Photo: Richard Ducree/USA Network, Prashant Gupta/FX
I hope the creators of FX’s Married and USA Network’s Satisfaction knew they’d be walking into a critical minefield with their new shows, each built around a husband and wife (played by Judy Greer and Nat Faxon on Married, and Matt Passmore and Stephanie Szostak on Satifaction) with offspring, a mortgage, and other responsibilities. Most reviewers don’t have the life experience to judge the veracity of a show about cops or doctors or spies, but whether firsthand or via their parents or friends, they understand enough about married life to give them a specific sense of what it means to be in a marriage — its daily ups and downs, its small and large compromises and sacrifices. As a result, the reaction to these sorts of shows is idiosyncratic and subjective because your gut is more capable of telling you whether the show rings true or not — whether it reflects a reality, or an emotional truth, that you recognize, or that means something to you.
All of which is a rather long wind-up top before telling you that I found both of these new series problematic and in some ways deeply irritating, even though they’re clearly the work of smart, ambitious people who want to get at something real and who aren’t just killing screentime. Your mileage may vary.
Married is about Russ and Lina Bowman, a couple who’ve been together long enough to sire a passel of girls. The sexual spark left their marriage a long time ago — Russ has even “crunched the numbers” to figure out how many times he and Lina will probably have sex again before one of them dies — and while his body hasn’t begun wandering yet, his mind is strolling down the railroad tracks with a bindle stick over its shoulder. The pilot starts with Russ trying and failing to engage Lina in bed, then masturbating himself to sleep — creator and executive producer Andrew Gurland definitely knows what cable channel he’s on — and before long, Lina has told Russ that if he’s so dissatisfied with the frequency of their intimate contact, he should find someone else to pick up the slack. It seems pretty clear in context that she doesn’t mean for Russ to take her literally; it’s more like a parent telling a child “If you don’t like it, why don’t you move out?” But Russ does take her literally, and soon he’s romancing the waxing-salon employee who’d just removed his ear hair, listening to her sad personal story and borrowing $400 from a friend to buy his new maybe-mistress a puppy to make her feel better. Complications, as they say, ensue.
Married is hip to the fact that sexual problems in a marriage are very rarely just about the frequency, duration, or type of sex — that the sexual problems are often the outward manifestation of deeper issues, such as when one participant in a marriage is doing about 99 percent of the work and the other one is mostly whining and moping and acting a fool, which is the case here. (He’s also sexually pushy, in a borderline-uncomfortable way, as you’ll see in episode two.) Its the too-familiar idiot-man-child-married-to-a-suffering-responsible-person dynamic that sinks the show for me. It’s not that I need characters to be nice or that I automatically hate any sitcom with that sort of energy — I loved Everybody Loves Raymond, for crying out loud, Debra, come on! It’s that I was disappointed to discover that Married, for all its frank sex and salty language and disinterest in being loved and indie-film handheld camerawork, is really not all that different from the three-camera network usual, and way too much in love with its leading male character’s supposed lovable-ness, considering how shallow he is.
Married does get better as it goes along, eventually hitting a distinctive stride in its fourth episode, and there are some good bits along the way, and some excellent supporting performers, including Brett Gelman as the hero’s dour, divorced best friend, and Jenny Slate as his married pal, who talks about her much-older husband (played in future episodes by Paul Reiser) as if he’s older than the tectonic plates. But it’s never a fresh and surprising as I wanted it to be.
USA’s Satisfaction is, as the title suggests, casting a much wider net. It’s about the politics of marriage, and about what happens when the fantasy of marriage gives way to reality, but it’s also about a more general sort of dissatisfaction “with the American dream.” I put that phrase in quotes because I’m tired of TV shows and movies that purport to be about that, especially when they’re set in a bland white suburbia that’s 20 to 30 years removed from the current reality of American suburbia (which is turning more working-class and multicultural as white people take over inner cities). This genre, which I’ve disparagingly referred to elsewhere as the Sick Soul of the Suburbs (a Pauline Kael joke for the eight people who care!), is as ritualized in its story beats as the ghost story or the Western. Cog in the machine acts out … the world is thrown out of balance … destruction leads to chaos, and eventually, maybe, to liberation or enlightenment. (In the entire history of employment, has a boss ever witnessed a star employee’s public tantrum and said, “I admire your passion”? Asking for a show.)
Created by Sean Jablonski (Suits) and co-executive-produced by Russ Krassanoff (Community), the series paints a portrait of white upper-middle-class suburban ennui that’s very much in the American Beauty/Little Children wheelhouse, while occasionally reaching further back, referencing John Cheever (particularly The Swimmer), John Updike’s Rabbit series, The Graduate, and John Irving’s The World According to Garp (there’s a low-speed car chase through the suburbs that seems to combine elements of Garp’s adultery subplot and the memorable interlude with O. Fecteau, the stop-sign-running plumber).
This is one of those situations where I don’t want to describe too much of the plot, not because I enjoyed or admired every twist (I found many of them either forced, silly, or needlessly pretentious — sometimes all three), but because they were genuinely surprising, and there aren’t too many TV shows you can say that about. Suffice it to say that the main couple’s vows to remain faithful are revealed as both conditional and fungible (if you pretend to be somebody else, is it really cheating?), and that by the end of the pilot, the show already seems to have written itself into a corner. For every tired element — a slow clap at a child’s talent show performance, an Asian mystic offering enlightenment (of sorts) to the Anglo hero, the way that Satisfaction sometimes seems to conflate movie-star-asshole behavior with the throwing off of shackles — there are lovely, even mysterious touches, such as the view of the hero perched on a diving board, as seen through the surface of a leaf-strewn pool. Emotionally, I’m not sure that a lot of Satisfaction makes sense at all, but a certain strain of dream logic holds it together. It has a vision, maybe.