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Sex Makes Shows Smarter

(Thanks, Game of Thrones.)

Sex. Don’t lie—that’s why you watch HBO. Well, maybe also for the fascinating characters, intricate plots, and punchy writing. But historically on premium cable, sex was sex and plot was plot and never the twain did meet. Now—if Game of Thrones is any indication—sex and story are becoming one and the same.

When the adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels first aired in spring 2011, it swelled with sex—par for the course in HBO’s True Blood era. But there was a difference this time: Characters spoke in these scenes. And not just pillow talk, either, but epic discussions of dynasties, subterfuge, and redemption. We learned about the Lannister siblings while a character was downing wine and being serviced by a topless prostitute. Dragon lore got discussed during one extremely NSFW bath. Then the coup de grâce: a major character delivering a five-minute monolog while two women get it on in the background. Even the competition couldn’t hide its admiration. “Nobody gets to talk for two pages about power!” says Julie Plec, executive producer of The Vampire Diaries, CW’s sex-lite answer to True Blood.

So forget sex. It’s “sexposition” now—a way for cable writers to keep your attention while educating you on plot, background, and character. We reviewed five current HBO shows to see how many series are employing it. Not many, it turns out. More than 65 percent of the sex scenes on Game of Thrones accompany plot points; compare that with 35 percent of True Blood‘s. The sex in Girls is less expository, more experimental. And Veep, in open defiance of pay-cable norms, abstains from getting down and dirty—unless you count underhanded political tricks. (It returns for season two on April 14.) So is sexposition the exception or evidence of HBO’s changing MO? Guess we’ll have to keep watching to find out—whether courtesans are grinding in the background or not.

—Jason Kehe