Sex On TV? Big Changes Since The ’50s


There is a new development in television as several series have now been going where none dared go before. Characters are changing and are having new kinds of relationships, the kind almost never allowed before. They are allowed to have sexual feelings and, in some cases, even sex and marriage. What is TV coming to?

In the good old days, this kind of thing never happened. If the father in Father Knows Best met an interesting woman, something always intervened. Marcus Welby did meet women but never got involved. On a few of the doctor shows, whenever an interesting woman came into a star player’s life, she generally died. Although Mary Tyler Moore sort of had a dating life, we never did get into her bedroom when a man was present. And That Girl somehow managed to stay virginal.

Most shows simply followed the formulas set in the 1950s. Dick Van Dyke slept with his sexy wife in twin beds. And the original sitcom of all time, I Love Lucy, caused conniptions when the producers actually showed Lucy pregnant. The idea! Married people actually bearing children? That meant they were having sex (as opposed to shows where the kids were already born, which allowed the pretense that perhaps storks brought them while their parents swore off sex).

The rise of the soaps on nighttime television changed that. Suddenly, there actually was sex around. Of course, the good guys (and gals) never cheated on a spouse and generally told the truth. As a result, of course, they suffered beautifully. It was the bad guys who fooled around.

Then came Grey’s Anatomy, where the two leads started out in bed together having had a one-night stand, only to discover they were going to work together. And that accelerated the movement to more realistic (and frank) relationships. Did you like the idea of the chances that two characters might get together? Well, all you had to do was wait a year or so as everyone did everyone else. But that is sort of what soap operas are all about.

But the trend toward having two major characters actually changing their relationship because of sex seemed a bit taboo. Everyone remembered the infamous Moonlighting curse. The first years of the show went very well because of the obvious sexual tension between the two leads, a tension that extended past all logical bounds but held the show together. When David and Maddie finally got together, the tension dropped and the series declined and ended soon after. So most shows simply allowed relationships to hang on, occasionally finally settling things right at the end of the series. Ross and Rachel on Friends had a stormy relationship that only settled on marriage at the end of its tenth season.

Shows are changing. Bones has been revolving around the relationship between Brennan and Booth in its early years, aside from solving a lot of crimes. Both had other relationships, but there were a lot of viewers who wanted them to get together. Finally, they did (rather abruptly), and in the very next episode, Brennan told Booth that she was pregnant. Since that time, the show has been split between the crime-solving and a lot of gooey child-raising sitcom material. On the other hand, Castle, which had the same situation, finally solved it at the end of last year and, while there have been a few episodes focusing on the new relationship, has kept its focus strongly on crime-solving. Of course, since there have always been some family bantering, things have not changed much.

Even in sitcoms, things are changing. Jess and Nick on New Girl have been platonic roommates with a lot of sexual tension. Finally, a week ago they actually kissed… really kissed. Will something happen? Of course, both of them have had sleepovers with members of the opposite sex already. And a lot of people who watch NCIS are rooting for Tony and Ziva. Penny and Leonard look like they might be a permanent couple on The Big Bang Theory, and even Sheldon might actually get intimate.

The new trend is interesting because it shows the characters as having more human traits than on early shows. Attractive people actually can have relationships! Of course, just move up the dial to the premium channels, and they manage a whole lot without any ideas of marriage. Plus, they use the language regular folks use, and they sometimes (on a few shows, often) get naked. But we can also see the old shows, which somehow are funnier, on many late-night stations.

Something for everyone — the American way!