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How (and why) did sex on TV get so bad?

Social media is awash with people cringing at The Idol and other soft porn dramas. Laura Antonia Jordan joins in

<p>Alamy Stock Photo</p>

Alamy Stock Photo

/ Alamy Stock Photo
22 June 2023

he only gripe I used to have with Abel ‘The Weeknd’ Tesfaye was his spelling of the word ‘weekend’. Sigh, simpler times. Now, thanks to The Idol, visions of him as club owner-cum-cult leader Tedros, the rat-tailed star of the HBO show, keep me up at night. Still, it’s nice to break up those early hours’ existential crises with something new, I guess.

Mix in all of the above with some of the ickiest sex on screen and you’ll need to pop a tranquilliser or three for a Tedros-free eight hours. Not seen it? Lucky you. If you’re morbidly curious, episode two’s anti-climactic climax involves Tedros commanding blindfolded, brittle pop star Jocelyn (the preternaturally gorgeous Lily Rose Depp) to masturbate to a monologue stuffed full of lowlights including ‘make that throat wet for me’ (honey and lemon works fine, I find). It’s some of the grossest on-screen sex I’ve witnessed, and I’ve seen P*** and S*** on Me 4.

Tesfaye doesn’t just star in the show, he also co-produced, co-wrote and then allegedly rewrote it after becoming concerned that The Idol was dwelling too much on the female perspective. Which is great because as we all know that’s just what the cultural canon was missing: the male gaze! I suppose the fact that he performs oral sex on her (in a convertible, in the day, en route to Rodeo Drive) is a slight concession to female pleasure, but mainly we are told Jocelyn — whose nipples I am now more familiar with than any of my first cousins, whereas he barely takes his shellsuit jacket off — basically likes to be abused.

People have commented that the result seems like the work of virgins and/or teenage boys. That’s terribly unfair on virgins and/or teenage boys (although I suppose if you tittered at the use of the word ‘cum’ above, then you might be the target audience). Nah, The Idol is surely the soulless work of AI tasked with taking all the naughty words in the dictionary and conjuring up dialogue with less sensual appeal than that leaked Partygate video.

If I were to muster a meek defence of ‘The Idol’ it would be: aren’t we all a bit ick and a lot ridiculous in bed

It’s not the only culprit dishing out deeply unsexy sex scenes right now. There’s Sex/Life (dreadful! Watched the lot!) where a woman blows up her life ricocheting between two bots who almost pass for convincing human males. There’s also the so-soapy-you-might-slip Fake Profile, and two pointless, dull remakes: Damage and Fatal Attraction.

So, why the glut of bad sex? Ridiculously easy access to porn, I guess. I grew up relying on furtive, muted viewings of Eurotrash (God bless Channel 4) for glimpses of nudity; today that feels as edgy as writing ‘BOOBS’ on a calculator. The streaming services are competing with every kink catered to on demand and, frankly, they can’t. And yet. Yet. If I were to muster a meek defence of The Idol it would be: aren’t we all a bit ick and a lot ridiculous in bed?

What these shows share, aside from quantity-over-quality copulation, is that they want so badly to be the noirish, highly stylised erotic thrillers of the Eighties and Nineties. But none of them is either erotic or thrilling. Nor do they have the style to match, say, Basic Instinct and 9 ½ Weeks. Instead of the sleek chic of Sharon Stone and Kim Basinger, we get metallic leather jackets (Love/Life) and sacrilegious jizzing over Valentino dresses (The Idol).

But most criminally of all, they are boring; the rain breaks at Edgbaston are more entertaining viewing. Hell, at least the much-maligned Showgirls was fun! Humour, and for that matter personality or chemistry, is missing in all of the above. Unless you count laughing at them, which is valid. Insultingly, I think they all think they’re being shocking. But showrunners have mistaken tits for transgression. This is hard-bore.

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