In Vulture, writer Adam Sternbergh has a piece about “The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of the Sex Scene,” where he argues that the cultural shift of sex scenes in art has run its course from the movies to television, leading to all kinds of crazy sexploitation in the likes of our internet-saturated age — just look at how network TV’s pushing the boundaries lately — but also revealing a distinct lack of shows that have sex in the narrative as a part of life, where it’s something that grownups do, not something made expressly for thirteen-year-old boys watching Game of Thrones.
That’s a big generalization to make regarding sex on cable. It may be true for the “prestigious” likes of HBO shows that are generally led by men where your creators and showrunners are referred to as auteurs, but it’s not the case with three shows that are doing a great job of showing sex as a part of life in all its weird complexities: Girls, Transparent, and The Affair. (Additionally, there’s also The Americans, about Russian spies in America, as another example of a show that uses sex as part of spy games and emotional games, but I haven’t seen enough of it to comment with any authority.)
Sex is nearly a character on Girls, which came out of the gate aggressively as a show that deals with the subject, particularly the brave new world of casual sex and mixed messages thrown at twentysomethings. Whatever the online argument caused by season two’s “questionable consent” scene between Adam (Adam Driver) and his girlfriend Natalia (Shiri Appleby) — was it rape? was it not rape? was it unpleasant, at the least? — that argument, and your uncomfortable feelings around it, overwhelmed what that scene was doing in the context of the episode. It was dark and disturbing to watch, as Adam, who had seemingly overcome his demons and past life in Alcoholics Anonymous, was losing control and going downward as a human being, unaware of what Natalia was feeling and what she wanted. It was boundary-pushing television, difficult to watch, and its effects lingered. It’s arguably one of the most powerful episodes of the show.
Since Transparent and The Affair are in their first seasons, on Amazon and Showtime respectively, there simply may not be enough of a critical mass of people who’ve watched and talk about the show to celebrate how both works frankly deal with sex, but they both have grownup sex as a part of life, and their scenes manage to move the story along and reveal character. You couldn’t imagine either show without the extensive use of sex.
Transparent is a show about gender and sexuality, so it’s a natural fit that this show is actually full of explicit sex scenes. It begins with the patriarch of a well-to-do Los Angeles family announcing to her children that she has always identified as a woman, and would like to live as Maura, a transgender woman, and not in her old life as Mort, their father. This precipitates a crisis for the Pfefferman children. Suburban mom Sarah reunites with her college girlfriend, and in some hot, secretive assignations in the family minivan, decides to breakup her family and live with her lover Tammy. Promiscuous Josh continues to wield his sexuality as a weapon, fucking too-young musical starlets and proclaiming that it’s love, every time, whereas the youngest, Ali, starts experimenting with the edges. Creator Jill Soloway does a marvelous job in showing how sex changes in this family with their father’s announcement.
Since it’s a show about an affair between two married people — nerdy writer Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), grieving the death of her young child — The Affair also has plenty of explicit sex scenes. There’s lust, when Noah and Alison first meet. Their coupling goes from hot and hurried to slow and meaningful over a variety of episodes. And meanwhile, their relationships with their significant others, while broadly drawn as incessant coitus interruptus in the pilot for Noah and his wife Helen, versus just somewhat rote and mired in sad sadness for Alison and Cole (Joshua Jackson), also have meaning every time they get down.
I have problems with The Affair, which I recap weekly — it’s a simply solid show that thinks it’s an A+ porterhouse steak, every time — but one thing that the show gets right is the sex scenes and the way that every kiss and every removal of clothing moves the plot along. (One thing that doesn’t quite work is West’s boyish enthusiasm in these scenes, too close to McNulty on The Wire.) The team behind The Affair is doing something sophisticated, knotty, and downright realistic in the way that they treat sex on the show. It’s the best part of a show slightly too mired in its Rashomon-like concept of two different sides of a story, between the man (Noah) and the woman (Alison).
There are cable shows out there doing interesting things with sex, and the bulk of them are powered by female creatives and a distinct attempt at putting a perspective on the screen that’s emotional at the very least and could also be called distinctly feminine. Shows like Girls, Transparent, and The Affair feel like progress in America’s distinctly prudish appetites towards sex, where we’re all either virgins or whores, with nothing in between. These shows are living in the in-between moments, and that’s a significant part of what makes them interesting art.