It was a classic moment in pop culture history: Marge Simpson — sitting up in bed watching television — turns to Homer and says, “You know, Fox turned into a hardcore sex channel so gradually, I didn’t even notice.” And while Fox hasn’t quite yet moved all their production to the Valley, Marge called it back in 1995: as the number of steamy scenes seems to be on the decline in mainstream film, they’re finding more and more of a home on the small screen. These days, it’s not just that there’s tons of sex on television — it’s how explicit it’s getting, particularly on cable. And maybe that’s a good thing.
As far as we’ve come in connecting, understanding and relating to our sexuality — to the point where we’re reading “50 Shades of Grey” on the subway and “Sex and the City” now seems tame — our society still deals with a considerable amount of shame, confusion and discomfort surrounding sexual expression. While “50 Shades” (currently ramping up to a high profile film adaptation that everyone from Bret Easton Ellis to Gus Van Sant has expressed a desire to be a part of) may not have been Pulitzer-worthy in its prose, what was often overlooked in commentary surrounding the phenomenon was the trilogy’s uncanny ability to connect with readers in a way that encouraged them to explore their desires — a natural human instinct, but still one that makes most of us titter with laughter rather than expose a willingness to investigate a more intimate and vulnerable side of ourselves.
Even Carrie Bradshaw herself lamented the fact that her chosen subject left her relegated to the back pages of the newspaper next to the escorting ads, as if it were shameful and needed to be hidden from view. Sex seems to be a fine subject of discussion if said discussion is surface — say, offering sex tips or giving fluffy, funny insights into the act. Scratch the surface of that, and you still uncover a tempest of fear… but it’s one that television is starting to crack.
What makes small-screen sex so compelling isn’t just the skin on skin action, but that it’s happening with characters that share a certain kind of intimacy — and that we share in that intimacy with. In film, there’s maybe two hours to establish the relationship between the audience and the characters, whereas we’re invited into the comings and goings of TV couples from 10 to 22 weeks a season. There’s more of an opportunity for us to get to know their quirks, identify with their vulnerabilities, and laugh with them as they do the stupid, self-sabotaging things that we all do. But as they invest in delving into their relationships with others, so, too, do we. By going deeper into themselves, we’re welcomed to do the same.
Whereas the notable milestones of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s were more about providing idle, watercooler chit chat, these days, TV sex is prompting a more introspective exploration offering more observant examinations of the nuances of human sexuality. We’re no longer just discussing the what and how, but the why — and what lies beyond that. For example, when “The Good Wife” got people talking about Kalinda getting cold-fingered by her ex in an ice cream parlor last fall — part of a storyline that saw the two engage in rough sex — it prompted a torrent of commentary from multiple sides of the subject.
“If this were the ’90s, Kalinda’s 50 Shades Of Grey antics would be all the talk of the water cooler,” the AV Club’s David Sims commented. “But these days, it’s just noise, and it serves no useful purpose.” June Thomas of Slate took her introspection further, questioning, “How exactly did he manage to put his hand you-know-where—I mean, really, how could he gain entry, given his position alongside her at the counter? And can anybody imagine anything less sexy than a five-second feel-up in a kiddie hangout?”
Meanwhile, The Daily Beast went so far as having a he said/she said discussion about the storyline, with writers Jace Lacob and Maria Elena Fernandez debating numerous angles to Kalinda’s sexual proclivities. Wrote Lacob, “The way that she looks at her wrist after her rough sex with Nick speaks volumes about her past as an abused wife who was little more than a possession for her obsessed, Svengali-like husband… Their struggle — his of proto-traditional husband/wife dominance and submission and hers of freedom and independence — are at cross-purposes.”
Which addresses the root of the issue — that sex isn’t just sex. Laden down with judgments, motives and manipulations, it’s no wonder that we’ve become so alarmist and squeamish about something that should be a natural and powerful part of human expression. The subjects that TV is addressing through explicit sexual depictions is prompting exactly the kinds of discussions we should be having on the subject. The talk of Adam’s ejaculate on “Girls” encouraged an examination as to whether or not he was a rapist, based on the grim starkness of the coupling that preceded it. “Dexter” routinely straddles the commentary line of sex and death, while interweaving concepts of strength and vulnerability each time any of the characters choose to bare all, body and soul.
And while it often does so in a horrifically uncomfortable way, the subtle commentary on sex and power in “Game of Thrones” — both the shadow side of the act, and in purity of self — reveals an entirely new prospective on the subject, be it through Joffrey’s sadistic treatment of courtesans, Tyrion’s joyful beddings or a terrified Theon’s being taunted by nubile women before apparently being castrated. We should be looking at these notions and asking these questions of ourselves, difficult though they may be. But through the proliferation of it exhibited in characters we trust, it gives us a comfort zone that allows us to do the same in our own lives, detangling the tropes we’ve been taught about passion, desire and personal expressions that are linked to sexuality.
And the fact remains: when a sex scene is really well done — such as Eric and Sookie’s moonlight hook-up or Buffy and Spike bringing the house down — it still ignites something in each of us. Whether it drives us into mental and emotional introspection or goes so far as to propel us to the bedroom for our own intensive physical exploration, small screen sex has the capability to open us up to a deeper discussion surrounding our own attitudes about passion, desire and sexuality — particularly when it’s linked to characters in shows that we identify with, have a relationship with, and watch week in and week out. TV is deepening its sexual exploration — and in so doing, it’s taking us deeper into ourselves. It’s about time.