My first, maybe second thought seeing the shot of full-frontal nudity in Sex/Life (third episode, twenty minutes in) was if the size of the penis was an important casting requirement. I don’t mean this facetiously.
The pivotal scene plays out in the men’s shower of a gym. Cooper (Mike Vogel) has been following Brad (Adam Demos) whose penis is given the full leering gaze of the camera. Cooper’s wife Billie (Sarah Shahi), leaking breast milk after giving birth to their second child and miraculously back to her pre-pregnancy body, is now fantasizing about Brad, her ex-boyfriend, in her journal. Cooper reads it initially as a training manual, trying and failing to do all the wild things it notes. He then masturbates reading it. And then, suddenly, he is wracked with doubt. Who is this Brad that my wife can’t stop fantasizing about?
The limiting perspective of the psychologists on the show convinces us that thrill and security are opposing desires, and thus cannot be provided by the same person. A person can be one thing only.
He skips work, follows Brad, and they reach Brad’s gym. Cooper takes a membership and follows him through barbells and dumbbells, and into the shower, where the bells he is truly after unfurl. We see a shot of Brad’s limp but miraculously long penis (Third thought: Is this why he wears his pants so low?), and following that, Cooper’s distraught expression anchors the central conceit in this love triangle. Penis envy is a big part of it, almost as if it is a character description. Which it certainly seems like, because until that scene it isn’t clear what exactly Billie misses about Brad. Suddenly, it all makes sense.
Was this a body double? No. Was it prosthetic? Demos in an interview notes, “a gentleman never tells.” So we should take that as a yes. Penis size is, perhaps, too brazen a casting requirement. I wonder how this alleged decision to enhance his penis size brushes up against an actor’s ego, like deliberately casting certain actors for the “ugly” side-character. It must, at some level, bite.
But even if the literal Big Dick Energy (BDE) is wracked in cinéma vérité doubt, the metaphoric kind has a plush presence throughout. When Cooper tells his colleague and best friend about the doubts he has after that penis-show, his friend takes him to a bar to make him realize that his white-boy-banker-with-a-heart-of-gold energy still draws. You don’t need a big dick for big dick energy.
The difference between Brad and Cooper is not just a literal versus metaphorical inhering of BDE. Brad is Australian (subtext: he loves to go down under) and runs a music label. He has long hair with a middle-parting. His beard and body hair have an aesthetic unkemptness. He wears leather jackets, tucks only the front of his (usually white) t-shirt in, and rides a bike to the Emmys. When he kisses, he lunges tongue-first. (He also has really dry lips, chapped almost.) Cooper lives in the suburbs. He tries to mobilize money for virtuous projects, drives a car, has his hair clipped and parted on the side. The only aberration he probably has is a scar on top of his lip. His body has no hair.
Billie is caught between the two — the man who gives her comfort and security, and the man who gives her the thrill. She gave up her PhD in psychology to become a mother and then write wet journals of past escapades to bide her time. It isn’t a vast improvement over her psychology papers where she analyzes “the best sex of her life”. The limiting perspective of the psychologists on the show convinces us that thrill and security are opposing desires, and thus cannot be provided by the same person. A person can be one thing only. Monogamy is thus waiting to perish.
Now the sex scenes itself have a theatrical quality. As in, it feels like they were shot in theater stages with the harsh obvious lighting, neons and purples to express some underlying emotional fixation. It’s all too stylized, wearing its soft-pornographic allure on its sleeve. (It certainly isn’t pornographic, for the full frontal nudity is only reserved for that scene in the shower) There is a scene where Billie’s breasts explode with milk while having sex with Cooper in a car and she insists he keep going but the milk trickling on his face dims his excitement. That’s a first, I think.
The sex scenes are less frequent as the show goes on — the first episode has three full-fledged scenes and a montage in various positions, and the last episode just has three brief montages. The story is told between flashbacks, which have a random quality, where they don’t follow a timeline. For example, we see Brad and Billie breaking up for the first of many times in a flashback. Then later in the show, when there is another flashback, we see Brad and Billie before their first breakup as she is introducing him to her best friend.
This arbitrariness made sense initially — they wanted an erotic density coupling present sex with past sex. And this happens in the first episode, where Billie reminisces the first time she had sex with Brad, and then we are brought back to the present where Billie catches Cooper reading about her entry describing this event. Cooper is angry, but also turned on, and slams her against the kitchen counter, pulls up her nightie and pulls down his pants, thrust, thrust, thrust. But soon as the sex scenes deplete, and the show becomes more serious, sermonizing in its tone and messaging, the flashbacks rankle. Mostly, because we don’t care for these characters. When we are constantly brought to that point where Billie might cheat on Cooper with Brad, it isn’t the worry of infidelity and marital breakdown as much as the erotic excitement that gives the scene its tension.
Brad is given a bad-boy daddy-issues backstory which is so exaggerated in its cinematic appeal — he left when Brad was a kid, sending him not birthday cards but music records, which is why Brad came into the music industry — it is hard to take him or his baritone intensity seriously. The breakup of Brad and Billie is so arbitrary, the events leading up to it so twisted and pointless, that there is little by way of story we care for. At best, the show is a string of raunch.
A lot of the background is narrated by Billie as she is writing in her journal and there is that unreliable, pliable quality of an autobiography — are you saying this because you believe it or because you would like to believe it? In the beginning that tension — not knowing the answer — was building her character. But later, as she keeps fucking up, apologizing, fucking up, apologizing, fucking up, an agony sets in. We get a sense that sex is never just about sex, but we don’t get a sense of what it is about? We recognize that Happily Ever After is not where this show wants to end. It wants to take us to the logical extremes of characters — greyness, goodness, big penis-ness — using sex as a means before sitting us down in pews, patting our backs, telling us monogamy sucks, and we’ll be cheated on anyways.