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Showtime bets on sex, rather than violence

Dominic West and Ruth Wilson of The Affair
Dominic West and Ruth Wilson of The Affair
Showtime

As a reminder, I'm at the summer Television Critics Association press tour through next week. If you're curious about what that means, read a quick explanation here. And follow my writing from the tour at my blog.

David Nevins, the president of Showtime, has been having a good last few years. Building off of the legacy built by his predecessor Robert Greenblatt (now running NBC), Nevins has brought a bunch of really good shows to the air, including Masters of Sex, the ‘50s and ‘60s-set series about sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson that is one of the best shows currently on TV. He's also put out some really bad ones, like House of Lies (the Don Cheadle vehicle that's too in love with its own amorality) and Ray Donovan (the Liev Schreiber show with some interesting things to say and too little of an idea about how to say them). Either way, he's successfully built the channel in his own image.

One of the ways he's done that is by subtly turning the channel's vision away from the "violence" portion of the "sex and violence" equation and toward the "sex" part. Shows like Masters, horror series Penny Dreadful, the upcoming The Affair (which is just what it sounds like), and even Homeland have pushed the envelope in terms of sexual content on pay cable series (at least ones that aren't specifically intended to be soft-core pornography), and they've all done so to great effect.

In particular, Masters and The Affair are interested in the ways that sex becomes a proxy for love or intimacy, how it becomes so easy for human beings to funnel those emotions and experiences into the process of having sex. Both series are unusually sophisticated emotionally in terms of understanding how hard it can be to understand another person, and how it becomes doubly hard when that means attempting to understand a relationship they're not already in.

When I asked him at today's TCA press tour executive session about the channel's pivot toward more sexually frank and mature situations in recent years, however, Nevins said that what he's looking for is that emotional depth, not an opportunity to have prurient nudity or something. "I think it's really interesting that we can get into that certain side of humanity and human relationships," Nevins said, before continuing along to say that he likes that these shows, including The Affair, are capable of using sex as a jumping off point to talk about other aspects of the human condition, rather than the whole reason the story exists.

Interestingly enough, Nevins said what interested him in The Affair wasn't getting to talk about sex or infidelity; it was getting to talk about marriage. He cited, in particular, Friday Night Lights, the much-loved series about a Texas high school football team that has also regularly been acclaimed as one of TV's best depictions of a long-lasting, stable marriage, instead of one that is constantly hitting speed bumps. (In his then-position as president of Imagine Television, Nevins was a part of the development process for that earlier show.) The line between the small-town drama of Friday Night Lights and the "erotic thriller" (Nevins's term) of The Affair might seem to be a long one, but he was surprisingly good at drawing it.

Also, seemingly alone among network presidents, Nevins doesn't seem particularly interested in producing anthology dramas. Nevins likes both HBO's True Detective and FX's Fargo, and he sees the appeal in getting to clear the board after one season and start all over with a new story and sometimes an entirely new cast. But while he wouldn't say he was inherently opposed to picking up one of these shows, he did say that he's attached to the idea of TV as a "renewable resource," with shows that go on and on for seasons on end. He even suggested Penny Dreadful and The Affair, shows that seem essentially unable to run infinitely, could run as long as five or six seasons.

This remains to be seen on a network whose biggest problem has always been bringing series to their natural end points. (No Showtime series has ended in a way that anyone could call "wholly satisfying.") But here, too, Nevins seems to be changing the culture of the network, at least a little bit Now, he said, the conversation about when to end a show takes place a year or two in advance of when that show ends. Plus, most of Showtime's series are very young. (The one exception here is Nurse Jackie.)

Realistically, this is a problem the network won't face for two or three years, when it comes time to wrap up Homeland (though many of that perpetually embattled show's fans would argue it should have wrapped long ago). And since Homeland is essentially doing a complete reboot this fall, which will involve its characters now working as spies in the field, that conversation might be postponed even longer, depending on the reception of season four.

Nevins's tenure at Showtime has been marked by its controversies, but most of them (including the famously terrible end of Dexter) are things set in motion by the people who preceded him. Now that he's largely out from under those decisions, with only Nurse Jackie left of scripted series that were on the air when he got to Showtime, it's time to see if he's capable of guiding a series toward some sort of safe harbor, as his counterparts at HBO and FX have proven themselves capable of, or if he's better at beginnings than endings.