Sex on TV -- Lust is in the airwaves as HBO's ''Sex and the City'' leads TV into the wild blue yonder

They’re ready for their close-up: five well tanned, gym-toned, bikini-clad stunners. ”That’s a gorgeous shot!” cracks Sarah Jessica Parker, as a camera zooms in on a beach towel full of female buttocks. ”Just beauuuuutiful!”

That’s right, we’re literally behind the scenes on the set of HBO’s Sex and the City. And these keisters — meant to represent the seductive twentysomething Hamptons elite — are creating a bit of a stir, even among the seen-it-all staffers of the hit adult comedy series. Just check out the pack of neck-wrenching, walkie-talkie-wielding guys practically bathing our bethonged beauties in an ocean of drool.

”Look how many crew members just have to help,” Parker chuckles as she watches on the sidelines with series creator Darren Star. ”I’ve never seen such a helpful group of men. Even the gay ones are over there.”

And they’re not the only ones straining to get a peek at the ribald goings-on. Now deep into its second season, Sex and the City — which follows a quartet of quipping, coitus-crazed New York power gals — has become a bona fide pop-culture sensation. Though seen by only 2.7 million people, the show, based on Candace Bushnell’s New York Observer column, has kicked off fashion trends (e.g., those retro gold necklaces that sport your name) and a near-daily love letter from The New York Times (one critic deemed it better than Stanley Kubrick’s highbrow sexcapade Eyes Wide Shut). And how’s this for validation: Last week, the series nailed two Emmy nominations (one for best comedy series and one for its 34-year-old star, Parker).

Why all the heavy breathing? Well, the writing is Friends sharp, the acting top-notch, the characters endearingly smirky. Oh, and there’s one other small factor: sex. Or, more precisely, sex talk. These girls chat with refreshing frankness about everything under the Kama sutra: life-changing oral sex, wrinkled bums, spanking, and certain kinds of kinky grooming that…oh, forget we even brought it up. A sample scene: Carrie — the waifish sex columnist played by Parker — is the victim of a stuck diaphragm and pleads for a helping hand from her friend. ”I just had my nails done,” snaps Samantha, the PR exec played by Kim Cattrall.

”I think the show’s filling a huge void,” says Cattrall, 42, all too appropriately. ”It’s a completely fresh area,” agrees executive producer Michael Patrick King, who had an epiphany while writing the now-infamous anal-sex episode. ”I was saying to myself ‘No one’s ever said this before.”’

True. But they’re getting closer. In this post-Lewinsky world, as networks compete with cable, and cable competes with the Internet, and everyone competes with R-rated antics on the big screen, it seems TV has sex on the brain. It’s everywhere. Flip to Ally McBeal and see the under-the-knee orgasm trick. Check out Friends, where Chandler and Monica have all-day nooky sessions. Drink in Howard Stern’s CBS show, where he slathers mayonnaise and bologna on a woman’s naked tush. Look at MTV’s new series Undressed, where, in the first episode, a character snuggles up to a seven-inch vibrator. And sample The WB’s Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Felicity, where there’s more deflowering going on than in a badly managed greenhouse.

Or how about that recent episode of ABC’s daytime gabber The View, where thirtysomething‘s Polly Draper could be heard expounding on male bodily fluids? It was too much even for saucy host Joy Behar. ”We’re having a real conversation, and sometimes you’re going to go over the edge,” says the comic. ”What can you do? We try our best.”

And network TV’s going to see more action next season. Consider Action, Fox’s funny, sure-to-be-controversial Hollywood-based sitcom — originally developed for HBO — which features bleeped-out obscenities, naked studio execs, and script-approving prostitutes.

Long story short — it doesn’t take Alan Greenspan to figure out TV’s new economic formula: Sex sells.

But let’s back up a bit. Believe it or not, once upon a time TV writers actually had to do battle with their standards and practices department. Perhaps you’ve heard of that strange era when Rob and Laura Petrie kept separate beds and Barbara Eden’s navel was concealed under poofy harem pants? “I remember when you had to put Band-Aids on women’s nipples when it was cold in the studio,” chuckles Renee Presser, Comedy Central’s director of standards and practices, of her years at CBS in the ’80s. Sex‘s Darren Star — who created Fox’s nighttime soap Melrose Place — has some war stories of his own: ”I remember getting Sydney to say, ‘Amanda, you’re screwed.’ Oh, my God, we had to fight for that one; it seems silly now.” These days, points out Action creator and TV vet Chris Thompson, ”you can watch the Olsen twins do jokes that I couldn’t do on Laverne & Shirley.”

