We watch... so you don't have to.

Real Sex, Real Cable

In the past I was not an enthusiastic fan of cable. A few years ago when I first moved out of college I didn't get cable in our apartment right away. I just didn't watch enough TV; I was perfectly happy with broadcast channels. But when my wife Dawn and I were in Florida on our honeymoon at Universal Studios we were chosen for one of those audience tests where they show some random bunch of people a new show and use their reactions to, in theory, improve the show. The new show we saw was Chicago Hope and when it ended up on the fall schedule that year we felt somewhat parental towards it. We wanted to see Chicago Hope succeed.

The operative word here being "see." It turned out that, despite being a mere eight miles outside of the broadcasting capital of the planet, New York City, we could not receive a decent enough signal for watching CBS. I am ordinarily very picky about picture and sound quality -- I won't watch anything with any more than very slight noise -- and this picture was like a moving cave painting. Perhaps, I admitted, it was time we considered cable.

But we only ordered basic cable. I had no use for the premium channels. If I wanted to see a movie I could rent it. And anyway, over the years of living with my parents I had noticed a trend: Premium channels would all show fantastic movies all the time; so fantastic that we'd order them. Whereupon they'd show only abominations like "Critters II" and "Police Academy" movies so far beyond the pale even Steve Guttenberg could not be convinced to be in them. Then we'd stop paying for the channels and they'd begin playing great movies again. It was therefore as something of a public service that I failed to buy any premium cable channels.

Alas, I did not know what I was missing. And I didn't find out for a long time. Not until one sleepless night at my mother-in-law's.

It was late on a Saturday night. I couldn't sleep in the lumpy little bed I always had to suffer whenever we visited my mother-in-law. I slipped out and went downstairs and, lacking anything else to do, turned on the television. My mother-in-law, despite sometimes even failing to pay her long-distance phone bill, always had a few premium channels: HBO, Cinemax, some others.

It was then that I found a reason to get premium channels: Sex. There it was, plastered across the TV screen. Sex and more sex and extra sex thrown in. Sure, USA tosses on quasi-sexy movies late at night, but they're edited all to pieces. MTV and VH1 only go so far, assuming they're even showing videos, something personal research discloses is highly unlikely. And, although watching E!'s Wild on the... series fills an important hole in my soul -- the one where Spring Break should have been but never was -- often they spend too much time talking about how wild things are and not actually showing them. But HBO -- now there's something.

I had turned on a program called something like Real Sex. The program consisted of these little documentaries about real people and their bizarre sex lives. When I say real people, of course, I don't mean people like you and me. No one wants to see anything to do with our sex lives because they are boring and pedestrian, not to mention ugly and, for at least some of us -- not that I'm speaking from personal experience here -- rather uneventful. I mean real compared to the stars of pornographic movies who, while I'm certain are actual human beings and not simulacrums, mostly look as if they've been popped from the same injection mold. If you'll forgive a turn of phrase.

No, these were real people, and somehow that made them all the more titillating. Far from being airbrushed and pumped to perfection, the people on this show were charmingly human -- like the people in your office, only without clothes. Bared in all their stretch-marked, sagging, pimply, pale, and occasionally hairy glory, these people engendered a strong feeling of neighborliness -- as if you spotted the elderly couple next door engaged in ecstatic rumpy-pumpy in the shallow end of their in-ground pool.

Except one would hope that your neighbors are not quite this weird. The most disturbing vignette I saw that night concerned two absolutely beautiful young women. When first the camera saw them they were giving each other a bubble bath -- just the stuff of many an adolescent soft-core coming-of-age movie. Then the two of them stood up revealing -- penises.

Chicks with dicks! This was what premium cable was about right here. Where else could one get such a wealth of information about such a subject? For example, when asked how they kept their schwings from schwinging while posing as women, they demonstrated that they tuck their penises back between their butt-cheeks. They tuck them. Who can tuck their penis? Mine certainly doesn't tuck. It barely points. I do not have to tell you how embarrassing it is to discover, at two o'clock in the morning, that somewhere in the world is a beautiful woman who is better hung than you are.

