10 Sexual Controversies That Changed TV

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With everything from the new Melrose Place to trashy Twilight knockoffs, the new Fall TV season promises steamy viewing. Hemlines may rise and morals may fall, but TV writers would do well to remember that presenting sex on network TV has always been a tricky business. Though we’ve come a long way since Ricky Ricardo knocked up Lucy, only to discover that the network censors wouldn't let him say the word "pregnant," it’s amazing how sensitive the suits still are to sex. Here are ten TV shows in which the sex lives of their characters dramatically changed the entire series, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

Bridget Loves Bernie1. BRIDGET LOVES BERNIE (1972-1973)
This romantic sitcom, starring David Birney and Meredith Baxter as a Jewish New York cab driver and an Irish-Catholic schoolteacher respectively, was one of the big hits of its TV season. Yet it was canceled after its initial twenty-four-episode run, a casualty of hate-mail campaigns by religious groups who objected to its mixed-religion romance angle. Seen today, the opening sequence from the pilot, in which Bridget and Bernie meet-cute, fall in love instantly, then find out that each other's last names are Steinberg and Fitzgerald and wryly concede that they "have a problem," plays like a broadcast from some distant solar system. Bridget Loves Bernie remains the only network show ever unceremoniously canceled at the end of a season where it ended up at number five in the Nielsen ratings.

2. D-I-V-O-R-C-E
Hard to figure now, but as late as the '70s, network TV executives still came unglued at the prospect of showing a divorced woman on TV. Writers eager to explore the dramatic possibilities of a woman starting her life over had to contend with suits afraid that audiences would be repulsed by a heroine with a sexual history. In 1975, NBC premiered Fay, starring Lee Grant, fresh from her supporting role in the movie Shampoo, as a divorced woman in her forties who was starting to date again. Publicly the network boasted of its daring, but there were nervous jitters behind the scenes, and NBC quietly canceled the program after eight episodes.

one-day-at-a-timeGrant herself learned the news while she was preparing to make an appearance on The Tonight Show. No doubt NBC assumed she would go quietly into that good night; instead, Grant, a survivor of the McCarthy-era blacklist, went on the talk show and talked shit about the craven bunglers who'd strangled her baby in its crib, reminding everyone who tuned in what hell hath no fury like. A couple of months later, CBS began airing another sitcom that centered on a middle-aged divorcee, One Day at a Time; this one was lavishly promoted and ended up sticking around for nine years. Was CBS deliberately cashing in on the bad publicity that NBC had earned itself? Maybe, but there are also instructive differences between the two shows: One Day's star, Bonnie Franklin, was more than fifteen years younger than Lee Grant and came across as a good deal less sharp. Plus, she was so weighed down from the effort of raising two kids that she could barely think about sex, despite the clownish male co-stars who kept trying to kick in her door to assure the audience that, divorce or no divorce, she was still quite a catch.

james-at-153. JAMES AT 15 (1977-1978)
This NBC series was created by Dan Wakefield, a TV novice whose novel Going All the Way persuaded the network that Wakefield might have enough of a feel for horny American youth to develop a "quality" series about contemporary teen life. James starred sixteen-year-old Lance Kerwin as a transplanted Okie trying to adjust to high-school life in Boston. The show got fine reviews and good ratings, but then Wakefield got it in his head that part of the common experience of contemporary American teenagers was getting laid. He duly turned in a script in which James lost his cherry to — get this — a Swedish exchange student, as if American kids would be squeaky clean their whole lives if only flaxen-haired visitors from the land of ABBA didn't come over here smuggling impure thoughts in their panties. (Take it away, Lou Dobbs!)

The network approved the idea, but only after throwing the hero a strategically timed birthday party and changing the title of the show itself to James at 16. (They probably would have changed it to James at 27 if such a leap had not been genetically implausible.) In one of those moves that really underscore the alternate-universe logic of the censorious mind, they also insisted that Wakefield "clean up" the dirty script by removing all references to birth control. (They compromised by having James vow to be "responsible," not the first word that comes to mind when Swedish exchange students are on the menu.) Annoyed by network meddling, Wakefield left the show; NBC kissed him on both cheeks, wished him a successful future, then fired the producers he'd left behind to safeguard his vision. Soon after, the show itself was canceled. Wakefield showed that he'd learned something about how easy it is to deal seriously with adolescent sexuality in American popular culture when, for his next TV project, he wrote and produced the 1980 TV movie The Seduction of Miss Leona, a love story starring those two Tiger Beat favorites, Lynn Redgrave and Brian Dennehy.


