• 2006-05-21

    why realistically functional marrieds are missing from American mainstream TV shows?


    TV's Rare Bird
    Networks Don't Know What to Do With Functional Families, Except Ignore Them

    By Teresa Wiltz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, May 21, 2006; N01

    There's an increasingly endangered species on modern television: functional marrieds. That is, cool functional marrieds. Where are the connubially contented, the happily hitched, the well-wedded? No, not the too-blissed-out-to-be-true couplings of the Huxtables or the Cleavers -- or even the Camdens of "7th Heaven" -- but unions reflecting a new, non-psychotic reality: couples grappling with dirty kitchens, sibling slugfests and whose turn is it to do the after-school pickup thing. Couples dealing with daily power plays and tender snuggles, quotidian negotiations and the unvarnished intimacy of morning breath.

    Why should we care that functional marrieds are MIA? Because they make for compelling television. Never mind Tolstoy's assertion about the yawn factor inherent in happy families. The average American marriage, even a happy one, with all its byzantine bargainings and convoluted compromises, has enough drama to fuel many fabulous seasons of must-see TV. But this past week, as the networks announced their fall lineups, it's clear that we won't be seeing many functional marrieds anytime soon.

    Indeed, the only shows out there in which realistic couples tackle the drama of everyday life are dressed up in fancy plot apparel: NBC's "Medium," in its second season, with a wife who talks to dead people for a living; HBO's shining star "The Sopranos," with a husband who makes dead people for a living; and the more-is-more polygamy of HBO newcomer "Big Love." Marriage -- moody, messy -- is largely missing from TV.

    Marriage was never messy back in the days of June and Ward Cleaver, notwithstanding Jackie Gleason's bellowing about sending Alice to the moon. There were no internecine power struggles, next to no wives working outside the home, no dishes piled high in the sink, no squalling tykes. Life's complexities were wrapped up in a tidy 30 minutes -- and Pops always knew best, or at least Mom let him think that. Marriage, as perpetrated by the likes of the Jetsons and the Bradys, bore little resemblance to the real world.

    We're way too cynical for a return to those days, but where is the middle-class angst of "thirtysomething"? You didn't have to be coupled up or even staring down 40 to appreciate the trials of Hope and Michael and Nancy and Elliot.

    Historically, sitcoms have revolved around the nuclear family, and more recent sitcoms bear that out: "The Bernie Mac Show," "Everybody Hates Chris," "According to Jim," "The Hughleys" and even "Will & Grace," which, with its gay-straight pairing, is a Y2K rendering of "I Love Lucy."

    Not so with today's television dramas, which for the most part flat-out ignore marriage in favor of procedure-heavy story lines found on the "Law & Order" and "CSI" franchises or hospital-driven fare such as "House" and "Grey's Anatomy," populated by prickly workaholics who solve crimes or save lives but can't figure out how to save their own relationships. If they have them at all. Or we're being fed serialized crises a la "Prison Break" and "24." Of course Jack Bauer can't commit to Audrey -- he's got to keep President Logan from destroying the world.

    "I haven't seen any upturn in television programs featuring typical stable marriages," says sociologist David Popenoe of Rutgers University's National Marriage Project, which studies marriage and society. "It's a complete downer."

    None of the 25 top-rated prime-time shows depicts a happily married couple, with the exception perhaps of the high camp of "Desperate Housewives," although out of the five housewives, only two are married. (For now.) Take a look at the top five shows: "American Idol" (its Tuesday and Wednesday airings claim the No. 1 and 2 spots), "CSI," "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy" -- the last which has excruciatingly ambivalent pairings.

    But amid the murders and the exotic diseases, the elaborate prison breakouts and alien infestations, there are glimmers of real life. "You can learn a lot about American relationships and families by watching television, but you need the secret decoder ring," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. "We do see a reflection of real family life in television, but it's not a direct reflection. It's through a distorted mirror."

    A handful of shows are changing how commitment is depicted on the small screen: "Medium," with its family-on-the-fly approach; recent seasons of "The Sopranos," with Carmela coming into her own; Showtime's neurotic "Huff" and cannabis-fueled "Weeds"; and HBO's "Big Love." Even with "Rome," which debuted on HBO last season, the relationship between loyal soldier Lucius and Niobe, his not-quite-faithful wife, is painted as a partnership, with two equally yoked spouses hammering out the niggling details of ordinary life. Then there's "The L Word" on Showtime, a rare instance where long-term lesbian couplings are given the same attention as heterosexual marriages.

