TV Shows Catching Up To Real Relationships


The geniuses behind our television series have finally begun to live in the 21st century. If you actually do believe they are geniuses, go watch the now highly honored Brooklyn Nine Nine if you dare. When you consider the fact that creating any scripted TV show costs millions of dollars to enlist the expertise of hundreds of highly paid folk, we may judge the results. This, however, is not a jeremiad against quality but a grudging admission that they might finally have gotten sex right. Of course, cable seems to have gone far beyond the norm. A minor character on HBO’s True Detective last week actually made certain there was not a single square inch of her body not on display.

But regular TV is different. For a long time, it was clear that the TV geniuses really believed that there was no such thing as human sexuality. When Lucy gave birth on I Love Lucy, using her condition as part of the show, it was a first… a recognition that married people might actually have sex (shudder) and that babies could be a result. Even after that, Rob and Laura Petrie, stars of The Dick Van Dyke Show, slept in separate twin beds… just like “most young, attractive married couples.” Marlo Thomas’ character in That Girl remained virginal, although it might have been because her boyfriend was a wuss. It was an article of faith on all the doctor shows over the next 20 years that if one of the hunky male doctors (not many female ones at that time) got interested in a woman, she was either a) planning to go to the other end of the world, b) somehow entangled with someone else despite all the emotional stress, or, more typically, c) was going to die.

Then came Moonlighting and a paradigm shift. David and Maddie were two very attractive, unmarried characters, who had a real attraction. After many years of finding ways to prevent them from ever getting together, they finally did… and the writers could never figure out what to do with them afterward. Ross and Rachel on Friends spent 10 years not quite avoiding each other, but they finally get together at the finale of the show. After all, why change a formula?

Soap operas were (and are) the exception to all of this. People on these shows tend to flit from one lover to another. Meredith and Derek started Grey’s Anatomy in bed, finishing a one-night stand, and went on from there. Just about every performer has been with at least a handful of lovers at one point or another, but no one expects characters on these shows to be more faithful than a mink in heat.

But things do change, even if a generation behind the public. Booth and Brennan on Bones actually began their relationship with a heavy-duty embrace (shown in a later episode) but spent several years providing the inspiration for Cirque du Soleil by their acrobatics and contortions to avoid having sex. When it finally happened, it slipped by really fast. A friend was murdered in front of them, she spent the night on the couch at his apartment but was upset and came in to cry on his shoulder, eventually winding up next to him, and we found out the next day that they had finally gotten together — and she was pregnant the next episode. Yet the show went on, now different.

On Castle, the stars (Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic) went through some of the same things and waited four seasons to finally get together, but built on it. It hhas changed the show; no more sexual tension. Yet the show is still successful with the two leads bickering in a different way, a way that most couples will easily recognize.

Comedies have done better. I recently began to watch The Big Bang Theory, first in reruns and then the new shows, and watched as in the beginning it was a simple show about a group of nerdy boys who barely could function with women at all. Over time, most wound up with women, and the show was immensely strengthened as the actresses demonstrated how nerdy they could be. Watching Sheldon and Amy interact is a treat. He was created largely as a weird genius type who almost certainly would never date. Amy, with her own very weird agenda, is a complete match. Watching them, I am reminded of the old joke about how porcupines mate: very carefully.

We have moved to a new age, more understanding and accepting of our sexuality. It is nice to know that our entertainments have now grown up as well. We can have real people and they can have real lives, albeit less explicit than on the premium channels.