Sure, there are still some rules for basic cable and network alike (no F-word, no frontal nudity, that sort of thing). But almost everything else is negotiable. ”I don’t think the seven dirty words apply anymore,” Presser says. ”We’ve kind of moved well beyond that”” Exhibit A: the MTV Movie Awards, where Jim Carrey’s whimsically warped monologue included the unbleeped line ”There’s some fine-looking p—y in this room tonight.” Or again, let’s go back to Ms. McBeal, who complained about ex-boyfriend Billy wanting ”to be able to have his cake and not eat me.”

It’s not exactly a huge mystery why TV’s in a frisky mood. First, a certain intern helped smash all sorts of taboos. ”When you turn on the Today show at 7 o’clock in the morning and you hear oral sex being discussed in detail, something’s changed,” says Fox Entertainment president Doug Herzog. Give that man a cigar.

Second, the spate of Columbine-style tragedies has focused the spotlight on TV and movie violence, giving sex a little reprieve. Which makes perfect sense to Sex‘s Star. ”Violence is always more pornographic than sex,” he says. ”Always, always, always.”

And perhaps most noteworthy: The lines between the different media are vanishing. For those born in the last couple decades, the Big Four networks hold no special place in their remote-controlled universe. Cable, broadcast, pay-per-view, Spice Channel — it all comes through the same box. Which means the networks, if they want to lure those all-important young viewers, tend to follow cable’s racy lead. Ramping up the pressure is the swelling critical acclaim for cable’s grown-up fare (HBO’s Mafia drama The Sopranos grabbed a network-whacking 16 Emmy nominations). Yes, there’s still such a thing as Big Four restraint — Touched by an Angel won’t be introducing push-up robes anytime soon — but the boundary is blurring fast.

And there’s a surprising lack of public outrage about it. When David Caruso first mooned the audience on NYPD Blue a scant six years ago, the brouhaha was loud and ugly. Now butt flashing — which can be seen even on daytime soaps — hardly evokes a peep.

Of course, some still object to TV’s summer of love. Take Steve Allen, ’50s talk-show host and honorary cochairman of the Parents Television Council, a viewers’ advocacy group. ”There are so many longtime comedians — some of whom can be pretty rough themselves at a Friars Roast — who are disgusted by what is now permitted on television and radio.”

And Steverino’s got some buttoned-down compadres on Madison Avenue. “There are still a number of advertisers who shy away from sexual content,” says Bill Croasdale, of the media firm Western Initiative. “[Others] say, ‘It’s a good show and hits my audience, but keep me away from the [sex] scene.'” But the bottom line remains: If a show’s a hit, plenty of advertisers will be clamoring for airtime, genital jokes notwithstanding.

And heaven knows: Next season they’ll have lots of phallus references to choose from. In Fox’s Manchester Prep, a high school girl checks out her stepbrother’s manhood in the shower. ”Not bad,” she smirks. In CBS’ Now and Again, a man gets a scientifically engineered body and admires his new-and-improved equipment. ”Made in America, baby!” brags a government agent. And in Action, a Hollywood producer drops his towel to reveal an ”anaconda.” ”I think people are going to be potentially offended by it, and I would urge them not to watch,” says Fox’s Herzog, who is more than willing to endure the obligatory mini-scandale.

Action creator Thompson maintains his bawdy of work is merely an attempt to mirror reality. ”What I’m not going to be is euphemistic,” he says. ”I don’t know anyone who says freakin’ or friggin’.” Echoes Susanne Daniels, entertainment president of The WB: ”Our shows take a lot of heat for their open sexuality. I always argue that teenagers are obsessed with sex — so the teens on Dawson’s Creek are obsessed with sex.”

