And how to do it right on television.
The spark for this discussion was finally getting around to watching (most of) the first season of a recent, highly acclaimed drama series upon repeated recommendation by a number of friends.
Friends, I'm afraid I was disappointed.
That's not to say there was nothing good about the show: there was plenty to like, and I do think that I now understand its huge popularity (though I'm still at a loss to explain why so many people have bothered to read the dreadful books on which it's based). Unfortunately, the bad parts were so overwhelmingly bad that they got in the way of any enjoyment I might have derived from the show, and ruined it enough so that I decided I couldn't really be bothered to give up my time to anything more than the first season.
There was a lot that annoyed me about the series as a whole: it's very clear to me that it suffers from being made in separate chunks, made in different places and directed by different people, leaving some strands of the show brilliant, and others pretty abysmal. But what I think got on my nerves most of all was its semi-pornographic nature. Now, I'd like to think that I'm not a prude - if anything, I generally think we need to be more open and honest about a lot of things. But, like everything in film and television, sex scenes really do need to justify their existence. If they don't serve an important plot function or help to explain a particular character, then they shouldn't be there. We don't really need to know what every single character gets up to in the bedroom, any more than we need to know about their toilet habits, or what they eat for breakfast every morning. If you need to be explicit to make a point, I have absolutely no problem with that. I do have a problem with including sex and pornography for its own sake. I think it too easily becomes degrading and objectifying. In this particular case, the sex scenes were pure titillation - preposterous scenarios designed to satisfy the fantasies of extremely immature (mostly male) minds. In case you haven't guessed it yet, I'm talking about Game of Thrones.
What got me particularly interested in this subject, however, wasn't just how badly it's done in GoT, but the contrast between this and another of what Emily Nussbaum here describes as "sophisticated cable drama[s] about a patriarchal subculture", which according to her has become "television's most esteemed category" of programme. Yet despite the similarities which Nussbaum points out, Game of Thrones has a very different attitude to sex to at least one of its bedfellows (bad pun intended). The other series I've been catching up on lately is a period drama set in the build-up to the sexual revolution, and taking sexual politics as its main theme. In terms of subject matter, this is a series which features a hell of a lot of sex, maybe more than anything I've ever watched before. Arguably, the whole show is about sex, and it comes in all shapes and sizes: between married couples, extra-marital affairs, sex between singles, straight, gay, lesbian, sex as part of happy, equal relationships, sex as a power-trip, sado-masochism, prostitution, voyeurism, male and female masturbation, rape, sex for emotional, social and business manipulation, sex at work, at home, in hotels, in cars, in public, and even some very vague hints at paedophilia. But in this case, what we see is only what we think we see. The series seems to truthfully reflect its 60s setting by not shoving all this in our faces: everybody knows what's going on, yet everyone turns a blind eye to it. As a result, the most explicit thing in five seasons so far is a shot of Roger Stirling's backside as he stands naked at his bedroom window in the middle of an acid trip. Yep, you got it. This one's Mad Men.
At it's best, Game of Thrones is every bit as exciting, politically-charged and non-gender-biased as Man Men. As far as I can tell, everyone's favourite characters - without exception - are the Stark family and Tyrion Lannister. By quite a long way, the most interesting plot strand is that concerned with the interaction between the Starks, the Lannisters, and King Robert Barratheon. These sections of the series have the feel and pace of a Shakespearean history play: Ned Stark and his sons distinctly remind one of Harry Hotspur and the rebellious borderland Percys. In fact, the series was almost certainly a major source of inspiration for the BBC's recent Hollow Crown film trilogy. Eddard Stark is probably Sean Bean's best ever performance; Robb, Bran, and the bastard Jon Snow are also well-written and well-acted. Being me, of course, one of the things I like most about this plot strand is the strength of its female characters. Fantastic performances are given by Michelle Fairley as Catelyn, Ned's wife, and Maisie Williams as Arya, their tomboyish daughter. Even Queen Cersei (a Lannister, not a Stark), isn't bad. I found her character just a little bit one-dimensional: it's easy to see why she's as cold and cruel as she is (an unloving, drunken husband, and an uncaring, aggressive and honour-obsessed father are both major contributing factors), so we do have some pity for her, but I think she is still a little too easy to hate - she doesn't seem to have any "good" side to her to balance out the negatives, which could easily have been achieved, for example, by making her care more about her own children than she apparently does. Nevertheless, she's a lot more interesting than her brother/lover Jaime, who is like a doubly vacant version of Shrek 2's Prince Charming, without any of the comedy value.
