Will Starz’ ‘WonderWorld’ Set Back Dramas About Human Sexuality?


starzWith just a few original programs left in its docket, Starz is rebuilding itself yet again — and its latest in-development project comes with both problems and potential. On Friday, Starz announced that it was partnering with Owen Wilson to launch a period drama set in the world of porn:

Set in Ronald Reagan’s America and inspired by one of the biggest undercover operations in FBI history, WonderWorld follows two straight-arrow FBI agents as they infiltrate the violent Mob-controlled porn industry of the 1980s, with dire consequences for themselves and their families.

It’s an intriguing concept, but I’m skeptical of WonderWorld because it seems to be taking the trappings of a drama about human sexuality and moving it back into the typical crime-drama mire: undercover cops, mafioso types, and sex for sex’s sake.

WonderWorld has entered development at a time when we were just starting to see Masters of Sex — a drama that actually tackles the full complexity of human sexuality. It’s become a near-universal consensus that Masters of Sex is the best new series of the year, and it has certainly eclipsed sister show Homeland in quality (if not in viewership or general cultural omnipresence). As Alyssa pointed out earlier this year, it’s been a relief to watch a top-tier period drama in which the ultimate stakes aren’t death.

But the basic premise of WonderWorld sounds like one that could easily move the needle backward, with pornography serving as lurid window-dressing to a standard undercover cop thriller. If Masters of Sex could be pitched, however crudely, as Mad Men with more sex, WonderWorld sounds like The Sopranos in the sex world.

It’s hardly surprising; Starz has long attempted to launch a brand-defining show like Mad Men or The Sopranos. With Crash, Boss and Magic City consigned to the dustbin of TV history, WonderWorld sounds like the next major play. And the idea of a drama set in the world of pornography — particularly the lawless porn world of the 1980s — isn’t a bad one. I think there’s probably a fascinating story to be told about that time and place, and I’ll certainly give WonderWorld the benefit of the doubt until we know much more than its creators and its basic premise.

But Starz’ track record on sexuality doesn’t fill me with confidence. Remember, this is the network that asked the creative team behind Party Down to come up with ideas for entire episodes that could include nudity. Starz has never been shy about showing flesh, but the nudity has rarely been for anything other than sheer titillation, and WonderWorld could easily offer nothing more than a standard crime potboiler with an extra helping of nudity.

I don’t want to single Starz out. Every premium channel has trafficked in lazy human sexuality at one point or another. But is there any possible perspective on this story that could sound less compelling than two “straight-arrow FBI agents?” Why not a male or female porn star? Why not a crew member? Why not anyone other than a stock character type that we’ve been seeing in TV crime dramas for decades?

There’s a smart version of WonderWorld that explores complicated and compelling questions about sex and commerce — the ethics of pornography, the people who make it, and the effect it has on the people who consume it. There’s a stupid version of WonderWorld that’s a boilerplate cops vs. mafia story with naked people hanging out in the background. We don’t know which one we’re going to get yet, but here’s hoping that Starz makes the right one.