Arts & Culture » Television

Sex & violence on the Lavender Tube

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson in "Sex Education." Photo: Netflix
Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson in "Sex Education." Photo: Netflix   

We've been coping with some serious health challenges lately, enduring two surgeries in the space of three weeks. Our recovery has been fueled by The Wife's ministrations and the blessing of Netflix, which has just moved into a whole new realm with the Oscar nomination for the original film "Roma."

We have been enjoying Netflix series we should have watched a year or more ago, like the superb British crime series "Paranoid," "The Five" and "Happy Valley," all of which we recommend for their taut and compelling drama. Each of these detective series delves into addiction, loss and the ways we find wholeness, as well as murder, that most unforgiving of crimes. Each series has its own strengths, but the performances are resoundingly good and mitigate any minor flaws in the telling or resolutions.

"Happy Valley" is the best of the three, but has some of the most brutal, realistic violence we have seen on TV, which stayed with us a little too long. That said, the violence was not gratuitous, confined to two episodes, and was integral to the plot. But it did cause a furor in Britain when the series debuted, as they don't generally have that kind of violence in their TV shows.

Created by Sally Wainwright, "Happy Valley" is set in a grim corner of the otherwise beautiful Yorkshire countryside where drugs have taken over, just as they have in the cities. Sgt. Catherine Cawood (brilliant Sarah Lancashire) has left Scotland Yard and returned to her suffocating small town after the suicide of her daughter, who left her young son for her mother to raise.

Everything about "Happy Valley" works: plot, writing, cinematography. Cawood is a driven character who wants revenge for her daughter's death. The dramatic tension in this series is extraordinary and propels the viewer into binge mode. You have to see what comes next. The series won a BAFTA Award for Best Drama, rightly so. In "Happy Valley," evil is laid out before us, and each time we are shocked anew at how quotidian it really is. Highly recommended.

Among the new Netflix series we've been watching is the delightful dramedy "Sex Education," which normalizes gayness in a way that makes us wonder how different our teen years would have been had shows like this existed then.

Series featuring teenagers continue to be hot, among them the highly watchable "Stranger Things," "Riverdale," "13 Reasons Why," "The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina," "grown-ish" and "Atypical." These series are written for teens, but with a lot folded in for adults so you don't feel creepy watching them. What's more, they are telling stories we need to see as adults, both to contextualize our own queer teen years and to learn more about what today's queer and straight youth are experiencing.

The British Netflix original series "Sex Education," created by Laura Nunn, is a standout. It is just brilliant and you will love, love, love it. Where "13 Reasons Why" is everyone's teen nightmare re-lived, "Sex Education" puts a sweet and sexy spin on teen angst. The series stars Gillian Anderson, who's been making us swoon for 20 years from "The X-Files" through "The Fall." In "Sex Education" she plays Dr. Jean F. Milburn, a sex therapist and divorced mother of Otis (extraordinary Asa Butterfield), the series' teen star. The good doctor talks about sex relentlessly. At one point she says to her son, "I notice you've been pretending to masturbate, and I wanted to know if you wanted to talk about it." He cringes as she launches into a discussion guaranteed to send any horny teenage boy (or girl) running for the exit.

Dr. Jean is the epitome of the Cool MILF. She has a lot of sex, mostly one-night-stands, smokes weed and seems disinterested in commitment. Otis wants commitment. He's attracted to Maeve (charming Emma Mackey), the school bad girl. He'd like their relationship to be more. He hangs out with his bestie, Eric (Ncuit Gatwa), who is flamboyantly gay and has a religious African family to contend with. We love Eric. Otis also has a nemesis in Adam (Connor Swindells), the headmaster's son, who bullies Otis, then turns his sights on Eric, the way Adam's own father bullies him.

This is a show about sex. As we are told early on: "Everybody is either thinking about shagging, about to shag, or actually shagging." Otis and Maeve start a sex therapy clinic and give advice to their friends and fellow students, much the way Otis' mother does. Maeve's description of why they should do it is just phenomenal.

