If you’ve ever done it, you know the feeling: that flutter of heart, that tightness of chest, that hardening, then blankness. Cruising is inextricable from fear, perhaps—of being caught, of being beaten to death, of countless other, more rococo dangers that cross your mind in the darkened alley or bathroom stall—but fear is not its only motor. In its fulfillment of an implacable, impolite desire, its transformation of “stranger danger” into the closest of connections, cruising climaxes with the opposite of fear, or at least its brief abeyance. Blankness, in this context, is a respite from anxiety, neurosis, crippling dread: It’s impossible to fixate on your problems for long when you’re getting pounded behind a dumpster.
Though it presents complications soon enough, this pleasure principle is the guiding force of Now Apocalypse, Gregg Araki and Karley Sciortino’s twisted, thirsty Odyssey, their masterpiece of comic kink. It opens on our hero, Ulysses (Avan Jogia), following the noise of a man’s moans into an abandoned building, lit in lurid purplish-pinks: “I often find myself in these situations where my heart’s pounding so fast I can barely breathe,” he explains in voiceover, “and I can’t tell if it’s excitement, or terror, or both.” As he rounds the corner, the camera glimpses a rocking, thrusting silhouette, and Uly recoils in horror—before the picture cuts to an anonymous L.A. apartment, his face contorted in orgasm as his playmate cries “Harder! Harder!” from his all-fours perch on the bed. By the time Uly escapes the man’s husband, tossing his condom in the bushes while he hikes up his pants, Now Apocalypse has already emerged as TV’s most gloriously frank depiction of sex and its unorthodoxies: the monstrous configuration of bodies in motion, the unavoidable humor of our expressions and sounds, the cataclysmic intensity of a truly great fuck. The series approaches “kink,” broadly defined—our fetishes, our caprices, our peculiarities, our quirks—as a form of queerness, not simply a set of sexual practices but a way of moving through the world.
It’s not just Uly, either. Both his best friend, Carly (Kelli Berglund), and his straight roommate, Ford (Beau Mirchoff, a beefcake Judy Holliday in Ray-Bans and short shorts), begin to explore their sexual fantasies, too—she after turning her experience as a cam girl on her distracted boyfriend, he in a threesome with his unsentimental lover, Severine (Roxane Mesquida). Where Now Apocalypse shines, though, is in remembering that the definition of “kink” is context-dependent: One person’s risqué is another’s old hat. And so, when Carly punishes her man for studying his phone during sex—employing a dominant streak that’s pro forma for clients—or Ford asks the newcomer if he can tell her he loves her—reflecting his unmet need for an emotional connection with Severine—their turn-ons and hang-ups become elements of character, more telling than their occupations, their affects, their clothes. (Oh, the clothes! Fire engine reds, electric blues, school bus yellows; bubblegum pinks, neon greens, nightclub violets: In Now Apocalypse, the colors drop acid and smoke pot, their hues assuming a more intense complexion.) Whether it’s watersports, BDSM, or public masturbation, muscle gods, daddies, or deliverymen, Now Apocalypse suggests that satiating our tastes is a form of accounting for it: It’s a series for the cruisers, the cam girls, the boys with a secret Snapchat for commands from their Sir, for the leashed and the collared, the choked and the slapped, for the fluid, the horny, the “I’ll try anything… twice.”
Admirably, that doesn’t mean Now Apocalypse is strung out on ecstasies—though if Uly’s universe-collapsing-in-on-itself orgasms could be bottled, I’d happily buy a crate. Without ever labeling kink “deviant” or “perverse,” Araki and Sciortino acknowledge that our predilections, and our partners’, can also be limiting, that exploration of new sexual terrain inevitably results in skinned knees. Ford agrees to an open relationship with Severine, for instance, only to realize that doing it just to placate her causes him pain; later, her grudging fulfillment of his desire for affection produces one of the series’ saddest interludes. Uly chases Gabriel (Tyler Posey), the ultimate unavailable man, out of a misplaced yearning for meaning; Carly’s one night of bliss with her boyfriend exposes her dissatisfaction in love and in work; even her clients, the closest Now Apocalypse comes to satirizing kink, seem designed to suggest the isolating influence of the Internet, or perhaps the drawbacks of committing oneself to a single sexual preference to the exclusion of others. Alongside the more familiar subject of sex and the abuse of power—i.e. the hot tubs, photo shoots, and casting couches of sickening Hollywood tradition—Now Apocalypse’s understanding that being sex-positive demands engaging with its emotional pitfalls is one of its foremost strengths. The pleasure principle might be the series’ guiding force, but it’s not the destination.
Or not the only one: As is Araki’s wont, whether in The Living End—the Thelma & Louise of the New Queer Cinema, born of the AIDS crisis—or Mysterious Skin—in which both risky sex and theories of alien abduction become coping mechanisms for abuse—Now Apocalypse, in its exaggerated, absurdist way, is run through with the same notion that sex is creation and also destruction. (For more on the arc of Araki’s career, I recommend Scott Tobias’ excellent primer for The Ringer.) In this case, that destruction, or at least the prospect thereof, comes in the shape of a giant lizard, his hobo prey, Severine’s work at a secretive lab, and a number of other details that resist interpretation, if not description. Still, it’s striking how often these images coincide with moments of intense sexual connection, of excitement, or terror, or more likely both: As the cruising fantasy-turned-nightmare erupts in orgasm in that opening smash cut, for example, or as the sky explodes over Uly and Gabriel’s parking lot tryst, mere moments after hearing “Fags!” from a passing truck. The most outré feature of Now Apocalypse, then, is an echo of its central theme—that sex is always an expression of fear and its opposite, in some form or fashion, and that this is why it takes us out of this world. Kink, the bend in the straight line, simply shortens the distance. “When we came, I got, like, sort of crazy,” as Uly tells Carly after his encounter with Gabriel. “Isn’t that,” she replies, “like, the definition of cumming?” You know the feeling: She’s exactly right.
Now Apocalypse premieres Sunday, March 10 at 9 p.m. on Starz. Read our interview with Araki and Sciortino at the Sundance Film Festival here.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.