Nevertheless, it's moments like this that make life interesting. It pays to be disturbed and to ask yourself questions. The most beautiful of the two, who in no way looked even remotely masculine until he dropped his pants -- or lifted up his skirt, anyway -- explained that most men he picked up in bars and brought home didn't even slow down upon discovering that this woman had a penis. Which makes one pause and search one's own soul -- purely for academic purposes, of course -- and ask, if that happened to one, would one just keep going or would one run screaming from the room? I mean, one has already made out with the guy -- isn't the worst over? Or is it?

Probing these facets of one's personality takes on great importance at two in the morning. And it's good to know HBO is there to help. But still I held out against buying any premium channels. I didn't know I was about to be outflanked.

When we moved into our new home recently we found ourselves leaving the warm embrace of the Comcast family of cable products and entering the cold and clammy grip of TCI Cablevision. Cablevision is in all respects a sad, weak, annoying little sister in comparison with Comcast. But with one incomprehensible difference: HBO and STARZ! are, for reasons entirely mystifying to me, unscrambled over the wire. No box needed. No premiums to pay. Just there, right over your cable-ready TV.

I therefore spent many a bleary-eyed night stopping by HBO just in case there were breasts in evidence. But to no avail. Boxing, Dennis Miller somehow not shilling for a phone company, more boxing, interminable previews for all the great movies they were showing sometime else, and Tracey Ullman, who is to sex as light bulbs are to underwear.

Until last Thursday. Just before bed my wife and brother-in-law (who lives with us in a manner entirely unlike a sitcom) and I were watching TV and, at random, I tuned to HBO before turning the TV off for the night. And there they were: Breasts! Butts! Stripping! Wiggling! Interviews with enlightened Europeans in their dens of iniquity!

"Well, we'll leave you to your fun," intoned my wife as she and her brother headed upstairs to their respective bedrooms.

Instantly all the fun drained out of it. No way was I going to sit down here and watch Sex TV while my wife and brother-in-law were upstairs knowing what I was watching. I would feel some small part of their attention weighing on me, judging me, feeling around in the darker recesses of my brain and clucking at the filth in the corners. I could in no sense bear that kind of burden. With a great sigh in my heart -- or at least somewhere in my torso -- I shut the TV off and went up to sleep. My months of anticipation went unrequited.

It was but a few days later that the demons of sleeplessness beset me once more. I wandered downstairs and, as usual not finding anything constructive to do after midnight on a weekday, started wandering through the television wasteland that is basic cable. My usual tour brought me nothing: VH1 was still playing some Before They Were Behind the Hard Rock in Jeopardy Storytelling About Their Timeline. MTV was as incomprehensible as it has been ever since I aged out of their 18-24 target demographic. Comedy Central was playing repeats of repeats of repeats. E! was showing something to do with someone who was or would be famous but nevertheless was thoroughly uninteresting and thoroughly clothed.

Having exhausted my usual rounds I made my way to lesser-travelled paths and thence to HBO. And there my prayers for surcease from boredom were answered with a hearty dose of naked licentiousness. That night's episode: A documentary on how the Real Doll is manufactured in parallel with a graphic demonstration of how at least one couple makes use of a Real Doll. This was followed by a piece on a Tantric retreat where several couples massage each other's buttocks and swim in the pool together until they have twenty-minute eye-rolling orgasms. On camera. The next short film took us inside a couples-only club in the Netherlands which starts with people in their lingerie drinking and dancing to stunningly bad Europop and then moves on to everyone's running off to have group sex in variously themed rooms, including my personal favorite, the Dark Room, which is, as the name implies, completely dark. Pardon me, were those your buttocks on my face?

The final piece was the one that really got to me, though. That was the one that brought on that night's soul-searching question. It was a film about a couple, he a transvestite and she just a little odd. They both sing lead for a band called the Impotent Sea Snakes who, as near as I can figure, play very loud music while various people have sex on, near, and around the stage. This couple were married at something called the Exotic Erotic Ball in San Francisco. This ball consists, again as near as I can figure, of various people wearing strange costumes and having sex on, near, and around a stage, a bar, and a cameraman. And one guy hanging from hooks through the skin of his back. My favorite moment was when the piano player explained that she'd had sex on top of, underneath, and in front of her piano, but never while playing it, so she was looking forward to making the attempt that evening. And she did, and with gusto, too.

And the soul-searching question of the evening: How come I don't get invited to parties like that?

Never mind the answer. The important thing is I don't need an invitation, because I have cable. And that's enough for me.


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