A candle sputters. A curtain sways. A woman arches her back, her limbs bathed in a golden light. The angles, the body parts, the visuals are all familiar.
That’s because viewers of TV and film have been subjected to this kind of rote sex scene innumerable times. There are variations, but the outlines are generally the same: A compliant woman’s body is displayed in soft focus as a curtain sways and a triumphant man makes her writhe in grateful ecstasy.
“The curtain drives me berserk,” sighs Ronald D. Moore, executive producer of Starz’s “Outlander.” “Why is there a candle in the foreground? Why is the curtain [moving]? Where’s that wind coming from? Why is she always on top of him like that?”
These are only a few of Moore’s complaints about how sex scenes are typically shot and edited, and he has a point. Looking across the landscape of television, no matter what kind of show is under discussion — a premium cable drama, a broadcast network potboiler, a basic cable thriller — sexually charged scenes between characters too often follow a numbingly familiar script.
There are exceptions, of course, and many of them (“Master of None,” “Catastrophe,” “Transparent,” “Orange Is the New Black”) have one or both feet in the comedy realm; the hybrids are often far more comfortable with the idea of subverting or ignoring conventions. There are dramas that occasionally use sex as a perceptive storytelling device, among them “The Americans,” “Billions” and “Mr. Robot.” But all too often, supposedly adult dramas resort to banal cliches borrowed from porn or feature sensationalist moments that bear little relation to the sex lives of most human beings.
When he set out to adapt Diana Gabaldon’s series of “Outlander” novels, Moore says, he told the show’s directors, “‘We’re not doing TV sex. TV sex is not real sex. No one has sex like that.’ And they would all laugh and say, ‘Yeah, that’s true. So what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Just do it like the real deal.’ ”
For “Outlander,” pursuing a more realistic approach starts with the storytelling. Moore and his writers don’t necessarily mine every sex scene in the novels for the TV show: Every moment of intimacy between characters needs to be vital to the narrative.
“Why are we going to do this? What’s the story reason? What’s the character reason?” Moore says. “It’s not just about getting to see them naked again, because we’ve seen them naked, and they’re hot. We get it.”
The stars of “Outlander” are indeed mighty attractive, but what has won over many fans is the complex mixture of vulnerability and volcanic attraction that fuels the evolving bond between Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and Claire Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe). The couple’s wedding has been the apex of the “Outlander” saga thus far, in large part because the sexual moments in that episode functioned like the songs in a classic musical: They told us important things about the characters and moved the story along.
Sexual acts on “Outlander” — including the damaging ones between Jamie and his tormentor, Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) — represent important milestones for the two characters involved. They’re not there as decorations, to be easily forgotten.
Moore made sure that a woman, executive producer Anne Kenney, wrote the wedding episode, and another woman, Anna Foerster, directed it.
“I just felt, for whatever reason, a woman would approach the scene differently emotionally and intuitively, and probably differently visually,” Moore said. “It would be more about the meeting of these two people than it would be about eroticism or trying to make it look ‘sexy.’”
When sex scenes are on the schedule, the production endeavors to give the actors a “little space to actually experiment and play around and find the natural chemistry between the two [characters], as opposed to what you could script or talk about in prep,” Moore says. That helps the scenes appear natural and lived-in. As Moore puts it, the feeling that the characters are “in the moment” makes the encounters work.
Things have changed for Jamie and Claire this season; their intimacy is strained, in part because Jamie is still recovering from sexual assaults by Randall last season. But the fact that “Outlander” is taking a man’s recovery from rape seriously is just another thing that sets it apart. The series also has shown full-frontal male nudity, something most programs still shy away from, even in the supposedly adventurous realms of premium TV.
Moore says he’s heartened that his show has been praised for its sensitive — and, ultimately, sensual — approach to sex, but adds that it’s all just a byproduct of trying to be realistic about what adults want and need from each other in intimate moments.
The showrunner maintains that the reason “Outlander” is getting so much credit for prioritizing a woman’s point of view is because that POV has been so marginalized. “When you actually restore it, people go, ‘Whoa, this is a radical thing you’re doing! You’re blazing new ground!’ Where I’m not really trying to blaze new ground. I’m just trying to tell the truth and be honest about how these characters relate.”
Part one of my “Outlander” conversation with Moore is here. The full text of part two of that interview, which is condensed above, is below.
I don’t think this is one of those journeys where it’s like, “Which man will the lady choose?” That’s not what defines her.
Yeah, it really doesn’t define her. It’s not the dominant theme. One of the things I did respond to in the books is their marriage. Now that they’re married, it’s not about breaking them apart, putting them back together, and [they’re tempted by others] or there are those kinds of misunderstandings. It’s a very solid marriage. It has its problems, it has its issues. But there’s never really a doubt in your mind that these two are together, and they’re not going to just get thrown apart for the convenience of the plot or just to give us some juice in the romance. The romantic tale between them is a love, is a soulful one. It’s unusual because that’s not generally where those stories go.
One other show that did that was “Friday Night Lights,” where Jason Katims said, “We’re not going to break up the Taylors.” And I think a relationship’s evolution is just as interesting, if not more interesting, than the whole idea of, “Are they going to break up?” A show gets to do that once, maybe twice. And then I don’t care.
And people tend to [play] that card very early. You just met them and then they’re the Bickersons and then they’re splitting up and he’s moved out.
Suddenly he’s got eyes for someone else. What?
It just happens, always. It’s the easiest card to play. It’s nervousness. I think people get afraid and lose faith in what it is that attracted themselves to tell that story.
Critics have written about how “Outlander” is actually really transgressive and form-breaking in terms of how it treats women and how it treats sex on TV. Like with sex, I just don’t understand — why is it shot the same way on so many other shows? Why is there always a curtain in the background?
Why is there a candle in the foreground? Why is the curtain [moving]? Where’s that wind coming from?
Why is there wind?
Why is there wind coming in here. Why is it cold?
Somebody close the door.
Why is she always on top of him like that? Why is she always arching her back?