Couch potato: On the perils of watching TV with your parents

The back of the heads of two parents and their kid on a couch watching a sex scene on their TV. An enormous red exclamation point floats above the kid's head.
Graphic by Anaga Srinivas

It’s a Saturday night, and me, my brother, dad and mom are perched on the couch watching TV. Finally, we’ve found something we can all watch together: “Succession,” a TV show about a filthy rich family with Machiavellian instincts. Though we may look like the picture of a happy home, danger lurks within our choice of entertainment. 

“How do I look?” a fictional news anchor asks in the show. “F.I.E. Mark” responds a woman in grey, “fuckable in an emergency.” My mom bursts into laughter. 

Sexual references in TV shows can be overly enlightening. Someone laughs just a little too loud and suddenly you have unwanted insight into their private lives. It can become apparent that parents are people with lives outside of their children, which can be a traumatic revelation in itself. 

At this point I’ve sat through more sex scenes with my parents than I care to remember. In “The Good Fight,” judges have sex with lawyers. In “The Good Place,” dead people have sex with dead people. 

In “Big Little Lies,” a sex scene is baked into the opening credits. The opening credits! While I have nothing against sex scenes as a concept, watching them with my parents has produced some of the most excruciating moments of my life. 

There’s nothing quite like the uncomfortable silence that descends. I become overly aware of my breathing and bodily movements — the only thing worse than watching a sex scene with your parents is pretending like you enjoy it. 

As a result, I often find myself holding my breath, completely unintentionally. I suspect my parents have a similar response. The scene might be funny, but no one laughs, or says a word. We’re all too caught up in our own private hells.

My experience is not uncommon. Some people though, presumably those raised in nudist collectivist communes, don’t have a problem with watching sex scenes with their parents. I know someone who watched all of “Game of Thrones” with her mother without so much as an “eh.” 

However, I believe most people share my neuroses. One friend says she started pre-screening everything she’d watch with her parents in advance, then make up an excuse to use the bathroom at the exact moment a sex scene begins. A fine idea, except they started pausing the show and waiting for her. 

Personally, I’ve tried cognitive behavioral exercises to no avail. “Imagine your thoughts filling up a balloon and then floating awaaay,” I tell myself, echoing the docile voice one would hear on some mindfulness tape. Closing my eyes works, but only for images. The latest “Succession” episode involved Kieran Culkin’s character having phone sex with a woman twice his age. 

“You’re a slime puppy,” she says. “A dirty…” No amount of temporary blindness could mute the rustling noise.

I’ve been watching TV shows with my parents for a long time, and each phase of my life has come with its own challenges. In fifth grade while watching “Glee,” the awkwardness was dimmed by the fact that I didn’t know exactly what was going on. I then went through a phase where two characters waking up in the same bed together was enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. 

In a way, watching HBO with my parents was freeing. I realized I could handle anything — not just implied sex, but actual nudity, Nicole Kidman nudity. I wouldn’t be happy, but it would be fine. One day I even suggested watching “Peep Show” to my mom, a British cult comedy about two 20-something male roommates. 

The first few episodes combined the obscene language of “Succession” with the frequent sex of “Big Little Lies.” In other words, it was worse than anything we’d watched so far. But I liked the show and felt excited to share it with my mom. I felt like I had become a new person, one more mature and less guarded, who could handle uncomfortable moments without letting them consume me. 

A few days later, my mom told me that she didn’t want to continue. I was honestly disappointed. But soon after, I felt relief. Some things, I realized, are best to be watched alone. 

Gabriella Del Greco SC ’21 is TSL’s TV columnist. She is majoring in economics and probably watches more TV than is medically recommended.

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