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HOWARD ROSENBERG

TV Puts Up 'Fences' on Gay Themes

April 28, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Television is much more receptive to acts with safety nets than to soaring acrobats, and when its Walking Wallendas do spring a few inches off the ground, the industry Establishment usually gasps and clutches its chest.

For example:

The setting is the bedroom of Kimberly Brock. She and her friend, Lisa Fenn, are in nightclothes, sitting on two mattresses that have been pushed together on the floor.

The 16-year-old girls kiss on the lips. They break. They look at each other. They kiss again, this time more intensely. They break again and, startled, roll onto their backs.

That was the scene that executive producer David E. Kelley wrote to open "Sugar and Spice . . . ," the provocative episode of "Picket Fences" airing at 10 p.m. Thursday on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).

But viewers won't see it.

What they will see is something different, a room with two figures blurrily submerged almost entirely in darkness, briefly accompanied by sounds of kissing. And then. . . .

Lisa: "Well, that was interesting."

Kimberly: "Yeah, interesting."

Less interesting, though, than CBS' insistence that the relatively benign original scene showing these girls sexually kissing be "softened." The network's aim, according to Kelley and co-executive producer Michael Pressman, was to avoid a rash of affiliate stations refusing to carry the episode.

Hence, the kiss-hiding shroud of darkness.

This is not a cosmic incident in the life of television or even in the life of this smart and beguiling series, which, with the possible exception of NBC's outgoing "Quantum Leap," takes a back seat to no entertainment program when it comes to picking dicey topics to dramatize. Already this season, for example, "Picket Fences" has touched on fetal tissue transplants, animal cruelty, religious freedom and polygamy--the latter three in the same hour. That episode, in which the apparent father of a pregnant teen-ager turned out to be her husband, was boycotted by stations in Salt Lake City and Seattle.

What the kissing incident does affirm, however, is that even in the afterglow of Sunday's massive gay rights march in Washington, homosexuality remains an extremely touchy issue not only for Neanderthal military leaders but also for some of the deep thinkers who make decisions about what Americans see on television.

To date, the Salt Lake City station is the only CBS affiliate refusing to air the slightly revised "Sugar and Spice . . . ," which finds small-town Wisconsin parents Jimmy and Jill Brock (Tom Skerritt and Kathy Baker) in a big sweat over the possible sexual orientation of their gorgeous daughter, Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs).

"God, listen to us," Jill, a thoughtful, sensitive physician, says to her genial sheriff husband. "We're two liberal people, we champion gay rights, we refuse to vacation in Colorado. But the thought that our own daughter could be. . . ."

You don't have to be psychic to finish her sentence, and presumably some of the 20 million to 25 million Americans who regularly watch "Picket Fences" will be nodding empathetically and thinking, "There but for the grace of God. . . ."

Typical of "Picket Fences," Thursday's episode is multifaceted, juxtaposing Kimberly's tenuous, fleeting sexual probing on the home front with a "B" plot about Jimmy's sexual bias at the office, where his male-favoring search for an underchief becomes a metaphor for banning gays in the military.

As tame as they are, however, it's the opening smooches--preceded by an almost platonic touching of lips by the two girls--that put CBS on red alert. As the episode progresses, it's apparent that Lisa has a crush on the confused Kimberly, whose own feelings are ambivalent. Having electronically bugged her room, Kimberly's mischievous little brother is the one who blabs about the two girls to Jill.

There's nothing erotic or gratuitous here. So the network's response to the opening scene surprised the producers. "They've been very hands-off in terms of content," Pressman said. "We've done other things more controversial. They didn't ask for any changes in the polygamy show."

CBS executives insisted they personally didn't object to the initial kissing depiction, Kelley said, but feared an adverse reaction from affiliates. "In other words, no one's taking responsibility for being offended," he notes.

"The network did not want to be graphic about teen-age girls kissing," Kelley said. "We basically agreed to shoot the back of the heads so you wouldn't see touching lips. But they asked if we could fade out before the second (more intense) kiss so that viewers wouldn't see anything. We told them that if you fade out before the kiss, you're not telling (the audience) where it ends." In other words, inquiring minds would run wild.

Then the network suggested letting viewers join Kimberly's brother in merely eavesdropping on the girls. The producers resisted that too.

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