TV Dramas Get Serious About Storytelling With Sex

Coitus scenes move past titillation to reveal subtleties of character

When Michelle Ashford describes how her Showtime series “Masters of Sex” (pictured) approaches onscreen sex, she points to the recent arc in which researcher Dr. Bill Masters experiences a bout of impotence.

“It’s not sexy,” Ashford tells Variety. “It’s painful and it makes you cringe, and that’s our job. We’re not the bodice-ripper show. We’re just trying to tell the story as honestly as possible.”

Without the restrictions of broadcast standards and practices, cable and streaming series have long pushed the boundaries of depicting sex on TV. But unlike cable’s early days, when sex was merely meant to attract viewers, such series as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “Girls” are using sex to further storytelling and draw more realistic characters.

“It’s nonverbal storytelling,” says Sarah Treem of Showtime’s “The Affair.” “With sex, people tend to communicate things they can’t say in language. When we’re approaching sex scenes, we always try to make sure it is narratively important. We try to use our sex scenes to get to the next place.”

John Wells, showrunner of fellow Showtime series “Shameless,” agrees: “It’s not that being able to use sex in shows or profanity makes the shows better, but it does allow you to be more honest about how people live their lives.”

Even Cinemax’s “The Knick,” set in repressed post-Victorian New York, uses sex to show cultural shifts, according to writers John Amiel and Michael Begler.

“It’s another thing we like to play with on the show: where we’ve come medically, race relations — sexuality is another piece of it,” Begler says.

Though Starz’s “Power” showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh says her cast has come to expect sex scenes, she’s writing against traditional portrayals.

“The narrative of the sex scene is always about the male orgasm, and for me that’s the least interesting thing we could do,” she says. “Our show tends to be about the female experience, so it’s much more about the initial kiss, physical seduction, mental seduction.”

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