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'Adult Material' has drawn a lot of controversy for its vulgar content, but the show is meant to take an honest look at the porn industry.

‘Adult Material’: The show taking an honest look at the porn industry

Adult Material is a four-part British television drama series that gives an honest – and sometimes comedic – look at the life of a woman working in the porn industry. Shattering preconceptions about the porn industry, Adult Material focuses on the people, balancing the carnal with the commonplace.

Director Dawn Shadforth’s Adult Material starts with the unmistakable sounds of an orgasm. British porn performer Jolene Dollar (Hayley Squires) sits alone in her bright pink convertible going through a car wash, but, as we quickly realize, the noisy scene is entirely faked as she’s filming a quick video of herself for her legions of social media followers. 

It’s a comic moment – more When Harry Met Sally than sexy – but it also sets out some of the show’s key themes – voyeurism, fantasy, and the unglamorous, even mundane behind-the-scenes of the porn industry. Yet who is Jolene Dollar?

'Adult Material' has drawn a lot of controversy for its vulgar content, but the show is meant to take an honest look at the porn industry.

Just another day . . .

Hayley Burrows a.k.a. Jolene Dollar, is a thirty-three year old hardworking porn star, and devoted mother of three. She is successful, respected, and clear-sighted about exactly what she can get out of the industry – and what it can take. 

The opening car-wash scene sets the tone for the first half of episode one, which follows Jolene as she arrives at a porn shoot, joking & bantering with the director, Dave (Phil Daniels), and fellow industry actor Sabelle (Timmika Ramsay). Her on-camera sex scene is punctuated with polite chit-chat about her male costar’s home renovation and brisk questions to the crew about camera angles.

Jolene’s breezy demeanour only falters when she meets Amy (Siena Kelly), a nineteen-year-old injured dancer hoping to make some quick money in the porn industry before resuming her dance career. Amy seems delighted at first to be shooting her first scene, especially alongside the famous Jolene Dollar, but a last-minute change to the shooting script throws her fledgling career in porn into doubt. 

'Adult Material' has drawn a lot of controversy for its vulgar content, but the show is meant to take an honest look at the porn industry.

Buzzing betrayal

When a replacement girl is needed for an anal scene the director, Dave, offers Amy the gig. “Nobody’s going to hold it against you if you don’t,” he says, maybe even meaning it. It’s one of the many light touches illustrating that power relations are always in play. Jolene takes her outside and tells her what she really needs to know, get as much money as you can for your first time, and “once it’s on the menu – it’s not coming off.”

Jolene checks with Dave to find out who the scene is with, “Hairy Simon? Oh, he’s nice. Not too big. It’ll be like doing it with your boyfriend.” Amy, it turns out, doesn’t do it with her boyfriend and decides against the scene. 

“Don’t talk her into it,” Jolene warns Dave as she leaves for school pickup. “Course not.” He does, of course. With the aforementioned result, which is so common there’s a porn industry term for it after which the first episode is named – Rosebud. The rest of the series traces the domino effect of this first violation – whether you call it that of Jolene’s trust or Amy’s body.

'Adult Material' has drawn a lot of controversy for its vulgar content, but the show is meant to take an honest look at the porn industry.

Homebound hiccups

At home, Hayley/Jolene’s long-term partner Rich (Joe Dempsie) manages her social media, even helping her film a hilarious video for a remote client with a foot fetish. Their relationship seems at first ideal, but a twist during one scene suggests that Rich may be more interested in watching the porn industry idol ‘Jolene Dollar’ than he is in his real-life partner.

Meanwhile Hayley/Jolene’s teenage daughter Phoebe (Alex Jarrett) appears fine with her mother’s career choice, but as she starts a relationship, she turns to her mother with a question about consent – and Jolene’s answer not only exposes her own complex relationship with power, but also proves to be a spectacular case study in how-not-to-parent. 

'Adult Material' has drawn a lot of controversy for its vulgar content, but the show is meant to take an honest look at the porn industry.

Rich complexities

Adult Material lays down a confident track through a dramatic subject that is thick with well-worn metaphors and established points of view about the porn industry (from the idea that participants are victims or perpetrators to denial that there can be any such dynamic in this simple world of shame-free sex) and yet avoids them all. 

Jolene’s porn world is neither unbearably seedy nor unutterably glamorous. She is neither desperately vulnerable nor completely free in her choices. Jolene and her industry colleagues have camaraderie, and she’s not surrounded by creeps, but there are dangerous men on her radar.

'Adult Material' has drawn a lot of controversy for its vulgar content, but the show is meant to take an honest look at the porn industry.

Real world representation

Writer Lucy Kirkwood has created a fully realized world, one we all recognize, even if it’s a little more semen-spattered than we’re used to. It often feels like a workplace comedy – the bored rattling off of health & safety questions & answers after the shoot (“Did you feel like you were raped during this shoot?” “No”) – means your defenses are down when the moments come that confront the business they’re in. 

At one point, Hayley/Jolene refuses to go to a party for a U.S. porn kingpin, Tom Pain (Julian Ovenden), who caters to those with underage tastes. Dave tries to minimize his transgressions. “They look about eleven,” she replies. “They’re meant to be eleven. Some of them say, ‘I am eleven.’”

Adult Material won’t satisfy moralistic blood-and-thunderers, because it insists on the complexity of the porn industry and its makers. But, by the same token, if the blood-and-thunderers would like some comfort, it will engage instead of alienate its viewers, and maybe confront them with a little more truth than they would normally – sorry – swallow.

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