It’s no secret that sex and Hollywood go hand in hand, but rarely do onscreen depictions of sex interrogate human sexuality in illuminating ways. As it began doing with “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos” when it launched the current heyday of peak TV two decades ago, HBO is still producing the most incisive shows about contemporary sexuality anywhere on television. Two of the year’s new offerings, “Mrs. Fletcher” and “Euphoria,” prove the premium network still lives up to its lofty slogan. It’s not TV if nothing else even comes close.
Premiering to major ratings and online buzz this summer, “Euphoria” followed Rue (Zendaya), a jaded teen battling addiction and her extended social circle of sexually active and culturally literate high schoolers who behave like twentysomethings. Along her raw and arduous journey towards sobriety, Rue develops a crush (along with everyone else) on her best friend Jules (Hunter Schafer). Ethereal, sensual, and desired by many of the major characters — the character of Jules was a major windfall for trans-femme representation.
In the show’s first episode, she arrives at a seedy motel for an assignation with an older man she met online. Though innocently excited beforehand, she is quickly disillusioned by the rough, transactional sex. Even for the most porn-literate, the scene is jarring, intentionally so. Seeing her impassive face shoved into a pillow by this grey-haired daddy (Eric Dane) is upsetting, not because of the act itself, but because of Jules’ vacant stare and single tear. (Schaefer, in a star-making performance, is a revelation.)
For some, however, shock value is not the only reason the scene made an impression; many viewers were likely seeing an all-too recognizable experience depicted onscreen for the first time. Where “Euphoria” stumbles, (and where we are reminded that HBO actually is TV), is when the repercussions from this one disappointing hook-up follow Jules for the rest of the season. Jules is not personally traumatized — she moves on rather healthily by exploring connections with other girls — but it’s the men around her who can’t let it go. This choice maintains the character’s strength, but not her agency. She is still at the mercy of cis straight men, though this is, admittedly, an unfortunate reality for many women.
Which brings us to the way “Euphoria” depicts cis men’s sexuality. Nate (Jacob Elordi) is undoubtedly the villain of the show, though he is given ample screen time to be lusted over and many opportunities for sympathy. In Nate, we see creator Sam Levinson’s confusion over what exactly he is trying to say about toxic masculinity.
The show attempts to explain Nate’s toxic behaviors — an abusive relationship with Maddy (Alexa Demie) and stalker-ish obsession with Jules — under the cloak of a fraught relationship with his father (Dane). His adolescent discovery of his dad’s porn stash is clearly meant to humanize the character; all while we watch him hit, stalk, and threaten multiple women. While “Euphoria” sends negative messages about pornography even as it uses porn tropes, (one montage oversimplifies things by blaming porn for aggressive sexual behavior), it is still one of the only shows to address porn’s effect on contemporary sexuality in any depth.
The other — and a much more positive portrayal — is “Mrs. Fletcher.”
Created by Tom Perrotta and starring Kathryn Hahn as a freshly-minted empty nester expanding her horizons, “Mrs. Fletcher” shows a woman having a healthy relationship with porn and using it as a tool for self-actualization. After a friend calls her a MILF, Eve (Hahn) decides to google the term. The discovery leads her down a rabbit hole of lesbian porn, kink porn, mature porn, and video interviews of “everyday” women revealing their sexual fantasies to anonymous male voices behind the camera.
Throughout the season, Eve opens herself up to new sexual experiences in various ways, some more successful than others. She openly flirts with a sharp-jawed 19-year-old, kisses her queer femme co-worker, and attempts to solicit kinky sex from a stranger at a Brooklyn book party (he disappoints). Though “Mrs. Fletcher” takes all seven episodes to finally arrive at Eve’s denouement (a threesome with said 19-year-old and co-worker), it is a wholly satisfying ending that feels fitting for both the character and the show.
The other piece of the puzzle is Eve’s clueless and sullen son Brendan (Jackson White), a wholly despicable male character who is more on par with teenage boys than most men would like to admit. Where “Euphoria” stumbles by making Nate sexy and sympathetic in his toxicity, “Mrs. Fletcher” manages to punish Brendan for his behavior without completely villainizing him. Sure, he has absentee father, but he’s such an asshole to his mother and the one girl who pays him any mind that those things can never excuse all of his macho posturing.
His culminating scene, where he non-consensually dirty-talks and chokes his would-be girlfriend during a blowjob, is one of the most honest and complex scenes about youth sexuality that has ever made it to TV. After she punches him in the balls, he seems genuinely clueless as to what he did wrong. “You were into it!” he insists, as she cries that she wasn’t and kicks him out of her dorm room. After his half-hearted attempts at an apology fall flat and he learns he is flunking all his classes, he is found crying on the floor of the shower.
There’s no question that media is a vital tool for holding a mirror up to society. With all the moral panic over what unfettered access to hardcore pornography and sending nudes is doing to sexuality, however real or imagined those threats are, there has never been a more urgent or fruitful time for TV to explore sexuality. With “Euphoria” and “Mrs. Fletcher,” HBO proves it’s the only studio up to the challenge.