Sex is simultaneously simple and incredibly complicated. It’s a universal language that most of us come to understand at some point in our lives but it’s loaded with meanings and possibilities – a site of connection and pleasure, but also potentially a breeding ground for tension, confusion and miscommunication.
Directed by Leticia Cáceres and Madeleine Gottlieb, SBS’s new anthology series puts the act front and centre through eight stories, each penned by a different writer (this review takes in the first four episodes). Sex is shown in all its messy glory – at times glamorous and stylised, carnal and sticky in others. It is more explicit than what is often shown on Australia’s conservative screens but sex is really the lens through which emotions and relationships are explored.
The series promises tales that highlight the breadth of sexual experience in the modern age. On diversity it does deliver, with stories by and about queer, First Nations and disabled people, as well as heterosexual people. Different ages are represented too, bucking against the idea that desire or desirability stops at a certain time. There’s an obvious push here against what may have once been considered the sexual ideal – that is young, straight, cis, white and able-bodied.
Technology is a recurring theme across the anthology, with different writers exploring how it can both help and hinder intimacy. In Philia, it’s through remotely controlled sex toys; in The Deluge, dating apps; and in Powerful Owl, video calling and digital sex as a way to keep the spark in a long-distance relationship alive.
As with any anthology, there are hits and misses. The first episode, Philia, is the weakest of the lot, following two middle-aged exes, Sam (Catherine McClements) and George (Bert LaBonté), as they cross the boundaries of desire by experimenting with teledildonics. The tension is clear – is this a transactional exchange between friends, or something more? Does it count as cheating when there’s no physical touch? But the relationship between the two is unconvincing, and the repeated display of the sex toy teeters uncomfortably on product placement.
The Deluge, written by Sarah Walker, sees Cara (Kate Box) take to dating apps to find a casual hookup after the end of a 20-year relationship. She meets Lili (Emily Havea), who helps her release some inhibitions but her nebulous relationship with her bestie Ginger (Danielle Cormack) is keeping her from truly being open to something new. The knotty interactions between these three women are fascinating to watch as they unfold, especially as Lili reveals more information about herself.
The push and pull between her and Cara teases out the contradictions of hookup culture, particularly within a lesbian context, where stereotypes such as “U-hauling” (quickly moving in together) are common. A climactic scene between Box and Cormack raises particularly tricky and painful questions about the thin line separating platonic and romantic intimacy – especially when sex has been involved in the past.
In Powerful Owl, written by Sara Khan, Rärriwuy Hick plays Kiarra, a First Nations woman who is navigating workplace racism while maintaining a long-distance relationship with her partner, Drew (Googoorewon Knox). The couple schedules weekly “FaceTime fucks”, but Kiarra grows self-conscious about how her body is presented in the virtual space, as well as the language used in these sessions.
The temptation to hook up instead with co-worker Trey (Callan Colley) is strong. The complexities of the core relationship play out beautifully, with convincing chemistry between the leads. The code-switching Kiarra performs between public and private spheres brings another element to the story and adds a deeper dimension to the character.
But the best of the four episodes I saw is Bound. Written by the comedian Alistair Baldwin, it centres on CJ (Joel Lago), a gay man with cerebral palsy who meets an older man, Jet (Tim Draxl), who invites him to a sex party. The dialogue is fresh and funny, the sex frenzied and passionate, but there’s a palpable sense of anger, too, at the condescension characters express towards bodies with disabilities. In the words of one of CJ’s friends, “Someone else’s pleasure isn’t worth your pain.” It’s a lesson we could all benefit from learning.
Erotic Stories is probably somewhat of a misnomer – these stories encourage reflection more so than arousal. At half an hour, the episodes are longer than short films, but shorter than features – which works for some, but others struggle to fill the time meaningfully. For an anthology featuring such a mix of voices and styles, perhaps shorter, sharper bites would have made for a more consistent viewing experience.