Near the start of Channel 4’s Adult Material, we find Jolene Dollar (Hayley Squires) in saucy office-wear, one leg in the air, being banged from behind while quietly running through her list of chores: “Wash the whites tonight, colours in the morning, hang them out before the school run, get the mince out of the freezer.”
If that makes it sound like a 21st-century Carry On film, it really isn’t. Jolene is a 33-year-old mother-of-three and porn star, trying to keep up with a changing industry that requires more content, bigger thrills and X-rated merchandise up the wazoo. There are laughs to be had, not least when Jolene films herself in the throes of orgasm while going through a car wash, a half-eaten sandwich held just out of shot. But there is also a seam of darkness in the experiences of a young woman, new to the business, who is pressured into anal sex on her first day, leaving her physically and mentally traumatised. Her subsequent breakdown prompts Jolene to risk her livelihood in order to challenge the top dogs who show scant regard for the welfare of their young performers.
In an otherwise grim year for our creative industries, we are currently being spoilt with a succession of TV shows made by and about women and analysing sex and its attendant complications from a female perspective. For decades, women in drama have been treated largely as ornamental decoration during sex scenes, pliant receptors of frenzied man-humping. But now, particularly in the aftermath of #MeToo, we are seeing shows taking apart sexual interactions, looking at the grey areas around consent, and getting to grips with flawed, contradictory or self-destructive behaviour on all sides.
As such, Adult Material feels like the final part in a revelatory triumvirate of stories that started with Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and continued with Lucy Prebble’s I Hate Suzie, each of them examining sex and power in bold and unexpected ways. In I May Destroy You, Coel presented us with a 12-part odyssey in which the pink-haired heroine, Arabella, processes a rape and considers her identity in terms of race, social status and gender. Coel’s writing offers a smart, nuanced and often disturbing portrait of trauma and what it is to be young, single and sexually active in 2020.
Last month’s I Hate Suzie, meanwhile, looked at the aftermath of an extra-marital sexual encounter as the titular character, a famous child singer-turned-actor played by Billie Piper, discovers that a film of her giving oral pleasure to a TV director has found its way online. The series is brutal, touching and funny as it looks at power, shame and the pressure for perfection, even when your world has suddenly blown up. Suzie experiences variations on the classic stages of grief as she watches her marriage and career slowly crumble in the aftermath of the scandal. Meanwhile, the man in the leaked film lies, dissembles and ultimately experiences few repercussions beyond losing the leading lady in his hit TV series.
And now we have Adult Material, created and written by Lucy Kirkwood, which swerves the tired old tropes about the porn industry, from the one about all of its workers being victims to pornography as a means of female empowerment and financial advancement. The reality, according to the series, is somewhere in the middle. Here, the porn actor’s working conditions are neither revolting nor impossibly glitzy. There is kindness and camaraderie, and there’s also pressure and compromise. As in any business, some people get screwed while others do the screwing.
Admittedly, not everything in the series comes together. Jolene’s appearance on a television discussion programme, hosted by Joan Bakewell, is overcooked and poorly judged. Rupert Everett has a lot of fun with his role as the porn impresario Carroll Quinn, though he is slimy enough without the silk dressing gown and Bond villain wig. Nonetheless, as a portrait of life in which women juggle financial concerns, children, dreary domestic demands and feckless or controlling men, Adult Material is deftly done.
What binds these series is their deployment of caustically funny comedy and unflinching drama to deal with issues that, in the past, have barely figured on our TV screens. They have, between them, given us scenes of stress diarrhoea, period sex and anal prolapse, as well as more meditative reflections on sexual experiences about which women have long been conditioned to stay quiet. All bring wit, intelligence, curiosity and compassion to difficult issues, and give us heroines who are raw, messy and infuriating – a far cry from the ghastly cliche that is the fictionalised “strong female”. It’s no coincidence that I May Destroy You, I Hate Suzie and Adult Material have arrived at a time when, behind the scenes, women have been able to take the creative reins as writers, producers and directors. As a result, we finally have stories about women’s lives that ring emphatically true.
Adult Material continues at 10pm on Monday on Channel 4
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