TV Club

Best TV shows 2014: Slate’s TV Club celebrates a great year for sex on television.

Entry 5: This was a banner year for sex on television.

Girls, Mindy, and Outlander.
Girls, The Mindy Project, and Outlander.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via HBO, Fox, and Starz.

Fellow couch potatoes,

Mo mentioned The Affair and its over-priced artisanal jam. Overpriced artisanal jam is a great metaphor for that entire show, which I reviewed very positively based on the strength of its first episode, and have since come to dislike, its lumpen strawberries congealing in my mouth. The Affair, which airs on Showtime, relies on the talents of four goods actors (McNulty, Alice, Abby, and Pacey) and deploys an increasingly nonsensical Rashomon-like structure that suggests not that memory is mutable and personal, but that one of the narrators has severe mental problems or perhaps is a premiere fabulist. It looks good, as though inside its $8 glass jar are insights into love and grief and selfishness. But smear that stuff onto a cracker and it just tastes of moldering self-seriousness.

If I have already spent too many words on a show that I don’t like, when there are so many better shows still to discuss, it’s because it gives me entrée into what I really want to talk about, which is sex on television. This was a banner year for copulation on TV, both the sexy and the thought-provoking kind. (Recommended reading: Mo’s piece about “TV’s sexual revolution.”) The breaking down of the boundaries of what constitutes a “good” TV show, which we’ve been discussing, has been excellent for TV sex: It has let some air in the room (not to mention female eyeballs). The Affair is, sexually speaking, a kind of throwback. It’s supposed to be about a true love, hot-sex kind of entanglement, but it eschews lightness, fun, and sexiness, as if those qualities would downgrade it to a soap opera, instead of making it a million times more compelling.

A show that has no such hang-ups is the already mentioned Outlander, and I think the female perspective that Mo and June identified is a key part of why. That series’ female gaze is responsible not only for the conscientious treatment of sexual assault, but also all those beefcake shots of the lovely Jamie. The imperative to ogle Jamie’s bod is totally true to the source material: Outlander was adapted for TV by a man, but it is based on a series of romance novels. While the TV series is surprisingly historically minded—there was a lot of Scottish history jammed in there, a little too much, even for my taste—it is also hugely attentive to carnal pleasures, to lust, to the male body, to all the reasons people read the books. I don’t know how you guys feel about spoilers (how do you guys feel about spoilers?), but anyone who wants to peruse the Wikipedia page for Outlander, the book, will find that this show is likely to launch a million more sex-related think pieces next season.

Critics so often react to nudity as another one of TV’s “problems,” and this is because nudity so often is one of TV’s problems. The exposed, titillating corpse, the naked stripper with no personality who establishes that a show is for “mature audiences” before the credits roll, the endless sexposition: These are just some of the clichéd ways nudity is regularly used on television (and, not for nothing, most especially on antihero shows). It’s the “who needs a woman to have a personality when she has a rack” philosophy. But there’s no reason this has to be so! Nudity and sex are fundamental to the human experience and when handled with care are, duh, fun to watch. Attractive people making out is a bedrock pleasure principle of all moving images, and this year TV got much better at it.

Even that major culprit of sexposition, Game of Thrones, took baby steps to more equal opportunity eyeballing by treating Daenerys’ love object Daario as a cute little plate of man-meat. (Michiel Huisman, the actor, has made something of a specialty of the hunky lust object. He also did so in Wild, Orphan Black, and Nashville this year.) Of course, Game of Thrones still had its issues, most notably a sex scene between Jamie and Cersei Lannister that in the book was perhaps ultimately consensual but showed up on screen looking like rape. The director of the episode argued that it wasn’t rape and future episodes went on as if nothing unacceptable had happened between the two siblings. It was a very strange and uncomfortable case of what was actually on screen not jibing with what we were “supposed” to see. How could we see anything else?