Of course, just like in life, there’s good sex and bad sex. ”If you extend the boundaries of television just to be a nasty kid in a juvenile way, you’re going to abuse that privilege, and we’ll all be back in Little House on the Prairie land,” cautions Action’s Thompson. Already, there are some borderline abusers out there. HBO itself has those ”documentaries” — Real Sex and Sex Bytes, for instance — with through-the-keyhole-examinations of adult toy stores, cyberlust, and the like. Or try sampling E! Entertainment Television, with its in-depth specials on bikini-filled beach resorts. ”I don’t know if you’ve seen this channel lately, but it is soft porn,” says Adam Carolla, host of a couple of risque series himself (MTV’s Loveline and Comedy Central’s The Man Show). ”I switched from watching scrambled porn to watching E!. The great thing is that it’s all under the guise of some journalistic endeavor: ‘We’re going down to Rio de Janeiro to really get this story on Carnival. Oh, it turns out everyone’s wearing a thong and is greased up and is dancing. Oh, let’s look into that.”’

”It’s a very fun, upbeat travel show,” counters John Rieber, a senior VP at E!. ”Whatever they wear, that’s what we show.”

Meanwhile, back at the raunch… The Sex and the City crew has finished capturing the posteriors for posterity, and has moved on to a shot of Kristin Davis — who plays upper-crusty Charlotte — frolicking in the Hamptons surf (well, actually, we’re on a beach in Queens, but this is showbiz, y’know). ”Frolic! Frolic! Frolic!” shouts a crew member as a shivering Davis splashes water and giggles and scampers away from her hunky beau du jour. Meanwhile, off camera, a couple of Sex writers talk about — here’s a shocker — mating rituals (does sex get better when a relationship is on the rocks?).

Another question arises: Is there anything that’s too hot for pay-TV? ”Last year, we cut just one scene,” says Sex exec producer King. Suffice it to say, the offending naughty bit involved prudish Charlotte, her sexually frustrated boyfriend, and his golden retriever. ”All you saw was a tasteful dog head on the [boyfriend’s] lap,” laughs King. Not tasteful enough for HBO, though; the normally hands-off net said the shot stepped over the increasingly thin blue line.

Puppy love aside, there’s something else you won’t see on Sex and the City: soft-focus, cheesy sweating and writhing. ”There’s never a full-on sex scene that’s there” merely to get people aroused, says King. In fact, as the cast is at pains to point out, Sex isn’t all about sex. Star says he almost regrets having the three-letter word in the title. ”The sex is a by-product,” concurs Parker. ”But they’re not looking to have sex. They’re looking to find somebody who’s as fulfilling as their female friendships are.” The show, especially in its second season, has gone beyond the skin-deep — exploring loyalty, faith, and vulnerability. Many a scene — such as one with Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) getting flak for buying an apartment without a husband — manages to be shockingly hormone-free.

And these poignant moments are also striking a chord. Cattrall recalls her recent backstage visit with an oft-maligned single gal named Cher: ”Cher was relating to the characters and quoting lines,” says Cattrall. ”There was a scene where I say, ‘What do you want me to say, do you want me to admit that I sleep around, you want me to say that I’m a whore?’ [Cher] said, ‘I really felt for you.”’

In fact, it’s those loud-and-proud libidos that give the series its quasi-feminist edge. Sex treats guys the way Seinfeld treated Jerry’s girls: as so much eye candy. ”Can you take off your top? Okay, thanks. Buh-bye,” is how Nixon sums up the roles of her boy costars. ”I feel like it’s the girls’ show. I’m just a guest,” demurs Chris Noth, who plays Carrie’s on-again, off-again love, Mr. Big. At least he doesn’t have to go through the other fellows’ humiliating audition process: ”The actors come in and say, ‘I’m here to orgasm again,”’ says King.

That’s probably not how the casting will play out, say, on the next season of Frasier, but don’t be surprised if the networks try to reproduce the joy of Sex. ”We’ve made many jokes about how there’ll be versions of Sex and the City,” says King. ”Like Hugs in the Park, or Love Downtown.” Perhaps HBO could trump any knockoffs with a brand-new series — Sex and the Country. ”I’m not that well acquainted with it,” says Star of rural carnality. ”But I imagine they have a lot of it. Especially if they don’t have cable.” — Additional reporting by Joe Flint and Brian M. Raftery

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