Normally I’m not this squeamish about discussing sitcom plots, but I was given pause by a recent episode of “The Mindy Project,” which revolved around whether Mindy and her current love interest would engage in anal sex.
Really? Fifth base in a sitcom? This is what we’ve come to in the world of sophisticated situation comedy? Mindy Kaling herself was quick to defend the episode as boundary-pushing and valid because “we [i.e., the writers] wanted to acknowledge that everybody deals with this but nobody wants to talk about it." Really? Only in a Hollywood writers’ room would there be a consensus that “everybody” deals with anal sex.
People have been complaining about sex on television for decades. It’s been a long losing battle for conservatives, religious groups, and family organizations. The more they protest, the more sex there is. There’s so much sex now that no one even bothers to track it any more. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which used to fund annual studies on sex on TV, has been out of the sex racket for almost a decade, and no one has taken its place.
Just as you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing, you don’t need a foundation to tell there’s more sex on TV than ever before. Just last week, MediaPost’s own Adam Buckman questioned whether there was much of anything that couldn’t be shown on TV these days given the graphic sex scenes on a recent “Sons of Anarchy” episode. The sitcom world is not quite as porny as basic cable dramas, but it’s still a pretty smutty place.
Way back in the more innocent 1990s, when there was a loud debate about the sexualization of television, The New York Timespublished a definitive piece reporting that three out of four shows in the so-called “Family Hour” (8 p.m. to 9 p.m.) contained sexual references -- an average of 3.1 per episode. Network executives were quick to defend themselves by pointing out that most of these instances were jokes, flirting or kissing, but hardly any actual sexual intercourse. The working assumption was that talking about sex was okay, but that promiscuous sex would render a character unlikable.
And then came “Sex in the City,” a pay-TV show about four single gals on the make in Manhattan, reveling in shoes, champagne and casual sex. They just didn’t talk about it, they actually did the deed – a lot! But rather than recoil at the tawdriness of this lifestyle, millions of viewers – mostly women – embraced the show, making it a massive hit and raising the sex bar for all other cable and broadcast sitcoms.
Of course, “Sex and the City,” “Mindy” and like-minded shows function as fantasies, reflecting none of the reality of actual sexuality as it is lived by real people. The Daily News calculated that during “Sex and the City’s” six seasons, the four main characters had sex with 94 men and one woman. That comes out to about five sexual partners per character per year. But according to the Kinsey Institute, the average woman in the 30-44 age range reports having just four male sexual partners in her lifetime, not five per YEAR as on “Sex in the City.”
What is it about sitcoms that lend themselves to sex-based subplots? One clear answer is that the networks are desperate to attract young single viewers with a lot of disposable income – the ones who are much sought-after by advertisers. And how better to capture those hormone-racing eyeballs than to offer a turbo-charged version of the modern dating world?
But even more to the point, the sex farce, which features multiple romantic pairings and recombinations, has been a staple of popular entertainment since at least Georges Feydeau’s plays graced the Parisian stage in the 1890s. For a while the cinema, via the screwball comedy and then the rom-com, was home to the sex farce, but as the film world has gravitated to blockbusters, serious indie films and animated kiddie movies, the sitcom has now become the primary outlet for humorous stories about romantic misadventure.
The truth is, there’s something inherently funny about sex because people lose their self-control, expose their vulnerabilities and generally become ridiculous in the throes of passion. What happens on TV is just an extremely heightened version of what happens in actual romantic entanglements. While it’s not funny to the person it’s happening to, it’s frequently funny to an outside observer.
Having said that, I’ll also note there’s more than a little bit of laziness in creating so many sex-related storylines. It’s a crutch, like using bad language in a stand-up routine. As far as I can tell, there’s a “Rule of Six” for sitcoms: if there are six or more unmarried characters on the show, at least two of them will hook up during the first two seasons. It happened on “Friends,” “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” Community,” “Girls,” “The New Girl,” “Mindy,” and dozens of other sitcoms. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but not as much as a showrunner abhors an unattached single character. Too often, alas, when the characters hook up, it’s because the writers have run out of other ideas.