    Those programs are a departure from the "Dynasty"/"Dallas"/"Melrose Place" days and their uber-women -- Joan Collins's Alexis Carrington and Marcia Cross's Kimberly Shaw Mancini jockeying for control of vast fortunes. That was fantasy. Fun, to be sure. But think how much richer television watching would be if we had more shows that echo real life, with all its meddlesome details -- and without piling on the melodrama. If there's to be a revolution in the way marriage is characterized, it seems we should look to the ground-breaking world of cable to lead the way.

    Says "Big Love" co-creator Mark Olsen, who writes the show with his life partner of 15 years, Will Scheffer: "The first things that came out of our mouths [when we pitched the idea] to HBO was, 'We wanted a show about marriage and family . . . the shifting balances of power between spouses."

    Marriage on TV, he continues, "is really hard to do. The saccharine version of it, no one really buys anymore. Everyone's sick of easy, glib, dysfunctional families. No one believes that, either." But, still, polygamy as a vehicle to gain marital insight? Explains Olsen: "You need to look at the lens of something like polygamy to examine the hoary old truths of relationships."

    * * *

    Drama is life with the boring bits left out .

    -- Alfred Hitchcock

    In part, we can blame the absence of functional TV marriages on the fact that it's hard to make the mundane look interesting. Drama is about conflict and resolution ratcheted up for theatrical effect. Exploring marriage within a dramatic context requires a surgical eye for human behavior, and the talent to render the everyday as evocative of greater truths. "It's really hard to do compelling domestic drama," Syracuse University's Thompson notes. "If I want to see a husband and wife struggling, I'll turn off the TV and go into the living room."

    Echoes Olsen: "Audiences do want to be entertained. . . . There's something serious about marriage and family that no one wants to watch."

    Or at least they don't want to watch it up close and personal. Soaps and sitcoms are the traditional arenas where marriage is explored, says Ellen Seiter, a professor of critical studies in the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. Both genres explore marriage, but from a certain remove.

    "Soap operas are obliged to threaten [the marriage] constantly with separation," Seiter says, "and serial monogamy is the norm. Sitcoms just threaten the couple with external factors that cause the basic personality clash of the couple to be displayed for humorous effect, and with the knowledge that no real threat of separation exists."

    Without the high camp of a soap, it helps to have a gimmick: mobsters, polygamists, drug-dealing suburban moms . . . It's the Trojan horse approach: Hit 'em with a distraction, and then under the cover of night, sneak in what you really want to talk about.

    Case in point: "Medium," currently ranked at No. 37 in the prime-time Nielsens. Patricia Arquette plays Allison DuBois, a psychic who solves crimes, usually while she's asleep and receiving messages from the dearly and the nearly departed. But the murders almost seem like background noise in Allison's life, as she and her aerospace engineer husband navigate opposing worldviews and carpool schedules. Despite their differences, there is real tenderness between them.

    For the series's writer and creator, the marriage "was the only reason to do the show," says Glenn Gordon Caron, who also created the 1980s hit "Moonlighting" with Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis. If he had his way, he says, Arquette and her TV husband, played by Jake Weber, would perform 75 percent of their scenes in their underwear with their hair messed up. "That's how [couples] reveal intimacy. They let each other see themselves unadorned. . . . Marriage is joy and bliss," he says, and it's a mess.

    "The most interesting shows on television today are about marriage," Caron notes, citing shows including "Weeds" and "The Sopranos."

    The latter is arguably the best drama shining a spotlight on marriage's not-so-pretty underpinnings (the show has an average of nearly 9 million viewers on Sunday nights). He's seeing a shrink, and trying to figure out life after almost dying from a shot in the gut. She's thought about leaving her mobster hubby, but she's not so keen to give up her cushy lifestyle. And what about those crazy kids? Dra-ma.

    Observes Thompson, "If you take out the whackings and the business deals, 'The Sopranos' is about a struggling modern American family."

