Why Is TV So Down on Marriage?
News flash, execs—it's not all downhill after "I do." We swear.
Believe it or not, there was once a show about a monogamous couple living in Manhattan, now TV’s acknowledged capital of singledom. The show was Mad About You, and at the time the effortlessly witty newlyweds Paul and Jamie were my favorite New York characters on TV. But they weren't the only ones making marriage look good: I grew up in the golden age of the committed sitcom couple. On Full House, Uncle Jesse and Becky had an amazing wedding—and afterward, he still jammed with the Rippers, and she still had her high-powered talk-show job. Marriage looked awesome.
But these days, as someone who’s been happily hitched for four years and counting, I have trouble finding my relationship counterparts on-screen. On FX there’s Married, which follows a SoCal couple with three kids, crippling money worries, enough broken dreams to fill a minivan, and, of course, no sex. The wife and husband on HBO’s Togetherness gaze at each other unhappily because of their passion-free life and unfulfilled goals. When it comes to love and marriage on Fox’s Empire, it’s all business. The couples on The Affair and The Americans are cordial to each other at best. And don’t get me started on the husband and wife on USA’s Satisfaction—she uses a male escort; he became one.
Should we return to the Leave It to Beaver households of yesteryear, all polite exchanges and perfect pot roasts? Of course not. I do relate to some aspects of marriage portrayed on TV—that Marry Me episode in which both parties secretly watch episodes of “their show”? Guilty. (My husband thinks we haven’t started season seven of Mad Men. He’s right: “We” haven’t.) Sure, we fight—but the thing is, it doesn’t happen every day. That’s my problem with TV’s tableau of constant bickering: It’s only part of the reality. Where are the inside jokes, the romantic trips, or the hilarity that comes with having a baby? (It exists, I promise.) “On TV, marriage is usually something people need to be rescued from,” says relationship expert Andrea Syrtash. “You rarely see passion, and there’s not a lot of room for relationships that are good but need a little work.”
We’re all familiar with how obsessed TV is with huge engagements and weddings, but when it comes to digging into that next step, it seems like the industry has cold feet. That really bums me out. Just because I have a ring on my finger doesn’t mean my story is over. But writers appear to have trouble imagining what could be exciting about a person once she or he has chosen a mate for life. That’s where the team behind the camera should be a little braver. We need more TV duos like Phil and Claire on Modern Family and Bev and Murray on The Goldbergs—I’m a sucker for their good-humored bonds. Syrtash’s pick for most heartening TV couple is one I never thought of but absolutely agree with: “They might be animated, but I think Peter and Lois on Family Guy have the best marriage on television,” she says. “He thinks she’s sexy, and she really cares about him. They actually seem happy.” That’s all I’m asking TV for: not perfect, just happy. No matter how much dirty laundry is piled up under the flat-screen.