TV's Rare Bird

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006

There's an increasingly endangered species on modern television: functional marrieds. That is, cool functional marrieds. Where are the connubially contented, the happily hitched, the well-wedded? No, not the too-blissed-out-to-be-true couplings of the Huxtables or the Cleavers -- or even the Camdens of "7th Heaven" -- but unions reflecting a new, non-psychotic reality: couples grappling with dirty kitchens, sibling slugfests and whose turn is it to do the after-school pickup thing. Couples dealing with daily power plays and tender snuggles, quotidian negotiations and the unvarnished intimacy of morning breath.

Why should we care that functional marrieds are MIA? Because they make for compelling television. Never mind Tolstoy's assertion about the yawn factor inherent in happy families. The average American marriage, even a happy one, with all its byzantine bargainings and convoluted compromises, has enough drama to fuel many fabulous seasons of must-see TV. But this past week, as the networks announced their fall lineups, it's clear that we won't be seeing many functional marrieds anytime soon.

Indeed, the only shows out there in which realistic couples tackle the drama of everyday life are dressed up in fancy plot apparel: NBC's "Medium," in its second season, with a wife who talks to dead people for a living; HBO's shining star "The Sopranos," with a husband who makes dead people for a living; and the more-is-more polygamy of HBO newcomer "Big Love." Marriage -- moody, messy -- is largely missing from TV.

Marriage was never messy back in the days of June and Ward Cleaver, notwithstanding Jackie Gleason's bellowing about sending Alice to the moon. There were no internecine power struggles, next to no wives working outside the home, no dishes piled high in the sink, no squalling tykes. Life's complexities were wrapped up in a tidy 30 minutes -- and Pops always knew best, or at least Mom let him think that. Marriage, as perpetrated by the likes of the Jetsons and the Bradys, bore little resemblance to the real world.

We're way too cynical for a return to those days, but where is the middle-class angst of "thirtysomething"? You didn't have to be coupled up or even staring down 40 to appreciate the trials of Hope and Michael and Nancy and Elliot.

Historically, sitcoms have revolved around the nuclear family, and more recent sitcoms bear that out: "The Bernie Mac Show," "Everybody Hates Chris," "According to Jim," "The Hughleys" and even "Will & Grace," which, with its gay-straight pairing, is a Y2K rendering of "I Love Lucy."

Not so with today's television dramas, which for the most part flat-out ignore marriage in favor of procedure-heavy story lines found on the "Law & Order" and "CSI" franchises or hospital-driven fare such as "House" and "Grey's Anatomy," populated by prickly workaholics who solve crimes or save lives but can't figure out how to save their own relationships. If they have them at all. Or we're being fed serialized crises a la "Prison Break" and "24." Of course Jack Bauer can't commit to Audrey -- he's got to keep President Logan from destroying the world.

"I haven't seen any upturn in television programs featuring typical stable marriages," says sociologist David Popenoe of Rutgers University's National Marriage Project, which studies marriage and society. "It's a complete downer."

None of the 25 top-rated prime-time shows depicts a happily married couple, with the exception perhaps of the high camp of "Desperate Housewives," although out of the five housewives, only two are married. (For now.) Take a look at the top five shows: "American Idol" (its Tuesday and Wednesday airings claim the No. 1 and 2 spots), "CSI," "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy" -- the last which has excruciatingly ambivalent pairings.

But amid the murders and the exotic diseases, the elaborate prison breakouts and alien infestations, there are glimmers of real life. "You can learn a lot about American relationships and families by watching television, but you need the secret decoder ring," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. "We do see a reflection of real family life in television, but it's not a direct reflection. It's through a distorted mirror."

A handful of shows are changing how commitment is depicted on the small screen: "Medium," with its family-on-the-fly approach; recent seasons of "The Sopranos," with Carmela coming into her own; Showtime's neurotic "Huff" and cannabis-fueled "Weeds"; and HBO's "Big Love." Even with "Rome," which debuted on HBO last season, the relationship between loyal soldier Lucius and Niobe, his not-quite-faithful wife, is painted as a partnership, with two equally yoked spouses hammering out the niggling details of ordinary life. Then there's "The L Word" on Showtime, a rare instance where long-term lesbian couplings are given the same attention as heterosexual marriages.

Those programs are a departure from the "Dynasty"/"Dallas"/"Melrose Place" days and their uber-women -- Joan Collins's Alexis Carrington and Marcia Cross's Kimberly Shaw Mancini jockeying for control of vast fortunes. That was fantasy. Fun, to be sure. But think how much richer television watching would be if we had more shows that echo real life, with all its meddlesome details -- and without piling on the melodrama. If there's to be a revolution in the way marriage is characterized, it seems we should look to the ground-breaking world of cable to lead the way.

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