'Sex Box' react: Reality TV's big bang therapy goes limp
By what standard do we judge WEtv’s Sex Box? On whether it’s titillating? Entertaining? Whether it gives useful advice? The premiere just barely managed a little of each, though it’s presumably the best show ever made where couples have coitus in a cube to solve their relationship woes while a panel of sexperts sit in judgment, like orgasm-counting Simon Cowells.
What occured in tonight’s debut, which featured three couples entering the box, is an American TV first. The Parents Television Council has eagerly branded the program “one of the most disgusting reality shows of our time.” Here’s my take on what happened, and then we’ll discuss What It All Means.
The Sex Box stage is as unromantic as possible. The set is all gleaming surfaces and stabbing dramatic lights, as if designed for a high-stakes competition like The X-Factor (The Sex Factor?), or perhaps Shark Tank (“I’ll make you an offer: 15 minutes of nightly foreplay in exchange for controlling 60 percent of our sex life”).
First into the sex tank are Elle and her husband Brandon, who looks like he just lost a bet. Their issue is that he doesn’t please her enough in bed. The experts are Beverly Hills therapist Dr. Fran Walfish, pastor Dr. Yvonne Capehart, and—seemingly leading the trio—Dr. Chris Donahue. They tell Elle to be more instructive. Behind them all, the metallic-looking sex box looms intimidatingly, like a giant intercourse bank vault. “Inside the box, there are no distractions and no excuses,” we’re told. Yes, there is nothing distracting about being on TV while a studio audience and panels of experts wait for you to get it on.
They advise Brandon to give Elle what she desires in bed. Then the pair is dramatically asked if they are ready to enter the box. The producers play this question for high suspense and typically cut to a commercial while the couple looks oddly indecisive, trying to tease the idea that they might refuse. Since they’re on a show called Sex Box, such an outcome seems unlikely.
Elle and Brandon enter the box. An actual clock timer is put on screen while the judges experts make awkward banter. After an editing-assisted time jump, there’s a loud booming noise. Lights flash. The clock is halted—ding! Elle and Brandon are apparently done, after 27 minutes and 29 seconds. I assume there must be a signal button inside the box that the couple can hit when they’re ready to come out. I imagine it’s a large, red cartoon buzzer.
The couple emerge freshly sex-baked, and have changed into Hefner-esque ultra-shiny silk Sex Box-branded pajamas. Hers are considerably shorter than his. They could have just put their regular clothes back on, but I assume producers want participants to look as convincingly post-sex as possible. The robes are successful in this regard, since it’s impossible to look at Brandon and Elle and not think, They just did it!
Elle and Brandon are asked to write down how they thought Brandon performed on a scale of 1-10, as if they are Olympic judges. Brandon looks a bit terrified at this request, and understandably so. He reveals his card, which shows that he initially wrote “8,” then thought better of it, scratched it out, and graded himself an 8.8 instead. Elle reveals her partner’s first instinct was more accurate by showing a 7.9. The panel declares that is … a good number! The couple look relieved, they’ve been validated by the experts. This is like watching So You Think You Can Screw.
Next are Rebecca and Dyson. They regularly have wild sex and threesomes, but now he wants to bring another woman into their relationship more permanently. He starts to quote Chris Rock’s routine about “old pu–y” vs. “new pu–y,” and the experts, for just once, look appropriately mortified.
Donaghue gives sex box instructions: “You guys have built a relationship on constantly pushing arousal through novelty. Always folding in something new to make it hotter and more interesting. We want to make sure that the two of you are able to create that with just the two of you, and nothing folded in.”
This advice shows a staggering lack of situational awareness. They’re having sex in a box on TV in front of an audience. How is this unprecedented, exhibitionistic context not “folding in something new to make [sex] hotter and more interesting”?
Rebecca and Dyson go inside, and we wait again. The viewer never sees inside the sex box. Not even a little peek. No sounds or silhouettes, either. One assumes there is merely a bed in there, and it’s not, say, like Christian Grey’s Red Room. As an honest reviewer, I will confess that this is disappointing. I wonder if this is the first reality show ever made where the climactic action (quite literally climactic!) is entirely obscured… and, perhaps, not actually occurring at all. These couples could be playing Magic: The Gathering in there and mocking Dr. Donaghue’s tattoos. Sex Box makes viewers feel like they’re trying to peep into somebody’s bedroom window with the curtains firmly shut.
At 26:41, Rebecca and Dyson pop out back out.
She informs viewers, “He actually spent some time in the southernly region.”
He says, “I’m ready for a nap.”
Annnnnd we’re ready for a shower.
Finally, there’s Alexia and Chris. He wants to continue their rather extreme lovemaking, while she wants to tame things down a bit now that they have their first kid. So far, we’ve had a man who doesn’t please his woman, a man who wants another woman, and a man who wants extreme sex. This show could be retitled It’s His Fault (though, to be fair, the burden to change behavior is mostly placed on Alexia in this segment).
Alexia brags that she once gave Chris oral sex while she was at a hospital, in labor, about to give birth. The audience gives this big applause. The therapists fret about the couple’s intimacy level. Alexia sincerely assures America, “He knows the slut I can be.”
Donaghue says to them, quite earnestly, “What’s frustrating for us is we can’t literally climb into your house and get in your bedroom and help you work through all this. If we could we would.” This is pretty creepy, and I’m not convinced the rest of the panel is entirely on board with his sentiment. Thankfully, Donaghue adds, the therapists have another option at their disposal to help Alexia and Chris. If you’re wondering if that option is a sex box, you would be right.
Donaghue’s instructions are to have compromise sex—not too crazy, but not too tame. They go inside and we wait. What is the screening process for getting on Sex Box, anyway? One pictures a Dr. Seuss-like producer asking couples, “Will you have sex in a box? Will you have sex if it locks?”
Alexia and Chris emerge at 31:49. The timer’s relevance to the show, or total lack thereof, is never discussed. There’s not, like, a cash prize for staying in the longest or anything. According to one recent study, the average male-female couple has sex for about 7 minutes. All three couples in the first episode come out around the half-hour point. One must assume there is no way a man would let his partner hit that exit button in under 20 minutes on national TV.
Alexia reveals what happened, using an odd phrase: “I let him go down on my boobs.” Donaghue actually gives her a thumbs up.
And that’s about it for the premiere.
As mockable as Sex Box is, I’m finding it tough to entirely fault a show that attempts to drag sex problems out of the bedroom, discussing them bluntly and offering constructive advice. The opaque, vault-like sex box could be a metaphor for the mental chamber where we tend to lock that part of our lives, away from actual candid analysis. Sex Box takes all the glossy construction of a reality competition and mashes it with sex—Who Wants to be Multi-Orgasmic?
The real problem isn’t that the result is cheesy, but that in each segment you sense this artificial pressure for the experts to declare couples somehow totally cured by a few nuggets of quasi-practical advice—and 30 minutes doing who knows what inside this magic sex-life cure-all box. It just screams inauthenticity, and nervous discomfort, and total therapeutic impossibility. It’s tough to imagine couples like Alexia and Chris will get much out of this experience; neither will we. I hope at least they get to keep the robes.