In the days before premium cable, television was a squeaky-clean place for the most part. The traditional networks rarely dared to push boundaries when it came to graphic sexual content for fear of pissing off advertisers. (And when they did, as with ABC’s “NYPD Blue,” affiliates and advertisers did indeed balk on cue.)
But then came HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, and a slew of other networks, which asked for a little extra subscriber cash, but offered in exchange unfiltered violence, language, and sex. Without that creative freedom, it’s doubtful that television as a storytelling art form would have evolved in the same way, especially when it comes to sex — one of the most primal aspects of humanity that the broadcast networks kept behind closed doors for far too long.
Because different things are sexy to different people, this list is unranked — streaming platforms and ad-supported cable networks will be saved for future lists. The aim here is to celebrate 25 years worth of groundbreaking programming that has explored this particular aspect of being alive (one of the best aspects, some might argue).
“The Affair” – Basement Boogie
Season 2, Episode 9 – “208”
Sometimes the best sex happens when it’s the worst idea, like if a hurricane is bearing down on the city and you just re-encounted the hot doctor who treated your son a while back and your kids are upstairs so you have to be quiet but you like how confident this guy is… In this hypothetical, you are Helen (Maura Tierney) and you’ve just had a lot of fun with Vic (Omar Metwally), who might be a sociopath, but might also be a guy worth keeping around.
“American Gods” – Hot Gay Sex
Season 1, Episode 3 – “Head Full of Snow”
When the Jinn (Mousa Kraish) picks up Salim (Omid Abtahi) in his cab, we have no idea what’s coming. Probably Salim had no idea either. But that short, intimate ride leads them to a literally life-changing experience, one which begins with some lingering touches and cumulates in some of the most explicit gay sex ever seen on television (including a penis of impressive size). But it’s a scene about love as much as it is about lust, making Salim’s later choices all the more profound.
“Banshee” – The Best Goodbye
Season 1, Episode 8 – “We Shall Live Forever”
The Cinemax series has some of the most brutally over-the-top fight scenes, but delivers on the more poignant side as well. Lucas Hood (Antony Starr) and Carrie (Ivana Miličević) used to be together, but he took the fall after they stole some diamonds and has been in prison ever since. Fifteen years later, Carrie has built up another life for herself with a husband and kids. The attraction and the guilt is all still there though, and inevitably Lucas and Carrie have sex as a way to finally say goodbye to what they once had. The headboard-shaking romp is interspersed with tender scenes of them cuddling. It’s beautifully well-orchestrated and leaves viewers with a mess of heightened yet bittersweet emotions.
“Californication” – The Third Time’s the Charm
Season 3, Episode 4 – “Zoso”
The third season of Tom Kapinos’ Showtime comedy found Hank Moody (David Duchovny) at his most porny. The newly minted professor is “seeing” the dean’s wife, a fellow professor, and a student all at the same time, all in the same episode, and… did we mention the student is also a stripper? Hank’s protective nature toward women keeps things from getting too perv-y — he’s a white knight, after all — and the mutually agreed upon open relationships make the hot and steamy fun totally guilt-free viewing. (The chosen scene, by the way, would have to be the final classroom shot of all three women surprising Hank at his morning lesson.) It doesn’t hurt that, aside from a somewhat thinning front part, Duchovny is probably peaking himself, and the episode still manages to incorporate a sweet moment between Hank and his one true love (amid many lovers), Karen (Natascha McElhone).
“Deadwood” – Alma and Seth’s First Time
Season 1, Episode 12 – “Sold Under Sin”
Out of context, there’s nothing that erotic about this dialogue:
“…I stand before you a married man.”
“Yes, to your brother’s widow, after he was killed. You took their 5 year old boy as your own son.”
But the way in which Seth (Timothy Olyphant) and Alma (Molly Parker) gaze at each other, knowing that what’s about to happen is wrong but inevitable, makes a scene which barely progresses beyond first base crackle with sexual energy. They have more explicit scenes together later in the show’s run, but this first encounter was unforgettable.
“Game of Thrones” – Jamie and Brienne Go Hot Tubbin’
Season 3, Episode 5 – “Kissed by Fire”
It’s a hot tub. Sure, there’s probably some Westerosi name for the cleansing waters of a medieval sauna, but Jaime and Brienne end up in a hot tub. Jaime’s swapped out a right hand for a luscious beard and is in desperate need of some R&R. It’s rare that “Game of Thrones” features a scene like this, one that’s not accompanied by an upsetting added layer of story or knowledge of character. But what sets this scene apart is the thing that rarely goes hand in hand with nudity in this show: respect. To see the show acknowledge the unique brand of tension between the two and (to this point) avoid the trap of flinging them together in any romantic way was oddly refreshing. (Also, what was that thing about wildfire beneath the Sept of Baelor, Jaime? Surely that ended up meaning nothing at all.)
“Girls” – Not the Kind of Balls You’re Thinking
Season 2, Episode 5 – “One Man’s Trash”
Sure, “Girls” made literal headlines for its groundbreaking analingus scene, but we choose to celebrate instead Hannah and Joshua (Patrick Wilson) playing ping-pong. The whole episode is full of sex, but there’s a charming freeness to this scene that transcends basic physical pleasures and instead just celebrates how wonderful it can be to be bare in front of another, and feel fully accepted for it. Seriously, that’s super-hot.
“Homeland” – The Cabin
Season 1, Episode 7 – “The Weekend”
So often, premium cable sex is linked to danger. Most of the time, that danger centers on getting caught. But, in the case of “Homeland,” there’s the underlying threat that you might literally be sleeping with the enemy. As the Season 1 centerpiece, the episode that elevated the show from jazzy fascination to a prestige TV drama, “The Cabin” wasted little time getting Carrie and Brody together for the presumed purpose of their woodland weekend getaway. The forbidden nature of their encounters, knowing full well this might be the biggest mistake either of them make, makes this seem like something that would be just as home in a romance novel as it is in a TV drama about international terrorism. Even after some major revelations, it wouldn’t be the last time they’d wind up this way, but it was the last time they were able to reasonably delude themselves that being together was anything other than foolish.