First off, apologies for making what might be an obscure 90’s reference to a cartoon I used to watch as a kid. If you are a bit lost with the title, a handy Google search will bring you into the know. Strange nominal information aside, I felt the need to discuss how hyperbolic or ‘over-dramatized’ alternative lifestyles have become in modern television. Admittedly, some of these examples below are pay-per-view entertainment, but if the case studies and subject matter escape you, please refer to the aforementioned ‘if you are lost’ statement above.
Housekeeping measures aside, many of the most watched programs on TV today are weaving in sub-plots to their weekly routines which add some zest to regular A to B to C narrative arcs we have grown accustomed to. These tidbits are fun to watch and doubtless keep the audience engaged in the program, but they do so at the risk of exposing the unethical side of those people who live alternative lifestyles.
The most obvious of these examples is the AMC Drama ‘Mad Men’. Don Draper, the stereotypical self-made man is anything but a stable, well-oiled money making capitalist machine. If you have followed the show for more than one season, you will observe that while he is fantastic in a board room presence, his life tends to fall apart once his tie off and hanging on the doorknob. In fact, for being a straight-laced, accurate portrayal of life in New York in the 1960’s, Don is anything but the commuting father with 2.5 children and a white picket fence. He is constantly going from bed to bed, filling the role of man’s man with as many women as possible and as a result, he falls victim to divorce, family strife, alimony, and drink to make sense of it all.
At no point in this show does he ever openly admit to his partners that there is someone else in the mix, and this only leads to more misery for Don and crew. I was encouraged, therefore, when in a recent episode, Don and his new wife, Megan, brought a third person into their bed for a salacious montage of seductive stares, slow kissing, heavy (pet)editing, and a fade to morning. Finally, a moment occurs when everyone could be out in the open about Don’s choice to live in a manner adverse to the stereotypical American Dream. But in typical ‘Mad Men’ fashion, everyone wakes up, takes a shower, and leaves before anyone is mentally awake and able to talk about last night.
Fans have theorized that Don’s second wife is aware of his secretive sleeping around and in a gesture of compassion and understanding, allows another woman to share their bed as a way of saying, “It is okay for you to have others, just as long as I am involved”. We as the audience can only guess at this, however, because each of the players scamper off before anyone can get a word in edge-wise. This leaves Megan smoking a post-coital cigarette in the kitchen alone, which she forcefully extinguishes and then throws the ashtray in the wall’s general direction.
How satisfying it would have been for this watershed moment in pay cable to finish with a simple, “I am glad you had fun last night, let’s talk about it,” moment. So many of the conflicts which arise come from this duplicitous relationship which Don has with the women in his life, even including his own daughter in later seasons. How magnificent it is then that all his problems could be resolved with an open and honest disclosure of the facts.
Wouldn’t it be a fantastic conclusion to this show for Don to acknowledge that the monogamous life style doesn’t fit with his life experiences? Tackling this topic in the open air would put just one more feather in the cap of the creators of this wonderful program and give millions of viewers something to chew on after the show has finished.
“What if there is another way to do adult relationships? Don Draper did it, and he is one of the most human people I know (on television)!”
Secondly, we come to the pivotal and regularly experimental Netflix original political drama, ‘House of Cards’. Frank and Claire Underwood, the leading couple and main protagonists of the show, are anything but the average Mr. and Mrs. Washington D.C. operators, and in no way is this clearer than in their open non-monogamous relationship. A major plot point in the first season; Frank and Claire seek intimacy outside their marriage, and still come home to a loving spouse. Frank has his outside interests and Claire has hers, but at no point does laundry get thrown on the lawn or does anyone so much as mention to the other that they are being unfaithful. The truth is that both characters talk through every detail of their extra-marital affairs and disclose that information with their other partners right on screen.
But as quintessentially poly as these two are, there are still pitfalls which can make audiences wonder just how sustainable this way of life can be. In Frank’s case, his secondary partner is a journalist for a local Washington newspaper who sleeps with the congressman to get inside information on movers and shakers in the White House and the Halls of Congress. No wonder that later in the series, the reporter, Zoey, develops trust issues when she begins to see other people, and in one case, another character openly admits the toxicity of her relationship with the Underwood’s.
Claire, in similar destructive fashion, has a deeper relationship with a spindly New York photographer by the name of Adam Galaway. Swooping in an out of this man’s life one week at a time for over a decade, her routine is to leave Frank for a time, fall in and out of love with the starving artist, and run back to Washington with renewed vigor. In the second season, this dynamic precipitates an inevitable falling out which almost ends up ruining both their Frank and Claire’s political careers as Adam forges a nude photograph of Claire and leaks it to the press.
Then we come to the most recent example of their open marriage, where (SPOILERS) a secret service member and the Underwood’s get a three sheets to the wind and begin slow panning sequence to the bedroom. It is again, an overdramatized portrayal of what it is like to be in a threesome, and God only knows how this will affect their relationship with their human shield.
Will they have a falling out and as a result, the agent who is supposed to protect his detail will intentionally step out of the way of a bullet to wound one or both of them? We will have to wait for next season to find out. But if the writing up until this point suggests anything, it is that the Underwood’s only get involved with people they can manipulate, leverage, and ultimately dispose of.
Now the argument could certainly be made that any exposure is good exposure for open relationships and non-monogamy. People can point back to ‘Will and Grace’ and say that the over the top portrayal of Gay culture in this show, while inaccurate and slap-sticky, gave audiences a way to normalize this alternative lifestyle. I would not seek to discredit that theory, but rather add a footnote to this idea.
My conclusion is that people emulate what they see on television. It has tremendous power to shape opinions and encourage thought, but it is a double-edged sword which should be wielded with tremendous care. For every ‘Will and Grace’, there needs to be a ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’; a hetero-normative display of a counter culture that shows a reality where people might be different, but still okay (and in most cases, completely or mostly indistinguishable from real life). We need the Frank Underwood’s and Don Draper’s on our televisions, tablets, and phones, but we also need wholesome, ethical portrayals of polyamory as well.