"Sex/Life": Netflix's best worst raunchy ride of this summer is 50 shades of oy vey

Netflix steps into the void left when premium cable abandoned softcore, and the result is just as silly and bad

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 25, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

Sex/Life (NETFLIX)
Sex/Life (NETFLIX)

"Sex/Life" is proof that very zeitgeisty terms hit a point at which they lose their original meaning – or worse, are co-opted to promote projects that don't qualify. Here, the term in question is "female gaze."

Purely in a mechanical sense it fits, in that it's a series created by a woman, Stacy Rukeyser, whose eyes presumably work. Her take on a woman's erotic journey reminds us that not all womanly visions are delivered with 20/20 clarity. Some are entirely myopic.

Nevertheless, "Sex/Life" serves a purpose at a time when so many are starved for touch. Netflix knows you're probably bored with diddling yourself to "Bridgerton" for the millionth time. And without "Broad City"'s Ilana and Abbi to guide you to the good stuff, navigating the Internet's kinkscape can be frightening. So think of this as the service's invitation to enjoy eight not-too-explicit episodes featuring "The L Word" star Sarah Shahi getting railed by an Australian and a living mannequin.

That "Sex/Life" purports to examine a woman's desires and how those may conflict with her reality as a mother and caregiver could be thought of as revolutionary. That is, if some version of that notion had never inspired who knows how many horny housewife skin flicks, be they of the softcore variety or along the lines of "I can never un-see that; please arrange for an exorcism after you call my therapist."

In fairness, that description shortchanges her character Billie Connelly, a transplanted Georgia girl who occasionally references the state as if it's a cultural wasteland. Billie who is living a House Beautiful life in Connecticut funded by her investment executive husband Cooper (Mike Vogel), who only has eyes for her and looks like a Ken doll, only one that isn't smooth down there.

Billie's children are sweet and loving, and the other moms at school are perky and welcoming. Everything about Billie's life looks faultless . . . say it with me now . . . from the outside. In truth, Billie yearns for her old New York City life, when her boobs didn't leak and she and bosom buddy Sasha (Margaret Odette) were graduate students, thick as thieves and unapologetically hunting down the D.

Hi-de-ho, was life sparkling until Billie met Brad (Adam Demos), a heartbreaker with a reputation and the tortured soul that comes standard with his particular model of heterosexual man. Brad ruins all who come after him for Billie, which is explained by way of a full frontal shot that is . . . Let's just say you'll be amazed that Billie doesn't needs a kitchen stepladder to make it through the show's obligatory wall-banging excursions.

Did we mention Brad is Australian? Not Hemsworth Australian, but far from Murdoch, and with a unit that could destroy the Sydney Opera House in a single swing.

Nevertheless, he would have remained nothing but a spot in Billie's memory bans if she hadn't decided to unburden herself in a journal. And where does she keep that journal? Why, in a document on the family laptop. That means this entire trip, one traveled in a vehicle with a Skinemax body and a Lifetime flick's basic bitch brains, could have been avoided if Billie had simply used a password that wasn't her birthday, or 1-2-3-4.

Inevitably the only other literate human in the household, Cooper finds Billie's randy notes and spins out – but in a super sexy, filthy-dirty dangerous way. Billie's delighted until Cooper's obsession with Brad gets out of hand in the usual repressed suburban rich white people ways. After that the love triangle starts to cause more tears than orgasms.

About that. Among several recurring motifs is Shahi's instant-climaxes, the type that completely messes up an inexperienced person's understanding of sexuality and becomes comical after the first close-eyed sighs at next to nothing. Merely standing on a balcony is enough to get her humming, which would be nuts if this show were aspiring to be something more than a messed-up quilt stitched together with threads that could have been swiped from an AITA forum.

In that vein, can we talk about the unrealistic reliance on, shall we say, random digital stimulation? Using the cruder phrasing is better, since I really want you to understand how bad it is when I say the finger blasting in this show is assaultive. It is pretty much what passes for foreplay, too. That's not a selling point because the perpetrators ply it with the same tenderness as a radio operator, or a gentleman enthusiastically going after the primer bulb on a lawnmower that won't start.

And this is where the false advertising of the female gaze in "Sex/Life" viewers shows itself. Yet again we have a series that takes an opportunity to present a version of sex and sensuality that doesn't adhere to the standard patriarchal framework. Instead Rukeyser sticks with the male filmmaker's tradition of treating the female body like a machine that requires little more than pumping and groaning, and precious few sequences devoted to building a slow charge via intimacy.

That also takes away from the scenes in which Rukeyser realistically demonstrates the requirements motherhood asks of Billie's body, a contrast with her yearning for sexual fulfillment. This registers in the feminist-tinged focus on Shahi's breasts both as eye candy and as a source of nourishment for Billie's baby. I can't think of another show like this that realistically contends with challenges lactating mothers face from day to day, including an accident that occurs during an awkward attempt to be spontaneous with her husband.

Otherwise the main way "Sex/Life" engages into the female gaze conversation is by allowing many opportunities for the audience to drink in the cast's nudity between bouts of unsubtle conversation. Shahi is a vision, always has been. And her assets may be the expertly lit focal point of objectification, but the camera also displays Vogel's form and captures the peach fuzz on Demos' shapely cakes. Billie's sensual buffet almost entirely consists of white people, by the way, with Sasha being an exception that checks off the " wise-and-wild Black best girlfriend" box.  

Eventually Rukeyser wraps up "Sex/Life" with an avalanche of feminist epiphanies, including a voiceover of Billie paraphrasing Betty Friedan and a speech about pleasure being woman's birthright to other uptight mothers at her young son's school event.  All of this would be laudable if the writing weren't hilariously atrocious. At least it's adhering to form, which means you can fast forward through most of it.

Here's the thing about softcore porn, though. While it's largely harmless and dumb, it's also only bearable in the smallest of doses. An hour or two of fleshy humping interrupted by mediocre plot is about all but the most disinterested can typically take. That means "Sex/Life" is testing our tolerance to quite a degree with eight hour-long episodes centered on the tried-and-true "bored suburban housewife embarks on a sexual journey" yarn.

However, and I mean this, is it worth getting your panties in a bunch over semantics if they've been dry as the Mojave for what feels like forever? Maybe not. Sex and sensuality exist on a wide spectrum, and for all I know watching some thunder from down under treat Shahi's undercarriage like a rough game of "Operation" may be all it takes to turn you into a puddle.

Women deserve better – and Netflix has better in its library, frankly – but it'll do in a pinch. So gather your most reliable friends, a bunch a fresh batteries and maybe a warm human or two, and enjoy "Sex/Life," the best worst feel-up show of the summer.

Just watch out for those fingers.

All episodes of "Sex/Life" are currently streaming on Netflix. 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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