HBO's "Mind of the Married Man" is about as edgy as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Published January 23, 2002 6:23PM (EST)

It would be hard to determine how often the verb "jerk off" crops up in normal conversation among urban heterosexuals, but it can't be as often as it does in the HBO sex sitcom "The Mind of the Married Man," which just concluded its first season. The series, the brainchild of the comedian Mike Binder, is about a Chicago newspaper columnist in his 30s named Mickey Barnes (Binder), whose basically happy marriage to a beautiful English journalist named Donna doesn't prevent him from having stray thoughts about other women. (That's what's going on inside his mind.) In the pilot episode, Donna discovers some porn that Mickey has downloaded onto his laptop, and she flips out. This leads to a lot of wry jokes ("You may as well have cheated!") between Mickey and his two best buddies -- the henpecked, anxious Doug, and the compulsively womanizing Jake -- and, of course, to those many jokes about onanism.

But as you watch the pilot of HBO's latest creation, what strikes you about all the strenuously off-color repartee is just how striking it's intended to be. HBO has struck gold in the past few years with programming that's too raw for networks, and it's clear from the first few minutes of "The Mind of the Married Man" that the new show is going to exploit the freedom from censorship that cable programming offers. That may be what's wrong with it.

The question that the new show really raises isn't about what married guys think about their wives, or sex, or marriage, but whether the freedom to talk dirty is always necessary to creating more authentic television drama -- whether every new HBO series will feel obliged to feature "edgy" and explicit bits, whether they're appropriate or not. "The Mind of the Married Man" may think it's concerned with sex, but what it's really worried about is "Sex and the City."

There are two big problems with the show. The first is that the married man in question isn't so exceptional; despite the jerk-off jokes, the occasional arguments about anal intercourse and the glimpses of simulated fellatio and cunnilingus that it offers, "The Mind of the Married Man" is, at heart, squeaky clean. Mickey is a familiar TV type, a nice, middle-class, almost-middle-aged guy with nice, middle-class, almost-middle-aged problems.

And indeed, as you watch the series you find yourself wondering whether this is a mind you really need to explore. Mickey doesn't feel like changing the baby when he gets home from work. He hangs out with his work buddies at a local bar. He has a crush on his luscious new assistant, Missy (who, in his fantasies, talks dirty to him while he's in bed with his wife, and whom he fires, briefly, in the first episode because he fantasizes about her too much). He's happy that a column he's written riles the mayor. He's protective of Doug, who's the type to lose out on big promotions, and jealous of Jake, who likes to screw new hires in the elevator. He argues with Donna about whether their sex life is spicy enough. ("We should have anal sex right now," the beleaguered Donna snaps back. "Because I've got to do the dishes and put the baby to bed.") His friends are more sketchily drawn, but they're not all that different in their horny middle-class ambivalence: Doug likes his wife, Carol, to dress in sexy lingerie, but then worries about the bills and makes her change into something more sensible.

All of this may be tarted up with some R-rated trimmings, but it hardly matters. If "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" and, more recently, "Six Feet Under," have felt refreshingly textured and "real," it's because the rawness of what they showed you was organically connected to what they're about. The frustration of watching network TV shows about, say, lovelorn singles was that they never could show you in any meaningful detail what the singles were thinking about, which was sex and how to negotiate it; ditto for crime dramas, which were unable to show you, except by means of a kind of directorial shorthand, either the crimes themselves or, to any realistic degree, the repellent nastiness of the criminals.

It's for that reason that the sex on "Sex and the City" and the profanity and graphic violence on "The Sopranos" felt so satisfying: Those shows took advantage of the artistic license that cable programming offered to give you, at last, the full picture.

But "The Mind of the Married Man" is ultimately about as edgy as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was. Yes, you get to see Mickey go down on Donna in the third episode (she later returns the favor, and you get to see that, too), but moments like that are gratuitous, thrown in as a freebie; they don't really add to your understanding of who the characters are, as people, or what their inner selves really look like, any more than the carefully styled interiors of Mickey's apartment or office do. (The show is photographed in the same reverent sepias you associate with late-middle Woody Allen films -- "Alice," say -- and has a reassuringly comfy, bourgeois, righteous solidity. It's as if the characters from "thirtysomething" had decided to sublet "The West Wing.") If you took the discussions about rimming out of "Sex and the City," there'd be no show left -- no story to tell; if you took the arguments about buggery out of "The Mind of the Married Man," the episodes would just be a little shorter.

You could argue, of course -- and I'm sure the HBO execs do -- that what makes this show special, and worth taking a look at, is that it's the guy's answer to "Sex and the City": in it, we get to see, in all its explicitness, the inner workings of a guy's sex-soaked brain. "My mind just gets filled with a lot of really weird shit," Mickey tells the luscious Missy after he sheepishly rehires her; a full-color picture of just what that shit looks like is the whole reason Binder's show exists.

And it's presumably the justification for two puerile new Warner Brothers sitcoms, "Off Centre" and "Men, Women & Dogs," that are clearly knockoffs of Binder's new series (or, at least, inspired by the same creative impulse). One is about two former Oxford roommates sharing an apartment in lower Manhattan and looking for chicks; the other, about a group of guys who try to meet women at a dog run. (Neither gets much above the level of jokes about farts or about women who eat desserts.)

This brings you to the second big problem with the new series and its clones. For we already know what the insides of straight men's heads look like; they've been ramming it down our throats for the past 3,000 years. A lot, if not most, of the crackly, edgy energy that makes "Sex and the City" so popular is that it was the first TV show to represent, in graphic detail, the "really weird shit" that was floating around women's minds when they thought about men and sex. It's no accident that, however much the men in this show may rattle on about sex, the two funniest scenes in "The Mind of the Married Man" belong to the women: Donna's madcap riff about anal intercourse, and a hilariously deadpan monologue by Missy about ball-licking. However licentious the culture has gotten, there's still something subversive about women -- but not men -- being explicit about sex.

As long as that remains true, the allegedly brave new world of guy's-eye television shows doesn't seem all that brave. Certainly not as brave as what HBO has done with its other, genuinely innovative series, whose success the new one is so desperately trying to replicate, rather than just being what it really is at heart, which is a G-rated, prime-time sitcom. In ways that its creators can't have foreseen, "The Mind of the Married Man" ends up shedding light on the oldest male anxiety of them all: whether the other guy is better equipped. To the mind of this unmarried man, so far it looks like Carrie is much better hung than Mickey.

By Daniel Mendelsohn

Daniel Mendelsohn, the author of a memoir, "The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity," is the book critic for New York magazine.

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