The Year of the Sex Olympics
by Trevor Byrne-Smith
So, imagine this: you’ve just created television, a great new medium that can broadcast weekly or even daily programming. This is great, right? Now, instead of being limited to the short time frame of a film, which is usually kept under two hours, you can actually create complex stories in weekly installments that span several years, allowing you to really delve into plot and characters. It’s a writer’s dream, right? Well, almost, because here’s the problem: in the “golden age” of television, shows aired once at one particular time and if you missed it because you had a doctor’s appointment, or you had to pick your kids up from school, or your husband pawned your television to pay his gambling debts, you missed the episode for good. So what good is a long, complex plot, then? If someone misses one episode, as they most likely always will, they’ll be lost, and they won’t understand the whole story.
This is not, of course, to say that nobody actually attempted to run a show in a serialized way, punishing all those who missed a single episode by leaving them in the dark on particular plot points. Hell, Guiding Light did this and remains, to this day, the longest running television show in the history of television and, arguably, the longest running narrative of any kind in history. Still, many people weren’t convinced—and some still aren’t—that it’s a good idea to make a television show serialized because people will miss an episode and get lost. This is why we’re inundated with so many CSIs, NCISs and Law and Orders that people now mistakenly believe they’re qualified to solve murder cases. These shows are made by those people who still believe that television shows should be designed so that you can sit down and watch any one episode at random, without having seen the episode before, or, in fact, any earlier episodes. It’s also the same logic that led to what is known as “television amnesia.” Ever watch every episode of a sitcom from the 80’s or 90’s and notice that the characters on the show had strangely short memories, and couldn’t remember anything that had happened in past episodes? That’s because the show was designed that way: the characters forgot everything that happened in past episodes so that you wouldn’t need prior knowledge of the show to follow the plot of any particular episode.
So what was the solution to having an audience that was likely to miss most episodes of your show? In the first few decades of television, the answer was the anthology series. Not only did you have a whole new story every week, you had a whole new set of characters. Anthology series were common in the early days of television, following in the tradition of radio drama anthology series such as CBS Radio Workshop or Mercury Theater on the Air. These radio anthology series were no stranger to science fiction shows like this, either. CBS Radio Workshop actually premiered with a radio adaptation of Aldous Huxley's science fiction novel Brave New World (which is not entirely unlike The Year of the Sex Olympics), and Mercury Theater on the Air was responsible for Orson Welles's infamous dramatization of War of the Worlds. Radio and television even had, in addition to these all-purpose anthology series, specialized science fiction anthology series like Dimension X and 2000+ on radio and of course The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits on television.
Of course, all of these examples I’ve just listed were from the United States, where nobody really trusted viewers’ attention span to follow a four panel comic strip all the way to the end, much less a long running television series. In American television, it wasn’t believed that anyone would watch a whole science fiction series with intricate plotlines and recurring characters. The Year of the Sex Olympics, on the other hand, aired on British anthology series Theatre 625 in 1968. These anthology series were perfect for these little tragic science fiction stories that make some sort of commentary about modern society, because you didn’t really need to create likable characters to try to entice people to tune in every week. Hell, have you ever seen an episode of The Twilight Zone that doesn’t fit this description? Didn't think so.
What’s really weird about this movie to me, and you’ll probably feel the same way, is that it’s shockingly sexual and dark for television in the 1960’s. I mean, seriously, in the same year that American television was giving us such inoffensive fare My Three Sons and Bewitched, people on British television were having sex competitions. And we call them prudish?
Well, a big part of that is because in England, the anthology series was granted more leeway in terms of what could be said and shown. Essentially, the anthology series was understood to be cutting edge, and viewers just accepted that, which was why the show’s writers and producers could get away with a whole show about sex on television. It’s also the reason they could get away with making an entire television play about the dangers of media long before 80’s and 90’s cyberpunk films took it to an annoying extreme, prompting every stoned philosophy major to ask his frat brothers “Dude, what if we really are in the Matrix?” (By the way, if you know anybody who still does that, please punch them in the face for me, okay?
Trevor Byrne-Smith is a doctoral student in media studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, with a particular research interest in television and popular culture. Additionally, he is a performance poet who has been on seven national poetry slam teams in southern New England. He enjoys writing, whether it’s academic writing, poetry, or even writing little articles for a fun website about television. If you Google his name, you will certainly not find that he ever wrote music reviews for a porn site when he was younger.
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