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American Gods, Sense8 and the Future of Gay Sex on TV

TV Features American Gods
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<i>American Gods</i>, <i>Sense8</i> and the Future of Gay Sex on TV

Last night, American Gods made me want to get fucked.

Crass, perhaps, yet there it is—a feeling as unconcealed as the two men’s bodies, moving in perfect unison. This is the nub of it, no? Not the salaciousness of the act, per se, but the intense response its candor inspires, the identification with that hot-blooded pleasure, and with its political underpinnings. Though it might cause movement of the physiological sort, the signal sequence in “Head Full of Snow”—the steamiest depiction of sex between men ever to air on American television—is most arousing in the original sense of the term, meaning “awaken,” or “stir to action.” For American Gods, in tandem with Netflix’s Sense8, offers a radical portrait of queer connection that resets the bar for the medium’s treatment of our most intimate moments: It’s the future of gay sex of TV.

At the risk of sounding breathless—spent—the former’s exquisite precision is as important to understanding its power as its hairy asses and swinging cocks. When Salim (Omid Atahi), a defeated salesman, reaches out to touch his frustrated cabbie, Ibrahim (Mousa Kraish), the close-up of their fingers brushing against each other is charged with longing, carnal and otherwise. In the context of their bilingual conversation, which outlines the dislocating nature of the immigrant experience, it’s clear that their attraction is a form of recognition, an act of communion in which both men share, which the series then underlines with an insert of shifting desert sands.

The conceit continues as the sequence proceeds: In the elevator, after Salim invites Ibrahim up to his hotel room, their hands clasp in anticipation (heart flutters); in bed, Ibrahim slips two fingertips into Salim’s mouth (palms sweat). Such care, of course, is central to the interlude’s eroticism, interlacing its unembarrassed depiction of tangled legs and rhythmic thrusts with the bright pang of want we hope to feel when our bodies come together. By the time American Gods, and the men, reach the moment of climax—a fantastical image of black silhouettes burning up from within, one that recalls the French description of orgasm as “the little death”—the flames that pass between them suggest spiritual as well as sexual congress. There’s a reason, when we press against the outer limits of pleasure, that so many of us call out, “Oh, God!”

Even if one sets aside the fact that the men in question are an Omani transplant and the Jinn of Arabic myth—a potent reclamation, as Rae Nudson notes, from the medium’s long relegation of Middle Eastern men to roles as mullahs and terrorists—the scene’s most striking feature may be its uncommonness. American Gods is far from the first series to feature ardent sex between two men; in an exchange on Facebook, Paste contributor Manuel Betancourt reminded me of examples from Queer as Folk, True Blood and Looking, and ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder distinguished itself in Season One with a bit of ass play involving Connor (Jack Falahee) and Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) that must’ve given the network’s standards and practices department night terrors. Still, the act itself—compared to the almost banal prevalence of straight sex—remains a rare sight on TV, to the point that even the medium’s most prurient dramas often hold the subject at arm’s length (Game of Thrones) or use it to generate horror (Westworld).

American Gods, in “Head Full of Snow,” and Sense8, in its sultry pansexual orgies, build on their forebears and counterparts—including British imports such as London Spy and Cucumber/Banana—and on the work of series that transform sex between women from object (of fetishization) to subject (of complex stories)—such as The L Word, Transparent and Orange Is the New Black—by crafting frank, wildly sexy scenes of men in mid-coitus and then dropping them into strange fictions designed for broader audiences. Sense8’s introduction to its inventive approach, in Season One’s “Demons,” finds its octet of Sensates—embodiments of genuine connection equal to that of Salim and the Jinn—joined together in sex through their telepathic powers, and the result is, in line with the series’ title, sensual beyond measure. As in American Gods, though, it’s the combination of the tactile and the emotional (“mind and body,” one character comments) that heightens the effect: A kiss on the forehead, a lick of the lips, a profession of unapologetic desire. Indeed, though much of the sequence’s focus is on the muscular figures of Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) and Hernando (Alfonso Herrera)—the camera lingers on their bare bodies, their ecstatic embrace, as if it’s eager for a taste—the ensemble’s straight men, Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) and Will (Brian J. Smith), are drawn in as well: Neither Sense8 nor American Gods assumes that sex among men (or women) is unpalatable to straight viewers, and both refuse to shape their queer characters around an absence of sexual pleasure simply to widen their appeal.

It’s hard for me to express the import of this, except to say that watching American Gods and being turned on—wanting to get fucked—does not seem to me immaterial here. Despite its attention to sex and romance as central features of life’s drama, TV’s dearth of gay sex—raunchy or tender, doting or heedless—leaves a gaping gulf between sitcoms’ chaste kisses and the mechanical tempo of most pornography, dotted with oases of change in which I find respite from long stretches of nothingness. After all, it is absence that defines the subject’s treatment on TV, an absence in which I have more than once lost myself to loneliness or shame. Nearly two decades into the 21st century, the culminating crack of Saturday Night Live’s satire of Sean Spicer (Melissa McCarthy) still involves two men kissing, and I must say I’m really fucking tired of being the butt of the joke.

Representation is popular culture’s Overton window: It inscribes the boundaries of the possible, and so determines the political imagination as well as the narrative one. American Gods, Sense8 and the other series that foretell the future of gay sex on TV open the window, as it were, rejecting the temptation to hide. In the universe of these series, not far from our own, I need not be furtive about what, and who, I want; I need not assent to the idea that a one-night stand is without romance, or that long-term relationships mean the end of toe-curling sex. In short, I need not absent myself from the medium’s depiction of our intimate lives, because I am there in TV’s wide window, naked as I came. Or, at least, this is my hope, as a critic and as a gay man—and American Gods and Sense8, at the future’s leading edge, push us further along the road to bringing it to fruition.

“I don’t grant wishes,” the Jinn says to Salim, after the salesman, consuming the man’s nude figure with impassioned eyes, wishes that his partner could see what he does.

“But you do,” Salim whispers.

Amen to that.

American Gods airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on Starz. Sense8 Season Two is now streaming on Netflix.



Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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