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Fontana revisits the campus and co-ed life

Buffalo State College graduate Tom Fontana is going back to college for his new WB series, "The Bedford Diaries."

In the series, which premieres at 9 tonight on WNYO-TV, six good-looking students attend a fictional New York City college and are taking a seminar on human behavior and sexuality.

The students talk about their feelings in video diaries.

Fontana, the writer-producer best known for his work on "St. Elsewhere," "Homicide" and HBO's "Oz" is on familiar ground, having taught at his alma mater, Syracuse University, as well as Columbia University.

"It certainly made me feel like there were ample stories to tell," said Fontana in an interview in Hollywood. "It is a different experience than being in high school. All the issues have gotten more intense because the safety net is gone."

The class put together by Fontana and co-creator Julie Martin includes beautiful Sarah Gregory (Tiffany Dupont), the self-assured president of student government; her equally beautiful younger brother, Owen (Penn Badgely), a freshman lothario; Natalie Dykstra (Corri English), who survived a suicide attempt; Richard Thorne III (Milo Ventimiglia), the newspaper editor who has his own demons and is Natalie's ex-boyfriend; Lee Hemingway (Ernest Waddell), a scholarship student whose relationship with his girlfriend is threatened by his friendship with Zoe Lopez (Victoria Cartagena), a flirtatious scholarship student with a surprising sexual history.

The class is taught by Professor Jake Macklin, played by Matthew Modine.

The students are all WB beautiful, with Ventimiglia ("Gilmore Girls") and Badgely ("The Mountain") alumni of past WB series. Fontana said WB executives suggested Ventimiglia, who is represented by Fontana's agent, and Badgely. "It is a rare occasion when a network suggests an actor and you go, 'ohmygod they are absolutely right,' he said. "We fell in love with both of them instantly."

The seminar, the framing device for the eight-episode show, was chosen with the assistance of a good friend of Fontana's, who teaches at Columbia.

"We wanted to tell the truth about what it is like to go to college in 2006," said Fontana, noting the seminar enables freshmen through seniors to be in the class.

Of course, college life has evolved since he graduated from Buffalo State in 1973.

"People don't date anymore," said Fontana, who deals with it in an episode. "It is like a prehistoric notion."

TV has also come a long way since 1973, especially in dealing with sex. Fontana, however, said he realizes his series is premiering in conservative times. One critic in Los Angeles unfairly dubbed the series "The Sex Show," even though it is as much or more about love than it is about sex.

"It is about love and sex, when they cohabit and when they are in opposition to each other," said Fontana. "There are some very frank conversations and some silly conversations."

The FCC's recent fines couldn't have helped Fontana's side of the debate with network censors. The original pilot had some silhouetted nudity and frank words.

"The censors term is tonnage," said Fontana. "[They say] there is too much sex. There actually is very little visual sex. There is a lot of conversation about sex, which they object to as well. The program people have been very supportive."

Fontana was amused by the battle over a word used in Professor Macklin's speech that described a solo sex act in an abstinence episode. "You can't say the word even though it is a clinical word, not an obscenity," he said.

Fontana finds the debates with censors more irritating because the nature of the program suggested there would be adult material. "I pitched a show about a sexual behavior seminar. If you didn't want to do this, why ... did we get here?"

He found things haven't advanced since he fought similar battles on "St. Elsewhere."

"I don't blame the censors. I blame the climate of fear coming out of the FCC fines, fundamentalist Christians [who ask viewers to] push a button and send a protest to the FCC. This is a much bigger problem than my little TV show. This is about freedom of expression. The wonderful thing about television is it has room for everybody. There is an attempt to keep people from being creative, expressing themselves -- and I think that's the scarier question."

Fontana notes that the professor doesn't advise his students to experiment and "go crazy," but to make choices, think about what they are doing and to be open-minded.

"At least there is a sense of morality tied to [the sex on the show]," said Fontana. "There is an awareness. The reason that [Professor Macklin] is teaching the class is to get them to deal with their own sexuality in an honest and responsible, loving, caring, intelligent way. Now if the Family Research Council has a problem with that..."

Of course, the students make mistakes and lessons are learned. Over three episodes made available for review, a believer in casual sex discovers the advantages of love and a romantic discovers how unfulfilling and empty casual sex can be.

"It is about her evolution as a woman coming to understand it," said Fontana. "She's not hiding her sexuality, she's trying to define her sexuality."

The word "provocative" has been so strongly associated with the show that it could be called "The Provocative Bedford Diaries."

"It [is provocative] in the sense that we're asking the questions and the characters are actually talking about it and acting upon it," said Fontana. "I don't think it is provocative in that this is some kind of new message. I believe in love and I believe in sex. And sometimes they come together beautifully and sometimes they don't. And every life is different and every life needs to be lived differently. So as long as you have the right kind of understanding of what you are doing, then you should be able to make the choices you want."

Parents concerned about the show's content have the choice of keeping "Bedford" away from their children. What would Fontana say to them?

"There is nothing in this show that a caring, informed parent would not want to discuss with their child," said Fontana. "This is not a public service announcement. But who knows, it may spark a conversation that the parents should be having. Maybe they won't want to have the conversation. There isn't anything in any episode that I would say to the parents of teenagers, cover your eyes."

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com