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The Fall 2009 Season: CW Obsessed with Sex and Violence

By Christopher Gildemeister


In the past, the major broadcast networks tended to roll out their new programming in the space of one or two weeks. Recently, however, with the growing prevalence of cable TV and its tendency to debut new programming at all times of the year – not to mention the rise of alternative media like the Internet, iPods, video games and others – the viewing audience’s attention is more fractured and diverse, with the result that the broadcast networks hope to continue to draw attention to their new programs by spacing many of the show’s premieres out over a month or more.


But whether confined to a single week or spread out over a month, the broadcast networks can be relied upon for one thing: consistently serving up ever-more problematic content in the programs they do air.


The CW network claims that its primary target viewership is adult women. This seems unlikely when one considers the large number of programs with teenagers (or those just out of high school) as lead characters. It is also unlikely that real-life teens have as much involvement with sex, drugs and liquor as do those inhabiting CW’s shows; yet depicting such remains the CW’s apparent raison d’etre.


Unlike last year, CW’s teen soap 90210 (Tuesdays, 8:00 p.m. ET) did not open this season with a teenage boy receiving oral sex in a high-school parking lot; but thus far, the program has delved into the seamy practice of teens “sexting,” with a major storyline devoted to Annie being seduced by a senior named Mark, who – after plying her with alcohol and pressuring her to have sex with him -- takes a nude picture of her.  Naomi then acquires the picture and circulates it to the entire school, leading one teen to remark to Annie, “nice rack.” But Annie has her revenge when she later tells Naomi that on prom night, she and Naomi’s on-again/off-again boyfriend Liam “totally slept together, but it wasn't the first time.  We actually had been having sex the whole time you guys were together…After we'd have sex we'd actually just lie there making fun of you for hours.”  And naturally, no program about teenagers could be complete without the compulsory references to drug use: after Navid informs the new staff of the school paper that they can no longer “smoke weed” in the newspaper office, half the students in attendance get up and leave. This is not to say that romantic rivalry, “sexting” and drug use are not genuine issues for some real-life teens; but it is remarkable the extent to which the supposedly adult-targeted CW dwells on such salacious stories about youth.


If anything, Gossip Girl (Mondays, 9:00 p.m. ET) outdoes 90210 in terms of explicit teen sex, drinking and drug use. Indeed, Gossip Girl has become the CW’s signature show, infamously boasting to teens in advertising quotes taken from the show’s critics that the program is “very bad for you” and “every parent’s nightmare.” And once again this year, Gossip Girl has lived down to its sleazy reputation. In the season’s first episode, viewers learn that Blair and the promiscuous Chuck are endeavoring to remain monogamous by keeping their relationship exciting in a nontraditional way:  Blair finds women to tempt Chuck, then chases them away before anything happens.  As Blair states, “Chuck plays the cheating bastard and I play the scorned woman.  I even get to choose who to humiliate.” The couple also leavens their sex life with role-playing games. But naturally, Blair and Chuck are not the only ones engaged in non-stop sex; returning to her college dorm room, Blair walks in on her roommate Georgina with a shirtless Dan on top of her. When Dan remarks that he was about to “hit the trail,” Blair replies that she is leaving, so that Dan should “feel free to ‘hit the trail’ all you want.” On Gossip Girl, even the most innocuous activities result in sex. Merely walking down the street, Carter is confronted by a woman whom he claims not to know. She informs him, “Okay. So I guess I had sex with another Carter Bazen who drinks his single malt with one ice cube and claimed to be leaving with the Peace Corps the next day.”


Following in the footsteps of both 90210 and Gossip Girl comes this season’s newest contribution to the CW’s sex-soap genre, Melrose Place (Tuesdays, 9:00 p.m. ET). Like 90210, Melrose is a revival of a ‘90s soap opera; and like Gossip Girl, it targeted potential viewers with an innuendo-laden ad campaign, which included slogans like “Tuesday is the New Humpday” and “Mènage à Tues.” And the show has followed up on its promise, devoting a major storyline to medical student Lauren who, implausibly, cannot get a student loan and chooses to become a doctor by day and high-priced prostitute by night. After several dangerous and depressing encounters (you’d think a doctor would know better), the show’s most recent episode had Lauren seeking out a madam for employment in the world’s oldest profession. In addition, Melrose Place has given viewers an encounter between would-be actor Jasper and publicist Ella, who photographs his naked crotch and threatens to send it around the Internet, and several bloody fights and a corpse floating in a swimming pool. With such sordid fare it is no surprise that Melrose Place has already been chosen as Worst TV Show of the Week; but despite poor ratings and abysmal reviews, the CW has nevertheless ordered more episodes of the seamy drama.


