Let's look at some of the buzziest shows on television in the past year or so, shall we? What do House of Cards, Girls, I Love Dick, Orphan Black, Transparent and The Magicians have in common?
Every one of them has featured unconventional romantic or sexual relationships involving more than two people.
Exhibit A: the arrangement between the fictional president of the United States and First Lady on one of Netflix's most popular shows, House of Cards. The most powerful couple on Earth enjoyed a joint affair with one of their Secret Service protectors. The two also regularly pursue separate romantic interests.
Exhibit B: I Love Dick's entire premise rests on a couple's shared crush on a famous artist (named, of course, Dick). And the lead character in Girls gets pregnant after a fleeting relationship with a man in an open relationship. (It's also worth mentioning the failed threeway turned bonding experience between two of the main characters.)
On the other hand, Orphan Black's three-ways tend to feature evil clones. A university professor on Transparent insists on non-monogamy with her much younger girlfriend. In The Magicians, polyamorous marriage is literally magical. And a new show called You Me Her concerns a suburban married couple bringing a girlfriend into their relationship.
As for reality TV, surprise! It's not to be outdone. TLC's polygamous hit Sister Wives was briefly joined on its home channel by a special called Brother Husbands, both about unconventional marriages. The channel further upped the stakes by introducing a throuple — three people in a relationship — on its bridal gown shopping show, Say Yes To The Dress.
I asked Nusrat Duranni, general manager of MTV Networks, if it was even possible to imagine so many unconventional relationships on TV even five years ago — when HBO's hit drama, Big Love, about a polygamous Utah family, went off the air. "I couldn't agree more," Duranni said. Based on conversations with MTV viewers, he added, there's probably not enough representation of unconventional and polyamorous relationships on TV.
Of course, pushing boundaries and titillating viewers is nothing new for television. Durrani remembers when networks in the 1990s used lesbian kisses on shows such as L.A. Law and Friends to goose ratings during sweeps week. "You can do that for a little bit, but I think it becomes old and tired and I think your audiences see through that," he said.
What's happening now, Duranni notes, is that many of these open relationships currently shown on television are an ongoing part of storylines, key to driving plots and understanding major characters. They're not just stunts.
"People have more and different kinds of relationships than just opposite-sex committed marriage," says Dan Savage, the nationally syndicated sex columnist and podcaster. "That's not all there is under the sun. In a way, it parallels debates about representations of gay people on television."
Representations of non-traditional relationships or poly people on TV often remind Savage of the medium's early depictions of gays and lesbians. "Usually they're trotted out to mean something sinister or it's a little bit of a freak show like on TLC," he says. "You know, we don't have the long-time married couple that occasionally has threeways that they find invigorating, that cements their connection, that brings them closer together, where their third is treated respectfully."
The dramatic appeal of multi-partner relationships seems self-evident. But Lucy Gillespie takes them as seriously as other subjects she's investigated, such as Occupy Wall Street and Lee Atwater. The 32-year-old created an online-only series called Unicornland. It's about a young woman who hooks up with a different couple in every episode.
"I think everybody feels like everyone else is having a better time in bed then they are," Gillespie said wryly, when I wondered if TV's sexual vocabulary might be influenced by the widespread availability of online porn. Her main character learns about the pitfalls of venturing into other people's messy relationships: "I didn't get out of a bad marriage to join yours," she tells an insufferable husband who isn't listening to his wife.
Perhaps what we're seeing reflects a society where so many old rules about gender and sexuality are in flux — and one where basic communication — let alone everything else — presents a challenge for frustrated, overworked couples. Opening a relationship can feel like a fantasy, a fix or both. Gillespie likens it to a hack, the way some people might take a Lyft to work instead of driving. "We're all sort of trying to hack our lives and make our lives more interesting and optimal," she says.
That said, Gillespie's about to enter a monogamous marriage herself. Maybe, she says simply, there's not a better mousetrap. But Dan Savage points out that the stories about the mice that play accomplish what television, film, and literature have always done: push the envelope, make you think, provide vicarious experiences, and give you a chance to contemplate your choices.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This is what pillow talk on television sounds like these days.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE DICK")
KATHRYN HAHN: (As Chris) Why do you think that we are - have been monogamous all these years when we don't even believe in it? Like, what is - no one's going anywhere. I mean, what is the big deal?
