Sunday Night Dramas 'Reckless' And 'The Leftovers' Raise Content Questions

Two new series are making their debuts on Sunday night -- one on pay cable, the other on broadcast. Neither show is instantly addictive, but both are ambitious in their own way. I can’t help but think that each one might have been better served by being developed for the other’s medium.

“Reckless,” a legal drama that spins around the sexual attraction between a northern litigator (played by Anna Wood) and a southern lawyer (Cam Gigandet) will be on CBS at 9 p.m. It’s always interesting to observe the efforts of a broadcast network to deliver a series that claims to pulse with sexual attraction given the ancient and increasingly unreasonable limitations with which broadcast networks must contend. Sex and nudity are still cause for concern, whereas ghastly ultra-violence, gunfire, blood, guts, viscera and torture are A-okay. But what’s a lust story these days without a little skin?

Given the steamy milieu of “Reckless,” it would seem that a certain amount of adult content is in order --although again, there is only so far the show can go, and in trying to go there it will undoubtedly nudge tentatively at boundaries the way daytime dramas occasionally do when their characters hit the sheets.

The idea of such a show, especially as summer fare, is not without its appeal. Perhaps “Reckless” will surprise us all and find a way to work within its network’s limits while delivering something that is truly sexy. We have seen this happen at times on CBS’ “The Good Wife” and a few years back on ABC’s “Lost” -- at least in its early seasons, when the sexual tension between Kate and Sawyer and Kate and Jack was never less than palpable. Both series have proven that restraint, self-imposed or otherwise, can serve to heighten certain adult aspects of contemporary storytelling. But every other aspect of the show has to be at the very top of its game for that to happen, as “Good Wife” always is and “Lost” almost always was. Even the Steven Bochco cop drama “NYPD Blue,” which often went where other series had never been allowed to go and most have continued to avoid, was always a first-class production that exercised good taste throughout.

We have also seen CBS swing for the fences with sexual subject matter in the 2008 adult drama “Swingtown,” which should have worked, but didn’t. “Reckless,” like “Swingtown,” may have been better off as a pay-cable series, where it would have been free to fully deliver on the promise of its premise as preferred by today’s audience. Still, I admire CBS for taking chances with series of this kind. The same goes for ABC with its summer soap “Mistresses.” That’s another show that manages to entertain despite such restrictions, but would probably be even more popular if it had the creative freedom that basic or pay-cable can provide.

If “Reckless” might work better on HBO, it may also be true that the new HBO thriller “The Leftovers” -- which also debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. -- might have worked just fine (or even better) on broadcast.  I say that in part because one of its executive producers is Damon Lindelof, one of the creators and creative show-runners of the broadcast sensation “Lost.”

I have seen only the first episode of “The Leftovers,” which begins three years after a freakish and unexplained event in which two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappeared. The show is not about anyone’s efforts to discover why the event occurred; instead it’s about society coming to terms with it and trying (and failing) to move on. That goes totally against the social media buzz this show is likely to generate. I predict more viewers will be more interested in finding out how and why the disappearances happened than how the survivors are faring in their freakish new world.

At first pass, there seems to be no specific reason why “The Leftovers” has to be on a pay-cable service rather than NBC, ABC, CBS or Fox. The weight and complexity of the story and the opportunity for profound emotional drama should be more than enough to carry it along and deliver satisfying broadcast entertainment. (This is true of ABC’s “Resurrection.”) That doesn’t mean being on HBO will work against it in the way that being on CBS might work against “Reckless” (and did work against “Swingtown”). It does suggest that in the broadcasters’ current collective effort to locate more genre properties and ride the science-fiction wave that is washing over all of television that more thought-provoking material (like “The Leftovers” and “Resurrection”) rather than more superheroes and monsters stuff might be in order.

My problem with “The Leftovers” -- at least as far as episode one goes -- is that the world it is exploring is a resolutely unpleasant place filled with all kinds of miserable people, including cultists who choose to chain-smoke rather than talk and other folks who have taken to shooting dogs on sight because ever since the “event” man’s best friends haven’t been quite right. (Some are ferociously feral.) Those who aren’t distracted or put off by continuous smoking and dog killing may indeed have a fine time watching. I couldn’t wait to get away from these characters and their world when the first episode ended. Going forward, some things will have to change if I’m to continue wanting to watch every week.

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