Sex on TV is easy to find — but good sex isn't

Dramas are full of nudity and graphic scenes that are often the opposite of erotic—here's how 2 shows get it right

Published May 8, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul in "The Path"   (Hulu)
Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul in "The Path" (Hulu)

“Not to ruin anything for you, but there’s nothing less sexy than filming a sex scene,” Joel Fields tells me. Fields is one of the two showrunners of “The Americans,” FX’s Soviet-spy-domestic-drama now in its fourth season. He and co-showrunner Joe Weisberg are in the middle of explaining how the sex scenes on the show get made—from sweetly tender lovemaking to the vicious undertones of revenge sex.

“You’re dealing with extremely technical stuff, and you have lights and sound and a crew, and you’re talking about angles. It’s not as sexy as two people alone.”

But it’s Fields’ and Weisberg’s job to make their sex scenes sexy, and in the case of “The Americans,” those scenes can be very sexy. The chemistry between the leads has already been red-hot, but with the rumors of an off-screen romance confirmed between Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell—who now have a baby—the sexual connection between the two goes so far as to infiltrate not just gunfights but also dental extraction.

With Peak TV has come Peak TV Sex, as the vast majority of new shows are cropping up on alternative platforms that don’t have to answer to the standards and practices of the FCC. And the result has been, unsurprisingly, a massive proliferation of sex scenes. Most of the time, when I write about them, I write about the scenes that are exploitative, abusive, or gratuitous; the ones that seem to exist just to satisfy the basest instincts of a certain kind of viewer, at the expense of every other kind of viewer.

Intriguingly, very little of it appears to be enjoyable. The dour antiheroes of prestige television have a lot of tortured, self-loathing orgasms, whether that is in “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men” or most recently, “Vinyl.” The last time someone enjoyed having sex on “Game Of Thrones” might be in season three, when both Robb (Richard Madden) and Talisa (Oona Chaplin) were newlyweds and Jon (Kit Harington) and Ygritte (Rose Leslie) were joyously hate-banging their way through the North. Our current run of prestige comedies, meanwhile, often depicts awkward, stilted sex, à la “Girls” or “Love” or “Louie.” All of these shows do occasionally show good sex, but there’s a lot of emphasis, in the sex scenes of modern TV, on how terrible it can be, too.

So when shows are actually sexy, it’s hard not to stop and take notice. “The Americans” is one; “Outlander” and “The Girlfriend Experience” on Starz are two other examples. Most recently, though, hot sex has come from an unlikely source—not an expensive call girl, bewigged married spies, or gowned and kilted Scotspeple, but the decidedly less sexy environment of upstate New York, on the compound of an aggressively bland suburban cult.

The second episode of "The Path," titled “The Era Of The Ladder,” segues into a sex scene between the married protagonists Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) and Eddie (Aaron Paul) that is almost embarrassingly sexy, a crackling display of heat and emotion that is so profound it makes the couple’s oldest son, who happens to overhear it, immediately vomit. This energy doesn’t disappear; the kindling romance between two teenagers and even the dysfunctional power dynamics between cult leader Cal (Hugh Dancy) and neophyte Mary (Emma Greenwell) are infused with a kind of deliberate power that makes them somehow arresting.

It makes the show. As I wrote when I reviewed the premiere, “The Path” needs that injection of sexual energy to leaven an otherwise dour show. And with Sarah and Eddie, the connection between them is so physical and obvious, on-screen, that it provides an essential establishing beat for these two otherwise quite different characters.

Showrunner Jessica Goldberg was pleased when I told her I thought the show was sexy. “I always felt nervous about sex on TV, about exploitation. But… adds to the feeling and texture of the show.” According to her, the religious element of "The Path," which was just renewed for a second season, is some of where the program’s eroticism comes from, too: “Life, and death, and religion — it is very erotic. It’s not supposed to be, but it is. Even the Bible feels very sexy.”

“I’ve always loved turn-of-the-century romance,” she added. “It’s so hard now to make romance, because you don’t have, you know, Edith Wharton characters with gloves who can’t touch. Everything is out in the open. But this environment does deal with people who are repressed, are complicated. It allows for some of that storytelling.”

For Weisberg and Fields, the eroticism of “The Americans” comes from the characters’ fundamental identity-shifting, their wearing of multiple masks. “It really comes down to character exploration,” Fields said. Each sex scene is “different based on who those characters are—not only generally, but in those specific moments.”

“That’s often the case in our sex lives as human beings,” Weisberg said. “They can define us, in terms of our identities, and they are also how we can explore those identities.”

One of the reasons it’s difficult to discuss good sex on TV very much is that doing so requires owning up that you, the viewer, are admitting something turned you on. I asked the showrunners how they felt about the possibility that viewers might be turned on by their sex scenes. They were all a little unsure of how to respond. “We don’t judge,” Fields joked, and Weisberg added, “It depends on depending on what parts of the show they find sexy. We did set someone on fire last year.”

Goldberg said it did worry her, at first, about people being aroused (too aroused, even) by the sexual content of the show. But she also recalled how important pop culture with great sex was to her—she cites the Diane Lane film “Unfaithful” as formative (which, I’ve no doubt, many viewers would agree with). She points out that there is a “joy” to sex. “It’s fun sometimes, to see bodies, to feel romance.”

She likes writing them, too. “Because I have a secret fantasy to be a novelist, I do like to write [the scenes]. Very emotionally, and purple, and explicitly,” she added, laughing. “For my own pleasure, I write out the details.”

Weisberg and Fields occasionally will describe the scene in text, but in this season’s long sex scene between Phillip and Elizabeth, set to Queen’s “Under Pressure,” the script had just three words: “They fuck hard.”

But, Weisberg added, “We spent a lot of time talking about those three words.”

Which, of course, can lead to its own troubles. “We’ll sometimes be in the strange position of talking about specifics you wouldn’t otherwise talk about,” Fields said, recalling a much-discussed episode of “The Americans” where Phillip and Elizabeth’s teenage daughter walks in on them giving each other oral sex at the same time, better known as “sixty-nining.”

“There was a lot of discussion as to what that act might be, but then when we got down to what that act might be—look, there are a lot of variations of that act,” Fields said. The question at hand, as posed by episode director Thomas Schlamme: “Whose ass are we going to see, here?”

What works on-screen in any context is going to be different from viewer to viewer; there’s probably nothing harder to define, though, than a great sex scene. And that’s because sex is, more or less, everything—the meeting point of self, intimacy, biological drive, and desire. Even when it is consensual and enthusiastic, it can still contain multitudes: Sex can be routine or eventful; it can be easy or challenging. It can be harmful and healing; it can be good, bad, or just “meh.”

But there are some guidelines. When asked about what makes a great sex scene, all three showrunners pointed to the emotional state of the characters. For Weisberg and Fields’ spies, it’s about the complicated and not always gratifying quest for closeness. The characters “claw through” their multilayered identities “towards the intimacy,” Fields said. “That allows you to feel the importance of intimacy, that people will fight their way through that.”

For Goldberg’s characters, it’s a bit more mundane. Her characters are not international superspies; for that matter, they are not jaded antiheroes or awkward 20-something hipsters, either. They’re people who are trying to engage with their own fantasies and also trying to come back to earth, living suspended between faith and doubt. Eddie and Sarah are so invested in this system of belief that the reality of their corporeal bodies seems to occasionally come as a shock. In a television landscape where so much screentime is spent dismantling and deconstructing fantasy and myth, “The Path's”’s twisted practice of worship and electric sex scenes strike a note of dissonance, pointing to the value of at least some of our illusions.

By Sonia Saraiya

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