The independent news organization of Duke University


In April, an NBC executive distributed a copy of an exceptionally violent episode of The Sopranos to other television executives along with a memo. It explained that although NBC could not and would not broadcast a show like this, the networks nonetheless needed to study the use of sex, violence and language in premium cable television.

While the memo expressed envy of HBO and Showtime's success rather than intrigue, further proof of the network's artistic oblivion was evident. What makes these shows stand out (or not stand out) is their stories, the characters and the direction--not their audacity. The Sopranos' artistic, appropriate violence and Queer As Folk's puerile, petty nudity and double entendres are not significant additions to the plot, but gratuitous snippets.

Not all premium channel programming is needlessly smutty--a run-down of a few of HBO and Showtime's programs:

Sex and the City may feature a strange sexual peccadillo each week, but the sex is a subplot to a larger theme about the way men and women relate and about how sex affects the non-relationship aspects of our lives. Sex and colorful language are part of life. That's right, all you sex-ed. foes--we're doing it, we're enjoying it and Sex and the City is helping people talk about it.

The Sopranos requires little explanation. If you've watched this mob/family drama, you know that even the violent episode circulated by the NBC executive, "University," serves a larger purpose in an elaborate, layered plot.

Six Feet Under features violence, homo- and heterosexual sex and language that frequently elicits this comment from the maternal character to her sons: "We don't talk that way." Thankfully they do. None of the show's sex or language is used to shock, and none of it appalls. It is a natural part of life in a family of morticians who could all benefit from some time in a rubber room.

Queer as Folk--produced by America's king/queen of camp, Batman & Robin director Joel Schumacher--has the audacity factor down cold. The show offers hordes of naked men simulating sex, gyrating at clubs and cruising street corners. Unfortunately the show does not offer a discernable plot--the writing is not worthy of the WB. For all its visual audacity, good television does not equal trite titillation; it's not just pecs and ass.

Resurrection Blvd. deserves credit for placing more Latino characters on television than the entire NBC lineup, but a closer inspection of the program's sex and language reveals shock for the sake of shock; it's an Aaron Spelling reject with Latino surnames.

Soul Food is the best program on Showtime--almost equivalent to HBO programming. The story of three African-American sisters and their families, Soul Food goes where the networks fear to tread: It portrays African-Americans in a realistic, dramatic setting, not in a situational comedy that belittles blacks by exploiting stereotypes. The show includes few sexual references, and the use of explicit language is minimal. Both elements are used tastefully, and there are no raunchy jokes about "booty."

If NBC wants to improve programming quality, it should start begin by studying Soul Food, and noting that good television has nothing to do with sensationalism. When sensational scenes appear in well-crafted television, their impact on the show is inconsequential. It's the drama, stupid.


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