A couple of weeks ago, I had the immense privilege of attending an advance screening of some of the episodes in SBS's new anthology series Erotic Stories (I have since watched them all). It was particularly special for me, as much of the team who made these incredible eight worlds come to life were directly involved in either the production or creation of Latecomers (so much so that we've all jokingly adopted the show as part of the extended LCU or Latecomers Cinematic Universe). It's just as bold. Just as breathtaking. More sexy and just as diverse.
With all eight episodes directed by women; duties shared between Madeleine Gottlieb and Leticia Cáceres, this sensual love letter of a show is absolutely dripping with the female gaze. Everything is considered and beautiful, shot for style and emotion not necessarily to titillate or arouse in a gratuitous sense, as this project might have done in the hands of a man. There's so much tender intimacy in the simple close-up of a hand or the connecting of eyes between lovers that it's enough to take your breath away.
Now, don't get me wrong, this show is STEAMY in an all-caps definitely NSFW please-don't-watch-with-your-parents-kind-of-way but it's also so much more. Each episode is its own complete world, quickly and skilfully built by one of the best and most talented production teams in Australian television, helmed by producers at Lingo and Mad Ones Productions. By the end of each 30 minutes, you want to know what happens next. Do they stay together? Do they fall in love? Learn to accept their body? Get better at asking for what they need? Accept their own pleasure? Relish in its beauty? Let someone else in?
And the representation? My God. Not only does it offer you a full spectrum of sexual appetites, kinks and relationships with the concept of sex and intimacy itself but the diversity of people onscreen is just so vibrant. In fact, it's probably the best diversity I've seen on screen ever. That's why this is your friendly lil' nudge to go and do yourselves a favour and watch it right now.
So, it turns out it's impossible for me to pick a favourite from the eight, which if I'm honest, I wasn't expecting to be the case. There are too many shimmery moments in each one; I laughed, cried, squirmed uncomfortably and realised so much about the strange little creatures we are as human beings. However, one that was always going to pique my interest from the beginning, was Episode 3 -'Bound' for the deft way in which it wove disabled and queer representation into a story, electric to watch. For its stars, Crystal Nguyen and Joel Lago, both queer disabled icons, the opportunity to play in a world as detailed and wonderfully outrageous as this, is something they still can't quite believe actually happened.
As Crystal tells it, her decision to audition for 'Bound' in the role of Blue, as a renowned theatre performer and creator came after a hard six months to a year of near-constant 'no's'. She did the audition as a "you 'never know' kind of thing, and you never expect it." The script grabbed her attention straight away, the episode written by an extremely talented mutual friend of ours; disabled comedian Alistar Baldwin.
'Bound' pushes the envelope in many ways, as do all the episodes, exploring the sometimes lines between desire and festishation. Where do they cross over? These are just some of the questions I was asking, watching CJ, a young queer disabled man navigate the mixed signals of an older man with a fetish, who doesn't know how to ask for the tenderness he craves, the ghosts of decades past clouding his vision.
"When the script landed, it was very, nuanced and authentic but close to home in a positive way," Crystal says She remembers being surprised that the powers that be in TV land, executives and such, would see "stories like these, as deserving of being shown," something she very generously credits Latecomers with helping to establish. Joel Lago who plays CJ had similar thoughts, "Usually disabled characters are seen as like, an object of pity, or embittered by their fate. Or, you know, we resent the able-bodied, but CJ was just so much more complex in those representations."
Could it be that that complexity which is so often missing from 'tokenistic marginalised characters' is finally allowed to shine through when the story's crafted by someone with lived experience of what they're writing about? Could it be that the key to having disabled characters treated as full and complete humans is to have them gently and expertly shaped by disabled creators? Does this also expand to the First Nations, POC, queer, and other characters in this universe? All three of us think it does. There's a reason shows like this one, Latecomers and Heartbreak High have worked so well... the people creating the worlds are just as diverse as the characters inhabiting them.
Both Joel and Crystal report feeling "extremely seen and cared for on set" something that isn't always a given but that I can echo was also my experience under the fierce yet warm visions of both Mads Gottlieb as director and Liam Heyen as producer when we worked on Latecomers. Together, this dream team creates the kind of microcosmic world we all want to see taken onboard en masse by the industry.
As for what they want the audience and industry to get out of Bound? Well, Crystal wants "people to understand all the natural trials and tribulations of sex and desire, while the main character just happens to be disabled." She also hopes the "rest of the Australian industry and all the big streamers follow SBS's lead in not being afraid to tell these stories." As for Joel? He wants it to "get people talking, to open up all sorts of conversations." And if there's one thing you can be sure of with Erotic Stories? It's going to get tongues wagging...
All episodes of Erotic Stories are available to stream now on SBS on Demand.