Sex and the City

Upon hearing that TBS would start syndicating Sex and the City this past June, everyone I spoke with expressed similar skepticism: “Sounds more like Sexless and the City.” The editing, we were sure, would strip HBO’s series of almost everything that made it so transgressive, so explicitly sexual.

But that didn’t stop so many of us from tuning in to TBS, first for the two episodes a night that TBS aired during Sex‘s “premiere week,” and then the following week to see the episodes aired in order from the beginning — before the girls faced babies, boyfriends, husbands, divorces, breast cancer, and book deals. As we naysayers quickly discovered, we were somewhat mistaken. TBS’s editors didn’t have to take the sex out of the city. They could replace the actual sex with allusions to sex while continuing to use the same erotic language — terms like “whore,” “dick,” “cunt,” “balls,” and “orgasm” — that you’ve probably never heard on shows aired on networks other than premium cable.

If TBS’ airing — and editing — of Sex and the City is any indication, the series made enough headway in its six seasons on HBO that such terms, discussions, and images of sex and sexuality (particularly female interest in same) are growing increasingly acceptable onscreen.

The four best friends on Sex — Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Charlotte (Kristen Davis) — openly celebrate themselves and each other, their edgy New York fashion sense, and their seemingly scandalous sex lives. If HBO’s series was two steps forward, in that it showed both the actions and the words, then TBS’ rendition is one small step back. Here the signifier — the words — replace the signified — the sex act itself. The plan was apparently always in effect: according to writer Anna Keizer, when the crew first made the series, they filmed “alternate versions of racier scenes,” to make them appropriate for more mainstream television while also maintaining the show’s sexy aura.

But Sex addicts might notice a more profound difference between the edited and uncut versions. TBS’ rendition is about the dance, the allusions, the discussions that go on outside the bedroom, the verbal language of sex but not the actual sex itself. Or rather, you never see the sex on TBS, whereas HBO promised at least one very racy, very explicit (simulated) sex scene per episode.

In “The Cheating Curve,” for example, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) finds herself in a bit of a quandary when she discovers that her man of the moment, a documentary filmmaker named Ethan (Rob Campbell), has a porn fetish. Whenever the two are about to have sex, he turns on pornographic videos, leading her to conclude that she’s unable to arouse him, that he doesn’t want her and her alone. The pornography was fairly graphic on HBO, but on TBS, it’s implied. Though we hear a few erotic moans and see a bit of skin, we mostly see static and hear cheesy music, leaving the rest to us; in HBO’s version, the pornography on Ethan’s television — and the tryst unfolding in his bed with Miranda — is clearer and raunchier.

The same goes for Carrie and Mr. Big’s (Chris Noth) reunion in “Four Women and a Funeral” (after a hiatus that haunts Carrie at the end of season one and the beginning of season two). They appear briefly in bed, and we see only his naked chest and her bare leg. Seasoned Sex fans know what comes next, as they do when, in “The Man, the Myth, the Viagra,” Miranda sleeps with Steve (David Eigenberg), who later becomes her husband and the father of her child, for the first time. Here again, we see only an allusion to the sex act. While their feet move up and down, the rest of their bodies remain off screen, and we’re left to imagine the rest, with help from Carrie’s narration: “That night Steve the bartender served Miranda two orgasms, straight up.”

Or again: Samantha seduces her fitness trainer Thor (Chris John) in “The Cheating Curve,” telling him, “You got me all wet.” He takes her into the shower, where he insists on shaving her pubic hair into the shape of a lightning bolt. Though we would’ve seen a shot of his “work of art” and the sex that ensued on HBO, TBS’ editors smoothly transition into the next scene instead, leaving our minds to do the dirty work.

This, of course, begs one simple question: why aren’t we ready to see sex on mainstream television? The answer isn’t entirely clear. We liked the breast-baring at the 2004 Super Bowl enough to talk about it for weeks on end. But we were also disturbed enough by it to sanction Jackson and her cohorts. Sex is everywhere, but for many (and not just those on the moralistic Right, but also the network suits, who want to maintain the viewership of parents with young children), it’s easier not to believe it if you don’t see it.

But if the strong language used in the “sanitized” version of Sex and the City is any indication, we can only hide from this reality for so long. We can close our eyes, heeding the “Viewer Discretion Advised” warning that runs along the bottom of the screen when Sex airs on TBS, but we still hear what’s going on. And isn’t that what talking dirty is all about?

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