Underneath all the sex, arch voiceover, sexual fantasies, questionable journaling practices, full-frontal male nudity, and memories of sex in Netflix’s Sex/Life is a fairly straightforward story of a dissatisfied woman wondering if it’s too late to take the road not taken. Sarah Shahi stars as Billie, a stay-at-home mother of two and one-time PhD candidate who’s either been living the dream in Connecticut, or in a figurative coma for eight years. One day, Billie starts a diary—in a Word doc, on her laptop, which she leaves lying around waiting to be discovered by anyone, including her husband Cooper (Mike Vogel)—to give voice to her doubts and desires, most of which center on Brad (Adam Demos), her Aussie ex. The longer Billie revisits the past, the more she questions her present and quotes Betty Friedan.
A lack of personal fulfillment and a fraying marriage have driven plenty of engrossing films, from An Unmarried Woman, to Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dance, to Unfaithful and Take This Waltz. But in this adaptation of B.B. Easton’s saucy novel, 44 Chapters About 4 Men, Stacy Rukeyser opts to pad the runtime, stretching what’s at best a 90-minute movie’s worth of story into an eight-episode season that sparks only a discussion about the challenges faced by actors and intimacy coordinators working on steamy streaming series (which are exempt from most content standards) in the COVID era. Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give has more to say about upending an ordered life for a seemingly ill-advised (but ultimately rewarding) thrill, and it’s 128 minutes long.
Like its protagonist (at least, in her younger days), Sex/Life lays it all bare from its opening moments. Sarah has been ensconced in suburban Connecticut for much of her relationship with Coop, having traded mini-dresses and a pink moto-jacket for Ann Taylor cardigans and nursing bras. Recently, she’s been daydreaming about all the great sex she had with Brad, the bad boy record producer (the owner of—snort—BFD Records) she dated in her… late 20s, we think? It’s hard to pinpoint any of the characters’ ages, because the only markers of time are the dates in Billie’s journal entries (which run roughly from March to October of the same year) and Billie’s observation that it’s been eight years since she last saw Brad. Not to mention, Shahi doesn’t age, so the flashbacks to her hedonistic past are almost indistinguishable from her snack-mom present, save for the different men she straddles and outfits she wears.
Billie tries to get a hold of her intrusive memories by putting them in one place: her journal, which becomes an open book. When the otherwise oblivious Cooper stumbles upon his wife’s archive of sexual encounters, he’s initially inspired to rekindle the spark in their marriage. At first, Billie thinks this is what she wants, and conspires with her best friend Sasha (Margaret Odette) to turn the diary into a how-to-fuck-your-wife-properly guide for Coop. But it might not be enough for Billie, who continues to pine for Brad even after she finds out he’s been hooking up Sasha. Nor does this seem to be a viable path for Cooper, who questions just how well he knows his wife.
The sublimation of desire and identity that often happens in long-term relationships and the realization that choosing a path doesn’t equal long-term satisfaction are topics worth exploring, but Sex/Life never goes beyond posing queries. Billie literally spells out the show’s themes as she types away in her MacBook, a 2020s Carrie Bradshaw musing on the nature of sex and relationships, eventually landing on the kind of tautology the Sex And The City columnist was famous for: “Have I settled down, or have I just settled?” (It’s a wonder Carrie didn’t jot that down during her Aidan phase.)
That question remains relevant 21 years after the HBO rom-com premiered is significant, but Sex/Life has no new insights. The entirety of the narrative arc is contained in the first two and a half episodes, as Billie realizes that her sudden preoccupation with Brad means she’s not as happy as she thought. For the next five and a half episodes, Billie runs through the same cycle of Brad-sex memories, ogling Coop, remembering Brad was a shitty boyfriend (who kicked her out his apartment after a miscarriage!), thinking her husband can change, reminiscing with Sasha, then starting all over again.
Flashbacks to Billie’s more experimental phase aside, Sex/Life shows a dismaying lack of curiosity. (By its end, the show even seems prudish about certain types of sex.) There’s very little to Cooper besides his good-guy status and a demanding career in some nebulous, but similarly well-intentioned field. Sasha is similarly underdeveloped; she spends much of the season being a shoulder for her friend to cry on and a babysitter willing to travel from Soho to Connecticut at a moment’s notice. Oddly, it’s Brad who gets a significant amount of backstory, even though his whole personality boils down to “Not Cooper.” (Okay, fine, also: “a good lay.”) Demos is meant to play an undeniably charismatic figure, the kind of guy who could haunt someone’s dreams nearly a decade later, but he loses all intrigue when he speaks. Odette fares better, which only makes Sasha’s lack of a distinct story that much more disappointing. Vogel, who’s played his share of fuckboys, is surprisingly sympathetic as a man who’s starting to think he’s also cheated himself out of a more fulfilling life.
Shahi’s performance is one of the few things to recommend the show. As the scripts send Billie through an emotional maelstrom, she radiates lust, confusion, motherly affection, and determination. She’s game and vulnerable, even as the show’s repetitiveness strains patience. But Sex/Life isn’t all that invested in her character, either. We’re told, mostly via Shahi’s purring voiceover, that Billie is rediscovering herself, rather than shown that journey. Everything about her life is hazy except for the details of the sex she had with Brad. It’s clear Billie feels exiled in Connecticut, yet the show never considers how her bicultural background would affect her ability to move in that majority-white state, and whether that’s contributed to her unhappiness. Billie’s career—the one she’s eager to get back to, even if she hasn’t told Coop—is just as haphazardly written. She’s a millennial with considerable post-grad schooling, yet her decisions are informed by second-wave feminism. (Easton’s book came out in 2016, so it’s not as if there’s a huge swath of time between the publication of the source material and its adaptation.)
Discontent was a powerful impetus in HBO Max’s Made For Love, which also mines the cracks in the façade of a “perfect marriage,” and is also an adaptation of a popular novel. But in Rukeyser’s adaptation, it remains an opening statement for a debate that never truly unfolds. Rather than interrogate why Billie’s sublimated her needs for the sake of a relationship, the series seems concerned only with titillating viewers—and, despite Shahi and Demos’ athleticism and enthusiasm, even that gets old. The cliffhanger ending that’s an obvious bid for a second season only highlights how little life there is in this would-be incisive romantic comedy.