Written by Melissa Henson | Published July 15, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has created any number of logistical problems for the entertainment industry. Production schedules have been interrupted, stalled or completely discontinued; late-night chat show hosts have been broadcasting out of their own homes; and now producers are faced with the challenge of how to show intimacy while keeping the actors socially-distanced.
According to the New York Times, writers and producers are trying to find alternate ways to handle sex scenes, including “illusion and innuendo-laden scripts with subtext reminiscent of 1970s TV.” The teen-targeted Archie comics-inspired Riverdale, for example, will be showing less skin, according to the article. “There’s a weird retro 1950s vibe to ‘Riverdale’… One of the things we sometimes do is suggest sex through coded language — I think we’ll almost lean into that melodrama and suggestive behavior.”
This was, of course, always an option. Even pre-pandemic.
TV writers from the earliest days of television right on through to the early 1990s knew that suggestion was often sexier than actual sex. Leaving some things to the viewer’s imagination was often more potent than spelling it out for them. And in the process, adults understood what was going on without shoving age-inappropriate content in front of kids.
One of TV history’s hottest couples was Sam and Diane on the long-running NBC sitcom Cheers. Audiences saw the flirtation and the verbal sparring, a few passionate kisses, but what happened behind closed doors was always left to the viewer’s imagination. Stephen Bochco’s Hill Street Blues was an adult drama that aired in the last hour of primetime that (unlike his subsequent police drama, NYPD Blue) didn’t rely on nudity to show intimacy.
Former Monty Python cast member John Cleese has said, “Being funny is very difficult and not that many people can do it. But you can get in front of an audience and shout and swear a lot. My daughter’s doing stand-up. She’s very good, but I’ve seen a lot of other people who are very vulgar, very sexual and quite aggressive, but not in a clever way. It’s comedy for people who don’t have much of a sense of humor.” Well, the same is often true of TV writers who lean too heavily on sex. If the writer has done his job well, audiences can feel the chemistry between the characters without having to see them in bed together. More importantly, parents are able watch adult programs that have sophisticated dialogue and story lines and without having to worry about what their kids might accidentally see.
Hollywood’s new discovery of how to tell a story without a lot of skin will be a welcome development for families. Clearly, a good story doesn’t require gratuitous sexual content, it just requires good writing. Here’s hoping Hollywood is up to the task, and that they keep it going, even after the danger from COVID-19 has passed.