“Sex/Life,” Netflix’s new series about marital dissatisfaction and monogamy, sets out to ask several big questions. By the end, it’s only proved one thing to the viewer’s satisfaction: That it takes hard work to pull off satisfying trash.
Inspired by the book “44 Chapters About 4 Men” by BB Easton and created by Stacy Rukeyser, “Sex/Life” is at least at first organized around the diary kept by Billie Connelly (Sarah Shahi). Billie, a suburban wife and mom with an academic background in psychology, is happy enough with her life and with her husband (Mike Vogel). But she can’t help turning over in her mind experiences with a former lover (Adam Demos), a fixture from her past who intrudes upon her present; she writes all about him in her diary. When her husband finds those writings, Billie embarks upon a journey of self-rediscovery that threatens the stability of her life and family.
All the raw materials are here either for great art or great fun, or both; questions of what it means to be committed to life to one person have only gained currency in the everything-on-demand internet age. So it feels hard to explain why “Sex/Life” feels so unpleasantly schlocky. One may be in the performances: One hardly believes Billie and her husband Cooper have any real history together, which makes the question of their future together feel absent a certain gravity. Should they stay married? We don’t understand why they wanted to be married to each other in the first place.
The show asks its actors to challenge themselves in exactly one regard — being willing to appear on-camera nude. Even the least prudish in the audience may wonder if “Sex/Life” is demanding a bit much from its actors in this regard when it doesn’t reward them, elsewhere, with real material to play. It’s as though provocation is equivalent to having something to say: Endless shots of nude characters in intimate settings, from one-on-one sessions to a somewhat startlingly raw group sex party, are this series’ key means of communicating information, but there’s not enough on this show’s mind to justify pushing them quite so far.
I walked away from “Sex/Life” feeling sorry for the actors, who’ve been stripped naked to sell a show, but not a story. (Margaret Odette, who plays Billie’s best friend, has the easiest time of it among the four leads.) Billie’s concerns feel faintly sketched — losing oneself in parenthood is absolutely a real phenomenon. But “Sex/Life” resorts to the broadest sorts of Stepford clichés in depicting Billie’s neighbors and communicating her discontentment, suggesting that the writers don’t have a handle on its material. In order to make Billie’s story resonate, a series not equipped to delve further into character simply throws more situation at her. Shahi, a veteran actor, has little to play, instead reacting against situations that grow increasingly airless, bizarre, and removed from whatever reality early episodes had set up.
Most galling of all is that this is territory in which Netflix has recently succeeded. Two years ago, Netflix attempted to engineer a ’90s-style erotic thriller with the similarly exuberantly punctuated title “What/If.” The self-consciously ludicrous limited series explicitly borrowed the plot of “Indecent Proposal” as a way to explore questions of fidelity in relationships and power dynamics. That exploration bore little fruit, but “Sex/Life” — centered around a big, meaty, joyously strange performance by Renée Zellweger — was nevertheless a success on its own terms.
“Sex/Life” doesn’t get there, getting lost in its own inability to express its ideas and failing to find any joy along the way. For a show about the basic instincts, it’s unusually removed from anything recognizably human; for a look at what it means to heedlessly seek fulfillment, it’s surprisingly sour and mean. Give the creators this much: They knew what they were doing separating the two words in the title with a slash. “Sex/Life” has plenty of the former, as if to make up for the absence, in performance or in script, of any of the latter.
“Sex/Life” premieres Friday, June 25 on Netflix.