Adult Material

4 out of 5

Directed by: Dawn Shadforth

The inner workings of the adult film / streaming industry continue to fascinate. In part that’s likely tied in to the “sex sells” premise that will keep the business churning in some format for all time, but I think – especially as we become a more constantly-connected culture, and are slowly, slowly coming to terms with the realities behind many doors that were previously kept closed – there’s the desire to understand: our own, often conflicting desires that might have us taking a peek at naughty things; what drives the people making and producing such films; and what truths might we not want to face that prop up the shiny, o-face making surface?

Adult Material has a good “in” for exploring these concepts, and writer Lucy Kirkwood and director Dawn Shadforth have a solid sense of style and tone for keeping us engaged: elder pornstar Jolene Dollar (Hayley Squires) is, in the fiction of the show, a known force in the industry, and juggles dollar-making and fame-baiting hustles on social media while still participating in shoots and acting as marm to younger talent. …And to her own family of three kids, and a wife to a husband who seems to co-manage her profession. She’s got it down: she manages the divide between her job and her homelife; she’s got her set rules for what she’s willing to deal with on set. The show walks a line between fly-on-the-wall and cheek, and Squires gives Dollar a flexible but believable persona that works for both her lives. We’re given the insider stuff we want, with the casual treatment behind camera of the thrills that are filmed for viewer’s pleasures, and the teeter-totter of walking the line between fantasy and reality.

When one of Jolene’s new charges on set, Amy (Siena Kelly) is coerced into performing after a particularly troubling event, and then attacks another industry member (Tom Pain, played by Julian Ovenden) soon after, Jolene takes to various platforms – social media, TV – to use her perceived authority for Amy’s protection and benefit, and Adult Material takes shape as a fight for rights in a male-dominated and -guided business. This is interesting, for sure, and ripe with dramatic potential, but it might tick some boxes of being a simplification of matters, regardless of how well it’s presented.

Thankfully, our creators realized the same. Adult Material is about these things, but not solely, and maybe not even directly. Writer Lucy Kirkwood took the much more difficult route of trying to play out this scenario as it would more likely happen: with Dollar being ill-prepared to fight a legal battle against her employers, and with Amy preferring to get back to work. Jolene doesn’t turn in to a legal professional overnight – indeed, she also still wants to and needs to work – and it’s soon enough that the dam holding back the impact of this stuff upon her kids breaks, leading to some devastating moments in which Dollar’s lack of experience with more emotionally complex matters begins to directly impact her children.

It’s important to note that the show keeps a sense of humor bubbling beneath, preventing this whole thing from slipping into a mess of tragedies. Horrible realizations are had throughout, and Kirkwood (and Squires) again challenge us by not making it easy to like or dislike Squires, giving her spots of clarity but certainly not falling back on to easily-learned and spouted wisdoms, but there’s a macro sense of the utter strangeness of the whole adult industry – mixed up with acceptance of its inevitability to exist – that gives Adult Material an appreciated edge; that is, to use obnoxious parlance: it’s not trying to directly yuk and yums, nor is the show out to have us have a box of tissues (…for our tears) at our sides the entire while.

This does also lead to my only real criticism, though, which is somewhere around the second episode, when the show is trying to shift from being directly about Jolene responding to Amy’s incident to something larger: for a while, the juggle between focuses and tone feels cluttered, and it worrisomely seems like the show might be heading in a direction to not follow up on anything. Thankfully, it becomes incredibly clear right at the start of the third episode that this won’t be the case, with those final two episodes solidifying the writer’s and director’s (and actor’s) brilliances at finding the most affecting parts of this larger, conceptual story to explore, and to do so in a surprisingly even-handed and believable fashion, leaving us (hopefully) with new things to consider.