I grew up loving movies. It was the 80’s and 90’s - the heyday of great stories being played out on the big screen.
As an adolescent boy, a large part of what attracted me to movies was the frequent presence of topless women. Now, I'm not proud of this, but it did help me notice something: as nudity steadily started to disappear from the average action movie, it started to turn up more often on television. And accompanying this migration was a sudden rise in the quality of TV shows. Of course, nudity does not create quality, but it is often a marker of something that does: risk-taking.
There was a time when a little nudity was nearly a foregone conclusion in certain types of films. From Kate Winslet, to Julianne Moore, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, movies used to be a little less shy.
But over the past few years, we've seen movies decline in quality as studios have been forced to make movies safer for a broader audience. The average blockbuster has been tamed by things like studios' fear of the dreaded R rating and subtle pressure from Chinese government censors. Simply put, movies can’t afford to take the risks they used to.
Meanwhile, TV has found an audience hungry for intense plot twists, shocking character decisions, and — not surprisingly — nudity. Modern TV is showing more skin and sex to drive compelling stories forward.
HBO and premium cable have been leading the way on this front. From characters that make us uncomfortable, to actions that make us sick, to plot twists we never thought possible, they continue to produce groundbreaking content. And accompanying all this, of course, has been plenty of nudity. From The Sopranos to Game of Thrones, HBO has taken big risks — and taken plenty of clothes off.
While the inclusion of nudity can easily veer towards gratuitous, the best TV shows use sex and nudity to the benefit of their character development, tension, and conflict.
For example, the non-sexualized nudity during an important shower scene in Orange is the New Black helps the audience more acutely empathize with sense of alien humiliation that Piper Chapman feels.
Homeland's Carrie Matheson's manic-depressive compulsion for rampant (albeit brief) unprotected sex adds a needed level of complexity to an otherwise standard government agent with emotional problems.
In Breaking Bad, Skyler and Walt's birthday "sex" is undeniably humiliating for Walt; were the scene less graphic, it would not be nearly as pathetic.
Network TV is notably absent from this trend. While the networks have put forth plenty of great shows, they've been forced to take several steps back from the days of showing Dennis Franz's butt on air. The majority of this comes as blow-back from one single "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show.
Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction this one incident continues to influence content today. Network TV shows might be more safe and formulaic because of a few frames of Janet Jackson's breast, and the networks are still less likely to take risks than are their cousins in cable. It's unlikely that this trend will change, as the challenges of the broadcast business model continue to demand a broader audience.
Overall, the shows we talk about the most are the ones that aren't afraid to chop off a few heads, execute a few prisoners, and throw a little sex on the screen. While those tropes aren't intrinsically related to storytelling, they do add to the arsenal that good storytelling has at its disposal.
Good shows take risks on many levels. But if you want a simple way to gauge which have the greatest and most challenging content, look to the shows that are bold enough to take some clothes off.