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Sarah Shahi Shines in Netflix's Repetitively Provocative Sex/Life

The love triangle is a tale as old as time. Helen of Troy, Anne Boleyn, Cleopatra—history changed as a result of the romances in which these women were involved. There's nothing inherently tawdry or sordid about the fact that people’s feelings and passions may change over time, and literature, movies, and TV aimed at girls and women in particular often use divided affections to further deepen and explore their female protagonists. A woman can be one person with one romantic partner, and another person with another romantic partner. Which identity is the “real” them?

“Romeo and Juliet” did it, “Bridget Jones’s Diary” did it, “Twilight” did it, “The Hunger Games” did it, “The Notebook” did it, “Titanic” did it, “The Great Gatsby” did it. The sometimes-softcore “Sex/Life” is born of a long tradition as it puts an explicit spin on the love-triangle concept. Netflix is steadily expanding its streaming slate with these risqué-ier titles told primarily from the perspective of female protagonists, and much like “Bridgerton” before it, “Sex/Life” attempts to honor the female gaze. Show creator Stacy Rukeyser’s adaptation of the novel 44 Chapters About 4 Men by B. B. Easton allows protagonist Billie Connelly (Sarah Shahi) to take center stage, and in each episode (five of eight were provided for review), she longs, lusts, and regrets. 

Over the course of “Sex/Life,” Billie, a suburban wife and mother of two who was a wild child in New York City before settling down with a wealthy, stable, slightly boring husband, thinks back on her younger years, on the formative relationships in her life, and on the most amazing sex she’s ever had. Each episode comprises a menagerie of fantasy scenes, flashback sequences, and sexual daydreams and memories, and Shahi does a lot of breathy moaning, lip-biting, squirming, and orgasm mimicking. If being nude is an inherently brave act, Shahi is one hell of a hero; in certain episodes it seems as if she’s topless more often than not, and I lost track at the number of pairs of sexy lace underwear that slide down Billie’s legs. 

None of this is meant to shame, disparage, or embarrass Shahi, or to imply that her performance is out of line with what the show is asking her to do. Practically every sex scene in “Sex/Life” focuses on Billie’s pleasure, confirms her consent, and doesn’t attempt to box sex into any one category. It can be a means of establishing intimacy, or it can be a casual physical exercise between individuals who get along but don’t want a relationship. In its own cis-het way, “Sex/Life” is attempting to be clear about sex positivity, even if how it builds its interior world (a woman’s two primary relationships both being with phenomenally wealthy men; primarily white or white-passing characters populating that love triangle; a whole “New York City used to be wilder ... in the mid-aughts!” subplot) feels overly familiar. 

Pushing all that aside, though, the primary failing of “Sex/Life” is its inability to balance the acrobatic-romp and woman-finding-herself elements of this concept; there's so much of the former, and not enough of the latter. Because each 45-minute episode is built around Billie’s sex-journal disclosures, a significant amount of screen time is devoted to her varying trysts, the past relationship with which Billie is obsessed, and how she fell for her husband. But in the present day, our sense of who Billie is suffers since the only thing we know about her past, and how she defined herself, were those trysts. Important details—whether Billie works, why she abandoned her PhD studies, how she interacts with the other mothers in her neighborhood—arrive unexpectedly and ungracefully through expository dialogue. The pacing of the show is interrupted by that constantly zigging-and-zagging timeline and by its elongation of certain plotlines that would benefit from more precise writing and character development. It is a truth that people grow older, settle down, and change as they age, accrue more responsibility, and expand into a family unit. By the fourth or fifth time Shahi’s Billie says this, though, without a follow-up statement about what she is going to do about this malaise, you’ll wonder when “Sex/Life” is just going to get on with it. 

“Sex/Life” focuses on 30something Billie (Shahi), who lives in one of those all-white, all-marble, open-concept, palatial mansions in Connecticut that exist only in the romance genre or in the rarified minds of Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers. The stay-at-home mother of a preschool-aged son and a nine-month-old daughter, Billie is married to Cooper (Mike Vogel), a venture capitalist who funnels the money of his company’s investors to various worthy causes. Their life seems idyllic, but Billie is hurtling toward the edge of a cliff. Her sex life with Cooper is nonexistent (in a wry aside, Billie notes that he hasn’t performed oral sex on her in 18 months, while “I expelled an entire human being from my body in half that time”). He talks only about his day at work, or about their children. Cooper is a “good guy,” Billie insists, and this is the life she wants. So why can’t she stop thinking about her ex, music producer and record label hotshot Brad (Adam Demos)?

A decade ago, Billie was a dynamo with multicolored highlights, an aggressive smokey eye, and a pink leather moto jacket, spending every night at various clubs and bars with best friend Sasha Snow (Margaret Odette). Psychology graduate students and roommates, Billie and Sasha did everything together, from writing papers to swapping hookup partners. And although Sasha wasn’t particularly impressed with the hotheaded, casually cruel Brad, Billie was all-in. They slept together after meeting only a half-hour or so before, and the “intensity of our conversations was intoxicating,” Billie remembers. They fell fast and hard, were together for some months, and then they fell apart. Four weeks later, Billie would meet Cooper and eventually marry him, but as she grows unhappy in her marriage, she keeps returning to those steamy times with Brad. And when she starts writing a journal specifically about all the intense sexual experiences they shared (including doing “73% of the positions in the Kama Sutra, as should we all”)—and when Cooper reads the journal entries that she has kept open on her unlocked laptop—“Sex/Life” sets Billie on a path of erotic fantasy and emotional self-flagellation.

Shahi works hard to inject authenticity into the often-cliched journal entries (“My heart was riding on fumes, and the stability and sanity he offered was a soothing balm to my spent, scorched soul”) that serve as the series’ narration and the goofy dialogue we’re supposed to believe Billie and Sasha would exchange (“Mine has a giant joystick”; “The way he works it in my kitty cat”). Her emotions flicker openly across her face, and she alternately pitches her voice higher or lower and adds some huskiness and breathiness to guide us through Billie’s varying moods. And although neither Cooper nor Brad is a particularly compelling character, Shahi has enough chemistry with each of them to convince us that Billie could end up with one of these men. But in addition to its imbalanced narrative approach, as of its fifth episode, “Sex/Life” is also unwilling to dig into the manipulation and narcissism driving some of Billie’s, Cooper’s, and Brad’s choices, or to develop best friend Sasha into more than just a DTF party girl. “I’m just not sure this is who I’m supposed to be,” Billie admits, but “Sex/Life” stumbles by not making clear who the show thinks she is supposed to be, either. 

Five of eight episodes screened for review. Season one of "Sex/Life" premieres today on Netflix.

Roxana Hadadi

Roxana Hadadi is a film, television, and pop culture critic. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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