Although it has not quite recaptured the magic of “The Sopranos,” there is no denying that HBO is once again in full stride. With Emmy-winning movies, a panoply of well-done documentaries, successful comedies and dramatic hits both popular — “True Blood” — and critical — “Boardwalk Empire,” “Treme” — the premium network bursts with so much justified confidence that it took on the perilous realm of fantasy with the well-received “Game of Thrones.”
So maybe it’s time to tone down the tits.
I write the word knowing it is going to render my editors and readers apoplectic — why not use the less crude “breasts?” Because I don’t mean breasts. Breasts are what you see on cable during a lovemaking scene or when a character is caught unawares or when, as in the season finale of “Game of Thrones,” the last of the Targaryens rises, naked and miraculous, from her husband’s funeral pyre with three baby dragons clinging to her.
Tits are what you see in a strip club or a brothel, when conversations or action between men, which usually have nothing to do with said strip club or brothel, are surrounded by nameless and silent women lounging or gyrating about in various stages of undress.
In one episode of “Game of Thrones,” the upper frontals got so gratuitous — two women teaching themselves the tricks of prostitution while a male character, fully clothed, muses about his personal history and definition of power — that fans took to Twitter to complain. Even the fine finale included a young nude woman washing her particulars while her elderly john monologued about the nature of kings.
These scenes have become as much a hallmark of HBO as historically accurate dramatic series produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Other cable networks, mainly Showtime, dabble in the fine sport of female frontal nudity, but no one can beat HBO for hookers — the pole dancers of “The Sopranos,” Al Swearengen’s Gem Saloon on “Deadwood,” the record-breaking female nudity of “Rome,” and now, “Boardwalk Empire.” HBO has a higher population of prostitutes per capita than Amsterdam or Charlie Sheen’s Christmas card list.
Despite their quite disparate geography and genre, the newer series practically revolve around brothels. In “Boardwalk Empire,” this makes a certain narrative sense; where there is liquor and gambling there will also be houses of ill repute. In “Game of Thrones,” the scenes are more gratuitous — not only do the male characters visit prostitutes with wearisome regularity, one character, a king’s counselor known as Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen), owns what appears to be a chain of brothels, which he considers the safest places to conduct his political conversations. This would be fine except, as in “Boardwalk Empire,” the only rooms available for meetings are already occupied by half-naked women, lounging about seductively and occasionally playing the harp.
Now, I have not spent much time in the brothels of Prohibition-era Atlantic City or the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, but I’m fairly certain they would include some sort of private office where madams and menfolk could talk. I also wonder about all this free nudity — doesn’t money have to exchange hands before the clothes come off? Not to mention the dazzling physical perfection of the women involved, who all appear to be so saucy, sober and healthy that one wonders why anyone bothered to invent penicillin.
There are no male brothels, no scenes of clothed women, or men for that matter, sitting around chatting in a room filled with naked men.
Although there is male nudity — men occasionally, though not always, appear shirtless and/or bottomless when they are having sex with women — there are no male brothels, no scenes of clothed women, or men for that matter, sitting around chatting in a room filled with naked men. Well, maybe there was a scene or two like that in “Rome,” but you get my point. The brothel scenes are there, ostensibly to make a point about men and power.
But as important to theme and character development as it may be to point out, in case we missed it on the nightly news, that some men enjoy paying for sex and treating women as sexual furniture, HBO has played this card so often that the obligatory scattering of reclining females with their blouses open or absent now elicits laughter more than shock or titillation.
Prostitutes and brothels are obviously and regrettably simply vehicles to work the R rating, to give viewers, if you will pardon the expression and maybe you shouldn’t, more bang for the buck. Which isn’t just gratuitous and ridiculous, it’s lazy and sexist. For all their many functions, women’s bodies are not props and prostitution is not something that should be regularly relegated to atmosphere.
It is also hugely unnecessary, an example of HBO uncharacteristically underestimating itself. Perhaps there was a time when people subscribed to the channel in part for the F-bombs and the nudity, but that time has passed. Naked women rule the Internet, “Doctor Who’s” beloved Billie Piper plays a call girl on Showtime for goodness sake, and reality TV has redefined prostitution (is it truly more moral to sell one’s soul than one’s body?). No one subscribes to HBO because of the nudity, gratuitous or not.
So stick with the breasts — the final scene of the “Game of Thrones” season finale may be the best use of female nudity on television ever — and put all the tits away.