    Meanwhile, "Big Love," which averages 4 million viewers, takes the notion of a struggling American family and multiplies it by three. Here the gimmick is the shock value of polygamy. Bill Henrickson's got three wives, three houses, a lot of headaches and a prescription for Viagra. Sure, they're threatened by a weird, cultlike leader called the Prophet from Bill's past and at least one nosy neighbor, but aside from that, the Henrickson family with its suburban lifestyle seems so . . . normal. Still, we've got to wonder: Is the real marriage depicted here between Bill and his wives, or among the wives themselves? After all, they're the ones who must negotiate with each other on a daily basis, haggling over shopping, babysitting and scheduling sex with the lone husband ("When are you ovulating? Why don't we swap nights then?"). Between them, there is affection and frustration, trust and betrayal.

    * * *

    Edith! Stifle yourself!

    -- Archie Bunker, "All in the Family"

    So as we wrap up the May sweeps and the networks are trotting out their fall plans, what can we expect to see in the future? Fewer Functional Marrieds and more workaholics hellbent on saving the world a la Jack Bauer, including an NBC series centered on a kidnapping and an ABC drama about a relationship coach who can't get her own personal life straight. And "7th Heaven," the longest-running family drama on television -- which had its final season on WB -- will be resurrected for another season on the newly formed CW network. But this show has more in common with an "After School Special" than the complex world most of us inhabit. (One promising newcomer is CW's "Runaway," a family drama starring Donnie Wahlberg as a husband and father. But the show also employs that Trojan horse approach: He's wrongly accused of murder, so the family's on the run, living under assumed identities.)

    Says USC's Seiter, "TV genres always come in cycles, and we are in the midst of an action-fantasy cycle at this point." And nothing succeeds like success. Just watch one show featuring Functional Marrieds claim a top-five ranking, and the next season we'll be knee-deep in talk of mortgages and monogamy.

    But in the meantime, what does it say about us that we've got precious few depictions of healthy marriages on television? Clearly we're conflicted. Never mind the turgid Mommy Wars, never mind our blue-state/red-state blusterings about family values -- judging from what we're watching, we'd rather not examine our own lives too carefully. We'll take escapism over introspection any day, especially if it's served up in a crime plot that will be comfortingly solved before the hour is out.

    Why should we care that portrayals of functional marrieds are in danger of becoming extinct? Because they're the harder art -- they require more of the viewer (and the creator, for that matter) and ultimately yield a bigger payoff.

    Sure, there's validity in the pure escapism of television, particularly after a long hard day battling the real world. But at its best, while it's entertaining us, television shows us something about ourselves, instructs and enlightens. It reflects a heightened view of life for us to examine and process; a view that's at once comforting and cathartic. Marriage, or any other long-term committed romantic union, exposes us at our most vulnerable, bringing out the worst in us -- and the best. How reassuring to watch others grappling with those challenges, too.

    It's also refreshing, notes TV Guide senior critic Matt Roush. "That's what's nice about 'Medium.' They're doing family life on the fly. It's shown to be a mess." At the same time, you the viewer are at home "dealing with the fact that you

    haven't dealt with your bills this week, and the clothes are still in the dryer."

    Where would we be without the realistic Functional Marrieds of the past? We'd still be intimidated by the perfection of the Cleavers and the "Goodnight, John Boy" Waltons, according to Dale Atkins, psychologist and author of "From the Heart: Men and Women Write Their Thoughts About Their Private Lives." "People who didn't have that kind of marriage or family life, and few people did, felt they were in some way insufficient or failing," he says.

    "Thirtysomething" resonated with its audience in the 1980s, as did "Family" in the '70s. More often than not, it was the sitcoms that gave domestic life a realistic edge; they were pioneering in a way that today's sitcoms ("Joey," anyone?) rarely are: Rhoda separated from her TV hubby in the mid-'70s, a situation so unheard of on prime-time TV that it was milked into a special two-hour episode; "Maude" grappled with a surprise midlife pregnancy and abortion; "The Cosby Show" gave us an affluent, loving African American family and altered perspectives on race and class. So bring it on, TV people, greenlight more of this stuff. We're ready, eager even, for shows that reflect back the pains -- and pleasures -- of modern commitment.

    Marriage doesn't have to, as Aristophanes once declared, signal the end of the story, but rather a new and juicy beginning.