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TV needs an infusion of better raunch

How does the song go, "Bad boys, bad boys/Whacha gonna do?/Whacha gonna do when they come for you?"

Raunch, for one thing, isn't the answer.

These are very bad days for raunch on the TV dial -- even cable. When "Californication" returns to Showtime on Sept. 11, things may improve a whit. (I still find the show the funniest thing on television, by far.)

But HBO's "Hung" is set to return on Sunday, and frankly I couldn't care less. I stopped watching it after five episodes last season even though its executive producer and occasional director is the brilliant filmmaker Alexander Payne ("About Schmidt," "Election," "Citizen Ruth").

MTV now has its own version of the show -- let's call it "Hung Jr." -- called "Hard Times of R.J. Berger" (Mondays at 10 p.m., but constantly rerun and always available online) about an extremely nerdy teenager whose pants and athletic supporter suddenly desert him during a basketball game, leaving him revealed to the whole school as someone who had been hiding a large anatomical secret. His life henceforth is what the whole series is ostensibly about, yes, but, just as "Hung" is really about competing business models in the escort-for-hire business, "Hard Times of R.J. Berger" is, despite a few unprintable episode titles, about such things as tyrannical jock cliques in high school and the embarrassments that lay in wait for those performing high school plays.

I've just watched the first two episodes of the returning sixth season of "Rescue Me" (the first airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday on FX), and the news there is pretty bad, especially in the season's first episode.

Denis Leary and Peter Tolan's show about New York City firefighters dealing with the aftermath of 9/1 1 was, for a few seasons, an oasis of some of the funniest locker room ribaldry on the tube. The secret of male locker room ribaldry, of course, is that most men outgrow it quite decisively in their 20s, so it really requires a deft touch indeed to keep it interesting.

Just as in the female version of male locker room raunch, "Sex and the City," the more traditional male version of it at its best could be found on "Rescue Me."

Well, no more. Those first two episodes are woefully uninteresting, especially Tuesday's sixth season inaugural in which we follow the aftermath of the two bullets Uncle Teddy pumped into the shoulder of heroic, self-destructive firefighter Tommy Gavin. He didn't die, of course, because the series can't go on without its creator/star Leary. But what did Tommy see as he hovered between life and death? Will Tommy be able to quit drinking, or will he take refuge in an empty church with a pack of cigarettes, a liter of Irish whiskey and resume his totally excessive immersion in life-ending substances?

Couldn't we just have put him in front of the TV set to watch two hours of boozy, druggy guilt, redemption and self-obliteration a la last Monday's series finale of "Saving Grace?" Then again, considering that the finale of TNT's "Saving Grace" was one of the worst two hours I've ever spent in front of a TV set, maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea, either.

Don't be entirely put off by the wholly unsuccessful returning first episode of "Rescue Me." The second is a tiny bit better, especially one of the show's all-too-brief but patented inane firehouse discussions of a human activity prominent in Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" and the famous "master of your domain" episode of "Seinfeld."

But the whole point of raunch on cable is that it has no place if it isn't liberating, and there's something altogether deadly about raunch that's as tired and gratuitous as it is throughout most of "Rescue Me's" first two episodes.

I plan to watch the season's third episode soon, because that's when we encounter one of this season's major dramatic turns on the show -- the heart attack of Tommy's hugely overweight buddy Lou (John Scurti, sometime writer on the show, too).

But while "Hung" shrivels into predictability, "Rescue Me," sadly, is clearly in its marking time years, where the bad boys in charge really don't know what to do anymore. When the viewers come, then, they spend an appalling amount of time running in place and going nowhere.

But then, it's a common raunch problem. Unless you're a genius on the level of Rabelais, inventing an entirely new way to construct a wall around Paris, you need imagination to keep it interesting.

And to me, it seems TV's current crop of bad boys -- without "Californication" -- is almost completely lost.


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