Elsewhere, however, it all falls to pieces. The Targaryen siblings are both pretty awful. Harry Lloyd gives a consistently poor performance, and having seen him do a fine job in other things, I can only assume that this is because of the uninteresting and unchanging nature of his character, Viserys. For his sister Daenerys, at least, there is an attempt at some kind of a story arc, but it's an incredibly unsatisfying and unconvincing one, and Emilia Clarke's performance is only a little better than Lloyd's. Both of these characters feature in some of the stupidest sex scenes - in fact, some of the stupidest scenes full stop - in the whole series: what can sadly only be described as sexual fantasy episodes for little boys who know nothing about the real thing.
The first of these occurs between Daenerys and the slave/prostitute Doreah, bought by Viserys to teach his sister how to please her husband in bed. Yeah, it's actually that bad. The scene takes the form of one of Doreah's sex "lessons" and, while nothing is shown explicitly, it ends with Daenerys getting altogether rather to into it. So, not only do we have the sexual trafficking of women and the idea that it's a wife's job to get things right for her husband going completely unaddressed (to be clear, I'm not suggesting that they should have introduced a load of anachronistic feminism, but it might have been interesting, you know, to have a realistic portrayal of how the women felt about this, rather than ending up with Daenerys apparently quite happy with her lot and in love with her brutish husband), but we also get the additional treat of classic fake lesbian titillation. Great.
The second involves the same slave/prostitute, this time engaging in "real" sex with Viserys himself, who now reveals the real reason that he bought her - for his own pleasure, of course. At least this time we're clearly supposed to dislike Viserys, and Doreah shows that she actually has a personality and some interests - she wants to learn about history and dragons - but this scene ends in an unbelievably absurd exchange: as he "has his way" with her, Viserys recites the full names of all of the species of dragon that ever existed (now supposed to all be extinct, but judging by several lingering close-ups of what look like dragon eggs, quite obviously not), and she actually seems to get off on this. Of course, by now we know something about her taught artifice and how she seeks to please, so this might even be slightly plausible if it had been him that wanted to witter on about dragons whilst having sex. But it's not. It's Doreah that brings up the subject, and Doreah who wants to know all about it while Viserys, on the other hand gets bored and frustrated by it. He's not really interested in talking. So yes, I guess we're supposed to believe that she's genuinely enjoying that. Mmmkay....
And it gets worse. The little moment between Doreah and Daenerys isn't the only fakey lesbian sex scene in the series. In fact, the next one's even more explicit. Another of the worst performances in Game of Thrones comes from Aidan Gillen as Petyr Baelish. Again, a surprise, since he's been brilliant in other things (notably Russell T. Davies's groundbreaking Queer as Folk - incidentally a series which is very explicit and still good). Maybe it's an accent issue? In any case, Petyr owns the brothel where this second scene takes place, which again takes the form of a "lesson" (I mean, seriously? People will buy this stuff more than once?), this time taught by Petyr himself. Instead of being involved in the action himself, Petyr passively observes as two of his whores pretend to pleasure each other. Instead of getting fed up with this, however, much like Daenerys, they seem eventually to come not only to enjoy each other, but also to enjoy him watching them - at least, that's what I took away from Ros's invitation to him to come and join them. Somewhat ironically, he declines. Apparently he's above such base desires.
