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‘Minx,’ about the launch of a feminist porn magazine, is surprisingly timid on both feminism and porn

Jake Johnson as Doug and Ophelia Lovibond as Joyce in “Minx.” (Katrina Marcinowski/HBO Max)
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The world of “Minx,” HBO Max’s new Nixon-era comedy about the launching of a feminist nudie magazine, teems with easy villains. Sexist pigs, female reactionaries and appearance-obsessed hypocrites pass judgment from on high, blanching at both the male centerfolds and their implicit encouragements of women’s sexual agency.

What those critics can’t see from the outside are the internal battles within the titular publication, where its de facto editor in chief, the idealistic but inexperienced Joyce (Ophelia Lovibond), must find common ground with her publisher, Doug (Jake Johnson), a porn publishing mogul eager to create and profit off a market for women’s monthly erotica.

In the pilot, Joyce, a self-serious sort in pantsuits and neck-high blouses, imagines herself onstage pelted with tomatoes by Gloria Steinem. But the periodical that she wants to create — something rather like Steinem’s own “Ms.” that Joyce wants to call “The Matriarchy Awakens” — is a vitamin in need of gummy casing. That’s a metaphor the show applies to itself with a studied zeal; the result is much more sugar than nutrients.

Two fantastic recent dramas substantially overlap with “Minx.” HBO’s “The Deuce,” created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, chronicled the emergence of the pornographic film industry in ‘70s and ‘80s New York, as sex workers migrated from dangerous streets to well-lit sets, where performers were subject to less obvious forms of exploitation. That series’ grittiness offered a contrast to the more cerebral “Mrs. America” on FX on Hulu, about the ebb of the Second Wave and what would’ve been its signature legislative achievement — the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment — amid ideological infighting and the rise of the religious right.

“Minx” is these shows’ carefree little sister, the Amy to their Jo. “There’s a revolution coming,” intones Joyce, but the show isn’t interested in it beyond the magazine. Uncomplicated and ahistoric, the breezy (though not particularly funny) comedy, set in Los Angeles, isn’t concerned with its time period’s competing versions of feminism, nor what each denomination’s notions of pornography for (presumably straight) women may be. (In the following decade, activism around porn would become a locus of contention among disparate feminist groups.) Since the operation that Doug runs is pointedly free of misogyny, racism and homophobia, with no power imbalances between men and women or models and photographers threatening to infringe on the joy of smut, the most that Joyce has to worry about is whether the photo shoots in her magazine carry enough of a message.

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It’s difficult to critique “Minx” as a pop feminist project without sounding like what it looks down on most: a pretentious killjoy. That’s how Joyce herself is presented, as a Vassar graduate from a country-club background whose love of magazines has seemingly never sparked a curiosity in her about how to make them appealing to readers. (Throughout the first five episodes — the portion screened for critics of the 10-part debut season — the character proves exhaustingly bumbling and shortsighted.) With the help of her sexually liberated housewife sister (Lennon Parham), a model-turned-creative (Jessica Lowe) and a gay photographer (Oscar Montoya), Joyce eventually learns how to better fuse the magazine’s left-leaning politics with its themed spreads of sensitive firemen and biblical hunks. But the series is strongest when it allows its protagonist to grow from the prudish scold with all the right answers to an open-minded listener willing to incorporate into her evolving worldview the lived experiences of the women around her.

The real action, though, isn’t anywhere near the sex, but the practical realities of getting a new publication off the ground. Storylines revolve around wooing advertisers, streamlining distribution and placating puritanical politicians. It feels like a real missed opportunity that “Minx” is so unwilling to question its own assumptions: that porn is good; that feminism must be fun; and that capturing the White female moneyed gaze is the ultimate marker of the magazine’s success. That’s who’s got the disposable income, Doug’s assistant and confidante Tina (Idara Victor), a Black woman, cynically points out — a sidelining of her otherwise assertive self that begs for deeper exploration, rather than the brushoff the show gives her in the early episodes.

Save for the lightly transgressive preponderance of full-frontal nudity, which may even exceed “Euphoria’s” ostentatious displays of the male form in its entirety, the series is shot to match the rest of the show’s glossy and comforting tone, with colorful costumes and plenty of California sunshine. It takes a lot of sweetness to make over a matriarch into a minx. Luckily for fans of candy, there’s no shortage of saccharine.

Minx premieres Thursday on HBO Max with Episodes 1 and 2; two new episodes will stream weekly.

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