CORNISH: In the new Amazon series "I Love Dick," a couple shares a crush on a famous artist named Dick. It's one of many recent television shows in which open relationships are central to the plot and characters. So parents, be advised, that's what you'll be hearing about in this next story from NPR's Neda Ulaby.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: You can see open relationships on shows like "Transparent," "Girls," "Orphan Black," "The Magicians" and back this week, TV's most Machiavellian open relationship on "House Of Cards."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")
KEVIN SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Look, Claire. We've been a great team, but one person - one person - cannot give everything to another person.
ULABY: The fictional president of the United States on one of the most popular shows on Netflix egging on his wife to keep seeing someone on the side.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")
SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) If you want it, I know you'll be careful, and I'll be fine. I mean, if we're going to go beyond marriage, let's go beyond it.
ULABY: These are stories that would not have been seen on television 10 years ago.
NUSRAT DURRANI: I couldn't agree more.
ULABY: That's television executive Nusrat Durrani. He's general manager of MTV Networks. Look at reality TV, he says. Just over the past couple months, the channel TLC had two reality shows about polyamorous marriages. And it just featured its first throuple (ph) - three people together - on its show about shopping for bridal gowns, "Say Yes To The Dress."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SAY YES TO THE DRESS")
JENNIFER: Thank you so much.
DEBBIE: Nice to meet you. Who did you bring with you today?
JENNIFER: This is my fiance, Peter.
DEBBIE: Hi, Peter.
PETER: Hi. Nice to meet you.
JENNIFER: And this is actually Peter's wife, Ellen. We're a polygamous couple.
DEBBIE: OK. Yeah.
ELLEN: Hi. Nice to meet you.
DEBBIE: OK. So now I'm, like, a little bit confused.
ULABY: Pushing boundaries is nothing new for television, nor is straight up titillation. Durrani remembers when networks in the 1990s used lesbian kisses to goose ratings during sweeps week.
DURRANI: I think you can do that for a little bit, but I think it becomes old and tired. And I think your audiences see through that.
ULABY: Now, Durrani says, television is reflecting how some people authentically live their lives. Let's hear from Dan Savage, the nationally syndicated sex columnist and podcaster.
DAN SAVAGE: People have more and different kinds of relationships than just an opposite sex committed marriage, that that's not all there is under the sun. In a way, it parallels, you know, debates about representations of gay people on television.
ULABY: In how early depictions of gays and lesbians on TV resemble representations of poly or nontraditional couples now.
SAVAGE: Usually they're trotted out to mean something sinister, or it's a little bit of a freak show like on TLC. You know, we don't have the long-time married couple that occasionally has three-ways that they find invigorating, that cements their connection, that brings them closer together where their third is treated respectfully.
ULABY: It's obvious how relationships with multiple partners could be catnip to TV writers, but the creator of an online series called "Unicornland" wants to take them as seriously as other subjects she's dramatized.
LUCY GILLESPIE: I wrote a play about Occupy Wall Street. I wrote a play about Lee Atwater.
ULABY: Lucy Gillespie's new series is about a young woman who hooks up with a different couple in every episode.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNICORNLAND")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) You're a unicorn.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) A beautiful, fascinating woman...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Or man.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) ...Who deigns to bestow her presence on mortals.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Rare, magical creatures.
LAURA RAMADEI: (As Annie) I don't know. Can you seduce in J. Crew?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) It's a feeling...
ULABY: "Unicornland" is only on the web, and its 32-year-old creator ventures that mainstream TV's sexual vocabulary might be influenced by Internet culture, including, of course, online porn.
GILLESPIE: I think everybody feels sort of like everybody else is having a better time in bed than they are.
ULABY: And Gillespie's series is wry about the pitfalls of venturing into other people's messy relationships.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNICORNLAND")
RAMADEI: (As Annie) I didn't get out of a bad marriage to join yours.
ULABY: Maybe what we're seeing reflects a society where so many old rules about gender and sexuality are in flux, where communication, let alone everything else, presents a challenge for frustrated overworked couples. Gillespie says these relationships or encounters can feel like a fantasy, a fix or both.
GILLESPIE: I mean, I think everything is changing in America, right? We don't just drive to work now, we take a Lyft. We get in somebody else's car. And we don't just cook dinner, we have Blue Apron send us a box with our ingredients and tell us what we're going to cook. And we're all trying to sort of hack our lives and make our lives more interesting and optimal.
ULABY: Which might partly explain why we're seeing so many shows with people trying to hack conventional relationships. Gillespie's about to enter a good old-fashioned monogamous marriage herself. She says maybe there's not a better mousetrap.
Dan Savage says stories about the mice that play simply do what television, film and literature have always done - push the envelope, make you think, provide vicarious experiences and give you a chance to contemplate your choices. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.