OFFICE ROMANCE COMES OUT OF THE SUPPLY CLOSET; ONCE-TABOO SUBJECT OF SEXUAL ATTRACTION IN WORKPLACE HAS COME LONG WAY ON TV.
Last week on ``Suddenly Susan,'' our jolly green heroine happens to be in a hospital emergency room when medics wheel in a seriously injured Jack Richmond. ``Do you know this guy?'' a voice calls out as she stands looking more like a wax replica than usual. And in a frozen sitcom moment straight out of a panel of ``Mary Worth,'' Susan haltingly answers, ``He's ... my boss.''
Why the melodramatic hesitation? What is buried within Brooke Shields' rather awkward ellipses? As viewers of ``Suddenly Susan'' know, Jack Richmond is not merely Susan's boss, the editor of the San Francisco magazine where she chronicles single life in the 1990s. Jack Richmond is the man who is madly in love with her, the new divorce who has wooed her tirelessly, the slick manipulator who hired her nemesis to provoke her, the tormented romantic who once tried to kiss her in her apartment before she stopped him.
In the real world, of course, Jack Richmond would also be the employer who crossed an inviolable line, the defendant in a sexual-harassment lawsuit and maybe the guest on a ``Jerry Springer'' episode about ``Bosses Who Can't Stop Hitting on Their Workers.'' Jack Richmond would be guilty of what enlightened American culture now calls ``inappropriate'' behavior, and though he might take consolation in the Supreme Court appointment of Clarence Thomas, who overcame accusations of harassment by Anita Hill in 1991, chances are he'd be squirming in sympathy for Bill Clinton, who is now facing a career crisis courtesy of a former intern who looks slightly more like Shannen Doherty than like Brooke Shields.
Ah, but Jack Richmond is that luckiest of citizens, a sitcom character, and so he won't be subjected to subpoenas, censures and suits. For while America has grown ever more hawk-eyed toward sex in the workplace in the 1990s, adjusting our laws and public dialogue to accommodate the increase of men and women together on the job, our TV fare has quite willfully moved in the exactly opposite direction. Right now, the most popular setting for sitcoms is the office, and their most popular source of humor and plot is interoffice innuendo, flirtation, romance and sex.
Talk about mixed signals. Are we shamelessly doing on TV what we're not supposed to do in real life? Like ``Suddenly Susan,'' an unusual number of current comedies revolve around power-imbalanced workplace romance: On ``Caroline in the City,'' the cartoonist and her hired colorist, Richard, have been doing a seasons-long romantic tango. On/off lovers Dave and Lisa on ``NewsRadio'' have each spent time as boss of the other, in the top position of news director. On ``The Nanny,'' Fran has finally snagged her employer, Mr. Sheffield, and the show will become a New Yawk-style ``Sound of Music'' when they marry in May. And an ongoing gag on ``Just Shoot Me'' is the magazine staff's dating experience with the models - male and female - who parade through the office.
Other shows - ``Ally McBeal,'' ``3rd Rock From the Sun,'' ``Working'' - also feature co-worker affairs, but between men and women on the same rung of the ladder, particularly on ``Ally McBeal.'' This unique series is premised on Ally's job in a law firm beside the ex-boyfriend she still loves, and recently she has found herself in an incipient dating situation with another co-worker, the Biscuit. Sooner or later, it seems, they all end up talking it out in the firm's unisex bathroom, where scenes are regularly filmed.
But TV sex in the office is bigger than particular couples. It's the countless penis jokes, it's the sly performance put-downs, it's the coffee-klatch come-ons. It's in the air on ``The Naked Truth'' and the wonderfully satirical ``Working,'' whose cast includes a sendup of a sexually compulsive male boss. On ``Veronica's Closet,'' between drooling over models and whining about her lack of a sex life, Kirstie Alley's Veronica continually notifies her secretary that he's gay, despite his denials. Meanwhile, her assistant, played by Kathy Najimy, gawks lustily at a hunky co-worker played by Dan Cortese.
Romance in the office
One of the raciest characters on TV is Wendy Malick's Nina on ``Just Shoot Me,'' a hot-to-trot former model who frequently recounts her exotic sexual (and drug) escapades to the office gang. In a recent episode, Nina flashes her breasts at the window cleaner on her skyscraper, causing him a long-distance fall that lands him flat out in intensive care. In a bit of sly ``Just Shoot Me'' wit, Nina has been given the punnish last name of Van Horn.
Remember ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' the classic sitcom that provides the blueprint for all of today's office comedies? Imagine Murray Slaughter sidling up against Mary Richards, as they stand outside Lou Grant's office door. Mary pushes Murray away, and he mutters, ``Oh, sure, you're finished.'' Somehow this comic bit - tossed off in last week's ``Just Shoot Me'' between David Spade and Laura San Giacomo - seems more than out of place in the context of ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show.'' It seems downright incestuous.
``The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' broke new ground not only because it brought more realism into the ``Green Acres''-esque sitcom world, but because it cemented the idea of co-workers as family. Lou was the tough-loving father, Murray was the caretaking brother, Ted was Uncle Nutty. Episodes that kicked up interoffice heat were anomalies, and they treated the subject with embarrassed isn't-this-ridiculous-ness. When Mary and Lou had their big date, they couldn't kiss without giggling, and in the show's seven seasons on the air, she never stopped calling him Mr. Grant.
But co-workers as family is a remarkably dated notion 28 years after Mary Richards moved to Minneapolis and was hired at WJM-TV. The sexes are elbow to elbow at work far more now than in 1970, and they know what Mary & Company weren't ready to admit: Co-workers are not family. It's a sweet notion, and they can be like family, but unless you're the Partridges playing a gig, there is no real question of incest when it comes to the office. It is with that understanding that the 1998 versions of ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' - at last count there were at least eight of them - tear so boldly into the formerly taboo subject of sexuality at work.
As we ponder what to expect from office behavior - about what is correct and appropriate, for ourselves as well as for our president - the unafraid ribaldry of shows like ``Just Shoot Me'' and ``Veronica's Closet,'' and the bittersweet laughs of ``Suddenly Susan'' and ``Caroline in the City'' will surely do their best to keep us from becoming too serious.
Photo: (1) ``The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' which co-starred Gavin MacLeod, broke new ground for a TV series by dealing with sexuality in the workplace.
(2) Jane Curtin and John Lithgow carry on an interoffice romance in the NBC comedy ``3rd Rock From the Sun.''