Television will be talking a little tougher in the new fall season that begins officially Sept. 17. Tougher -- and rougher. The escalated language doesn't qualify as indecent or obscene, but the writers of prime-time TV shows have been given more leeway in what they, through their characters, can say.
The example most often cited is the CBS sitcom "Uncle Buck," based on the movie starring John Candy. At the very beginning of the first show, a little girl named Maisie shouts at her brother, "Miles, you suck!"
Other words and phrases that come up in the premiere include "slimebucket," "freckle-butt," "wuss" and "scuzzball." The school principal complains to Uncle Buck, who is guardian of Maisie and her siblings, that "she referred to me as 'a sack.' " To which Uncle Buck responds, "A sack of what?"
The studio audience laughs because they all know what's in the sack. They can supply the missing word earlier, too, when Maisie says, "I call that a pile of ..."
Some critics registered shock when they saw the "Uncle Buck" pilot at a CBS press event this summer. The language isn't as bad, arguably, as what one might hear in real life, but much of it is spoken by children, and the show airs at 8 p.m. Eastern time, a period known years ago as the "family hour."
With the arrival of "Uncle Buck," the "family hour" is officially killed for about the 40th time. Fox was among those that previously killed it with its ribald and racy "Married ... With Children." In fact, one CBS executive has said that "Uncle Buck" is merely following a trail that Fox blazed. This is not something to be particularly proud of.
On a new episode of Fox's raucous, satirical series "In Living Color" that aired at 8 p.m. Sunday, a parody of "I Love Lucy" included sexual double-entendre involving words like "ball," "balls" and "box." Sometimes, "In Living Off-Color" would be a more appropriate title.
There are signs that "sucks," meanwhile, will be something of a byword this season. David Letterman has been saying "Steinbrenner Sucks" for years, but his show airs in late night. Now the term turns up in prime-time shows like the recently aired premiere of NBC's medical anthology "Lifestories." A doctor asked a cancer patient, "So, life sucks?" The patient replied, "Life has never so totally sucked."
Words describing bodily functions will be getting a bit more frank this season, with many an old euphemism now discarded. "Do me a favor, willya -- pee in this cup for me?" asks the father of the title character on the CBS sitcom "Lenny." On ABC's "Cop Rock," an anguished suspect being grilled by police implores, repeatedly, "I gotta pee, man!"
Elimination is something of a motif on "Cop Rock." On the same episode, two cops have a long conversation while standing at urinals. "Oh man, I gotta go to the urologist again," one says, after a glance downward. "Cop Rock" is a drama with music, but the men do not sing while urinating. At least not on the first show.
ABC's excellent new crime series "Gabriel's Fire" tries for raw realism too. So on the first show, among his other gritty remarks, star James Earl Jones growls, "I'm a con. That's one level below dog crap." Oh.
While the school principal made a speech on the recent premiere of NBC's dumb sitcom "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," one member of the student body called out, "Up yours!" Expressions like that used to be verboten on Das Tube.
Even otherwise innocuous sitcoms like ABC's dull "Married People" might resort to shock language for easy laughs. At the end of the "Married People" premiere, the middle-aged wife of a man named Nick says, "Nick, you're a lyin' son of a bitch, but I love you."
CBS will score something of a breakthrough in prime time when the heroine of its new drama series "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," played by Sharon Gless, declares she's going to have her breasts "fixed" or maybe just "fluffed" -- but the word she uses is not "breasts." It's a four-letter slang word that rhymes with Ritz.
Will blunter, cruder language anger pressure groups who monitor the networks? Probably. But who cares? Everything angers these groups. A minister in Mississippi recently filed a complaint with the FCC because photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe were shown during a newscast in Boston.
The question is not whether the nuts will rant, but whether the mainstream audience will object, and the likelihood is it won't.
For better or worse -- probably the latter -- viewers are becoming more accustomed to hearing this kind of language in broadcasting, partly from watching Fox, partly from watching cable, partly from listening to shock jocks on the radio.
Language cannot corrupt people or imperil souls. But when one barrier after another gives way in prime time, and the list of permitted words and phrases is lengthened further and further, this can be seen as contributing to a form of environmental pollution.
Producers of some of the shows using crude language might say they are trying to paint harsh portraits of modern life. The question is whether they are documenting moral decline or contributing to it.
After a heavy dose of the new vulgarities this fall, viewers may be inclined to agree with the "Cop Rock" cynic who laments, "It's a great big dirty world, and if they say it ain't, well, they're lyin'." Television won't make the world any bigger this season, but it may make it dirtier.