There is a lot to unpack here, but "Sex Education" is about how we fumble our way into sex. Some of the scenes are hilarious, like when Eric is teaching girls how to give a blowjob at a party with a bunch of bananas. Or deeply affecting, like the pushback on vagina-shaming in a school assembly where all the girls (and some boys) stand up with the girl being shamed to declare, "It's my vagina!" Highly recommended.

We've told you repeatedly to watch "The Good Place." Do it. It's the best antidote to the current climate, and you will be infused with all good things. The Jan. 24 season finale was a gut-punch, but what isn't these days? Now you have three seasons you can binge-watch before Ted Danson, Kristen Bell and the gang return for season four.

Tidy up

Was one of your New Year's resolutions to de-clutter your life? We know it was on our list. "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo" is a Netflix sensation, and it's easy to see why. The petite Japanese organizer cum life coach is mesmerizing as she walks into people's homes and changes their lives. Her mantra is "Does this spark joy?" She wants you to consider your addiction to stuff as emblematic of a larger societal problem of acquisition instead of engagement. We collect things, but do they give us a feeling of well-being, or do they create still more anxiety?

The people Kondo takes on are like us. They can't or don't know how to get rid of things. This isn't a voyeuristic hoarders hellscape. There are no dead cats behind the sofa. These are people who ran out of space because they kept bringing new things in and never taking the old things out. So that chair in the bedroom that was supposed to be for reading is stacked with clothes, or the boxes that moved from your old place are still there several years later, unpacked. Why? Marie Kondo will open a door to show you what's possible. It's a life hack that we all need as the planet gets smaller.

How is it possible that "Queer Eye" has only been on Netflix a year, but we feel like we've been watching it for eons? Netflix announced on Jan. 24 that the Fab Five are headed to Japan for a four-episode extravaganza, and we can't wait.

Sarah Paulson ("American Horror Story") was on "Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen" on Jan. 23, and as the two gayed it up together, she revealed that she and her partner of the past four years, actress and director Holland Taylor, got together via Twitter.

"It's a long story. We met a very long time ago. I was with someone else [Tony winner Cherry Jones], she was too, then. Then there was, like, a Twitter thing that happened," Paulson said.

As fellow "AHS" star and queer Billy Eichner, also on the show, described it, "So Holland Taylor slid into your Dms?"

Paulson laughed and replied, "She actually did! Pretty great."

We are followed by both actresses on Twitter, and have had several exchanges with the always witty Taylor. We watched the courtship of the two on Twitter, and it was a thing of beauty and a joy to behold. So many roses and sweet nothings.

Some have commented on the 32-year age difference between the two, but as Paulson told Elle magazine, "I didn't choose to fall in love with the person I fell in love with. But I think it's interesting to people because it's unconventional. For a person who might find themselves in a situation that they fear will be misperceived, maybe they could see me living my life in a way that is authentic to me. If that inspires anybody else, that can't be a bad thing."

Holland Taylor is an old-school courtly butch who exudes sensuality and is funny as hell, so we have no trouble understanding the attraction. But it was fabulous to see Paulson blush as she told the story of their flirtation.

There's been a lot of blushing on "Grey's Anatomy" since the show returned after holiday hiatus. Dr. Nico Kim (Alex Landi) and Dr. Levi Schmitt (Jake Borelli), the first gay male couple on the series in its 15-season history, can't keep their hands off each other. The two have been doing it everywhere — in an ambulance, in the break room, in a deserted hallway. It's affirming to see men really kissing each other, not that "Modern Family" neutered pecking thing, in prime time. Even better when the scrubs come off, as they have been doing.

"Grey's Anatomy" had the longest-running lesbian storyline in TV history. It's good to see them take the plunge into a full-fledged gay male storyline and make it hot. You might want to Google the half-Korean, half-Italian, all-gorgeous Landi, previously a model. He's the new McDreamy.

We write mysteries, and we've had a penchant for them since our first Nancy Drew mystery at 10. "How to Get Away with Murder" is outdoing itself with drama since it returned Jan. 17. Annalise's (Viola Davis) lesbian lover Eve (Famke Janssen) has returned, and we are so here for it. But whenever Eve blows into town, mayhem follows. Has Annalise forgiven her for their last encounter? Or the one that set both their lives spinning out of control?

