This was a banner year for copulation on TV, both the sexy and the thought-provoking kind.
The breaking down of the boundaries of what constitutes a “good” TV show, which we’ve been discussing, has been excellent for TV sex: It has let some air in the room (not to mention female eyeballs).
And Showtimes’ The Affair is, sexually speaking, a kind of throwback. It’s supposed to be about a true love, hot-sex kind of entanglement, but it eschews lightness, fun, and sexiness, as if those qualities would downgrade it to a soap opera, instead of making it a million times more compelling.
A show that has no such hang-ups is the already mentioned Outlander, and I think the female perspective that Mo and June identified is a key part of why. That series’ female gaze is responsible not only for the conscientious treatment of sexual assault, but also all those beefcake shots of the lovely Jamie.
The imperative to ogle Jamie’s bod is totally true to the source material: Outlander was adapted for TV by a man, but it is based on a series of romance novels. While the TV series is surprisingly historically minded — there was a lot of Scottish history jammed in there, a little too much, even for my taste—it is also hugely attentive to carnal pleasures, to lust, to the male body, to all the reasons people read the books.
Attractive people making out is a bedrock pleasure principle of all moving images, and this year TV got much better at it.
Critics so often react to nudity as another one of TV’s “problems,” and this is because nudity so often is one of TV’s problems.
The exposed, titillating corpse, the naked stripper with no personality who establishes that a show is for “mature audiences” before the credits roll, the endless sexposition: These are just some of the clichéd ways nudity is regularly used on television It’s the “who needs a woman to have a personality when she has a rack” philosophy. Nudity and sex are fundamental to the human experience and when handled with care are, duh, fun to watch. Attractive people making out is a bedrock pleasure principle of all moving images, and this year TV got much better at it.
Even that major culprit of sexposition, Game of Thrones, took baby steps to more equal opportunity eyeballing by treating Daenerys’ love object Daario as a cute little plate of man-meat. (Michiel Huisman, the actor, has made something of a specialty of the hunky lust object. He also did so in Wild, Orphan Black, and Nashville this year.) Of course, Game of Thrones still had its issues, most notably a sex scene between Jamie and Cersei Lannister that in the book was perhaps ultimately consensual but showed up on screen looking like rape. The director of the episode argued that it wasn’t rape and future episodes went on as if nothing unacceptable had happened between the two siblings.
Meanwhile, The Americans used sex better than any show I can think of from this year or any year: namely, as an entrée into the deep recesses of character. Scenes were simultaneously shocking and totally romantic, proof that there really is a classy way to do almost anything on television.
The most complex sex scene of the year prize goes to HBO’s The Comeback for the long sequence in which Valerie Cherish is tasked with giving an on-screen blow job to a fictional version of her male nemesis. The scene is larded with almost too many humiliations to count.
And yet so many shows embraced their dirty minds to great effect this year. Girls had that sexual role-play scene gone wrong, a scene that showed just how far Adam and Hannah’s relationship has come and just how far it has yet to go. FX’s foul-minded romantic comedy You’re the Worst found the heart lurking in the most sexually sordid behavior. And Broad City’s Ilana may be the most un-hung-up sexual being we’ve ever seen on television.
The Mindy Project, which airs on a network, even had an entire episode about anal sex. And one that concluded, basically, that there’s a right way to ask for it. I think that all the good that viewer outrage has done, particularly in pushing for diversity on TV, more than makes up for the times it feels like rigid hectoring.
Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.