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HBO’s ‘Men Exposed’: Is Nothing Private?

First the unhooking, now the unzipping.

There’s good reason to resist censorship from government and other blue noses who wish to shape pop culture in their own images. Just as there’s reason to cringe at the arrival of something gross that nourishes their crusade to apply the clamps.

As evidence of just how lewd television can get under the panoramic umbrellas of art and information, HBO is airing a special tonight titled “Private Dicks: Men Exposed” that isn’t about private detectives.

Or keeping anything private.

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As the press release says: “Rarely do we hear men talking about their penises--honestly anyway--until now.” Duh! I wonder why.

Confirming that silence is, indeed, golden, the hour stars men ages 22 to 73 discussing that topic, many in the nude, one elderly guy disclosing that his nickname in his youth was “dwarf.” Take a guess.

In labeling this bodyscape an “American Undercover” documentary, HBO is creating a non sequitur for the ages.

The “purple-helmeted love warrior,” as one male defines it tonight, is not the first intimate body part to capture the attention of filmmakers Thom Powers and Meema Spadola. They also created the 1997 Cinemax documentary, “Breasts: 22 Women on 41 Breasts,” a smart, witty program whose female subjects symbolically held viewers to their bossoms while commenting on society’s preoccupation with bust size and shape. And the little girl musings about training bras were precious.

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There was nothing exploitative about “Breasts,” some of whose participants were into their 70s. The women--most of them topless, braless and seemingly undaunted by the camera--were admirably uninhibited in their self examination and analysis. That included a pair of mother-daughter combos that were not only amusing, but full of insights into breastdom from the contrasting views of different generations.

Yes, there was the woman with an epic set worthy of Jerry Springer, but also some very serious talk about breast implants and psychological bruising from mastectomies, to go along with some wry commentary. Above all, many of these women were interesting, and you wanted to cheer the one who exposed to the camera the flat plain of chest where she had lost a breast to cancer.

But tonight?

Forget about a private-parts masterwork like Michaelangelo’s David. “Men Exposed” hasn’t the I.Q. even of that dark, penis-exposing film about the porno industry, “Boogie Nights,” as it descends into a display of genitalia and boys’ locker-room buzz about sex organs--their size and performance--and about sex.

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Despite a brief pass or two at vasectomy, syphilis and other serious penile matters, in fact, sex is what this is all about. Sex thinly disguised as a documentary.

Essentially, this is a high-libido program for penis watchers, but hardly one worthy of a generally brainy operation like HBO, whose best work often soars above anything else on television. Even the action in its ribald comedy, “Sex in the City,” has more decorum than “Men Exposed.”

Label the latter misplaced daring, traveling well beyond the adventures of Clinton-Lewinsky, for example, in examining in-depth the nuances of certain activities (“I think the biggest problem in oral sex today . . . ").

Did Howard Stern ghostwrite this?

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“Men Exposed” doesn’t succeed even as entertainment, unlike some former sitcoms that covered similar territory with great humor. When the talk turns to penile implants, you can’t help recalling Martin Tupper’s mother on HBO’s “Dream On,” when her husband’s rejuvenated apparatus (unseen) overperformed during sex, inducing a heart attack that killed her.

And as one of tonight’s subjects remembers his youth when his parents learned of his activities behind a locked bathroom door, you flash back yourself to the famous “Seinfeld” episode about masturbation that began with the adult George getting caught by his mother, and never mentioning the “m” word.

These two series didn’t pretend to be anything but what they were--comedies.

But “Men Exposed” doesn’t master any domain. The fundamental flaw in having it follow “Breasts” is that the penis is not analogous to female breasts. Unlike breasts, which are openly discussed and evaluated in this culture by both genders, the penis is kept mostly under wraps, its only purpose being sex.

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Its only true counterpart is female genitalia, and with TV’s vulgarity bar ever falling, they may be the topic of HBO’s next “America Undercover” expose.

* “Private Dicks: Men Exposed” can be seen at 11 p.m. on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17).


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