Run's Masturbation Scene Is the Most Refreshing Thing on TV This Year

There’s a moment in HBO’s new series, Run—well, two moments—where two separate characters, a man and a woman, each excuse themselves from their private train conversation to use the bathroom. In the bathroom, on back-to-back trips, and unknown to the other, they each masturbate. That’s the moment. And it’s amazing.

While the scene—written by Vicky Jones of Fleabag—might appear to imitate an old sex-comedy trope (masturbation jokes are perhaps as old as storytelling; the pantomime potential allows it to even precede human language development), Run does something a bit different.

It’s still for laughs. Still awkward in every way. But the joke isn’t about the act. It’s not about the function of human biology—the mess, the trajectory, etc—nor the age of the uncontrollable participant. It’s not about shaming a character when another character walks in and realizes there’s some pie tin involved. The scene is simply not meant for an audience to laugh at a character. It is not juvenile schadenfreude. It’s meant to be funny because, in a way that we all know and privately admit to ourselves on a daily, libidinally-confusing basis, the scene feels real; it feels like something we may or have, in some way, definitely done—though hopefully without anyone knowing.

The point: the scene treats masturbation not as punchline for character but for circumstance, for emotions related to a character at a given time. And so, far from demeaning that character, it actually serves to connect them with others.

The word here is “sincerity.”

Domhnall Gleeson and Merritt Wever as Billy and Ruby.

Unlike the sex comedies of the past—full of such classic unwoke early 2000s jokes like period blood on the dance floor—Run stands alongside a list of newer incarnations, such as Bridesmaids (maybe the pioneer) and Booksmart (maybe the most successful recent iteration); a genre evolved to be less judgmental, but just as awkward, just as raunchy, and somehow even more real.

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More than anything else, this new genre—and this scene—is an honest expression of the awkward, emotionally-confusing nature of desire. Both characters perform the act almost obligatorily and without satisfaction. It’s a need they recognize and concede to. They know they shouldn’t. And yet they have to.

Just as the juvenile irony of postmodern literature was broken by a different genre, called “New Sincerity”—without all the confusing narrational bullshit and I’m-smarter-than-you themes—so has the American sex comedy evolved from its earlier period-joking predecessors to something else. Call it “New Desire.” And hopefully it’s here to stay.

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