just get them “fluffed up.”
It was Gless’ idea and her line for Rosie. “I think that’s the way people talk,” she told reporters this summer. “I could’ve said boobs but I think that’s a silly word.”
CBS preferred the word boobs . Executive producer Barney Rosenzweig, who had fought word wars with the network during his years overseeing “Cagney & Lacey,” agreed, reluctantly, but wanted the network to see the original line anyway. He had the scene shot twice, each with a different word--"And,” he said with some amazement, “they called me back within hours and agreed to let tits run. They said it was much better.”
In another coming episode, CBS asked Rosenzweig to cut back on some of the “language.” “I told them that I would cut out every potentially offensive word,” he said, “if I can keep in two lines of dialogue in one scene.”
It involves Rosie and her office roommate, a black attorney, who have a relentlessly tense relationship. He screams that she isn’t always going to have “nice” clients, that this isn’t Beverly Hills. She calls him “an elitist son of a bitch”; he fires back, “Kiss my ass!”
Rosenzweig said that CBS agreed to let him keep the dialogue in exchange for deleting the other curses.
One of the trickier CBS moves, however, may be shuffling its spritely “Doctor, Doctor” from 10:30 p.m. Mondays to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, although executive producer Norman Steinberg claims that the journey isn’t affecting the show “one bit from last year.”
The show just filmed one episode that might test the extremities. In it, Diedre is making love to her new Mr. Right in the cockpit of his plane on the way to Key West--when suddenly he dies. The other doctors, who had been passengers in the back, rush to help and one suggests, “Gee, maybe we should pull his pants up.” The other doctor observes, “That’s like trying to put a ski mask on Pinocchio.” Another line is tossed in: “My God, he must have told a very big lie.”
Yet another line, unprintable here, was improvised that Steinberg figures “won’t go . . . but I think the Pinocchio (comment) is a very funny line and worth fighting for.”
Bill Finkelstein, who was supervising producer of “L.A. Law” on NBC and now is co-creator and supervising producer of “Cop Rock” on ABC, seems particularly unbent by the fear of getting caught in the blenders of standards departments: “What I just rail against is the prevailing climate and this very fearstruck way in which the advertisers and everybody else by extension operates.”
If a difficult word serves the drama, “that’s all the justification you should have for using it.”
He went on: “Part of what offends me the most about this is that we’re not little children who like scrawling swear words on a fence. We’re not doing these things because we just feel like . . . people off.”
In one “L.A. Law” courtroom scene, an angered Victor Fuentes used a vulgarism for urinating that also had direct reference to the lawsuit. Finkelstein recalled that the network offered such alternative words as tinkle or whiz .
“I mean, he’s mad, he’s angry! Why would he say something like that? It was really integral to the drama of the scene and to what the character was going through. I mean, it did all the things a word is supposed to do!
“When you’re forced into euphemisms that render your character unbelievable or that make what you’re doing--your drama--less compelling, to me, everybody loses in that. People who are offended by frank language should choose their viewing fare accordingly.”