4. SOAP (1977-1981)
Even before ABC's comedy hit the airwaves, it was the subject of intense media speculation that its plot involving Jodie (played by a twinkly young Billy Crystal) — an openly gay character and candidate for a sex-change operation — would leave the nation in ruins. Condemned from pulpits, Soap inspired one of the first preemptive-strike letter-writing campaigns organized by the religious right, which scared eight network affiliates into not carrying the show. It was also attacked by gay-rights organizations, including the National Gay Task Force, which had understandable qualms about what it might do to their campaign for greater acceptance to be associated, in people's minds, with Billy Crystal.

In the end, the network had it both ways, collecting their big ratings when everyone tuned in at the start to see what the fuss was about, then ordering that the creators downplay the sexy stuff and reshape the central storyline into a murder mystery. The worst damage was done to Crystal's character, who attempted suicide in the hospital after being dumped by his boyfriend on the eve of his gender-reassignment surgery. He survived, but while the character continued to identify as gay, he never hooked up with another guy in the course of the series; instead, he had a quick fling with a woman, got her pregnant, and spent much of his remaining time on the show fighting for custody of his daughter. In the end, a character whose very existence inspired protests by homophobic religious groups became a symbol of the outdated notion that gay men are tragic figures who can only be redeemed by rejecting their orientation long enough to breed.


5. LOVE, SIDNEY (1981-1983)

As Felix Unger on The Odd Couple, Tony Randall played a supposedly straight character using stereotypically "gay" mannerisms to a degree that anticipated Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce on FrasierLove, Sidney gave Randall the chance to play an explicitly gay character, the first ever to be the protagonist of a network show. Sidney was a commercial illustrator who befriended a young actress (played by Lorna Patterson in the pilot and by Swoosie Kurtz in the series) whom he talked out of having an abortion. Sidney, the actress, and her adorable moppet wound up crammed together in his sweet Manhattan apartment. But religious groups, rather than being impressed with Sidney's anti-abortion bona fides, made such a stink about the idea of a gay man on TV that NBC delayed airing the pilot for a year, then insisted that Sidney be gelded. Apparently Sidney was so crushed by the death of his one male lover (whose photo on the mantelpiece watched over the action like a baleful ghost) that he could never date again. When, towards the end of the second season, he dipped one toe back into the dating pool, it was with a woman, as if he'd been on the shelf so long that he'd forgotten his orientation. Love, Sidney ended with its pathetic hero still flying solo and, like Jodie on Soap, fighting off thoughts of suicide.


6. CAGNEY & LACEY (1982-1988)
This "quality" cop series about two women who work together as New York City police detectives began with a 1981 TV movie in which the leads were played by Loretta Swit and Tyne Daly. When CBS decided to go ahead with it as a series, Swit, who was tied down playing Major Houlihan on M*A*S*H, was replaced by Meg Foster. Early ratings were shaky, and the CBS brass decided that it must have something to do with viewers being put off by threatening lesbian vibes. Though both characters were supposed to be straight, it was felt that when the two dark-haired, hard-edged actresses were seen in close proximity to each other, they looked like, in the words of an unidentified CBS executive, "a couple of dykes." It was decided that the best way to solve the problem was to fire Foster and replace herwith the blonde Sharon Gless, who, according to some mysterious executive calculation, was judged more Malibu Beach than Isle of Lesbos. The readjusted version of the show would go on to run for fucking ever; a dozen years after it ended, Gless, God love her, would be prominently (albeit heterosexually) featured on the American version of Queer as Folk.

la-law7. L.A. LAW (1986-1994) AND THE LESBIAN KISS
This ensemble legal drama was midway through its fifth season (and running out of possible combinations for its bed-hopping characters) when it brought saucy British actress Amanda Donohoe on board to plant one on the lips of Michele Greene's resident sexy-mouse character. Coming at the end of an episode, the kiss was tantamount to a cliffhanger; it all but guaranteed that slack-jawed viewers would tune in next week. Those who did got to see Donohoe deliver a back-pedaling speech about how she liked both men and women equally and would be happy just to be friends if that's what her new friend preferred, while Greene "considered" exploring a new side of herself before deciding that, nope, she wouldn't be going there. Many years later, Greene would tell an interviewer that she regarded the move as "a positive step, especially at that time," but also claimed that the show's producers "never intended to explore the issue of a relationship between two women; it was about ratings during sweeps so I always found it a bit cynical." Said cynicism has led to so many similar moments on so many different shows that critics coined the phrase "lesbian kiss moment" to sum them all up.

