[Editor’s Note: This piece contains major spoilers for Sex/Life Season 2, now streaming on Netflix.]
For a show that has become synonymous with graphic sex scenes — and one infamous moment of real nudity — Sex/Life is shockingly conservative in its second season. While Season 1 offered glimmers of hope that Billie (Sarah Shahi) would find a “third way” and prioritize herself over her staid marriage to Cooper (Mike Vogel) and passionate relationship with Brad (Adam Demos), the Netflix drama’s final season falls back on conventional ideas about love, sex, and marriage. In doing so, Sex/Life proves to be fundamentally incurious about modern romance, despite making every effort to appear transgressive.
Billie may have been a “dynamic protagonist with an open-minded, progressive approach to intimacy,” as Netflix’s Tudum once described her, in Season 1, but all that is negated by Sex/Life Season 2. After Brad declines her olive branch — the first season ended with Billie arriving in his loft and saying, “Now f*ck me” — Billie meets restaurant owner Majid (Darius Homayoun, Tehran), and the two begin dating almost immediately.
For Billie, a character determined to re-discover herself and separate her identity from that of her male partner, embarking upon a new relationship so quickly, and without dating around at all, seems counterintuitive. Perhaps if Billie and Majid were a better match, or if Shahi and Homayoun could conjure up the magnetic chemistry she has with Demos, this development would make sense. But without these two key elements, it feels like she’s giving in to the pressure to couple up, even as she purports to question these kinds of social expectations in her psychology work and the voiceovers that punctuate the season.
Shahi’s character does ultimately choose herself over Majid, as staying together would require her to compartmentalize her sexy New York life and her family life, but soon ends up right back where she started. In the final minutes of the finale, Billie and Brad reconcile, and the show ends with their picturesque beachfront wedding, where she informs him she’s pregnant. Creator Stacy Rukeyser has described Season 2 as a “fairy tale,” but Sex/Life never stops to ask whether a traditional marriage is a fitting end point for Billie and Brad’s unconventional love story. After everything they’ve been through, from their tumultuous past to their present-day marriages and subsequent divorces, is this really their ideal happy ending?
In fact, marriage becomes the end goal for every main character, even Sasha (Margaret Odette), who has devoted her entire career to her “Third Way” philosophy. Sasha has spent the past decade putting her work into practice — as she puts it, “Doing what you want, when you want, with whomever you want” — but in Season 2, she runs into an old flame, Kam (Cleo Anthony, She’s Gotta Have It), and they rekindle their relationship. Flashbacks reveal Sasha and Kam were engaged in college, but broke up when Kam asked her to follow him to Stanford for a grad program, a move that would put her own career ambitions on hold.
17 years later, Sasha and Kam find themselves facing similar challenges. In order to maintain her image as an “unattached” expert (Sex/Life is the kind of show that uses the term #Girlboss unironically), Sasha sacrifices her otherwise-thriving relationship; later, when they’re back together, Sasha must decide whether to join Kam in Singapore, where he’s completing a work project, or remain Stateside to promote her new book. These options are presented as mutually exclusive: Either Sasha and Kam are by one another’s side 24/7, or they’re broken up entirely. But of course, there are plenty of ways to be in a successful relationship — have these people heard of airplanes? Pretty cool invention! — including those that allow for a bit of distance, be it emotional or geographic. If only Sex/Life were willing to broaden its horizons and explore the possibilities.
Like Billie’s reunion with Brad, Sasha’s arc, which culminates in yet another wedding, highlights Sex/Life’s conservative views on love. As Sasha debates whether to choose her career or Kam, Billie encourages her to pick the latter, saying, “That kind of love comes once in a lifetime.” This tidy sentiment isn’t new to the show (Brad has always been held up as Billie’s one true love), but it is at odds with its supposed depiction of one woman’s messy path to self-discovery. Even more so, the season’s major storylines — including Cooper’s renewed romance with Emily (Hannah Galway), whom he was dating before he met Billie — suggest the characters’ soulmates are people they met a decade prior, as if the person they were in their early 20s was their most complete form, rather than someone with plenty to learn about the world and themselves. Clearly, Sex/Life thinks it’s moving the conversation forward when it comes to female desire, but by spending so much time looking backwards, any momentum is swiftly stifled.
If there’s one place Sex/Life lives up to its boundary-pushing aims, it’s in its depiction of male nudity. Last season, Demos made headlines for his full-frontal shower scene; this time around, it’s Cooper’s friend Devon (Jonathan Sadowski) who turns heads with a mangled prosthetic penis. After his penis is bitten off in a car accident, Devon unveils his surgically “remodeled” genitalia, even going so far as to offer Cooper a demonstration on how to “fire it up.” But as shocking (and discomfiting) as this moment proves to be, it doesn’t come close to canceling out six episodes of unwavering belief in traditional marriage and Disney-fied “one true soulmate” talk. Rukeyser may believe Sex/Life is a fairy tale, but with this retrograde perspective driving the action, it’s no longer a tantalizing one.
Sex/Life Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.
TOPICS: Sex/Life, Netflix, Adam Demos, Cleo Anthony, Darius Homayoun, Margaret Odette, Mike Vogel, Sarah Shahi, Stacy Rukeyser