Showtime Wanks It Up

Hello Meta Man; the Grim Reaper Lands a Series

I've seen the future of television drama and it's . . . "edgy." It broaches new levels of sexual explicitness and punctures TV taboos in prime time. It plays Brechtian games with form, mixes up genres and registers, constantly reminds viewers of the constructed nature of what they're watching. It avoids easy narrative resolutions and toys with unhappy endings. It looks groundbreaking but essentially creates the contours for a new middlebrow.

You won't find this stuff on network TV yet, but on cable's pay channels. HBO pioneered the new style with The Sopranos, Sex in the City, Oz, and Six Feet Under, along with the related genre of feel-bad comedy à la Curb Your Enthusiasm. Now Showtime, Pearl Jam to HBO's Nirvana, is muscling in on the alt-TV market. The network's slogan is "No Limits," and a current ad boasts, "Daring, provocative, undeniably different." Until recently, the channel's strategy was to target the neglected niche markets and identity-politics tribes of this divided nation: gays with Queer as Folk, Latinos with Resurrection Boulevard, smart buppies with Soul Food.(Lesbians will be catered to this fall with The L Word, Ilene Chaiken's drama about West Hollywood dykes.) But now, with new series like Out of Order and Dead Like Me, both premiering in June, Showtime is reaching out to a broader mainstream audience that craves something more piquant and hip.

According to Gary Levine, executive VP of original programming at Showtime, the network is "looking for complex material that shines a light on the world in a way that more commercial fare on advertiser-supported television can't." He believes that Showtime's setup gives them immediate advantages. "It starts with something as simple as this: We don't have to build to some artificial mini-cliffhanger every 12 minutes so people will come back after the commercials, because we don't have any commercials. That alone makes advertiser-supported television a very unnatural-feeling world. And the subject matter we're willing to explore has no bounds. . . . Because we are not dancing to the tune of advertisers, the demographics are less crucial. We want subscribers, and they come in all shapes and sizes."

Guess who's coming to dinner: Out of Order.
photo: Annie Chia
Guess who's coming to dinner: Out of Order.

Details

Out of Order
Premieres June 1 at 10 p.m. on Showtime

Dead Like Me
Premieres June 27 at 10 p.m. on Showtime

Hey Monie
Tuesdays at 8 on BET

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"Edgy" requires taboos for the tweaking, and as the success of Six Feet Under shows, death is one of the most potent unmentionables. Showtime's Dead Like Me, a weekly series that debuts June 27, is all over the subject like maggots on a corpse. The show's teenage heroine gets snuffed barely half an hour into the series' amusing pilot episode. Georgia (Ellen Muth) escapes her miserable life as a temp only to find herself stuck with a truly (un)dead-end gig, as a grim reaper. Invisible to mortals, she rounds up freshly deceased souls in tandem with her quirky colleagues Mandy Patinkin and Jasmine Guy, pausing every so often to deliver deep existential soliloquies directly to the viewer.

Out of Order, a series about the ailing relationship of a husband-and-wife screenwriting team in Los Angeles, is also fond of breaking the fourth wall. The entire two-hour pilot is framed as a trial, with Mark (Eric Stoltz) addressing the audience as his jury: "I'm about to place my fate in the hands of you, the jury. Yes, you out there sitting on the couch with your remote control." Every so often, the camera pulls back to reveal the camera crew on the periphery of the "scene," or someone holding up cue cards. The show links this frolicking with form to Mark's occupation as a screenwriter. "Since I was a kid I've imagined my life as a movie, imagined a crew surrounding me," he voice-overs at one point. He and wife Lorna (Felicity Huffman of Sports Night fame) often have competing cinematic visions: Mark sees a family confrontation as a scene from Raging Bull, while Lorna imagines herself as Dirty Harriet blowing the Thanksgiving turkey to smithereens with a shotgun.

The meta-knowingness can be kind of funny: In one scene, Mark is relating how men have sex on the brain. For a moment, the camera scans the park with Mark's lusty eyes, physically appraising every woman that passes, then halts on a blond sex kitten who turns out to be jailbait. "Uh oh," Mark's subconscious mutters, "Polanski-ville. Not going there." But mostly the show is tiresome in that clever-for-no-apparent-reason way. Each of the two episodes I've seen includes a scene in which Stoltz comes across a machine that has an "Out of Order" sign, a self-reflexive gesture that serves no real purpose. The constant cinematic references and obtrusive, almost Godard-like alienation effects sit uneasily with what is essentially a naturalistic "quality drama" about marital dysfunction, partners growing apart, and the onset of middle age. Albeit with a more diffuse narrative, a fair amount of cunnilingus, and lots of flashy camera work (particularly effective during a scene in which Mark jigs around the room on Ecstasy). Drugs are matter-of-factly incorporated into the everyday life of these characters (Lorna has a weakness for pot), but without the dire consequences and repentance that are obligatory in network television. But the real new frontier for the new edgy TV drama is jerking off: Early into its recent series, Six Feet Under's Nate stopped by the side of the road to release some tension caused by his married-with-a-kid status, and during Out of Order we see Mark having a wank in both of the first two episodes.

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