Once upon a time, even implications of sex on television were forbidden. Married couples slept in separate beds. Then we grew accustomed to a little this and that here and there: The husband and wife kiss, the screen fades to black. Sex by inference.
As a measure of how far things have shifted, consider Jane and Richard, high schoolers on the MTV show "Undressed." She puts on black lingerie and leather chaps. He grabs condoms. They move the stuffed animals off the bed, dive under the covers and get busy.
Then headlights roll across the ceiling.
"Mom and Dad are home!" Jane says, and by this she means his and hers both. They are step-siblings, after all.
Which is all very shocking, but quickly forgotten, because in a few minutes lesbians are on screen to do their thing. And then there's the college girl who has persuaded her two boyfriends to let her date them both, at the same time, in the same room.
Somewhere in America, these candy-colored sets and nearly naked bodies flicker across the irises of a 15-year-old, awake past her curfew. And she is captivated.
The drama "Undressed"--disgusting, shocking, mesmerizing--may be the closest thing to soft-core porn this side of an X rating.
In this half-hour universe, everyone wants the same thing, and most everybody's getting it. Two women hire a man to help "devirginize" their roommate, another two strip in the laundry room to turn on a fellow college student, and a female college student blackmails a guy into wearing a teddy during foreplay. There are few reasons not to have sex, so why hesitate? There are few hang-ups and few consequences, so why worry?
Strange universe, so different from our own here on Planet Earth, where sex touches souls as well as bodies. In "Undressed," sex is so easy and common it means almost nothing at all.
Last week's release of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study, documenting how two-thirds of all television shows now feature sexual content, is evidence that this trend isn't limited to MTV. But nearly 40% of the audience for "Undressed" is no older than 17, according to MTV's own numbers.
"Undressed" is essentially a lusty teen's basest impulses realized. The conversation is vapid, the plots sophomoric, the couplings unlikely. Few characters make it through an episode without disrobing to panties or boxers, with soft guitar-filled alternative rock--pluck-pluck-pluck--replacing the '70s porn riff, bow-chica-bow-bow.
In the archetypal porno flick, the repairman shows up to fix the lady's VCR and within minutes is busy "fixing" the lady herself. In "Undressed," a high school tutor agrees that for every answer her student gets right . . . why, she'll strip, of course.
Sex is the ultimate digression.
Is there skin? Oh yes--bellybuttons and thighs and backsides. Are there beds? Oh yes--and couches and laundry rooms and slick shower walls. There are even props--whipped cream and lingerie and battery-powered appliances. No inclination or fetish goes unexplored. But because this is still MTV and there are censors to oblige, the X-rated action goes on off-screen or under the sheets.
Its characters are teens and young adults. Its viewership is mainly 12 to 34 years old, according to MTV's numbers. The show racks up a teen following even though it airs Mondays through Thursdays at 11 p.m.
Fans love it. They lust after the actors, who are typically 18 to 22. One of their main complaints is that the show isn't sexually explicit enough.
In the diminutive terms of cable television, "Undressed" is a minor success, having begun its fourth season two weeks ago. Still, its ratings don't compare with those on a major network. "Undressed" averages about half a million viewers per episode, while "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," airing about the same time, averages 6.3 million, according to Nielsen.
"It's got an addictive quality that seems to operate in spite of whether you like it," says Robert Thompson, who heads the Center for Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
Occasionally, while flipping through channels, Thompson says, he'll come across "Undressed" and be unable to leave.
It's as though "I've been kidnapped--sucked into this narrative vortex," he says. "Like any good voyeuristic show . . . it's edited down so we only watch [characters] when they're doing really interesting things."
Who could turn away?
"You know you want it," reads the copy on MTV's Web site for "Undressed," next to a photo of a man's bare, glistening torso. "A little late-night tease makes bedtime that much better." The show's soundtrack CD is emblazoned with a huge banana.
Subtlety is not the show's selling point.
"Undressed" is a circus wheel of stories. The latest season has 97 characters, each lasting just a few episodes; long enough for viewers to get interested in whether they will have sex; not so long that viewers get tired of seeing the same old bodies. Each episode features three story lines, interwoven, spliced and edited for maximum efficiency. There is always one high school relationship, one college relationship and one post-college.
There are no adults, no back story. The characters never step outdoors. Personalities could be summed up by the lusty guy, the rich college girl, the high schooler made insecure by her flat chest.
Why fight the essence of "Undressed"? We've gotten closer and closer to porn on television, on cable mostly. We frame excuses for watching the shows that titillate us: "Sex and the City" is not just about Kim Cattrall in her underwear; it purports to offer emotional insight about relationships that require Kim Cattrall to be in her underwear. HBO's "Real Sex" is actually a sociological documentary of nudist camps and adult entertainment stars, right?
But these are excuses. We don't really want to be educated about sex, nor do we want a lengthy unfolding of plot preceding it. We want the direct prelude to the sex act itself, then the sex. We want all the pleasures of sex, with none of the consequences.
Oddly enough, the creator of this orgiastic adolescent fantasy is Roland Joffe, director of the acclaimed film "The Killing Fields."
"I wanted to create a forum where people had a sort of unrestricted access to the politics of desire," Joffe says. A world where "no aspect of sexuality would be approached as either immoral or frightening." The show should have "the lightness of a haiku almost," he says; it should treat eroticism as a key to human relationships, "a little bit like the Rosetta Stone."
We'll just take the sex.