What’s With HBO’s Grossest Obsession?

HBO has always been known for pushing the envelope, and there’s one grotesque fascination that, though we wish they would, they just can’t seem to resist. No, I don’t mean greenlighting shows from David E. Kelley; we’re talking about incest.

Get the pearl-clutching out of the way now, because we’re about to go full tilt into the premium cable’s obsession with the forbidden fornication. That is, if your hand even moves toward your pearls anymore—incest might be considered one of the last taboos, but you wouldn’t know it by its prevalence as a subplot on television dramas.

Case in point: This week’s episode of Gossip Girl, which joins a long list of HBO series fascinated with family-on-family fucking with its plotline about a sister and brother going at it at a New York hotel. It’s certainly juicy. It’s definitely gross. And, let’s face it, it is a bizarre obsession. How is this still so prevalent?

If you were a fan of Game of Thrones—or, hell, even just a casual watcher—during the 62 years that it aired, you were certainly privy to a good bit of incest. It was teased repeatedly over the course of the show, ensuring fans of George R.R. Martin’s books that their favorite prohibited plotlines would, like winter, be coming. And it wasn’t just the Tarkaenians and Dunsdorfs (fine, those aren’t real Thrones characters, but they could be) doin’ it Incestuous relationships were plots on other HBO shows like Boardwalk Empire and Bored to Death—though weren’t passed off with such romantic flair.

This year, HBO hasn’t so much as dipped its proverbial toe back into the chilly waters of incest plotlines, but cannonballed back into it.

Emma D’Arcy and Matt Smith in House of Dragon.

Ollie Upton/HBO

It hasn’t been limited just to the expected players, like the Game of Thrones spinoff, House of the Dragon, which has saw the marriage of uncle Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) to his niece Rhaenyra (Emma D’arcy) in its first season.

Who can forget when we were strung along for two episodes of The White Lotus Season 2 thinking that we just witnessed a glimpse of a graphic sex scene between uncle (Tom Hollander) and nephew (Leo Woodall)? That, of course, turned out to be a ruse, but HBO will not stop until we’ve been incest-pilled once and for all.

That brings us to the network’s latest stop on the Oedipal Express, HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot. The second season’s fourth episode, which is now streaming, features a surprising, twisted sibling plot turn. In retrospect, maybe this isn’t such a surprise after all. It was only a matter of time before the continuation of a show once called “mind-blowingly inappropriate” by the Parents Television Council flirted with family fucking.

What’s most shocking is how casually the bomb was dropped in the last 10 minutes of the episode, with barely any fallout besides a broken-up relationship. In fact, the incest reveal isn’t even portrayed as the most shocking twist of the episode! Have we started to become desensitized to this, what should be the most controversial societal prohibition? If you take Gossip Girl’s word for it, the answer might just be yes.

Leo Woodhall in The White Lotus.

Fabio Lovino/HBO

In “One Flew Over the Cuck’s Nest,” (an admittedly genius episode title), the ultra-wooden Grace (Anna Van Patten) has been sneaking around on her equally boring boyfriend, Obie (Eli Brown). But despite Grace’s squeaky-clean, Daughters of the American Revolution-approved image, she’s caught by Julien (Jordan Alexander) in a tryst with Matias (Javier Reyes Sanchez), an outspoken activist rallying against her Republican mother’s political campaign.

In signature Gossip Girl fashion, a sting operation is organized at the most public event possible. This time, the big climax happens at the annual Kiss on the Lips party, where Julien and her loyal minion Luna (Zión Moreno) have invited Grace’s mother and brother to bear witness to their unveiling of Grace’s affairs. But, of course, Grace’s transgressions go a little further than secretly dating two boys at once.

While exposing Grace’s machinations, Julien and Luna nail her for staying at SoHo’s Crosby Hotel with whom they assume was Matias. But when Matias tells the group that Grace said she was with her mom, Charlotte, and Charlotte thought Grace was with Obie, things start to unravel. Charlotte begins to put things together, telling the group that Grace’s brother, Jake, stayed at the Crosby when he was in New York for a college interview—a stay she paid for. “Jake, you said this wouldn’t happen again,” Charlotte scolds her youngest child. Suddenly, the entire group becomes scandalized by what they’ve unintentionally uncovered.

When all three members of the Boring Byron dynasty storm off—and, we can assume, off the show for good—Luna echoes the audience’s train of thought: “Even I didn’t see that twincest coming.”

Call it a hunch, but with all the generations of family money and clung-to status floating around New York’s Upper East Side society, it’s not exactly shocking that incest could be a conceivable plotline in an episode of Gossip Girl. While the original series dallied with dangerous liaisons here and there, it never went full Freud until the show moved to a premium cable streamer. And it’s just the latest in a string of HBO’s incest plotlines. Along with The White Lotus and House of the Dragon, Gossip Girl joins Rick and Morty, another show that can be streamed on HBO Max that had an incest episode this year.

At this point, it would be even more shocking if an HBO show didn’t include a storyline about railing a relative. What might be scandalous in real life has become almost pastiche on premium cable television—which I recognize is a wild thing to say about something like incest, but it’s true. And Gossip Girl seems to know it, too. A character screwing her brother in a hotel room should shake the Upper East Side like a level-eight quake on the Richter scale, but instead, it barely rattled a chandelier before fizzling out into the next thing.

Who ever thought that we’d get to a point in television history when incest feels played out? A plotline that was once the most controversial route for writers to take has begun to feel like an uninspired play for some much-needed shock value. How wild is it that incest is in its flop era?

Even more unforgivable, this was a wasted opportunity to get Kristen Bell in the voiceover booth and have her say some outrageously snarky line about incest. I was shocked to not hear the disembodied voice of Gossip Girl say something about brother banging to cap off the episode. We, the people, deserve a worthy successor to the original series’ first season line, “The sun will come out tomorrow, even though your boyfriend did today.” At least Mike White was gracious enough to give us Jennifer Coolidge saying, “He was kind of…fuckin’ his uncle.” If we have to sit through the millionth incest plotline of the year, at least make it meme-worthy.

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