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On the Offensive : Showtime's satire on media and show-biz takes on family values

September 05, 1993|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A well-coiffed, tough-as-nails anchorwoman interviews actor Robert Hays, challenging him to defend his cable series' use of female nudity.

"Don't you feel the explicit sexual content of the show is merely for the sake of ratings?" she asks.

"I personally would never be involved in anything that stoops to lowbrow titillation. Would you?" Hays says.

Just then, she's shown dressed in sexy underwear. "Of course not," she says. "I'm a journalist."

This is "Sex, Shock and Censorship in the '90s," Showtime's entry into the news-magazine glut. It may have the look and feel of "20/20" or "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung," but this is a deadpan satire on all things media, the news-magazine format included.

The anchor is Fay Sommerfield (Shelley Long), ego-driven host of the fictitious "That Time of the Month," which is investigating the controversy over morality in entertainment.

"We spoof all aspects of pop culture that come under the family-values issue," says David Jablin, executive producer and director of the special. "We hit the politicians who made this a calling card to get media coverage. We hit the lawyers who use the press who use their clients to get publicity. We hit producers who have their own political agenda. It's just taken out of context and under the conceit of a network news-magazine, which itself is looking to get ratings."

As Sommerfield, Long goes for the jugular in interviews with subjects resembling the likes of director Spike Lee, attorney Alan Dershowitz and rap singer Ice-T.

"I get to really come across with this, 'Isn't this important? Aren't these ideas that you should be thinking about all the time, even when you go to the bathroom?' That sort of attitude," says Long, who was a magazine-show host at a Chicago station in her pre-"Cheers" days. "When I'm doing the interview, I get to be a little bit more charming. I loosen up a bit. Then I go in for the attack."

Like Long, more than 50 actors, including Hays, Julia Duffy, Alex Winter, Paul Benedict and Greg Evigan, have to play their roles as closely to the real thing as possible.

"We walk that thin line: Is it real or is it a spoof?" says Jim Mulholland, who wrote the script with partner Michael Barrie. "You just sort of twist it a little. The closer it gets, the funnier."

Among the targets: Evil baby-sitter horror flicks (this time, it's "The Granny") and "Basic Instinct" voyeuristic thrillers (in "Till Death Do Us Part," a man dumps his wife, she has plastic surgery and comes back wielding an ax).

The writing team, former monologue writers for Johnny Carson, used the family-values umbrella to satirize issues where "people are just fed up with something," says Barrie. "That's the time to attack it."

Hays, for example, portrays Martin Day in a takeoff of HBO's "Dream On," a comedy that almost always takes advantage of cable TV's loose rules to show the erotic daydreams and sex life of its lead character.

"It's the wit and the imagination of the writers to catch the cliches in shows that do the same thing over and over and over," says "Eating Raoul" director Paul Bartel, who portrays Martin's psychiatrist. Bartel's contribution to the family-values debate: He appears in drag in one of Martin's daydreams.

"That was very strange," Bartel says. "When I tried on the costume the other day, I had this terrible realization that I looked like my own grandmother."

The show also draws on recent controversies that have pitted religious fundamentalists against producers and directors.

Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," attacked for its depiction of Jesus as a man with lustful thoughts, is spoofed in a staging of The Last Supper, in which a "Godfather"-like Christ (Robert Pastorelli) challenges Judas to fess up to his betrayal.

"There's going to be a lot of things that people will find that are maybe a toe over the line of good taste," says Jablin, whose projects include Showtime's "Mastergate" and "The Ratings Game," two other satires on the media and controversial subjects. "We may offend some people, and we're going to make a lot of people laugh. I call it an equal-opportunity offender."

Jablin and others involved with the show are banking on their targets having good senses of humor, colleagues included.

Sitcom producer Lydia Fosdick-Cooper (Nora Dunn) comes awful close to "Designing Women" creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Fosdick-Cooper has to defend her latest sitcom, a politically correct family that eats vegetarian, wears red ribbons and chides the Reagan era.

"I better make some quick phone calls here before this comes out," Long says jokingly. "Sure, it will offend people I know. It will offend people I don't know. That's kind of fun about satire. We all take ourselves too seriously. Things like this are a good reminder of loosening up a little bit."

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