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Revisiting Softcore 1990s Cable Staple 'Red Shoe Diaries,' Now Out on DVD

By Gary M. Kramer | /Bent July 7, 2014 at 12:23PM

Season one of Zalman King’s 1992 cable television series “Red Shoe Diaries” is now on DVD. Perhaps it was daring in its day, but given all the sex and skin on “True Blood,” “Shameless,” and other current cable series, it is kind of a quaint experience to watch “Diaries” now. The show stemmed from a mediocre feature length film that fails to approach the softcore standards King set with his feature films “Two Moon Junction,” “Wild Orchid,” and its sequel.
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"Red Shoe Diaries"
"Red Shoe Diaries"
Season one of Zalman King’s 1992 cable television series “Red Shoe Diaries” is now out on DVD. Perhaps it was daring in its day, but given all the sex and skin on “True Blood,” “Shameless,” and other current cable series, it is kind of a quaint experience to watch “Diaries” now. The show stemmed from a mediocre feature length film that fails to approach the softcore standards King set with his feature films “Two Moon Junction,” “Wild Orchid,” and its sequel.

“Diaries” has some pleasures, but they may not be the erotic kind that was intended. The show features a young David Duchovny as Jake, a man who reads diaries entries from women who have “been betrayed” or “betrayed someone” in each episode’s “bookend” narration. (Fun Fact: the series ended the year before Duchovny admitted to sex addiction.) The letters Jake receives read like “Penthouse Confessions,” and the episodes play like sexy short stories that are by and about women, but seem geared towards straight men.

Each program feels completely artificial, and many shows play up a noir sensibility, which adds to the fantasy. The clothes and interiors are overdesigned, the music is cheesy, and the editing is meant to emphasize every thrust and sexy clinch.

Even acknowledging the dated nature of the series, (e.g., snail mail, land lines) these tales of seduction seem designed to exploit the women who are filmed naked and in fetishistic poses as well as in a cop’s uniform, a wet t-shirt, or leather. Moreover, the women are masked/blindfolded or occasionally don costumes—from drag to a kinky wig, to full-on dominatrix—to seduce the men they desire. The cliché “I’ve never done [this] before” is used several times, and thrice in season one’s thirteen episodes, a man wants to comfort a woman by feeding her soup.

All that said, the stories that comprise “Red Shoe Diaries” are all about control. The women have it, the women lost it, and/or the women want it. The heroines are by and large uptight and need to be liberated, but this is hardly the stuff of feminism. The best episodes—“Auto Erotica,” which involves a car chase and “Double or Nothing” about a pool hustler—play out this principle because there are high stakes and the characters are empowered, not just seductive.  

"Red Shoe Diaries"
"Red Shoe Diaries"

In contrast, “Talk to Me Baby,” one of the weaker entries in the series, has Bud (Richard Tyson of “Two Moon Junction”) trying to smooth talk his way out of a jam with his brooding girlfriend who caught him with another woman. “Talk to Me Baby” is one of the few episodes in the series that features some lesbian content, as when Bud’s girlfriend showers with another woman, while he disappointingly sits out the encounter.

“Red Shoe Diaries” could easily cross into queer territory—the season’s last episode, “How I Met My Husband” is ripe for naughtiness as it features both a dominatrix and a male stripper, but like many of the half-hour shows, it remains only skin deep. The sex on display simply fails to excite. The character may be turned on, but it’s hard to imagine viewers sharing the same reaction.

That said, most of the women, which include Joan Severance, Bond Girl Maryam d’Abo, and Paula Barbieri among others, are strikingly beautiful. Though it is amusing, not sexy, to see a performer like Ally Sheedy in the comic episode “Accidents Happen.”

“Red Shoe Diaries” also casts a few handsome guys, from a young Matt LeBlanc as a sexy bike messenger whose bejeaned ass is oogled by Nina Siemaszko in “Just Like That,” to the late Ron Marquette, who is memorable and sexy in “The Bounty Hunter.” Softcore stud Anthony Addabbo appears in “Weekend Pass” in the first of his six appearances in the series, and he displays more than just his charisma as a country-western singer who gets hot and heavy with a female army private.

Curiously, the series hits its stride around the mid-point, when Duchovny gets his own episode, “Jake’s Story.” There is a tenderness on display in this and subsequent programs that suggest “Red Shoe Diaries” may have love not just sex on its mind. If only. 

Also on DVD is King’s last, posthumous feature, “Pleasure or Pain,” which shows the heights (or depths) King reached in his work.

"Pleasure or Pain"
"Pleasure or Pain"

Arguably the filmmaker’s most explicit erotic drama, “Pleasure or Pain” features all the hallmarks of King’s work: beautiful people in beautifully appointed locations, having sex with food, dressing in drag, and engaging in masquerades and sadomasochistic sex. The narrative unfolds as a confession of sorts as Victoria (Malena Morgan) recounts falling in love with Jack (Christos Vasilopoulus), a handsome rich man, who encourages her to participate in various sexually uninhibited encounters.

“Pleasure or Pain” features a bevy of full frontally nude females, as Jack covers Victoria’s naked body with whipped cream, strategically placing ice cream and bananas on her body to create a special “sundae” in a scene that is as uncomfortable for viewers as it is for the characters.

Victoria also has lesbian affairs, threesomes (with two other women, one in male drag) and shaves her crotch in the shower. All of these scenes, along with a sequence set in an erotic club, are filmed with a romantic/erotic glossiness that celebrates the activities on display. King’s emphasis on the sensual is commendable, but “Pleasure or Pain” itself is risible.