'The Bedford Diaries': Censor Deprivation

Matthew Modine as a professor at Bowdler -- oops, Bedford -- University in
Matthew Modine as a professor at Bowdler -- oops, Bedford -- University in "The Bedford Diaries" on the WB. (By Eric Liebowitz -- Wb Via Ap)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Which version of "The Bedford Diaries" do you plan to watch -- or to miss? Thanks to the FCC and its quixotic censorship bender, two are available. One premieres tonight on the WB. The other is already streaming into homes via the Internet -- a "webisode" that is safe, for now, from the government.

The difference between the two versions amounts to barely two minutes of footage. Fearful of possible intrusions by the Bush administration's busybody FCC and of the outrageous fines that go with them, the WB reportedly ordered changes in the show, and the producers (who include Barry Levinson) complied.

Because the series is about college students enrolled in a class about "Sexual Behavior and the Human Condition," it does seem feasible that the subject of sex might come up -- and because this is television, it might even be illustrated. "Ever since Adam and Eve first saw each other naked in the Garden of Eden," a professor lectures, "sex has been an intrinsic part of our humanity."

Until George W. Bush. The commission recently slapped CBS with a $3.6 million fine for a December 2004 episode of the popular crime drama "Without a Trace." The episode dealt with teenagers and sex and, according to reports, included a scene that intimated the teenagers were engaged in group sex and other variations on the norm. There was no nudity, but the fine was levied nevertheless.

You'd have to be awfully naive not to suspect that these capricious fines aren't politically motivated, and that the reason CBS suffered far more condemnation than any other network has something to do with a grievance held by members of the administration or the White House itself.

Whatever the motivation, the WB is taking no chances. A montage early in the premiere of "Bedford Diaries" that showed students engaged in sexual activity has been trimmed considerably. Among the shots removed: one brief peek at girl-on-girl kissing, and a shot in which a young woman reaches down into her jeans, apparently for the purpose of pleasuring herself. No pleasuring is actually shown.

As part of their homework, students are given video cameras with which to record thoughts and reflections about their sexual histories and attitudes. Cut from the final version airing tonight is a young woman's recollection that her sexual past includes "oral, mostly giving, mostly guys." But those words are spoken in the version making its way around the Web. And a trend is developing: to see the uncensored version of a TV show, music video or movie, and escape the influence of the FCC, a viewer must repair to the Internet and download the supposedly steamy scenes.

The FCC has not censored "The Bedford Diaries." It doesn't operate like the industry-operated Motion Picture Association of America's code authority, which offers "suggestions" for cuts in films, often at the script level, so producers can avoid an R or NC-17 rating -- scars of shame that limit films to adult audiences and thus limit the box-office take, as well.

But unquestionably, the FCC's new activism -- threatening and levying enormous fines even for unscripted moments on live shows, such Janet Jackson's infamous peekaboo at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show -- has had the proverbial chilling effect on networks and producers.

The uncensored version of "The Bedford Diaries" is neither shocking nor salacious. But the WB -- soon to merge with UPN and be known as the CW Television Network -- didn't want to take chances. A handful of complaints can spur an FCC investigation, or a member of the commission can propose punitive action essentially on a whim.

As far as the quality of "The Bedford Diaries," it's not exactly lacerating drama. The student characters seem weak and inauthentic, and many of the actors look as though they're going through college for the third or fourth time. The dialogue includes such venerable perennials as (boy to girl) "God, you're attractive when you're angry," plus occasional servings of politically correct corn -- as when a young woman, angered by a cop's attempt to give her a ticket, loudly charges him with "gender and sexual-orientation profiling." Merciful heavens!

One young woman on campus has a reputation with a capital R, but not because of sexual promiscuity. No, she's renowned for having attempted suicide by leaping from the roof of a campus building and surviving. A young man who meets her and develops a quick crush talks about the sexiness of attempted suicide in his video diary and says, "There is something very hot about that kind of crazy." The girl herself, Natalie (Corri English), notes that after surviving a suicide, "your body talks to you in a whole new way."

That the students in the class -- actually a seminar -- are given video cameras for their diaries brings to mind "TV 101," a drama series about video-hip high school kids; it aired briefly on CBS in 1988 and seemed more credible, if not more compelling, than "Bedford Diaries."

The cast includes smug Milo Ventimiglia as Richard Thorne III, editor of the campus newspaper and Natalie's date the night before she jumped off the roof; Ernest Waddell as Lee Hemingway, one of the few African Americans at the college, and the chosen sexual prey of randy Zoe Lopez (Victoria Cartagena).

Among those serving on the faculty are Audra McDonald, a great actress who is too big for her skimpy role as a political-science teacher, and the often-irritating Matthew Modine as the teacher who runs the sex seminar. Also worth mentioning are Pepper Binkley as April Jensen and Jolly Abraham as Tasha Bettencourt. They're worth mentioning because their names are so darn cute.

It's possible, of course, that the WB has trumped up its own stir about possible fines and post-broadcast censorship for "Bedford Diaries" premiere to generate publicity and make the FCC look ridiculous. The publicity will do no harm, and the FCC looks ridiculous already. Ridiculous -- but dangerous.

The Bedford Diaries (one hour) debuts tonight at 9 on Channel 50.

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