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Dissenting From TV's Sexual Descent

If the broadcast television networks' aim is to elicit from viewers the response "I can't believe they said (or did, or showed) that on TV," I must admit that they have succeeded spectacularly, again and again, in the past few seasons.

Most of this jaw-dropping material, of course, has been sexual, and in that department this fall's leader among new drama series is NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." This "Law & Order" spinoff, which was originally and accurately called "Sex Crimes," airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on the coasts, 8 p.m. in middle America.

Even Dick Wolf, the creator and executive producer of both "SVU" and "Law & Order" and one of Hollywood's most vocal apologists, feels that's too early. Wolf pushed for the 10 p.m. time slot, and though NBC entertainment boss Garth Ancier agreed, the buck stopped with network CEO Robert Wright, who chose to run the program at 9.

Wolf is on record as saying that it would be "kind of silly" to produce a show like "SVU" "without...10 p.m. content." Watching the first two episodes makes me wonder what Wolf thinks would be appropriate 11 p.m. content.

In the first scene of the first episode, a man has been discovered stabbed to death in the front seat of his cab. But he's not merely a murder victim; that's just too simple for Hollywood today. No, it seems that his penis has been severed and taken away. The phallic theme recurs in a few moments: a defendant charged with indecent exposure is on trial when the witness on the stand, a detective, taunts him about his "shortcomings." The irate defendant replies, "Shortcomings?" stands and, after some fumbling, pulls his manhood out for the courtroom's inspection - not, thank God, for that of the TV audience - and yells, "Shortcomings, my ass, you putzhead! Take a look! Look at it!"

But this is not meant to be gratuitous, really it's not.

After another graphic sexual reference (a male gallery owner informs police that a male acquaintance who figures in their investigation "has an extraordinarily gifted orifice in the middle of his face") we soon arrive at the socially redeeming portion of the program. An immigrant woman, who turns out to be one of the killers of the cabbie found dead in the first scene, tells a female cop that the man, as a Serb soldier during the war, "raped me every night for twenty-three days. Sometimes he was too drunk, so he [used] a wrench, a pistol, a broom handle."

So, you see, Wolf didn't include the penis-severing for exploitative reasons. He inserted it into his script to express his outrage over war crimes.

In the second episode, a young woman plunges to her death through an eighth-floor window. It transpires that her father, in the words of her psychiatrist, "started [sexually] abusing her" - raping her, in fact - "shortly after her thirteenth birthday." Consequently, as an adult she was promiscuous: "She would take any man on the block."

But this storyline isn't exploitative, either, because the same female officer who helped the premiere's rape victim persuades the dead woman's sister, who also was molested by the father, to confront him. She does, calling him a "cowardly, disgusting, sick bastard." Since a victim has become empowered by striking back at her tormentor, the wallow in perversion that led up to this climax is, under "SVU" logic, redeemed.

Unrelated to the main plot, however, is additional creepiness: a brief discussion concerning a man on the subway who takes the hand of a deceased female passenger, places it on his genitalia, and rubs himself with it until he ejaculates, and a rumor concerning a "famous actor [who] hires hookers to lie in an ice bath [and] waits till they turn blue [from] the cold" before having intercourse with them.

It would not surprise me in the least were Wolf to find a "message" here, too. His moral outrage toward cold water, perhaps.

In the evangelical newsmagazine World, Gene Edward Veith recently wrote, "Shows that depend on titillation rather than creativity must, by their very nature, constantly ratchet up the sleaze. What once gives the thrill of transgression becomes so familiar, after a while, that it fails to stimulate...The dosage has to increase, the sex must be more and more perverse, for that same old buzz."

"SVU" is driven by graphic, violent pornography, not artistry. It doesn't belong on television, period. It belongs in the museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, right next to the picture of the dung-spattered Virgin Mary. That's "art," too.