Bryan Fuller is good at TV sex. Unfortunately, as a show-runner who has spent most of his career stalwartly dedicated to the world of network broadcasting, he hasn’t had many opportunities to unleash that particular set of skills. Hannibal had a couple of corking love scenes that skirted the archaically narrow boundaries of standards and practices - Margot and Alana’s kaleidoscopic passions; the hallucinogenic sort-of five-way that included a wendigo - but with NBC being NBC, they were well-covered affairs. This is the network that said a stark depiction of two naked corpses with the skin on their backs flayed in the style of angels’ wings was cool, but showing the butt-cracks was too far (said butt-cracks were then filled with blood to ease the censors’ worries, which is TV ratings in a nutshell).
Now, Fuller is on cable, and as one of the powerhouses behind the critically acclaimed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, he’s finally got the chance to let loose. And boy is he doing it in style!
American Gods is a show about belief, worship and the limits of faith. As the gods of old - Egyptian, Norse, Slavic and Celtic lore - are diminished through lack of interest by their former devotees, a new generation of deities rises - technology, media, guns - to yield control over the landscape of America. Those left behind, brought to the new world by explorers, immigrants and slaves, must find a way to retain the slivers of power they have left. Some find menial day jobs, some siphon off energy from bastardized forms, and others turn to simple acts of human bonding for a moment of bliss that reminds them of their former strengths. So far, the show’s most striking examples of the latter have taken the form of good old fashioned fucking. Well, maybe not old fashioned, but certainly all-consuming.
In the show’s pilot, the audience is introduced to Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a goddess of love who has grown weak from lack of worship. In the book, she works as a prostitute to procure her worship, but here, she turns to the new normal of romance - internet dating. Her lonely and unsuspecting dates - the second episode reveals she dates all genders - are enraptured instantly, and follow willingly to her altar-like bedroom. Her first worshipper - played by Bill Murray’s brother - is fully committed to praising her as they fuck, and barely seems to notice that his body is being consumed by her vagina. As his head slips inside, his final words are “I love you”, and Bilquis is regenerated. We later see her internal nebula, where her lovers float in perpetual ecstasy, ceaselessly in worship and adoring every moment of it. Describing the moment as sex-positive may elicit a few guffaws from viewers, but there’s an undeniable force behind Bilquis’s scenes that fits the term well. Like many of the old gods, she is not above manipulation to get what she needs, but what she offers is also utterly addictive, and probably worthwhile for those who make the plunge.
In the show’s most recent episode, American Gods took another great leap forward in its radical sex. Here, a lonely failed salesman, Salim, has a passionate encounter with a Jinn (Mousa Kraish). Depictions of gay sex on TV are still dishearteningly rare, even more so when it’s between two men of colour. The mere act of two Muslim men having sex on screen - erect penises and all - is a huge deal in and of itself, but the scene is also beautiful, achingly intimate and fascinatingly thematic.
Like Bilquis, this too is an act of worship, albeit one with a less conclusive climax for the human involved. Salim is from Oman, where homosexuality is punishable by death, and his night with Jinn is implied to be his first wholly passionate sexual encounter with another man. There is no guilt or shame in their love-making - and it truly feels like love - and for both men it’s a rare moment of companionship, both romantically and culturally. The Jinn is said to be the only one of his kind in all of New York, while Salim feels isolated from his family and struggles with an unfulfilling job where people refuse to see him. With their act of passion, you see everything you need to know about each of them: The smothering isolation they’ve lived under, eased by a tentative holding of hands; Salim’s instinctive drop to his knees, implying years of secret meetings in back-alleys and rushed liaisons in hotel rooms; the Jinn’s metamorphosis into an ebony deity of fire, finally revived through the simple act of focused and unconditional adoration. In the morning, the Jinn is gone, and as thanks for his night of worship, he has given Salim his life as a taxi driver, free from his previous restraints. This isn’t just fucking; it’s storytelling.
Sex has gotten better on TV, especially in the prestige era. While tedious titillation can be found in the usual suspects, we have seen show-runners take on the act as a real tool to develop characters and relationships. It can be brutal in its passion (Outlander), hilariously cringe-worthy with painful earnestness (Chewing Gum), simultaneously groundbreaking and banal (Girls), and occasionally alluringly gross (Penny Dreadful). Still, we’re too used to the status quo of full-frontal naked women with carefully concealed penises, or the dreaded L-shaped sheets of network TV. While the idea of “equal opportunity nudity” is a little crass, to see it in practice in American Gods is to be reminded of just how rare it is to see sex depicted as it actually is. When was the last time you saw an erect penis on a TV show with a plot?
American Gods, three episodes in, is still pretty light on plot, with its focus on mood and character, but its use of sex as a storytelling device is a daring and heartily welcome leap forward for the medium. Even in the ages of Peak TV, it’s good to be surprised. Of course, they’ve also set the bar incredibly early, so keeping up this pace for the rest of the season will be exciting to watch. I’m sure Bryan Fuller is up to the challenge.