Criticism

Marriage Isn’t That Bad—Is It?


FX’s 'Married' shows the institution at its worst—and it's not the only one. Where are the Cosbys and Conners of our time?



If you’re married, or about to get married—even if you’re single and think you want to get married someday—the last thing you should be doing is watching a TV sitcom.

That seems like an odd thing to say, right? Now, during this golden age of TV, when we have everything and everyone we can ever want on TV—from a dramedy about women in prison to an anthology series featuring Sarah Paulson as conjoined twins—what we can’t seem to have, especially on a laugher, is an accurate portrait of a successful and happy marriage. In fact, if you ever want to make the case against marriage, tuck into a network TV sitcom—it will make a cynic out of you yet.

Most comedies on right now show marriage as some sort of burden, a mistake the individuals in a particular couple have made that kills all sense of fun and wonder in life. Throw in those little bundles of joy, otherwise known as children, and marriage can seem like a slog that makes the Bataan Death March look like a wonderful life experience by comparison. No one smiles, no one says anything nice, and everyone has that same faraway look that Jon Gosselin had during his time on Jon and Kate Plus 8 that says “How did I fuck up my life so badly?” Like Russ and Lina Bowman (Nat Faxon and Judy Greer), the 30-something couple on the FX comedy Married. The show, which ends its first season on September 18, portrays a couple who has had all the passion squeezed out of their marriage by three kids, financial troubles, and career failures. They appear to love each other, but almost all of their interactions have involved dirty looks, mopey looks, or dirty-mopey looks that make it seem they’d rather be anywhere else but with one another.

Creator Andrew Gurland has managed to shape-shift the show over its first season, creating more equanimity with the misery and bad behavior than there was when it started. The show has come a long way from its first episode, in which Russ, encouraged by his friends AJ (Brett Gelman) and Jess (Jenny Slate), looks for a fuck buddy when a tired Lina gives him weary permission to seek out sex from anyone but her. In that first episode, Russ is introduced as that network TV’s sitcom husband archetype: an oversexed manchild who wants to shirk his parenting and work responsibilities. Lina is presented as an emasculating, “uptight bitch” who barely puts up with Russ’s b.s. He calls to tell her he’s out running errands, for example, and she undercuts him with, “That’s impossible; I do all the errands.”

Yikes. After watching that episode, my wife and I looked at each other, thinking: Jeez, why can’t we see a show with a marriage where the people actually like each other? Yes, marriages are fraught: There are arguments over money, and tugs of war over roles and responsibilities, and other issues that cause tension. But there are also many moments of laughter, and joy, and comfort, and satisfaction that we’ve found the right person to spend our lives with. A sitcom like Married would appear rather wedded to the idea that once you say “I do,” animus ensues. The writers forgot that the couple was supposed to be in love at some point—or even “in like.”

When The Cosby Show went off the air in 1992, it seemed that the portrait of a happy marriage between two equal partners all but disappeared from our small screens. The number of TV couples who have shared those qualities, especially in enduring TV network sitcoms, could probably be counted on one hand: Monica and Chandler (Courteney Cox and Matthew Perry) on Friends fared rather well. And though they constantly argue, so too do Frankie and Mike Heck (Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn) on The Middle. Dan and Roseanne Conner (John Goodman and Roseanne Barr) on Roseanne also gave married couples the sense that two people facing life’s troubles is a heck of a lot better than one. But, these are the exceptions. Today, the TV formula depicts husbands as immature schlubs and the wives as exasperated, and so gorgeous, you wonder why someone who could have anyone would choose to marry the schmuck in the first place. Yes, I’m looking at you, King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond, for popularizing the trend. (Interestingly enough, Raymond also stars Patricia Heaton. Got to give her credit for playing a range of exasperated wives.)

Those stereotypes are something that Gurland has attempted to get past in later episodes of Married, as he explains that the Bowmans tried to live the dream of owning a surf shop that they ended up having to sell before they had their first kid. Lina has been shown to have her own immature impulses, including getting physically sick at the thought of meeting her old boss to see if she could go back to work, and distracting Russ’s old business partner with a wacky dance while he tries to steal the longboard they designed together. Meanwhile, Russ has gotten a print-store-management job while he tries to get his graphic-design business back on its feet.

So things have been equalized to the point where Russ has become more responsible and Lina less irritated. But a couple so young shouldn’t be so weary or dead behind the eyeseven if they have three little girls who are trying their last nerve. It feels like the more realistic couple in the show is Jess and her “ancient” husband Shep (Paul Reiser) who, despite their problems, still banter with each other, and have a spark between them: He busts Jess on her drunken antics. Jess chides him for not trying to get back into the game when he gets fired from the record label he works for. (Speaking of Reiser, though Mad About You seemed like it depicted a marriage of equals, didn’t Helen Hunt’s Jamie Buchman look perpetually pissed off through the entire series? How balanced was their relationship, really?)

Why can’t we see more couples like Jess and Shep? They know they’re not 100 percent normal, but they’re somehow making it work, sort of like the couple at the center of MarriedWednesday night schedule-mate, You’re The Worst. We don’t know if the central couple on that show, Jimmy and Gretchen (Chris Geere and Aya Cash), are headed toward marriage, but right now they’re finding out that they can be with each other, despite their flaws. That discovery doesn’t end when you put a ring on your finger; in fact, that might be the most interesting part of marriage. When a comedy shows that, you’ll bet your ass I’ll be watching.

 

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