Sex and Consequences: Reflections of a TV Writer


This article originally appeared in Issue# 46

Editor's note: The sexual awakening of James at 15 was tough on Dan Wakefield, creator of the innovative and critically acclaimed 1977-78 NBC series. It cost him his job. Wakefield quit the show after NBC's Broadcast Standards Department censored the word "responsible" - a euphemism for birth control - used in an episode in which James was to lose his virginity. Ironically, the segment had been ordered by the network programmers to lift sagging ratings. Wakefield is a journalist and novelist as well as a scriptwriter. His latest book, Returning: A Spiritual Journey is available in hardback from Doubleday and paperback from Penguin.

In the following interview, Media&Values' Ira Rifkin talked with Wakefield about James at 15 and the changes in TV's handling of teen sexuality in the decade since the show was cancelled.

M&V: Where does James at 15 fit into the history of TV's treatment of teenagers and sexuality?

Wakefield: Prior to James, teenage life was only portrayed in the non-serious and non-respectful manner of a sitcom, or a comic fantasy like Happy Days, which was nice but still a comic fantasy. We tried to do a show that was real. We were trying to deal with teenagers not as funny sitcom characters, but as real people with real problems.

Additionally, our show was from James's point of view. Previously, TV always looked at teenagers from the parents' point of view and the attitude that kids were cute and funny.

M&V: You ran into problems in the area of sexuality almost immediately, did you not?

Wakefield: Yes. The pilot for the show had James and his family moving from Oregon to Boston. One of the things I wrote about was a decision by James and his girlfriend to make love for the first time before he left town. They never did get around to it, but there was a scene in which James has a talk with a male friend and asks to borrow "that thing you carry around in your wallet and never use," and the friend says, "You mean old be- prepared?"

The NBC censors said we couldn't do that, but the producers shot it anyway and the scene was in the version shown to the reviewers. They singled it out as one of the best things about the pilot. But when the program aired on TV that scene was cut.

M&V: Do you see any problems with TV's penchant for cute euphemisms when it comes to sexuality?

Wakefield: Euphemisms can give a message that sex is something bad or at least embarrassing to talk about. But that's what people do in life when discussing a charged subject, so there's nothing wrong with teenagers using euphemisms on a TV show. It's the context in which the words are used and the overall values of the show that determine whether a euphemism is harmful or appropriate.

M&V: How about the amount of information? Is there a danger of young people learning too much about sex from TV even when the information is stated sensitively and realistically?

Wakefield: Obviously, there's always the danger that the information can be misused or misunderstood. But I think the overriding danger is ignorance. Also, I think that producers and writers are, by and large, very responsible people who try to put behavior into a context that portrays its consequences. That's the best you can do.

M&V: What changes have you noticed in the way TV deals with teenagers and sex in the decade since James at 15?

Wakefield: I've noticed a willingness to be real. Since James many shows have been good, open, natural and responsible in dealing with the issue of sex and teenagers. Kate & Allie, Valarie, The Bronx Zoo, Cagney & Lacey, the made-for-TV movie Daddy and others have dealt frankly with the problem of teenage sex and unplanned pregnancies.

M&V: What prompted this change?

Wakefield: After talking to some of the writers and producers of these shows, it's very clear to me that his has occurred because of what is happening in the world. The taboo about talking about condoms, for example, was broken because of AIDS. AIDS is such a serious problem that television could no longer avoid talking about them.

M&V: What about abstinence? Have the networks given that approach a fair hearing?

Wakefield: In my talks with producers and writers about presenting sexuality responsibly, they always say they never show a teenager having casual sex. Instead, they always portray teenagers talking about whether they are in love and asking whether they should wait until they are committed. But when I asked if anyone had thought of having the young characters discuss waiting until marriage, nobody had thought of that alternative.

M&V: What does that say to you?

Wakefield: I think that some portion of the teenage population does ask the question, "Should we wait until marriage?" But it was interesting to me that the mores of society, at least in television terms, have changed so much that these writers and producers thought the question irrelevant if they were to do a realistic show. Television does reflect the mores of the culture, even if it picks up changes later than other kinds of media. So a statement like that actually represents a tremendous cultural shift.

M&V: Do you have any suggestions for improving TV fare in this area?

Wakefield: More creative freedom. As I've said, the people who actually work on the shows - the writers, the producers - are extremely responsible and talented people. I think all the complaints about television come from its curious internal system, with so many people telling you what to do. When we were doing James we felt we had to satisfy at least three different sets of opinion: the studio (in this case Fox), the network programming people, and the network standards and practices department. As you try to satisfy all those different viewpoints, shows sometimes get very watered down and silly. One reason thirtysomething is so successful is because the network has left its producers alone to do their thing. Hire responsible, creative people and then let them be.

M&V: How would you rate the overall handling of sex on TV?

Wakefield: I think television is somewhat more responsible in its treatment of sexual issues than the general run of movies, and certainly more so than the general run of pop-rock music entertainment. It has to be, because it's in the home. The networks are aware of that. Any kid can go out and buy a record, but in the home the parents also get a vote.

M&V: Speaking of thirtysomething, how would you script Hope and Michael educating their daughter about sex when she gets older?

Wakefield: I feel I don't have to suggest how they should deal with that because I know how they'll do it. When I look at thirtysomething I don't see twisted values. I don't see lies and distortions. I see real reflections of human behavior in a contemporary setting. If they deal that way with each other, they'll deal that way with their daughter.