Alyssa Rosenberg writes about popular culture for The Washington Post on the Act Four blog.
When the FX biker drama “Sons of Anarchy” kicked off the Nov. 11 episode with a montage of sex scenes involving its main characters, Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, was less than amused. “In order to watch cable news, ESPN, Disney or the History Channel, every family in America must now also pay for pornography on FX,” Winter groused in a statement. “If history is our guide,” he added, “we should expect a host of other basic cable networks to air similar — or even more explicit — content in the name of ‘staying competitive.’ ”
Sadly for Winter and his constituents, it is not just basic cable that is dropping trou and getting busy. Broadcast television has joined the competition, and together they’re transforming viewers’ experience of sex on TV. What once passed for edgy, “adult” content on television was a woman on top of a man, her breasts strategically bared and everything else improbably concealed by well-draped sheets. But as Showtime President David Nevins put it earlier this year: “Just having sex on television is not so amazing anymore. So you have to have something interesting to say about it and something interesting to explore.”
And so shows have gotten more adventurous in their depictions of dating sex, married sex, adulterous sex, straight sex, gay sex. Television isn’t just showing a lot of it — it’s being a lot smarter about it, with series and scenes that talk in direct and revelatory ways about intimacy, relationships and power.
Start with the portraits of sex and dating in “The Mindy Project,” the Fox sitcom from longtime comedy writer Mindy Kaling, and “Looking,” HBO’s sexually frank drama about young gay men in San Francisco, created by Michael Lannan.
In the third season of “The Mindy Project,” Mindy Lahiri (Kaling) and her doctor colleague Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) have settled into a serious relationship. Their commitment means that the show has room to watch them get to know each other in a new way, which for Mindy includes taking Danny’s mother (Rhea Pearlman) on a terrifying swimsuit-shopping trip.
It also means that they worry about a sexual slump. And in the Oct. 7 episode “I Slipped,” Danny tries a position that takes Mindy by surprise. “Wait. Danny. Danny! That doesn’t go there! Oh my God, Danny!” Mindy says, panicked, in an off-screen scene. “I slipped!” Danny insists.
Mindy is skeptical, and she is right to be. Her bragging about her sexual experience had convinced Danny that she was more adventurous than she really was, and he figured she would go for it. “He thought it was something I had done thousands of times, like jaywalking or lying under oath,” Mindy confesses to her co-worker, Peter Prentice (Adam Pally). “. . . I know that I talk this big talk, but really, I’m a prude. A prude that slays dudes like, whoa.”
“The Mindy Project” may not have been able to show Mindy and Danny in bed or to name the act in question. Instead, the show had Dr. Prentice give Mindy hilarious sex lessons with the office skeleton, the perfect tool to elicit her revulsion and nerves. And even with limits on what they could say, Danny and Mindy still found a way to talk about their sexual anxieties — especially after Mindy gave herself a date-rape drug in an effort to be more receptive to Danny’s advances.
In HBO’s “Looking,” free of the restrictions of broadcast television, the characters can do and say almost anything to one another — but that doesn’t mean they are communicating clearly or honestly with each other.
During the first season, Patrick (Jonathan Groff), an anxious video-game designer, begins dating Richie (Raúl Castillo), a working-class hairdresser. During the Feb. 16 episode “Looking for the Future,” Patrick calls in sick to work so he and Richie can spend the day together talking about everything, including Patrick’s sexual discomfort zone. After Patrick turns down a sexual request from Richie, he tries to explain that he is not sure of his own desires. “I’m not sure I’m into it. It feels kind of weird,” he confesses. “Pretty much as soon as it’s in, I’m like, take it out, take it out, take it out, take it out.”
Richie diagnoses Patrick with shame and discomfort. And after they break up, pulled apart by race and class, it seems he might have been right. But Patrick, who has had a season-long flirtation with his boss, Kevin (Russell Tovey), finally sleeps with him. And with a partner who he feels is his match in race and education, Patrick is quick to set aside the concerns he used to turn down Richie.
But what Patrick sees as emotional intimacy, Kevin just sees as a fling: Later, Kevin goes back to his partner. Patrick realizes that being physical was no guarantee of an emotional bond, and that being honest with Richie might have been the riskier but more rewarding path.
TV shows are also becoming bolder and better about exploring the complications and possibilities of the marriage bed. Indeed, in one of the relationships in the time-traveling period drama “Outlander,” sex does not even start until marriage. Nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) is reuniting with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), after World War II, a second honeymoon that includes a vigorous sexual awakening for both, when she is transported back to the 18th century.
