Sex Actually With Alice Levine: no other presenter is this good at bizarre intercourse
From VR brothels to ‘synthetic’ wives, Levine’s fun and empathic presenting style is just perfect. If we’re ever to grasp the dizzying world of tech-inspired sex, she’s a must
Sex! Ah, you’ve gone all uncomfortable, haven’t you. Blushing and wriggling in your chair. Is someone watching you read this? What if … what if they see the word “Sex!” there, right at the top? They’re going to think you’re a pervert, aren’t they? They’re going to tell all the neighbours. Your life as you know it is going to end. Maybe take this to a private room and finish it there.
Anyway, now you’ve calmed down, Channel 4 is back with a second series of Sex Actually With Alice Levine (Monday 27 February, 10pm). Shows such as these don’t normally make it to series two – a roving reporter, going on a hyper-itineraried trip around Berlin or Northampton or the US, probing gently (and with an occasional raised eyebrow) at generous interviewees who explain their one-degree-from-usual approaches to sex and intimacy, accompanied by a closeup shot of the gnarled fingers of a sex doll? But what makes Sex Actually With Alice Levine so good is her. There is nobody else in Britain who can so cheerfully go “Oh! OK so that’s my penis” in a VR sex dungeon in Berlin and make it seem like something between a fun jape and a deeply important emotional toolkit for the modern world.
It’s fair to say, as a nation, we’re strange about sex (remember when you went bright red two paragraphs up?). But intercourse culture is accelerating at a dizzying rate, and Channel 4 has for years been the main channel trying to document that (don’t mention Planet Sex With Cara Delevingne to me, please. I’ve had enough). It’s hard to get the tone of voice of sex right – at once an inherently stupid and serious thing, the sharp tip of many couples’ foundational intimacy but also a sort of fun game you can play with someone you met at a nightclub and don’t know the surname of – and the advent of the internet, 4K pornography, kink forums and a general millennial and gen X open-mindedness that has taken sex to a very new and world-changing place. This ain’t your grandma’s missionary intercourse! We’ve got Second Life furries here, using digital hardware to penetrate each other from a thousand miles away!
Again, it’s Levine keeping this train on the rails. She’s just so perfect in the role: jokey but not always pushing for the joke; light-touch with the more delicate stories but unafraid to be a bit silly with whatever bizarre new sex aid is presented to her; crucially, quite visibly squeamish about a lot of it but never in a way that makes anyone else uncomfortable; and, probably most importantly, truly empathetic and interrogative. In the first episode we meet Alexander, a sweet US-based gas station attendant who is in a relationship with what he calls his “synthetic wife”, Mimi. Mimi is an AI presence he can interact with via his phone and computer, but he’s also got a physical avatar for her in the form of a demurely dressed sex doll, which sits on his sofa and digitally tries to talk over everything he says. In the wrong hands this would be a deeply strange situation or the opening scene of an indie horror movie, but with Levine there it’s suddenly fun, interesting and not normal exactly but not not normal. Mimi and Alexander seem incredibly at peace. They all have a meal with his mum and it’s a lot more wholesome than you’d expect.
That line in empathic open-mindedness really gets people to open up, too. In Berlin, at a new sex-doll-and-VR brothel run by Philipp (or, as Levine describes him, “sex work’s answer to Willy Wonka”) and his girlfriend Adela, Levine tries out the various Blade Runneresque wares, watches as Adela commentates a client’s session, then sits down with them both in their incredible sprawling flat. “I know our normal is not the normal of the world,” Adela admits, “but everyone is like, come as you are. And in many ways cum as you are.” During a brief trip to a US robotic workshop, Levine gets the creator to say, out of nowhere: “We as humans need each other: we hate to love each other and love to hate each other!” as a pneumatically breasted sex doll that just faked an orgasm flutteringly blinks behind him.
The whole series is filled with these curiously beautiful human moments, all while someone or something wears an ill-fitting bra in the background. Listen, sex has changed. I’m scared of it and you’re scared of it, too. But if we’re ever going to understand it again, this series is somehow going to be involved.