In their complex dynamic, it's revealed that Eve's new partner is pregnant, but it's obvious Eve still carries a torch for Annalise. Eve suggests Annalise date women, which we've always thought was a good idea, given her history with men. Annalise pushes back, her internalized homophobia coming back. She's afraid of everything she feels with women, and we see it in the tension between her and Eve. These scenes are real and honest.

Netflix has dozens of superb crime series, and two are returning with new seasons in February. "Bordertown" is one of the best. The second season of this Finnish drama starts Feb. 2. Detective Inspector Kari Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen) is at the Finnish version of the FBI when his wife nearly dies of brain cancer. Looking for a less arduous job, he moves the family to the border between Finland and Russia, taking a position heading the Serious Crimes Unit. But the move does not come with the peace and quiet he'd expected. With his partner, Detective Lena Jaakkola (Anu Sinisalo), Sorjonen investigates crimes linked to Russia, and the two face threats to themselves and their families. It's a stark series reminiscent of "The Killing."

The French-Belgian crime series "The Break" begins its second Netflix season on Feb. 9. Dark and compelling, "The Break" follows Detective Yoann Peters (Yoann Blanc) as a Brussels detective and single father who investigates harrowing crimes. This series has a lot of queerness in it, worth a look.

We told you that the best new TV series of 2019 was going to be watching Nancy Pelosi kick Trump's derriere with her Louboutins, and we were right. Not since Carrie Bradshaw turned heel on Mr. Big has there been such a scene. Pelosi shut down the State of the Union, and Trump blinked. Werk, girl, werk.

Meanwhile Lara Trump, wife of Eric and former producer at "Inside Edition," gave a stunning on-camera statement that the 800,000 federal workers who were furloughed or working without pay might "feel a bit of pain," but the Trump shutdown was "bigger than any one person." Lara dismissed the "let them eat cake!" moment on Fox News, where she called out the "disingenuous media" for misrepresenting her actual words with actual videotape.

The amazing thing about the Trump team, though, is that there is always someone to best the last most terrible moment. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last appeared from his crypt to defend the Trump tariffs by holding up a can of Campbell's soup on CNN, saying there wasn't enough steel in it for the price increase to hurt people. On Jan. 24, five weeks into the government shutdown, Ross seemed confused that people who aren't millionaires would be having to go to food pantries. Ross told CNN, stating the obvious, "I don't really understand this," people should just "go to the bank" and "get a loan." Ross said that workers' back paychecks would work like an IOU at the bank. You cannot make this stuff up, folks.

While our fave fantasy scenario for getting our first woman president remains seeing Trump and Mike Pence dethroned and Nancy Pelosi ensconced as president, it's more likely that one of the Democratic women running will be the nominee. Our money is on Kamala Harris, although the two most progressive candidates running are Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But Harris has that wow factor that none of the other nine Democrats already in the race or any of the other 10 who may get in have to offer. It's a year out till the first primary, so we shall see. On Jan. 24 former South Bend Indiana mayor, Afghanistan vet and Rhodes scholar Pete Buttigieg made history as the first openly gay man to run for president when he announced his candidacy. At 37, he's the youngest person in the race.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, who gets more "get off my lawn!" every day, and has yet to announce, managed to insult everyone on Jan. 24 by dismissing the Blue Wave that swept Pelosi back into the Speakership and brought a host of young progressive women, people of color and gay candidates into the House and Senate. Sanders, in a tone-deaf bid for white cis male ascendancy, proclaimed in an interview, "My opponents want black, white, gay, Latino or women candidates, regardless of what they stand for." His "opponents" being Democrats who voted out older white male Democrats and replaced them with young progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Presley and lesbian Native American Sharice Davids.

Having several women, two of whom are women of color, and an openly gay man, as well as former Obama Labor Secretary Julian Castro, a Texas Latino, in the race is creating a counterpoint to the GOP that is thrilling to witness, no matter what Sanders thinks. While we have our favorites, we'd be happy with any of the aforementioned candidates wiping the floor with Trump.

But that won't happen till next season. So for gay male kisses, Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor, and Netflix and chill, you really must stay tuned.

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