StarsStarsStarsStarsStars

Erotic Stories, SBS review: sexy in the right ways

The new Australian anthology series presents sex that's fun, respectful, safe ... and hot.

To young and impressionable TV viewers in the 1990s, SBS’s late-night programming offered a confusingly cosmopolitan coming of age. No wonder people joked that SBS stood for ‘Sex Before Soccer’ or ‘Sticky Bed Sheets’.

An anthology of short films from those torrid times was Erotic Tales, directed by an international who’s-who including Ken Russell, Hal Hartley, Nicolas Roeg, Susan Seidelman and Melvin van Peebles. Paul Cox held the Australian end up with Touch Me, starring a young Claudia Karvan.

Now, SBS has delivered on its Timberlakean vow to ‘bring sexy back’. Premiering this week, Erotic Stories is a new Australian anthology of eight half-hour tales. Sharply written, sensitively directed by Leticia Cáceres (Bump) and Madeleine Gottlieb (Latecomers), and generously performed by a star-stud cast, Erotic Stories spotlights characters whose combination of age, gender, race, sexual orientation and disability tends to make their erotic experiences less visible onscreen.

‘OK, but is it hot?’ you might ask. At times – absolutely. I’m very sensitive to cringe, so I was worried I’d find Erotic Stories either too corny or too gruesome. But the directors show an admirable control of tone, understanding what each story needs.

Strikingly, all four episodes I previewed feature ‘good sex’ – the kind that’s basically fun, respectful and safe. Nobody’s pleasure is punished here, and everyone gets a happy ending.

Middle-age

Pop culture usually finds the sexuality of older people comedic. Philia, written by Christine Bartlett and directed by Leticia Cáceres, refers to both the ancient Greek love between friends and the suffix for atypical erotic attachments. The episode’s light-hearted storytelling will have viewers pondering which of their friendships would be close enough to road-test remote-controlled sex toys together.

Sam (Catherine McClements) is a journalist ‘knee-deep in middle-aged oblivion’, single-parenting a bratty teenager (Alana Mansour). Faced with the prospect of losing her job if she can’t generate more online traffic from a sponsored lifestyle content story, Sam chooses to review the ‘Gods of Sex’ system, then begs her best friend George (Bert LaBonté) to help her by operating the ‘Pusseidon’ robotic sheath that pairs with the ‘Hera’ robotic dildo.

George agrees, unenthusiastically, and screwball comedy ensues as they try to nut out, as it were, the paired devices. Sam and George’s banter reminded me of a middle-aged version of the enjoyable UK rom-com Still Up, in which two ‘just-friends’ communicate exclusively by phone.

But I was more intrigued by the grey area Philia sketches between varieties of intimacy. The fact Sam has forgotten to run her plan past George’s wife Leisha (Amber McMahon) also recalls the Black Mirror episode Striking Vipers. Philia doesn’t dig far into the moral question of whether Sam and George’s use of the toy constitutes infidelity; but it adds a different dimension to their friendship.

The Deluge, written by Sarah L Walker and directed by Madeleine Gottlieb, also follows two middle-aged besties: Cara (Kate Box) and Ginger (Danielle Cormack). The free-spirited Ginger is encouraging the more cautious Cara to hit the apps after a five-year sexual drought.

Cara’s first match is Lili (Emily Havea), a younger woman who doesn’t want a serious commitment. Their sexual chemistry leaves Cara invigorated; but she’s unsure if she’ll keep seeing Lili because she’s still emotionally dependent on Ginger. Kate Box’s wonderful acting made me cry at one scene.

This richly symbolic story finds its erotic charge in motifs of water, food, and the Japanese rope-knotting bondage art of shibari, which Ginger practises on Cara. Lili breaks Cara’s drought, while Ginger restrains her; but Cara still feels safe with Ginger, and out of her depth with Lili.

Bodies and the gaze

The ‘Gods of Sex’ toys from Philia would’ve come in handy for Kiarra (Rärriwuy Hick) and Drew (Googoorewon Knox), the Aboriginal protagonists of Powerful Owl, written by Sara Khan and directed by Cáceres. They’re as close as the nesting owls that Drew, a conservation educator, points out to Kiarra in an inner-Sydney park. But their bond is about to be challenged as Drew leaves for a year-long work placement on Country.

The pair promise they’ll try to stay intimate via a weekly ‘FaceTime fuck’; but Kiarra feels self-conscious about how her body looks on camera, and worries that Drew’s desire has cooled when he doesn’t answer her texts. Her stressful work as a lawyer is complicated by her white boss Sandra’s (Rachel Gordon) constant racist microaggressions, and Kiarra finds herself snapping at Drew and crushing instead on her sympathetic – and hot – colleague Trey (Callan Colley).

Hick’s magnetic performance fills Powerful Owl with a warm, generous sensuality. I especially loved how the park at night becomes a space for Kiarra’s desires; like the owls, she defends her territory.

For Kiarra, being the object of an erotic gaze feels vulnerable; for Sam and George in Philia, it’s surprising. But CJ (Joel Lago), the protagonist of Bound, takes hot selfies to reassert control, because in real life, ‘I can never tell whether a stare is a cruising stare or a “what’s the deal with your disability?” stare.’

‘Do they have to be mutually exclusive?’ replies Jet (Tim Draxl), an older man who cruised CJ on the train. And that’s the crux of Bound, written by Alistair Baldwin and directed by Gottlieb. CJ is both defensive and defiant about the ‘attention’ his medical leg braces attract. He’s determined to enjoy an active sex life, yet downplays his cerebral palsy during a hookup with Van (Mark Paguio).

Jet desires CJ because of his disability, not despite it. Yet, outside a queer fetish club, CJ commiserates with wheelchair user Blue (Crystal Nguyen) that being patronised and being fetishised can feel similarly uncomfortable, and equally unsexy. Bound observes that ‘pride’ is intersectional: a refusal to be shamed for your body, identity or desires.

I suppose what makes these Erotic Stories ‘erotic’ rather than ‘pornographic’ is that they’re about much more than just the thrill of getting off. They’re tales of intimacy: being seen and held for who we really are. The sex we witness also changes the characters’ own beliefs about themselves. And whether they’ve known their partners for years or are strangers who’ll never meet again, these encounters are always meaningful.

Erotic Stories premieres on SBS on 26 October. All episodes stream on SBS On Demand, and double episodes air 9:30pm Thursdays.

Mel Campbell is a freelance cultural critic and university lecturer who writes on film, TV, literature and media, with particular interests in history, costume, screen adaptations and futurism. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she has co-written two romantic comedy novels with Anthony Morris: The Hot Guy (2017) and Nailed It (2019).