The Evolution of TV Sex Scenes, and Why Buffy’s “Smashed” Is Still the Gold Standard

TV Features Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The Evolution of TV Sex Scenes, and Why Buffy’s “Smashed” Is Still the Gold Standard

If the Family Guy theme song is to be believed, sex on TV is as pervasive as it is explicit—and maybe, at some point over the show’s tenure, that was true. But while HBO and other cable networks started a tidal wave of titillating television in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the modern state of sex on television is in an entirely different place. All it takes is a casual visit to Twitter to see that TV fans are more at odds than ever over whether or not sex scenes have a place on TV at all. While some argue ardently that it’s a cheap and exploitative shortcut to viewership, there’s also a healthy contingent of audiences eager for their favorite characters to get R-rated.  

But while there doesn’t seem to be a quantitative decrease in the volume of sex scenes being produced, it’s undeniable that the quality of these sequences doesn’t quite make optimal use of what a good sex scene in a TV show can and should do for the narrative and tone, not just to make a must-watch moment. Yes, Euphoria, The Idol, and Game of Thrones all featured a number of prominent (and often questionable) sex scenes, but when it comes to mastering the sex scene as a crucial element for both entertainment and narrative purposes, you’ll have to wind the clock back a few decades to find the best of the best—and no TV show did sex scenes quite like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Admittedly, Buffy probably isn’t the knee-jerk name that comes to mind when you think of shows with great sex scenes—after all, at least for the first few seasons, the majority of the characters were in high school, and not quite at the gratuitous-nude-scenes age (the show airing on broadcast network The WB for a majority of its tenure also did not make for wall-to-wall nudity). But even once Buffy and co. were off to college, the show didn’t lean on nudity as a crutch to make sex scenes impactful once they did come around. Instead, Buffy treated sex scenes as the major character beats that they are, using the show’s signature dialogue and flair for massive emotional shifts to give intimate moments the proper punch.

Over her seven-season journey, Buffy had plenty of romantic partners—and with each new man in her life, the show catered the tone and pacing of those sex scenes to further emphasize Buffy’s relationship to that particular character. After flirting with danger in Season 1 with Angel, her first time with him ends in heartbreak— she wakes up alone and devastated, having realized that because he found true happiness with her, Angel lost his soul just moments after they had sex.

Of course, there was a pit stop with the lunkish Riley and his repressed vanilla tastes, but even his questionable love scenes with Buffy were in service of what ended up being one of the show’s most memorable moments ever—Buffy and Spike’s first time. Even the Spike and Buffy slow-burn romance is one that’s hard to picture happening in the modern TV landscape. With shows getting axed in their second or third seasons, it’s impossible to deliver the kind of emotional catharsis of a five or six-season romance we’ve been waiting on—but Buffy knew how powerful the tension bubbling between Buffy and Spike had been, and used those years of “will they/won’t they” as the fuel behind the building-destroying sex scene in Season 6’s “Smashed.”

Buffy’s sixth season is notorious for its big narrative swings and shocking moments, but even an already-wary audience couldn’t have predicted the sudden (but also somehow inevitable) encounter between Buffy and Spike that ended with a building coming down around them. The episode kicks off with Spike (who’s been neutered thus far by a chip in his brain which prevents him from preying on humans) suddenly able to attack Buffy again; he spends the episode taunting her and savoring his newfound ability to once again get his licks in on The Slayer.

At this point in the series, we have known for at least a season that Spike is harboring some not-so-subtle feelings for Buffy, but the idea of her reciprocating (even in just a physical sense) always seemed like a low Buffy would never stoop to—after all, he’s a vile, immoral creature of the night who she’s dedicated her life to destroying. But as Season 6 creeps on and on and Buffy grapples with dying and coming back to life, her previously-established boundaries begin to crumble around her, allowing for Spike to worm his way under her skin.

They slug it out numerous times over the course of the episode, exchanging blows and remarks about whether or not Buffy is just as bad as he is now, since Spike’s chip doesn’t seem to register her as human anymore. After five seasons of being the upstanding moral paragon everyone has expected her to be, and crumbling over the ever-increasing weight of the world on her shoulders, Buffy finally snaps, egged on by Spike’s taunting, and the two engage in a brutal, no-holds-barred fight.

But as the punches fly, there’s an undeniable electricity present—that little nagging part of Buffy’s mind (and the audience’s) that reminds us how tantalizing the idea of giving in and hooking up with Spike would be for a Slayer who’s committed her life to destroying him. One moment they’re grappling for control of the fight, and suddenly they’re kissing. I can only imagine being a teenage girl sitting down for your weekly dose of Buffy in 2001, and being treated to a sex scene some sects of fans had been begging for for years.

At the same time, though, as much as the enemies-to-lovers appeal of the scene makes it prime fodder for shippers, the Buffy and Spike sex scene also works (dare I say, works better) through the lens of someone who isn’t particularly interested in seeing the characters get together romantically. Undeniably, the chemistry between Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Marsters can sell even the iciest of viewers on the passion of the moment, but as cathartic as the “Smashed” sex scene may have been for fans that were rooting for Spike and Buffy to hook up, it’s just as major of a character moment for Buffy herself, outside of the context of sex or romance.

Yes, it’s a sex scene, but it’s not a particularly romantic one—this is Buffy (from her perspective) at her lowest, thinking she might not even be human anymore, and finally relenting to a pressure and a seedy desire that’s been lurking underneath the surface for years. It’s Buffy, after living with the pressure of supporting and saving her friends for so long, finally giving in to her more carnal, less noble desires, and allowing herself to feel something other than heartbreak, betrayal, and pain. It’s not just a sex scene, it’s an emotional turning point for the character, one achieved through physical intimacy.

Then, of course, there’s the physical staging of the scene itself. Buffy and Spike stumble from pillar to pillar, going from fighting to kissing in a single moment, the building crumbling around them the closer they get to completion. There’s no nudity, either, but this moment between Spike and Buffy has been built up for so long, and executed with such impact that there is no need to see skin in order to understand how important of a moment this is—or to leave the viewer fanning themselves with the intensity of it all.

Yes, sex scenes in television today may have the ability to show as much nudity as they want, but two hot actors getting undressed does not a good sex scene make. While shows like The Idol may lean on “taboo” kinks to give their sex scenes a dangerous flare, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s iconic “Smashed” sex scene is a reminder that great writing will always outclass shock value. 

Lauren Coates is a freelance entertainment writer with a passion for sci-fi, an unhealthy obsession with bad reality television, and a constant yearning to be at Disney World. She has contributed to Paste since 2020. You can follow her on Twitter @laurenjanecoa, where she’s probably talking about Star Trek.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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