Meanwhile, The Americans used sex better than any show I can think of from this year or any year: namely, as an entrée into the deep recesses of character. I already mentioned an oral sex scene from that show, a 69 that took place between double agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings in their marital bed that was inadvertently witnessed by their teenage daughter. It was simultaneously shocking and totally romantic, proof that there really is a classy way to do almost anything on television. But that sequence was not the best sex-based storyline on The Americans this year. That came when Elizabeth teased, flirted, and nudged Philip into having sex with her the same way he does his mark and other wife, Martha (a sentence that, in and of itself, tells you everything you need to know about The Americans’ convoluted psycho-sexual dynamics). But, it turns out that Philip has very forceful sex with Martha, of a kind that traumatizes Elizabeth, a rape survivor. The scene of Phillip, in frustration, giving Elizabeth what she’s asking for, even though he knows it’s not really what she wants, was a window into their respective personalities and the insane structure of their marriage. It was also awkward, awful, poignant: I have never seen anything so sexy get so unsexy so fast.

And honestly, this may not be the most complex sex scene of the year! That prize goes to HBO’s The Comeback for the long sequence in which Valerie Cherish is tasked with giving an on-screen blow job to a fictional version of her male nemesis. (Mo, you wrote about this one too.) The scene is larded with almost too many humiliations to count. The whole set up has a razor sharp satirical edge: As trepidatious as Valerie is about the whole thing, she goes along with the script for way too long because it’s part of an HBO show, and HBO does this kind of thing right? Ultimately Valerie is “rescued” from having to actively bob her head up and down on camera by her male colleague, who has more pull with the show’s masochistic creator than she does. This means Valerie gets to kneel, below the frame, for minutes on end while her colleague groans his way through the scene. The whole sequence makes filming sex scenes seem like such a morass of insidious expectations that it almost makes me want to take back what I said about The Affair: Sex on TV should never be fun, because, oh my god, the power dynamics of filming it!

And yet so many shows embraced their dirty minds to great effect this year. Transparent explored all different kinds of sexual experiences—a married woman who leaves her husband because her ex-girlfriend can make her squirt; a possibly genderqueer woman who has fantasies of being “spit-roasted”; the heterosexual man who goes through women like Kleenex (but Kleenex he really enjoys and admires before tossing away). Girls had that sexual role-play scene gone wrong, a scene that showed just how far Adam and Hannah’s relationship has come and just how far it has yet to go. FX’s foul-minded romantic comedy You’re the Worst, which I loved, found the heart lurking in the most sexually sordid behavior. And Broad City’s Ilana may be the most un-hung-up sexual being we’ve ever seen on television.

The Mindy Project even had an entire episode about anal sex! And one that concluded, basically, that there’s a right way to ask for it. I am, generally speaking, pretty pro-outrage: I think that all the good that viewer outrage has done, particularly in pushing for diversity on TV, more than makes up for the times it feels like rigid hectoring. (Do you guys have thoughts on that subject?) But I think the fans of The Mindy Project who thought Danny Castellano was on the verge of assault when he “slipped” were not watching what was actually happening on screen, and were instead hewing to talking points for how to ensure affirmative consent. Kaling, even more than the creators of Outlander, is fully in control of her very female gaze. (Chris Messina is needlessly shirtless in almost every episode of Mindy these days, and it’s pretty great.)

This is already way too long—there was so much sex on TV this year!—but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what, to me, was the most romantically incisive show of the year and the only one that didn’t, in fact, involve sex at all. Srugim is not some weird spelling of the noise you make when you sneeze, but an Israeli series about five modern orthodox Jews living and working in Jerusalem. They are devout enough that they won’t have sex before marriage. Perhaps that sounds dull, but this stricture makes all the romantic storylines you think you’ve seen before feel new again. It brings feelings to the foreground and gives huge stakes to even the most piddling coffee date.

Even having written all of this I am sure I have forgotten to mention some important—sexually speaking—programs. (Masters of Sex, anyone?) But enough already of my one-track mind. Jim, let’s get to some shows we haven’t discussed yet. There are so many!