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TELEVISION

The sins of 'Skin'

The series about a pornographer, a D.A. and their love-struck kids turns out to be a familiar blend of sound and fury.

October 19, 2003|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

How good, how true to life, does television need to be? Much of it -- most of it, probably -- is neither good nor true to life. Does it matter?

I have been thinking of this, because I have been thinking (perhaps too hard) about Jerry Bruckheimer's new series, "Skin," which debuts Monday and is not very good or true to life at all. It is made all of pasteboard and piles the ludicrous upon the unlikely on top of the intellectually sloppy. It has nevertheless generated a lot of buzz and whir because it is set partly against the background of the Southern California porn industry: Smut peddler's daughter falls for district attorney's son. Fathers clash. It's a high-concept project: "Romeo and Juliet" meets "Boogie Nights." High concept, of course, often means low substance. But none of these things are inimical to mass appeal. Perhaps they are what guarantee it.

Long ago, when double features and drive-ins still roamed the Earth, movies were divided into A pictures(like "Gone With the Wind") and B (like "The Blob"). What distinguished the "Bs" ultimately from the A's was that little was expected from them. It was taken for granted, by the people who made them and the people who watched them, that they would be slightly less good. They not only were cheaper than A pictures, but often less well acted, and very often less well written. No one expected them to be art (though occasionally they were anyway -- James Whale's "Frankenstein" or Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing"), or even smart.

The "Bs" faded in the age of television, which effectively took their place -- relative to the big screen -- as the medium of the less expensive, the less prestigious, the less good. (That television also produces work as good or better than what you can see at the movies has not dispelled the lingering notion that it is the lesser medium -- perhaps because it's free.)

Then, in the 1970s, the phenomenal success of "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which were essentially old Saturday morning serials writ expensively large, blurred the lines between the A and the B -- inverted them, in fact. Movies became roller coasters; they were assembled with an eye to centrifugal force. These films were expensive and sometimes full of stars, but they were B pictures under the glitz, depending on flashy effects and theater-rattling low frequencies to cover their plot holes, the flatness of their characters, the paucity of ideas.

Among the founders of this brave new world were Bruckheimer and his partner, the late Don Simpson -- the man some say invented "high concept" and who perfected the now-standard three-act Hollywood movie. With a few marked exceptions, Bruckheimer's career has been profitably devoted to the loud, fast, dumb, sexy, violent and sometimes flag-waving, from "Top Gun" and "Con Air" to this summer's monster hits "Bad Boys II" and "Pirates of the Caribbean." And he has successfully transferred this aesthetic to television, where his growing "CSI" franchise rivals that of "Law & Order" for size, and his brand has become as identifiable as Norman Lear's, Steven Bochco's or David E. Kelley's.

Now comes "Skin," which makes six Bruckheimer shows now running or scheduled. I would care to make no predictions about its success. On the face of it, it promised to be one of the fall season's most offbeat new shows. Though pornography itself is much alluded to on television, in sitcom jokes and cop-show plot lines, there has certainly never been a television series where one of the main characters is a pornographer, and certainly not one who is meant to be more or less likable. (Though real-life pornographer Adam Glasser, a.k.a. Seymore Butts, is the focus of a Showtime reality series, "Family Business.")

But it turns out to be not so offbeat after all -- just a familiar blend of sound and fury, of raised voices, overripe dialogue, locked antlers, jiggy pop tunes and MTV-style edits (at least 44 in the first minute). It pushes no significant edge and compared to the other Bruckheimer series is actually a model of decorum. Apart from a few girls dancing in theatrical underwear, and a bare back or two, it is relatively chaste. Practically "7th Heaven."

Of course, that it runs on a broadcast network and not on cable -- long a hotbed of, um, hot beds -- means that the pornography will be implicit.

Except for a fleeting reference to a "girl-girl" scene, "having sex" is as technical as the talk gets. Any random soap opera is hotter. But the producers -- Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman and creator Jim Leonard (of the short-lived though charming "Thieves") -- have said repeatedly that porn is not the point. Well, it may not be the point, but it is the hook.

A sloppy pilot

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