There she meets a young Scotsman named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), whom she eventually marries so she can gain protection from a vicious British officer. The idea of an experienced woman breaking in a younger, grateful man is a well-worn trope at this point — from “The Graduate” to “American Pie” — but as Jamie says on their wedding night: “I said I was a virgin, not a monk. If I need guidance, I’ll ask.” The sexual relationship instantly becomes more complicated than the stereotype: The episode that follows acknowledges Claire’s fear, grief and lust (Jamie would be hard to resist in any century) as well as her new husband’s nerves. They spend the night talking about their lives, drinking whiskey and slowly exploring each other’s bodies, their focus shifting from marital duty to physical pleasure. Jamie may know the basic mechanics of sex, but the idea that Claire might enjoy herself is foreign to him, as is the notion that making her feel good would be satisfying for him. Six episodes of foreplay before the wedding night makes sex better for everyone — perhaps for those watching at home, too.
Even couples deep into marriage have sex lives that grow and change. And “The Americans,” an FX series about a honey-trapping pair of Cold War-era KGB spies who live in the Washington suburbs with their two children, offers one of the most piercing and tender explorations of marital sex anywhere on television.
Two scenes in the show’s second season stand out. In one, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are engaged in simultaneous oral sex when their teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), walks in on them. For Paige, it is a shocking introduction to the idea that her parents are sensual beings who very much desire each other. And for Elizabeth and Phillip, whose marriage has shifted from an arrangement brokered by their KGB handlers to a late-blooming love match, the way Paige casually walks through their bedroom door is a low-stakes but unsettling reminder of how vulnerable their secret identities are.
While Phillip and Elizabeth are sexually experienced, they are novices in navigating the connection between their bodies and their hearts. Phillip, using a false identity, has pursued a relationship and even entered into a not-quite-legal marriage with Martha (Alison Wright), a secretary for the FBI office that is hunting KGB agents in America. Elizabeth, who poses as his sister as part of the ruse, visits Martha in her apartment and ends up getting an earful about how her husband performs in his alternate marriage. Back home, a curious Elizabeth asks Phillip to treat her like he does Martha.
The request turns out to be a terrible mistake. Elizabeth is a rape survivor, and Phillp’s rough handling of her recalls her assault. Her bid to prove that she is just as game as Martha, and to make sure she gets everything in her real marriage that Martha gets in her fake one, ends with Elizabeth twisted into herself, crying. As a couple, the Jenningses learn that Elizabeth has limits she was not aware of.
A similar scene unfolds in the first episode of “The Affair,” Showtime’s drama about an adulterous liaison. Noah (Dominic West), a struggling novelist, is struck by Alison (Ruth Wilson), a waitress at a Hamptons diner, when she serves his family. And when he later sees her bent over the hood of a truck by her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), he is not sure what is happening. Is Alison being raped? Sexually humiliated?
Viewers find out in the second half of the pilot that Alison, grieving the loss of her son, initiated that sex with Cole in an attempt to shock herself back into feeling. When Noah later learns that the sex was consensual, he insists to Alison that married people do not behave that way. Alison has to remind him that marriage is a public institution that means radically different things to everyone who enters into it — and viewers are reminded that what outsiders see as obvious rarely reflects the internal logic of a marriage.
On-screen, that public institution has long been open to gay couples. But broadcast television has been so squeamish about gay sexuality that ABC’s “Modern Family” practically had to invent a phobia to explain why the show’s gay spouses barely touch each other. That has changed dramatically this season, at least on Thursday nights on ABC, where superstar executive Shonda Rhimes has broken racial and sexual barriers to what broadcast television can show and tell.
On Rhimes’s “Scandal,” heterosexual couples and gay ones are equally entitled to their jollies. But “How to Get Away With Murder,” a creation of Rhimes’s protege Pete Nowalk, goes further. It may be a broadcast show, but it gives “Looking” competition in discussing the mechanics of gay sex. And it leans into stereotypes of gay men as manipulative sexual predators, only to resolve them in unexpected ways.
The steamiest character, an amoral law student named Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee), is not just promiscuous, he is conniving. Part of a study group working for law professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), Connor uses his prodigious seduction skills to help dig up helpful information for Annalise’s cases. But over the first half of this first season, Connor experiences the consequences of his purely instrumental sexuality. One of his early marks is Oliver (Conrad Ricamora), a sweet computer geek who turned into more than a one-night stand. But when Oliver overhears another man’s taped testimony regarding Connor’s talented tongue, Oliver dumps him, leaving Connor unexpectedly heartbroken. The problem is not that Connor is having a lot of sex, as scolds of another age might caution, but that he wants both the emotional security of monogamy and the freedom of single life. Little surprise that “How to Get Away With Murder” has become a cult hit at some New York gay bars.
Television is in the midst of a sexual revolution, one that feels enormously different from the adolescent rush so many shows — think “Entourage” or even “The Sopranos” — seemed to get from depicting sex, often with scenes that were little more than showing marginal female characters in various stages of nudity. Now, even the most lascivious characters on series dedicated to shocking cannot help but find their hearts and their minds, not just their bodies, engaged in the action.
Whether the tender vulnerabilities of dating, the mysteries of marriage or the conviction that sex can just be a tool, the subjects being addressed make for more interesting — and more genuinely sexy — programming. If the Parents Television Council frets that smart, explicit television is the future, I say, let’s get it on.