‘Black Sails,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘The Americans,’ And The Decline of Sex As A Cable Brand-Builders

Starz seems to have settled on explicit sex and violence as the keys to its brand precisely at the moment when the flagrant use of both of those elements in television drama has ceased to be a novel advantage cable held over the networks and started getting embarrassing, and not a little dull. And even though Spartacus, the franchise that perhaps made the best use of those elements in service of genuine ideas, has just finished its run on Starz, the network appears to be doubling down with Black Sails, a pirate show that’s being advertised as an opportunity for Michael Bay to move on up from showing Megan Fox arching her back to depicting actual lesbian sex and for Toby Stephens to get another crack at the American market after playing Fergus Wolfe in Possession didn’t exactly set his career on fire:

There’s a good show to be done about piracy. But it’s one that requires the showrunners to know as much about Caribbean governance, and economics—some privateering contracts guaranteed fair, consistent monthly wages and advance pay—social dynamics that gave pirates a certain amount of social capital in polite society as well as in island enclaves, slavery, and cooperative organizing as about how to make a lady look fetching in a corset.

It’s notable that this season of Game of Thrones has—with the exception of this weekend’s scene in Littlefinger’s brothel—dramatically scaled down its use of nudity and scaled up its discussion of policy issues, from the ethics and efficacy of purchasing a slave army to the impact on Westeros of the particular people who have helped the country run up a sizable national debt. There was a sense in some of the commentary on the show last year that the prodigious use of nudity in both non-consensual scenes and situations involving prostitution was cheesy, a sop to less sophisticated viewers who might not otherwise be inclined to keep track of the show’s enormous roster of characters or engage with its big ideas about the morality of war. In other words, a clear distinction was emerging between adult drama and “adult” content. And in the show’s third season, characters have talked more about sexual assault and sexual experiences than we’ve actually seen on screen. How characters like Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister respond to a threat of sexual assault, or how Tyrion Lannister interrogates Podrick Payne about his first sexual experience matters much more than watching their bodies in motion.

This is not to say that prestige drama is moving away from sex entirely, of course, but I do think we’re seeing in the best shows a sense that if you’re going to depict naked bodies or people having sex, there should be a narrative or character-building reason for that decision. The Americans features a considerable amount of fairly explicit sex, but those scenes are often deeply tied to ideas. When Elizabeth Jennings (Kerri Russell) has sex with her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys), those scenes are often about her, newly revealed to be a sexual assault survivor, letting her guard down with a partner. By contrast, when she has sex with people who are her targets in espionage, whether they’re naive men overwhelmed by her oral sex skills, as was the case in the first episode, or dominants without a clear sense of boundaries who may be interested in inflicting real pain on her, as was the case in a later one, Elizabeth’s sexual contacts are often about her comfort managing risk and maintaining control even in situations that are potentially dangerous. When Phillip has sex with Martha, the FBI secretary he’s working into a source, his experiences with her vacillate between an attempt to find the comfort and affection he isn’t getting at home and self-flagellation.

Justified, by contrast, ran through its enormously romantic fourth season without ever showing us the two participants in its great romance, Boyd and Ava Crowder, in bed together. Mad Men‘s shown Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) in lingerie and bikinis this year, but its sense of sex is vertiginous when Don’s in Hawaii with Megan, guilty when he’s conducting his affair with Sylvia, and seedy and silly when Pete first tells his neighbor “Please, don’t linger in the hallway,” and then tries to be smooth by asking her about the temperature in his city apartment, telling her “It’s been known to get hot.” Breaking Bad, which returns this summer, has tended to use sexual violence more than actual consensual sex on the show, and as Walter White’s love affair with his own reputation has deepened, he’s paid less and less attention to his wife, except to consider how she could be of use or a threat to him.

Girls, of course, exists in a separate category of its own: it’s one of the only shows currently airing on television (Californication excepted) to have sex as its major subject. But even there, sex is treated with a certain detachment. The characters of Girls have sex for the sake of having experiences (Hannah), as a means of improving their self-esteem rather than for physical pleasure (Marnie), to exert control over other people (Jessa). When they’re having unpleasant or not entirely consensual sex (Adam), the show is teaching lessons, and when they’re having it for their own pleasure, as Hannah does with a handsome doctor, negative emotional repercussions—or offline declarations that the gap between the characters’ appearances make the scenario implausible—seem sure to follow. The character who has sex most frequently because she wants to, and because she’s close to emotionally aligned with her partner is Shoshanna, whose experiences and self-explorations are treated as somewhat more pedestrian material by the show, an understandable choice, but one that still leaves me feeling like the show is somewhat missing out.

I’m not really against the idea that prestige television is moving away from the depiction of sex for the sake of getting female characters topless on-screen. But it would be too bad if cable television walked away from sex, or shifted to an exclusive focus on sexual violence, without finding a way of depicting consensual, pleasurable sex without seeming cheesy or voyeuristic. If “tits!” is the laziest of all possible defaults, then finding sex scenes that seem simultaneously realistic, emotionally engaging, and alluring to a broad audience may be the hardest thing for television and movies to do. Depicting sexual assault and making it frightening and making it clear that rape is about power rather than sex is easier. But it’s far from the only way to take sexuality seriously.