With the Motion Picture Association making it harder to see sex on the big screen over the years, TV has had to pick up film’s mantle. In the 1990s, HBO led the way with sex scenes that would blow the minds of viewers who stuck to normal cable. With the advent of unregulated, uncensored streaming platforms, now we can binge-watch sexy shows on the regular.
Netflix’s Obsession is the latest series to bring sex to the forefront, and naturally, audiences have been going wild for it. It’s a show where the characters have sex, and a lot of it. That’s great! But there’s a major problem: Obsession is also a show that fundamentally misunderstands its own main attraction—hot, steamy sex!—by instead delivering some of the most tepid, lifeless sex scenes in recent memory. Obsession practically offers a blueprint for how not to showcase sex, undermining the reason the show exists in the first place.
(Warning: Spoilers for Obsession ahead.)
The premise of Obsession is as ludicrous as it is lurid. Doctor William Farrow (Richard Armitage) is the talk of the town after separating conjoined twins, which is totally inconsequential to anything else that follows. William is married with two kids, and his son Jay (Rish Shah) is dating a new girl, Anna (Charlie Murphy); he seems very much in love. How nice for Jay!
What’s not-so-nice for Jay is that his father is about to embark on an affair with Anna, even though he’s fully cognizant that Anna is his son’s girlfriend. I’m positive this isn’t what the old adage “like father, like son” was referring to. In an early scene, William—the undisputed frontrunner for world’s most boring man—spots Anna from across a bar. Time stands still, as they exchange a fiery glance; well, at least Anna does. William looks more pained than anything else.
He approaches her, and they both cough out their strained, amateur thespian-level dialogue (roughly 10 words) before deciding they are destined to be together. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that William feeds Anna the olive out of her martini during this conversation, because why not? As someone completely opposed to the existence of olives, I found this especially egregious.
From there, Obsession spends the majority of the first episode vaguely building up to their inevitable intercourse. When Anna texts William after their meeting, he takes it so seriously, you’d think he’s been exposed to nuclear secrets each time his phone vibrates. Alongside the texting is a foreboding score, as well as all the shared glances you could shake a stick at. This is all impressive behavior for William, who’s an empty vessel of a human being; he’s like an alien coming down to Earth undercover, giving off strong “How do you do, fellow kids” vibes.
By the time William and Anna have sex, two other sex scenes have already occurred, but they’re both so quick and uninteresting that they barely warrant description. What we see of the sex between William and his wife Ingrid (Indira Varma) seems cold and calculated, and the same can be said for Jay and Anna’s sex scene. Both scenes last only a few seconds, but judging by how disinterested the show seems to be in them, we’re meant to understand that William and Anna are both longing for more.
With that in mind, the sex between Anna and William should be downright scintillating: a long-awaited dive into something they’ve both been craving. When Anna invites William to her flat, it’s on. She undresses him completely, while she remains clothed, except for her underwear. Anna lies back on the hardwood floor (no, not even carpeted!), outstretches her arms, looking almost like Jesus on the cross. (Is this sexy? To each their own, I guess.)
Anna, primed and ready, gives William permission to come aboard. The two make extraordinary, passionate, hours-long love that’s bound to be what people talk about for decades. Netflix expects us to be pointing to this very moment as why on-screen sex is indispensable.
Except none of this happens. Wouldn’t that have been nice if this were the sex scene Obsession actually gave us? Instead, we get 15 seconds (yes, I timed it) of William thrusting and grunting until it’s all over. Both characters have a look in their eyes that implies they’d both rather be doing their taxes than having sex. Hell, an earlier scene of William riding a stationary bike is more sexually charged than the sex itself. In fairness to William, Anna makes sounds as if this the most erotic thing she’s ever experienced, even if she looks bored.
The best part of the scene happens unintentionally. It comes after they’re finished, as William leaves Anna’s apartment. It’s the first (and only) time he shows any hint of personality, grinning to himself like he’s some sort of sexual Adonis after delivering 15 whole seconds of sex. It’s the funniest moment in this very self-serious drama, and I half-expected William to strut down the street on his way out, like a “cool” Peter Parker.
Despite this sexlessness, the act somehow leads them into an addiction and affair that’s going to tear their lives apart. The next episode wastes no time getting to it, opening with more Anna-William sex. This time, they’re smashing (that sounds crass, but it really is the best word for what they’re doing) against a wall.
Anatomically, this scene makes no sense, though perhaps it finally explains the pair’s, er, obsession with one another. Maybe William has a magical appendage that can contort and conform to any position, making this intercourse work—for fewer than 15 seconds this time. That could be why Anna is so willing to throw away her entire life for the father of her boyfriend, a man with the personality of a damp dish rag. (I’m sorry, damp dish rag; you deserve better than that comparison.)
The next sex scene comes off like the writers googled “kink” for a couple minutes and got overwhelmed, after reading the first few lines of a Wikipedia entry. William is wrapping a rope around Anna’s leg for some inexplicable reason, and the whole act ends after (you guessed it) a few seconds.
The most passionate sex scene in Obsession is the strangest one of all. William follows Anna and his son (ugh) to Paris. While Jay and Anna are in Paris (and Jay’s dad’s not too far away), Jay asks Anna if he has time to shave before they go out. Anna allows it, because she knows that this will be the perfect amount of time to go have sex with William, since it’ll only take a few seconds.
The most harrowing scene happens after they leave. William rents the same room that Jay and Anna were in and… goes to town on Anna’s pillow. It’s rather mortifying, and the shocked audience reaction makes sense. But it also manages to tell us more about the lengths William will go to, to feel close to Anna, than any other scene in the series.
Therein lies one of the big issues with all this awful, awful sex. Great sex scenes work because they provide opportunities to titillate and shock, sure, but they also do so much more than that. Great sex scenes let us into the characters’ interiority, giving access to them at their most vulnerable. These scenes can really explore who these people are, in intimate and surprising ways.
Unfortunately, the characters in Obsession have no discernible qualities that make them unique. There never seems to be any explanation of what either Anna or William gets from their affair—for so much risk involved, the reward of the occasional five-second romp doesn’t seem like a worthwhile trade off, to say the least.
Sex doesn’t have to be sexy, on-screen or in real life. It can be complicated, messy, erotic, funny, sensual, dramatic, exciting. Inert, however, is never the goal, unless it’s to expose the lifelessness and monotony that plagues the characters’ lives. But inert is all Obsession manages to achieve.