From ‘Scandal' to 'The Good Wife,' adulterous relationships are television’s new great romances. But can these titillating fictional infidelities help stop our own?
I’ve spent many nights recently contemplating an extramarital affair. Enjoying an extramarital affair. The sun sets on my day, four children tucked safely in bed, while my husband of 11 years putters around the house somewhere, working, or playing his guitar. He’s not in the same room as me, not in the room with the lone TV, where I decamp by myself, tense with anticipation, to watch the latest installment of The Affair (season two premieres on Sunday, October 4 on Showtime).
Before that it was Scandal (season five premieres tonight, on ABC). Intermittently it is The Good Wife. It’s also Orange Is The New Black. I’ve been hooked on one or other of these shows for the past six years, each a paean in its way to infidelity, perhaps you could say to modernity itself: the 21st century notion that marriage, with its drastic expectation of life-long monogamy and multidimensional intimacy, is a more complicated, more nuanced state of being than had previously been allowed.
It’s not that affairs are condoned these days: 84 percent of Americans think that marital infidelity is unacceptable (compared, for example, to 47 percent of the French). It’s rather that, as consumers of media, we postmodern folk are suckers for passion, for romance, for the illicit, for the novel. And most of us who are committed to these television programs have the moral flexibility and emotional latitude to take into consideration the whole set of circumstances, to pitch our tents of judgement, as it were, squarely in the field of Grey Area. At least vicariously. So we binge watch The Affair and Scandal and we (well, I, at any rate) find ourselves rooting not for the spouse, never for the spouse, but for love in its most raw, most immediately gratifying form.
Which is not the form that comes of long-term relationships, not even the good ones. This is the most interesting feature of The Affair. The marriages were good marriages, by any standard. There was a lot of kindness in them. There was a lot of sex. Alison and Noah, the characters who cheated on their respective partners, weren’t lacking these things, they were just looking—and not even actively—for a new beginning: for different kindness, for different sex. Both marriages had been strained by circumstance. One by the usual suspects of time and procreation: 20-odd years and four kids. The other by a darker stroke of fate: the loss of an only child. But every marriage is strained by something, stretched more or less thin by the weight of whatever obstacles life throws in its path.
Marriages fail for all sorts of reasons. People cheat for all sorts of reasons. And the second doesn’t lead inexorably to the first. Reports suggest that 60 to 75 percent of couples who have experienced a betrayal stay together. Often they are tied by too many tethers to separate comfortably: money, property, history, offspring. Or, in the case of Mellie and Fitzgerald Grant (Scandal) and Alicia and Peter Florrick (The Good Wife), by the sticky stuff of politics. The shows in which these pairs feature present a perfect framework in which to normalize an affair, and to romanticize it. The marriages themselves are overtly damaged, but Fitz is the president and Peter is the governor. Divorce isn’t a viable option here, it doesn’t sit well with the voters. So the marriages persist for the sake of approval ratings, while their unhappy inhabitants look for fulfillment elsewhere.
Ironically, the American public within these shows is conservative in a way the American public watching the shows is not. Or, more likely, it is the difference between how our moral compasses spin in the face of fiction versus reality. As viewers, what we love most about a show like Scandal is the utter romance of it, the sock-in-the-gut feeling you get when Fitz and Olivia, his mistress, are within ten feet of each other (the pair have their own musical accompaniment, for heaven’s sake), despite the fact that their relationship is an infidelity. It’s the same feeling we have when we see Noah and Alison together or Piper and Alex in the early days of Orange Is The New Black. The pulse quickens. The stomach churns. It’s the stuff of Hollywood or youth or extreme circumstance, of something, in other words, that is not readily accessible to the middle-aged, liberal-minded married set on the other side of the TV screen.
We of this demographic don’t want cheating for lust. We want it for love. It’s more complicated that way, but, ultimately, more satisfying. Olivia is technically Fitz’s mistress, but she is also, by his own admission, the love of his life. So too this is how Noah describes Alison. And how Piper describes Alex, with whom she is reunited in prison of all places. There is the sense that Alicia and Will, also reunited after many years, fit this bill as well. Did these characters pick the wrong partners in the first place or did time and circumstance simply do their deleterious work? Either way, they are all stuck in the mud of old choices, and the marriage is cast as the impediment, not the bedrock, which means our allegiance, as the audience, falls naturally with the star-crossed lovers. The alternative would take us back to the humdrum of real life, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid.
Infidelity in the name of love creates a confused impulse on the part of the viewer. On the one hand, we see the goal as a legitimate relationship for the lovers, a future world where they can be together in the open air and go on themselves to experience the mundanities and privileges of marriage. The ongoing, impossible fantasy, for example, in Scandal is that Fitz and Olivia will shack up in Vermont, where she will make jam and he will be Mayor. It’s for Piper and Alex to have sex in a real bed, rather than on the floor behind the chapel facade. It’s for Alison and Noah to build a life together that will somehow heal her, if not both of them.
But, of course, once the lovers do this, after five years or ten, they too will become a boring married couple. Such is the nature of the beast. So we long for their stability in the abstract, but at the same time we thrive on that stability remaining, always, slightly out of reach. This is the dramatic benefit of an affair, as opposed to a hot new relationship between singles: the obstacles infidelity conjures—intrinsic and extrinsic alike—are legion. As viewers, we don’t want easy. We want tortured. We want lingering stares across the prison cafeteria. Across the Oval Office. We want the whiplash of on-again-off-again.
Season one of The Affair ended on a shocking note, with Alison and Noah in a proper relationship, a shared apartment; their child is sleeping down the hall. Is this fun anymore? The excitement of season two looks to hinge on whether the couple will now be rend apart by the aftermath of a murder. The machinations of television will inevitably erect more roadblocks to keep the romance alive, to stoke its fires.
So too Scandal season four closed with Fitz and Olivia throwing caution to the wind, folding into a long-awaited embrace on the balcony of The White House. Will these two finally be together? I’m guessing it won’t be quite that simple. To be convinced that Shonda Rhimes is a master of the long-term roller-coaster-ride relationship, one need only consider the way she kept things fresh as farm milk between Derek and Meredith across eleven seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. (And let’s not forget Derek too was married when he met Meredith, the love of his life.)
As somebody who has been in a committed relationship for 16 years, the vagaries of marriage are a common topic of conversation amongst my friends. How we have traded in, happily enough, the thrill of the new for the comforts of the old. We have children sleeping in our beds, after all, and occupying our minds; we have jobs and hobbies, distractions and anxieties. We are so damn tired. Where once they were the stars of the show, most of us have accepted that romance and passion are now bit part players.
The idea of an affair, then, becomes the height of entertainment for those of us who aren’t having one, for those of us whose moral codes render it possible to experience only from the safe distance of the living-room couch.
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