sex, lies, and the WB

Two recent articles in The New York Times (“WB Censors Its Own Drama for Fear of F.C.C. Fines” and its follow-up “Fear of FCC Action Prompts Cuts in WB Drama“) brought to light the latest repercussion from what began two years ago with Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, and culminated last week with the FCC fining over 100 television stations $3.9 million for broadcasting what it called “indecent” programs.

Long story short, for fear of suffering the monetary wrath of the FCC, the WB network announced that it will censor March 29th’s premiere episode of its new series The Bedford Diaries.

The drama focuses on the goings-on of six of the twelve students enrolled in the exclusive “Sexual Behavior and the Human Condition” seminar at New York City’s fictional Bedford University. (In Hollywood parlance, it’s Boston Public meets sex, lies, and videotape.) Professor Jake Macklin (Matthew Modine, sporting a shock of hair that’s more shocking in later scenes than when we first see him) presides over his class with a poetic swagger: “Sex… It’s God’s greatest gift. It’s God’s greatest curse.” He equips each of his students with a video camera and charges them with their homework: record their thoughts and assumptions about their own sexuality. Hence, “the Bedford diaries.” Your parents’ Room 222 it ain’t.

Apparently, the two objectionable scenes really only shots, if what we can glean from the articles is correct both take place early in the episode as flashbacks during Macklin’s introductory address to his students. And, truth be told, presuming that the only thing eliminated will be the shots and not Modine’s voice-over, the missing scant seconds will not adversely affect the tale being told.

Nothing is lost but everything is risked.

The WB issued a statement that it made this decision “out of an abundance of caution,” but that’s just press secretary speak for “We’re scared.” Fear is the fuel that makes censorship work.

Here comes the good news/bad news part. The network’s solution, since not standing up for the filmmakers wasn’t apparently an option, was to post the full, unedited version of the series pilot on the WB website. Which, while good for anybody wanting to see the unexpurgated version, only serves to further fracture network television’s already diminishing viewership. Audiences have already left commercial television in droves for cable and pay TV; TiVo and iPod have changed how and when we watch TV; now add Internet streaming sans commercials to the mix. Without commercial sponsorship, shows won’t get made, thus affecting what gets programmed and the overall quality of network TV

All because somebody somewhere is afraid that seeing two women kiss, or seeing a woman unbutton her jeans, is going of offend somebody somewhere else. Censorship.

Fortunately, The Bedford Diaries, based on the premiere episode, appears worthy of the attention it’s receiving. Creators Tom Fontana and Julie Martin (with Homicide: Life on the Street and St. Elsewhere among their many credits) have crafted a smart, often perceptive show. Yes, there’s some instances of failed humor (this is university life, after all), but more often than not intelligence prevails. And while the college students occasionally wax too wisely (nowhere is youth so savvy than in prime time), the dialogue is uniformly fine especially when a student videotapes what it’s like to live on after making the decision to die: “That’s the beauty of surviving suicide: anything’s possible. The problems from your past become trivial, and your body talks to you in a whole new way.”

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