As per what has apparently become standard practice at the CW, ads for The Beautiful Life (Wednesdays, 9:00 p.m. ET – though not for much longer) bordered on the pornographic in an attempt to lure viewers desperate for the next “edgy” hit. In this case, posters featured totally nude cast members, their breasts and genitals concealed only by strategically-placed hands and text blocks. The show’s first episode attempted to follow through with the promised sex, as new model Raina responded to her would-be employer’s insinuations by reclining next to him and allowing him to rub his hands on her torso. After moaning and taking a video with her cell phone (phone-picture nudity is obviously yet another meme on CW this season), Raina then reveals she is only 16 and threatens to show the pictures to her father. In spite of the nudity-themed ad campaign and the attempts at sex in the storylines, The Beautiful Life has become the first casualty of the CW’s fall season, already having been cancelled. One wonders whether viewers attracted by modeling are simply more interested in the network’s reality show America’s Next Top Model, or whether, given the CW’s propensity for sex among youngsters, The Beautiful Life was simply not considered sufficiently salacious.


But if sex is the CW’s major draw for its young demographic, how much more popular would our programs be (network executives must have thought) if we gave our viewers supernatural sex? Since the tremendous success of the book and movie series Twilight, depicting a romance between a teenage girl and a youthful vampire, stories featuring vampires have become all the rage among the young. Unsurprisingly, the CW has followed the trend with its new series The Vampire Diaries (Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. ET). But while Twilight (at least in the earlier books in its series) is an atmospherically romantic but chaste love story, somewhat like an updated Gothic romance, The Vampire Diaries seems to be merely Gossip Girl with vampires – complete with references to teenage sex and drug use. Typical dialogue from the first episode, from teen girl Vic: "Jeremy, I really appreciate all the pharmaceuticals, but you can't follow me around like a lost puppy…I don't want to tell the whole world I deflowered Elena's kid brother. We hooked up a few times in a drug haze. It’s over.” Later in the episode, Vic’s new boyfriend Ty tries to rape her; when Jeremy rescues her, she rewards him by saying, “You're worse. You want to talk to me, see into my soul, and screw and screw and screw until you're done with me." And naturally (or should that be supernaturally), since vampires are involved, the program does not lack for bloodshed: a couple driving down a road hit a vampire, who splits open the driver’s neck and pounces on the driver’s wife; another couple out camping is victimized, blood dripping from the tent’s roof onto the wife, who emerges from the tent to find her dead husband hanging from a tree; and various other scenes of people with bloodied throats after being attacked by vampires.

The CW appears to have found its next niche, as The Vampire Diaries shares Thursday nights with Supernatural (9:00 p.m. ET), a drama about a pair of brothers who fight monsters and demons. Now in its fifth season, Supernatural goes against the network’s usual grain by largely eschewing the CW’s trademark emphasis on sex and drugs. However, the program replaces them with larger doses of profanity and violence, some of which is disturbingly graphic for prime time. This season, the lead characters are angry because, as Dean tells a group of angels in the premiere, “
You sons of bitches jump-started Judgment Day." After a prolonged fight, Dean picks up a knife and stabs the villain in the chest.  Subsequent episodes have shown the citizens of a small town falling under a spell that makes them commit murder; a crazed veteran throwing a woman to the ground, aiming his gun at her head, and pulling the trigger (and when that fails to kill the woman, he takes out a knife and tries to stab her in the throat); a graphic scene of Dean and Sam severing a finger from a villain’s hand; and Sam being forced him to drink demon blood, after which he spits it in his assailant’s faces and beats them.  While the show is not as bloody as a typical R-rated movie, it is still astonishing that Supernatural is on in prime time. 


And so the network has gone. While the CW’s other programs – the soap opera One Tree Hill, the reality show America’s Next Top Model, and the superhero drama Smallville – have in the past at times featured questionable material, they have not yet done so…but of course, the season is still young; and Smallville in particular (inspired, perhaps, by the success of movies like The Dark Knight) is showing a tendency toward increasingly darker portrayals of its heroic characters.


Indeed, darkness could be said to epitomize all of CW’s programming. Whether it takes the form of soaps showing with teenagers engaged in meaningless, promiscuous sex and liquor-and-drug orgies, action shows featuring graphic violence, or even reality shows focused purely around judging individuals’ physical appearance, all of CW’s shows focus only on the bleakest, most depressing aspects of life. Ratings and polls show that the network is a favorite of teenagers --who face enough challenges in their lives already. What a pity the CW provides them, not with upbeat and optimistic entertainment, but only with images of emptiness and despair. 

TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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