Game of Thrones fans and creators justify all this by calling it "sexposition", defining this as a way of explaining characters' motives against a background which will supposedly hold the viewers' attention better. Wikipedia describes it as "a live-action equivalent to fan service", a manga/anime practice of giving the fans exactly what they want. Basically then, as I understand it, the whole thing is about a) a lack of confidence in the plot to be engaging in its own right, or b) patronising the viewers by assuming that they can't cope with any complex intrigue without having something less intellectual to keep them watching, assuming that they will switch off if their every desire isn't gratified. And I think they might actually even be kidding themselves that this is an original idea. It's like the TV equivalent of buying Playboy "for the articles". Personally, I think it's far more apt to switch serious viewers off than making anyone more interested. It distracts from the plot and frankly, just gets bloody boring. The impact and shock value of sex scenes diminishes in direct proportion to their increasing abundance and gratuity. And it's the same with the violence in Game of Thrones: far too much of it is excessive and implausible, straying into Sweeney Todd territory. There's a fine line between being either terrifying or intensely sexy, and just being laughable. "From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step," as Napoleon had it. The more explicit a film or television programme becomes, the more it draws attention to its own artifice. All filmmakers should have learned this lesson from Jaws years ago. To give a more specific example of the failure of showing too much, there's a sex scene between Ros and Theon Greyjoy, where Theon supposedly pulls out of Ros to reveal a completely flaccid penis. Luckily for the programme-makers, the particular group of viewers that the sex scenes are aiming to please probably wouldn't even know how stupid this is. But seriously, if you can't even do it right, what's the point?
All that said, none of this would bother me so much if there was at least some element of realism in terms of the characters' experiences of these episodes. What makes these scenes so close to pornography is not their explicitness, but actually how narrow, controlled and sanitized it all is. You might, for example, have some justification for showing sex with prostitutes if it was intended to show the repugnance, the griminess and seediness and dangers of life as a medieval sex-worker. Okay, so I know this isn't the real Middle Ages and that it is self-consciously a fantasy, but I did get the sense that they were aiming for at least some degree of historical verisimilitude elsewhere in the programme. The glamorization of the sex industry is bad enough in contemporary settings, but does anyone seriously think any women enjoyed a life like that back then, when it invariably meant living with hatred, ridicule and the constant threat of pregnancy, disease and death hanging over your head? Unless, unbeknownst to me, there are actually antibiotics and advanced birth control in the pseudo-medieval Game of Thrones universe? Medieval women only chose this line of work out of desperation - that means that those seeking it out ought to look filthy, haggard and malnourished. But in the end, it's just decoration: it's not really trying to tell us anything at all about outdated patriarchal systems.
By complete contrast, one might very easily argue that a show like Mad Men would be completely justified in having some explicit sex scenes. Sex itself is really important to the plot, and to the development of each of the characters. We are presented with 1960s New York: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yet the series insists upon discipline with this, helping to make the show seem more convincingly of its time. But more than this, it knows that it doesn't need to be explicit, because it has confidence that its plots and its characters will be interesting and engaging enough without dumbing things down - without cheating. It also respects its audience enough to credit them with wanting to watch something intelligent rather than something obvious, knowing that if they're looking for the kind of gratification Game of Thrones provides, then they're really missing the point of the show itself.
Sexual excess in Mad Men goes hand in hand with heavy drinking, chain smoking, drug-taking, extravagant spending, and obsessive careerism, all of which are used by characters in an attempt to fill the gaping holes in their lives and hearts. Inevitably, of course, all of them completely fail to do so. Crucially, then, Mad Men shows us the lack of fulfilment that comes from the instant gratification of every lust and desire, explaining why this is not a good way to live, where Game of Thrones seeks only to give in to them, to provide that gratification to its characters and its audience. Where one gives us motivations and consequences, the other only uses sex as a backdrop for discussing unrelated motives and concerns. One presents us with a sordid world without ever itself being sordid, while the other becomes sordid by its presentation of a world that ought to be so, in a way that seems glorified, santized and pornographic, bankrupting sexual exchanges of any personal or emotional resonance. Nevertheless, while it shows us the damage that carelessness causes, Mad Men is rarely judgemental of individuals. Having "good" or "bad" characters is much too simplistic for this show (which, I might add, isn't always the case with Game of Thrones). Instead, we're asked to understand the personal and social pressures and conflicts that influence each of the characters - to judge the world they inhabit, rather than them per se. For whether individuals act conventionally or fight back and try to resist, the expectations that society has of them remain a significant influence over their behaviour in every part of their lives. There is no such thing as an isolated event. Game of Thrones understands this in a political context, but not in a personal or sexual one.