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14 July 2021

Synthetic orgasms and breast milk slapstick: Netflix’s Sex/Life

Billed as comedy drama, this explicit series is funny for all the wrong reasons.

By Rachel Cooke

In theory, I should approve of Sex/Life, the show that everyone’s talking about (though I fear that’s not all they’re doing in front of their laptops). Long ago, when (glory days) I was running my college women’s group, we could only dream of a TV series in which a female character was allowed to have a wilder sex life than that of any man. But… oh, my eyes. That the Netflix “hit” of the moment, created by a woman, directed by women and seemingly made for women, should come complete with a pair of nipples that are erect pretty much from the moment that their owner wakes up right until the second she goes to sleep (in her rustic white nightie, she looks like she’s in an old Timotei ad)… How on earth did we get here? 

Not that our heroine sleeps much. In the middle of the night, distracted by her yearnings, she can sometimes be found watching her best friend have sex with her ex-boyfriend, Brad, on her mobile (which is nice, given that her friend doesn’t know she can be seen). You see, Billie (Sarah Shahi) is terribly bored with her vanilla husband, Cooper (Mike Vogel), who is in mergers and acquisitions, and looks like he has been sculpted from Edam, and thanks to this, her mind keeps turning to Brad (Adam Demos), her ex, a record company boss who’s now sleeping with her college roommate, Sasha (Margaret Odette), and who also, strangely, looks like he’s made mostly of Edam. And herein lies the show’s engine: which cheese should Billie choose? Both, I would say, are perfectly waxy and tasteless: as bland as the hotel interiors of their respective homes. However, in a sandwich situation, it’s Brad who requires the least mustard. Also, unlike Cooper, at least he isn’t given to shouting, “It’s gonna work, it’s gonna work!” as he tries, and inevitably fails, to have an orgasm. 

[See also: I worked in the office from The Office for five years. Looking back now, it seems like another world]

Sex/Life is billed as comedy drama. If it’s funny, though, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Its writers – Stacy Rukeyser and others – seem to think that the idea of a woman squirting breast milk all over a man (Billie is feeding her baby daughter – and no, she never has sore nipples, mastitis or anything else that might impede her 24/7 sexual ody-ssey) is absolutely hilarious, and I suppose it could be in the hands of, say, the makers of Motherland. But in context – she and Cooper are attempting sexual congress in their car, and she’s dressed in scarlet silk ­– it’s just grim and stupid. Nevertheless, as I absorbed the full horror of the three episodes I managed to endure (the better that you don’t have to go anywhere near them, even in PPE) I did find myself guffawing savagely at moments. 

The dialogue! Before a date night for which Cooper buys Billie several bits and bobs of leather from Saks Fifth Avenue, there are, of course, her aforementioned explosive breasts to be dealt with. “Go pump! Let’s do this!” he tells her, smilingly urging her into the bathroom. As her machinery goes about its noisy business – perhaps it’s just the echo caused by the tiles, but I’ve been in quieter farm milking parlours – Billie reapplies her already thick mascara, pouting at herself in the mirror, obliviously. 

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Having read his wife’s online “journal” – Carrie Bradshaw, she isn’t – Cooper is not only jealous of Brad to the point of stalking him at his gym, but he’s also somewhat turned on by her narcissistic jottings, albeit in a (sorry) solo way. And yes, this is quite creepy, and only made the more so by the fact that, though Billie’s appetites are seemingly immense, her orgasms are among the most synthetic ever to make it to the screen. Hasn’t Rukeyser seen When Harry Met Sally…? Basically, her show is just long-form soft porn with some Martha Stewart stuff on the side (The never-ending lawns! The clapboard houses! The sheepskin-covered rocking chairs!). It’s Confessions of a Window Cleaner with Starbucks in place of Mellow Bird’s. Personally, I can’t believe anyone could be so desperate as to watch it all the way through, even given the frustrations of the last year. But what do I know? The papers say people are mad for it – mad being, perhaps, the operative word.

[See also: Raising a School Shooter is a profoundly moving documentary]

This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook