I remember reading an interview with Sean Connery a few years ago where he was complaining about the artificiality of sex scenes in movies – especially of the post-coital phase where the woman’s carefully shrouded in a sheet and the man’s paused between camera transitions to put some boxer shorts on. Sex, Connery argued, isn’t like that – it’s messy, it’s complex, and it’s naked. People are exposed, and drama should reflect that.
This is one of the things which has always been different between the US and UK, at least televisually. I remember watching one or other police procedural, where the female detective is at home going to bed, takes all her clothes off and climbs in naked. It’s hard to describe, but it was completely natural and casual and hence it didn’t feel exploitative – it wasn’t sexualizing her as far as my male perspective goes. Nudity was just the natural thing in the scene, so it played out. (And, of course, I do recognise that the choice of scene-framing made nudity natural, rather than being a necessary functional decision to have her naked)
I suppose some combination of the puritanical history and the southern conservatism in the USA means that they’ve always struggled to be so matter-of-fact about sex, and so tend to either elide or sensationalise it in their dramas. In some ways, I’ve been waiting for US TV to grow up and get over it, and there have been a few different shows recently where I’ve seen some glimmers of change*.
I don’t propose to go through a catalogue or survey of the boundary-pushing shows, but I find myself returning to two, and turning over the implications for the representation of sex. I’ve posted a few times before about Californication, starting here. The second is a show I’ve only recently encountered: Hung.
The basic premise is that a high school teacher is having financial difficulties and so becomes a male prostitute. It has all the same hallmarks – a character confronting personally challenging circumstances intermixed with sex, a readiness to have full-frontal nudity, and to show relatively intimate conversations about the details of sex.
There are a lot of things to like about the show. The central actors are interesting, and the show represents a number of different attitudes towards sex and relationships both sexual and otherwise. The sex scenes are generally more dramatically interesting than in Californication – they are generally only shown where the sex itself is a plot or character-revelation moment. Moreover, I think that whereas for Californication, sex is itself a performance and an act, the characters in Hung are verging on intimacy, at least at times. Crucially, sex in Hung is shown to itself be complex, and to rapidly have complex ripples through the lives of those thus entangled.
However, despite being far less of a wish-fulfilment fantasy, I found that it lacked the verve and charisma of Californication. Somehow it telegraphed too much of any given episode’s plot and so felt plodding. As I did with Desperate Housewives, I began to watch episodes at 2x speed, condensing the action to the point where I wouldn’t get bored while watching.
* I have watched the first couple of episodes of Boardwalk Empire recently, and while I’m not really loving the show as a whole, its treatment of sex so far is coming the closest to “fact of life” that I have seen from the Yanks.