By Hollis Evans
Updated February 07, 1983 12:00 PM

The scenario sounds as if it were written for a Roman orgy, or perhaps a tale from the Decameron. Most of the principal male characters are having illicit affairs and looking lasciviously over their partners’ shoulders at other women. One lady is raped in the course of the story, another is deflowered in a barn, another roughed up in a shower, and yet another takes vengeance on her unfaithful lover by seducing his new love in a lesbian scene. There is, moreover, a madman abroad on the local college campus who is raping, maiming and murdering coeds. If all this makes A New Day in Eden seem racier than any network TV soap opera in history, there is a good reason. The program airs mostly late at night on Showtime, Oak Media and Prism systems, which together have four and a half million subscribers. And as the first long-running soap produced especially for cable, Eden has leeway that makes its broadcast cousins green with envy: Because it doesn’t use public airwaves, it isn’t regulated by the FCC—so anything goes.

The surprising fact about Eden is that it seems almost prim in a medium that is steamy with X-rated “midnight films” and stag shows familiar to travelers from the closed-circuit fare at many hotels. Eden features nudity, to be sure, but it is discreet nakedness. There are no frontal shots below the waist, and the nude scenes are brief, dimly lit and filmed in profile for the most part. “We don’t have a model to turn to,” says executive producer Michael Jaffe, 38, “so all you can do is follow some rules for yourself. First, the story has to be good and the actors have to be good. Second, less is more. If the audience wants to see more, we’re safe. If you leave everything out in the open, the audience becomes jaded.”

Without the odd moment of titillation, cable viewers might not be interested, even though Eden’s plot line compares favorably with daytime soaps. Set in a once slumbering Midwestern ghost town named (natch) Eden, the show portrays the changes wrought by the giant electronics empire of Bryan Lewis (played by Jim McMullan). Lewis’ enterprises revived Eden’s economy and attracted the interest of the arrogant, abrasive Josh Collier (Steve Carlson), a troubleshooter evaluating the village’s urban renewal. As this drama unfolds, Bryan Lewis’ sons, Greg and Biff, along with a half-dozen other local studs, are attempting to bed every woman in the community. “We wanted to compete at every level with network quality, despite the fact that we operate with 50 to 60 percent of network budgets,” says producer Jaffe. On the level of plot, Jaffe certainly has fulfilled his wish.

The creative force behind Eden is Douglas Marland, 48, a two-time Emmy winner who wrote for CBS’ Guiding Light and ABC’s General Hospital. Most of the cast has also been in network soaps and prime-time shows—but none had any prior experience in the buff. Maggie Sullivan, 34, a General Hospital veteran who plays Eden’s top femme fatale, found the first undress rehearsals an ordeal. “In the beginning it took a lot of guts and trust. You don’t get that intimacy in a network situation, because you don’t get that close.”

Producer Jaffe has a track record of serious network TV shows, often about high-minded subjects. (Example: A Woman Called Moses, the story of Harriet Tubman, the former slave who helped run the Underground Railroad.) Just how well his newest venture is doing is hard to assess. He has wrapped 33 episodes, but only 10 have aired, and he is uncertain whether the show will be renewed.

Meanwhile Marland is determined to use every trick in the book to attract and hold an audience, including a Dallas-like season-ender in which the identity of that mad rapist is left undisclosed. By season’s end, in fact, only patriarch Bryan Lewis will have kept his clothes on in every episode, a fact that disgruntles the actor who plays him. “I just wish he would get out of the office,” grumbles McMullan. “I’m tired of sitting behind that desk and staring at that green carpet. When I finally do get into bed, it’ll probably be with my tie on.”