As the campy neon circus of '90s prime-time soaps, Melrose Place was meant to be scandalous, but it hit a wall when it tried to slip the merest suggestion of gay male love past the network. The show had a resident good-looking gay guy — Matt Fielding, played by Doug Savant — who, in contrast to the juicy goings-on by the hormonally deranged straight people all around him, seemed almost pathologically stable. When Matt was permitted to enjoy an on-screen kiss with a man, the network edited it out of the program before allowing the episode to be broadcast, though they had no problem with having him gay-bashed on camera, twice. (Matt was eventually killed in an off-screen car crash after Savant quit the show, claiming terminal boredom.) In contrast to lesbian kisses, even the '90s outbreak of gay-marriage ceremonies still couldn’t bring two men together; witness the kiss-less same-sex weddings of Roseanne and Northern Exposure.

Sometimes plans to stretch the sexual boundaries of a character are thwarted not by network interference, but by queasiness on the part of the actor. Kyle MacLachlan, who hid in a closet watching depraved mommy-and-daddy figures going at it in Blue Velvet, and who would later don a kilt for his wedding scene on Sex and the City, drew the line at having his upright FBI-agent character on Twin Peaks jump into bed with a high-school-age girl (Sherilyn Fenn's Audrey Horne), even though the age difference between the two performers was actually only six years. MacLachlan's reticence derailed carefully laid plans for a serious romantic subplot, and in retrospect may have contributed mightily to the series losing its way during its second season. Agent Cooper's last big scene with Audrey faintly smells of the writers lamenting what might have been.


Then there's the matter of David Jacob Connor., played by Michael Fishman on Roseanne. As the show neared its seventh season, there was a persistent and widespread rumor that the youngest Connor child, D.J., was going to announce he was gay. It never happened — the big surprise of the season premiere turned out to be that Roseanne herself was pregnant again — and some say the reason is that Fishman refused to play along. If Roseanne really had her heart set on Deej coming out of the closet, maybe the thwarting of her plans helps explain the spiraling, out-of-control last few seasons of Roseanne, during which gayness broke out all over Lanford, Illinois, culminating in the fantasy outing of Roseanne's mother. As for Fishman, if he has any regrets about not having ever kissed a guy onscreen, maybe he can take it up with the writers of the new Melrose Place, where he has a recurring role.


10. GREY'S ANATOMY (2005-)

Nowadays you don't often see a big show flailing in terror and confusion over its characters' sexual behavior. Luckily, ABC and the makers of Grey's Anatomy have stepped up to reach for the brass ring. Last year, Grey's brought aboard Brooke Smith — arguably the best actor ever to join the Grey's Anatomy cast — as a love match for Sara Ramirez's Callie Torres. Smith (and the world) thought she was signing on as a series regular. Mid-season, she was surprised to be informed that the next episode she shot would be her last. After E! Online reported that this was the result of an order from upstairs to "de-gay" the show, Grey's creator Shonda Rhimes put out a bizarre statement insisting that it was ridiculous to suggest that the show had a problem with lesbian characters, since Callie Torres (who’s slept only with men up to this point) would be sticking around.

Part of what makes the behind-the-scenes activity at Grey's Anatomy so fascinating is that it seems to have been triggered by the show's own appearances in the gossip columns. In 2006, original cast member Isaiah Washington reportedly called co-star T. R. Knight a "faggot" during a backstage argument. The incident took on deeper significance when Knight felt compelled to come out because of it. The whole thing might still have blown over, but Washington, who seems to have more issues than Publishers Clearing House, wouldn't let it die, alternately apologizing or whining about how he was being treated. (In doing so, he chose to ignore the counsel of his co-star, Katherine Heigl, who told reporters that Washington "needs to just not speak in public, period," the best piece of unsolicited advice I've overheard in many a moon.) Washington was fired at the end of the 2006-2007 season; a year later, Knight would announce that he was quitting, partly because he felt that, since publicly identifying himself as gay, he’d been all but written out of the show. Where earlier shows such as Soap and Love, Sidney were subjected to a "de-gaying" process despite their creators' efforts to bring positive portrayals of gays to TV, Grey's Anatomy defiantly asserted its straightness to keep potential viewers from getting the wrong idea after open warfare broke out between the gays and the homophobes on its creative team. I'm not sure I'd call that progress, but it is a change.