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Television: The Dull and the Kinky

HBO and Showtime offer two takes on erotica with one thing in common: neither is very sexy

TV review, November 8, 2007

Years ago, I saw a skin flick on Cinemax that was actually erotic. It was called Play Time. I can’t say it was much of a movie. It was memorable only because of an actress named Monique Parent, whose performance had everything Skinemax productions routinely lack: intelligence, playfulness, and passion. There was this one scene where she and another lass, inspired by the sight of a strapping young man cleaning a pool, decided to watch each other—well, never mind. The point is it only took one person with talent to turn a bottom-scraping piece of softcore into a classic.

I’ve been thinking about Play Time a lot lately as I trudge through the latest wave of upscale cable erotica: Tell Me You Love Me on HBO and Californication on Showtime (the latter just wrapped up its first season, but you can still see it on Showtime on Demand). You wouldn’t think it would be hard for these shows to serve up something frothingly hot, seeing as how their networks give them all the freedom they need. They’re utterly high gloss, light-years beyond the usual late-night premium-channel sludge in terms of writing, production, and (Ms. Parent excepted) acting. And yet both of them are total downers. They seem designed to prove that my experience with Play Time was a once-in-a-lifetime fluke.

Tell Me You Love Me is the more stultifying of the two. It’s about the sex lives of couples going through marriage counseling, which means the characters do it in a few scattered scenes every episode and then spend the rest of the time talking to the therapist about their problems. Or talking to each other about what they’re going to say to their therapist about their problems. Or talking about other things, but only because they’re evading their problems. Or talking, in endlessly hinting and circumlocutory ways, about how the problems they’ve been talking about for the last six episodes aren’t their real problems.

My favorite philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once said that the core philosophical problem of existence is that people aren’t all that interesting. This show is a demonstration of his thesis in depth. The problems these characters have are the most obvious cookie-cutter cliches imaginable—infertility, commitment, faithfulness—and their sex lives are purest vanilla. Worse still, the sex is realistic—and by that I mean not that it’s explicit (though it is shot and edited to look hard-core) but that it’s, you know, serious and gloomy and unfulfilling, the way it is for real people. In fact the show is profoundly hostile to the whole idea of sex outside of a healthy monogamous heterosexual relationship. The atmosphere of Victorian piety is so strong that even masturbation is viewed as disturbing proof of trouble in a marriage.

It’s a relief to turn to Californication, if only because the characters’ problems are garish and the sex is unrelentingly freaky. Our hero, Hank (played by David Duchovny), is a writer sunk in narcissistic despair because his arty, serious novel got trashed by its hit Hollywood movie adaptation. Now he stalks around LA acting like the world’s most insufferable lit snob, burning himself out on drugs and booze, mooning over his ex-girlfriend, and spitting venom at all the illiterate SoCal trendies. This naturally makes him irresistible to women. Each episode he screws and ditches a succession of pneumatic babes, then compares field notes with his best friend, a fabulously successful agent who plays daily S-M games in his office with his secretary.

The show is obviously meant to be a sci-fi wish-fulfillment fantasy. One giveaway is that Hank makes big money blogging for a glossy magazine—on what planet does that happen? But I prefer to see Californication as an apocalyptic horror movie about a plague of female vampires. The women are all dead eyed, malevolent, and sexually insatiable. Hank’s chief nemesis is a 16-year-old girl with a taste for rough sex whom he boffed one night because, he says, “my self-loathing was high” (always the reason middle-aged men go after achingly nubile and kinky teenagers). Here’s a shocker: she turns out to be a demonic sociopath who could give Medea lessons in female vengeance. Eventually she steals the only copy of Hank’s new novel and passes it off as her work—a crime that’s plainly intended to make his taste for jailbait seem like a relatively harmless little quirk.

There are only two female characters who might possibly be human. One is Hank’s ex-girlfriend. She’s not actively malign, just an impossibly fickle, unreadable blank. But that stands to reason: she dumped him, after all, which de facto renders her psychology completely incomprehensible. Then there’s Hank’s daughter, who is 12, and therefore innocent, and therefore a fount of preternatural wisdom. In one scene she and Hank exchange quotations from Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” as though this Romantic hymn to the occult menace of female sexuality is a final statement about the meaning of life. Has Hank been teaching her this stuff to prepare her for existence in his world? He’d be a better father if he had her watching Cinemax.

But then that’s the point: for all its endless chatter about anal sex and nipple clamps, this show, too, is basically hostile to the whole idea of unchecked desire. All Hank really wants is his girl and his daughter back. Ultimately it’s just one more neoconservative paean to the old-fashioned nuclear family.

My own theory is that in our allegedly sex-obsessed culture, actual desire between human beings remains something we’d prefer to evade. It’s easier to bloviate about relationships, as they do on Tell Me You Love Me, or give in to Californication’s free-floating misogynist rage. Personally, I’m hoping some enterprising video company puts out a boxed set of Monique Parent’s greatest hits, with Play Time as the showpiece. Last time I checked, the DVD was completely unobtainable and used VHS copies were selling for $50 and up on eBay. That’s how it goes with TV—you can see all the simulated shagging you want, but real eroticism remains the rarest of collector’s items.