It’s not news that cable networks like to go with risky places with sex that their network competitors can’t, but I’ve been particularly interested in the contrast between where Homeland‘s decided to go, and the direction American Horror Story, which I’m watching because I like to do bad things to myself, has taken.
In American Horror Story, pretty much all the sex we know about has a creepy edge. Dylan McDermott’s Ben has sex with a psychology student while his wife is recovering from a miscarriage, deeply damaging his marriage. When he and Vivien, Connie Britton, finally have makeup sex, it’s sex that comes out of violence, slaps and shoves turned into kisses. There’s a gimp suit in the attic, and Vivian has sex with a man in it she assumes is Ben. Meanwhile, Ben is seeing their aged housekeeper as a luscious 20-something, and keeps ending up in compromising positions with her, including getting caught masturbating to thoughts of her by a burned-scarred former inhabitant of the house — and there’s some allusion that she’s undead. One of Ben’s patients fantasizes about Ben’s daughter, Violet. And their elderly neighbor, Constance, is apparently in the habit of seducing young aspiring models (I think it would be great to have more acknowledgment that people of all ages have sex lives, but it’s played for creeps). So far, these encounters are all signifiers and no substance. We have no sense of why Vivien might get excited by the prospect of sleeping with an anonymized, restricted version of her husband. No clue as to why a man who professes to love his wife and be traumatized by the death of their son in the womb is a serial cheat, other than, as he complains, they haven’t had sex in a year. When he breaks down crying while masturbating, it’s risible, not vulnerable.
By contrast, Homeland has similar scenes, but as Alan Sepinwall wrote, “Homeland is using these kinds of scenes to really illuminate character, showing the dark place Brody is and making Jessica more sympathetic in the process.” There’s no question that the sex scenes between Jessica and Nick are uncomfortable. In their first encounter after his return, she’s shocked by his scars, and by how aggressive he is during sex—she may be consenting, but she’s deeply uncomfortable and in other situations she probably wouldn’t be, a combination of emotions that’s much more vulnerable and lacerating than anything we’ve seen on American Horror Story so far. Similarly, the masturbation scene in the the third episode doesn’t have a creepy, burned-looking murderer staring up at Nick from the yard outside, but it’s also much rawer and more frightening. Something’s happened to Brody to make him not want to touch his wife, to reach for the best she can get, even if it means totally humiliating her, making her feel powerfully distant from him.
Taken together, the two shows are an illustration of something I think is important, that some networks have cracked and others just haven’t. It isn’t the presence of sexual or violent elements in a show that make it adult, in the sense of grown up. It’s what you do with them that counts.