The Politics of Desire

Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy adobemac.

I think it says a great deal about how good Homicide is that I find Tim Bayliss almost irredeemably annoying, and yet I’m in love with the show as I finished up the second season.  It’s not that I find Bayliss disagreeable: Munch is constantly disagreeable and he’s probably my favorite character on the show.  Watching him get surprised out of the murk of his sourness by the fireworks that erupt towards the end of the Season 2 finale is one of the loveliest moments the show’s produced to that point, and especially given how nervous Richard Belzer was about the role, it’s a piece of acting that’s self-assured in its portrayal of a man knocked off-kilter.

But in addition to that performance, one of the things I like so much about Homicide is something that I think would be impossible today: its frankness about the ecstasy and terror of sex.  Kay Howard waxing rapturous and weak-needed about the joys making love with Ed Danvers would be reduced to Samantha Jones-like shock talk today, and as much I love Samantha as a character, I think we can all agree that the world needs less of that, unless it’s a Christina Aguilera parody, that as ripped off by other characters, it’s a kind of display, rather than honesty.

(The discussion after the jump is mild, and yet probably not safe for a hypersensitive workplace.  Thar be one of those discussions of sex in pop culture that gets me banned from some of your offices.)

And I don’t think any network show, and perhaps no cable one, could get away with portraying S&M the way Homicide does in that Season 2 finale.  Bayliss and Pembleton are investigating the death of a girl who worked a phone-sex line and was strangled by a belt from a leather jacket sold in a fetish shop.  In the course of investigating the murder, the two detectives visit an S&M club.  A suspect threatens to kiss Bayliss if they cuff him, and Bayliss loses it, not out of homophobia, but clearly because the guy’s threat and explanation of the power dynamics have touched something deep within it.  At the end of the episode, one of the murdered girl’s friends brings Bayliss a leather jacket as a thank-you.  He demurs, and she orders him to put it on, clearly shifting from a conversational tone to one that means–something else.  When he complies, it was the first moment when I really liked him.

One of the things that’s been very interesting to me about Bones is that while the show has occasionally dealt with fetish communities in its constantly rotating cast of subcultures, the show usually debunks the idea that anything other than sex between people who love each other than be meaningful.  Brennan occasionally mentions some familiarity with power play, but Booth is generally freaked out, and the show usually suggest that he’s right to be freaked out, that his world view about sex is correct.  If I were the show’s writers, I’d actually think that might be a big obstacle for the pair as a couple.  But I think really it’s reflective of a larger trend towards treating S&M and other sexual subcultures as precisely that. Something to be investigated, understood, and left safely behind.  They’re not really considered legitimate vectors for character explorations any more.  And purely from a storytelling perspective, given the thinness of our pop cultural conversation about sex, about the relationships between men and women (to say nothing of men and men, and women and women), that seems like a shame.