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Safe 'Sex' is a lesson in evolution.

The opening credits are shorter, the drama somehow feels more prominent, and Kim Cattrall's cavalier bed-hopper has considerably less to do and say.

Otherwise, it's the same old "Sex and the City"--edited and perfumed for an ad-supported environment--that premieres on TBS this week, which says a bit about the content war in Washington and, more significantly, hints at a logical evolution for TV comedy in general.

Situation comedy's ignominious retreat when the networks set their primetime lineups suggests that there's room for an edgier brand of humor--measured not in terms of bared flesh and schoolyard epithets but by breaking the bland conceptual molds and demographic bonds that have tethered the form. In the process, the major broadcasters--increasingly squeezed out of awards balloting for episodic dramas--could face a similar comedy scenario in the not-too-distant future.

The dearth of network sit-coms ordered for next season has already inspired both HBO and FX to express their intent to explore more traditional forms of comedy. And just as those channels have challenged boundaries in drama--such as "Deadwood" and "Nip/Tuck," respectively--the idea would be to transfer that sensibility--to comedy, invigorating the genre and sharpening its dulled edges.

If comedy is ripe for such a renaissance, it's in part because "pushing the envelope" has too often meant "risque," which inevitably yields diminishing returns. The real void exists in sitcoms that actually dare to say something--even if that means pissing some people off.

To be fair, various factors have contributed to NBC halving this fall's comedy roster and Donald Trump becoming the heir to "Must-See TV." These include competition from so-called reality shows, lame execution, a general sameness in the lockstep pursuit of younger demos, and a greedy sitcom explosion during the 1990s that depleted the talent pool of established writers.

For a demonstration of what was once possible, by contrast, see "TV Revolution," the recent Bravo documentary that dealt with the way television has paralleled (if not necessarily led) shifting mores regarding homosexuality, race and women's rights. Not surprisingly, about every seven seconds the production referenced "All in the Family," which boldly dealt with such matters but also starred a paunchy middle-aged guy without a trophy wife.

These days, such characters don't exist on TV, unless they're the fathers of a 30-year-old woman who just inherited three orphaned kids. Perhaps that's why HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is so refreshing, since few networks would build a series around a 56-year-old balding misanthrope, unless he and his corpulent chum take over a coed boarding school. (Larry David still gets the trophy wife, but that's simply because he's rich.)

The irony of ironies is that after years of drooling over the profits that studios reaped from series such as "Roseanne," "Home Improvement" and "Seinfeld," the networks became part of those studios and forgot how to make them. Yet with a hit comedy still worth staggering piles of cash, rest assured that someone is going to decipher the riddle, even if it requires a cable network to get there first.

Jordan Levin, CEO of the WB network, thinks that might be the case. Asked about the dowtturn in sitcoms, Levin hypothesized during a recent industry forum that cable nets have a leg up in comedy because they won't be as fettered by conceits about political correctness and taste that constrain broadcasters. And while that might sound like an alibi for a trail littered with "Friends" knockoffs, the howls that greeted even modestly controversial shows like "Whoopi" and "Coupling" provide some support for the theory.

All this brings us back to "Sex and the City," which, in its slightly sanitized form, demonstrates that the name was always something of a misnomer. In fact, the series draws its strength from universal themes about friendship and yearning to connect romantically--whether that involves the awkwardness of befriending an ex-lover or the emotional toll of a painful breakup.

Admittedly, the basic cable-ready version of the HBO show loses a bit in translation. Sure, there's a bare ass here or there, and TBS can still get away with lines like, "Who are you, Goldicocks?" when Samantha complains about a guy's excessive endowment. At the same time, Margaret Cho's guest turn as a profane fashionista isn't nearly as funny minus her freewheeling use of the "F" word.

It's not a small-screen version of the Farrelly brothers, however, that TV's been missing. What "Sex" and some of cable's racier dramas remind us is that when language and sexuality feel organic instead of forced into the world in which they're depicted, "pushing the envelope" is hardly necessary.

None of this is particularly good news to cultural warriors determined to stoke public outrage, or academics who count up acts of depravity and their correlation with the poisoning of youthful minds. Because the troth is most people who watch shows such as "The Sopranos" and "NYPD Blue" reach a point where the content feels natural--the latter's addition of "Bullshit" to the broadcast lexicon transpired almost without notice.

In a more recent example, many critics dwelt on the torrents of bluer language in "Deadwood," only to get caught up in the Western's intricate web of characters.

As a consequence, after a few weeks, series creator David Milch's creative use of compound words became--if not wholly unobjectionable--considerably less the focus of discussion.

Similarly, it wasn't R-rated liberties that made "Sex and the City" compelling, which bodes well for TBS' acquisition and poorly for those who fixate on such trifles at the expense of the big picture.

People will never stop wanting to laugh, but my guess is slipping tawdrier dick jokes past the censors won't produce the next great comedy.

Like the nostalgic opening tune in "All in the Family," the sitcom might rather have to embrace its past in order to find the future.
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Title Annotation:Tuning In
Author:Lowry, Brian
Publication:Variety
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 14, 2004
Words:964
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