On Friday, Showtime announced that it had picked up a new show called The Affair, which would tell the stories of a relationship that interrupts two marriages, splitting up the episodes to explore the perspectives of the men and women involved separately. It was a decision that, along with the forthcoming Masters of Sex, a historical drama bout the sex researchers Masters and Johnson, and Ray Donovan, which follows a Los Angeles fixer who is also dealing with the consequences of childhood sexual abuse in his family, that furthered a brand that underlies a great deal of Showtime’s work, and that makes the network unusual among its peers. Showtime increasingly as interested in exploring sex as it is violence.
This isn’t to say that all of Showtime’s programming is solely preoccupied with sex, but three of its foundational shows, The L Word, about affluent lesbians, Queer As Folk, an adaptation of the British drama, and Soul Food, an adaptation of the movie, were all substantially concerned with how adults approach sex, sometimes in the context of their families. It’s a theme that continues in the shows that are airing on it presently. Shameless is substantially about the sexual relationships of multiple generations of the Gallagher family. House of Lies examines both the sex lives of successful consultants and the sexual and gender identity of the main character’s son. Californication‘s focus is announced in its title. Dexter is a serial killer show that’s frequently explored the sexual components of violence. And Homeland started out as a show about national security and has morphed into an epic romance grounded in a striking sexual connection between its two main characters, a dogged CIA agent and the undercover terrorist she is pursuing.
I asked Showtime president David Nevins about that trend at the Television Critics Association press tour in January, and about how intentional the network’s focus on sex was.
“We have the ability to be adults, try to use the lack of restrictions that we have because we don’t sell to advertisers, use it to most interesting effect. And there are
taboo subjects that we can explore that other people don’t have — other programmers don’t have the same freedom and ability,” he said. “Masters of Sex feels like a show that only we could get away with, that only pay cable could get away with…Sex is one of the places where we can distinguish ourselves. But it’s really important to me also that we be interesting and provocative in a deeper way, not just salacious.”
That’s an ambitious goal to set, and one I’m particularly curious to measure The Affair, Masters of Sex, and Ray Donovan against. And it’s hard precisely because fewer people have worked at it. Mainstream movies and television have done an enormous amount of work to explore what makes for stylish violence, and what about the employment of violence we find alternately exciting and revolting. Some of the reason that’s happened is because of incentives set up in the television and movie ratings systems, which make it easier to make violent content reach a mass audience than to do the same with considerations of sex that are comparatively grown-up and intense. Some of it’s happened because there’s an alternative to mainstream entertainment that’s making sexual content that mainstream entertainment can’t and wouldn’t want to replicate.
And some of it is simply because the practice we’ve had at making entertainment intelligently or entertainingly violent isn’t matched by an equal set of established conventions around sex. It’s pretty easy to figure out what will make an audience either gasp in admiration at violent prowess—James Bond’s ability to take as good as he gets, and to dole out violence with precision is a good rule of thumb—or recoil in disgust from the damage done to a body. It’s much harder to figure out how to do a sex scene that will make a mass audience have the same unified reaction, and some of that’s because what we feel about sex isn’t close to standardized. In The New Republic, Sam Lipsyte, writing about how to write about sex, suggests that aspiring novelists “Trust in the modern gods who guide your hand: Sad and Funny. Like it or not, these are the twin poles for most of our tiny thoughts and doings. Sad and Funny are both the world and how we withstand it.” But poles aren’t the entirety of experience, and joy deserves some recognition in there as well.
I understand the many reasons that a network would choose to go with violence as its primal stakes and subject for exploration: it’s exciting, our reactions to a lot of it are easy to predict, and it is, in a lot of ways, easier to get on screen and easier to sell once it’s there. But even if violence isn’t an exhaustible subject, it’s far from the only one that matters, or the only stakes that any of us experience—for many of us, we’re deeply fortunate to avoid it. Going after sex and romance, and doing it with the same level of sophistication and style as many of the great cable dramas is a harder thing to do, and it’s why sex is an equal or close to equal subject maybe only in Deadwood and Mad Men.
“I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure,” Bikini Kill sang in 1995. Television still hasn’t even begun to tap that potential, but I do wish they’d start getting around to it. If Showtime is digging in on questions of what sex means to us, how we study it, and how we survive trauma around it, I’m excited to see what arguments those shows are going to make—and how viewers will react to them.