From Letterman to Tiger Woods, marriage has had a rotten year, publicity-wise. But while the tabloids reveled in Punch and Judy antics, television took an unusually reflective bent. In sitcoms alone, there’s ABC’s Modern Family, a mockumentary about three married couples, and The Middle, a low-key heir to Roseanne. It’s been years since we’ve had a decent family sitcom—a genuinely funny show that avoids the twin traps of the cornball and the caustic. Neither of these is a perfect show (Modern Family has sentimental kickers, The Middle has flashes of shtick), but each of them manages to be at once pointed and affectionate, like domestic analogs to The Office. It’s a neat trick.
But the real surprise on network TV is a drama, and one that looked at first like just another cookie-cutter procedural: The Good Wife, starring Julianna Margulies as the humiliated spouse of a jailed politician. Margulies’s Alicia Florrick is Silda Spitzer, she’s Elizabeth Edwards (and Elin Woods, and Jenny Sanford, and Dina Matos McGreevey), the mortified stick figure at every press conference. Alicia is forced to return to work, and when she’s in public, the show resonates with the greasy curiosity of the bystanders: What is she thinking? What’s her deal? (In all senses.) Margulies is subtler than she was on ER, using her wide face as a mask, black eyes simmering with hurt and amusement. When her husband’s prostitute confronts her, those eyes ice over thrillingly, like the window of a limousine, receding into the haughtiness of the famous and enraged.
There’s plenty that’s conventional about The Good Wife, too, in satisfying Law & Order–ish ways, from the case-of-the-week structure to the charismatic ensemble—Christine Baranski’s tart boss, Archie Panjabi’s cynical investigator, and Matt Czuchry’s callow associate. The legal mini-plots hook cleverly into a conspiracy arc concerning Margulies’s husband (Chris Noth, purring like a giant panther). But the most interesting bits hint at a deeper mystery, Alicia’s own marriage. Noth’s Spitzeresque figure seems to have done something wrong and been framed—and the show is most original when it hints at Alicia’s well of subterranean self-doubt: Just what is her deal? Meanwhile, her children research the scandal online, like tortured detectives. The series is a triumph of genre craftsmanship, something original disguised as something familiar.
Big Love has the opposite issue, nestled as it is within the gated community of HBO, where high expectations rule. A kooky melodrama about polygamy, the series, in its fourth season, is still very watchable, with a terrific cast (especially Bill Paxton as the sexy-bland patriarch and Chloë Sevigny and Matt Ross as scheming siblings). Yet the series also drives me crazy, because its central conceit so often seems like a cheat. Season after season, Paxton’s Bill steers between mainstream Mormon and Juniper Creek crazy, and we’re meant to sympathize with this odd quest, his dream of fulfilling The Principle with multiple spouses.
The writers are clearly aware of the contradictions in Bill’s thinking (he’s at once a sexist pig and a loving idealist). And yet no matter how many scandals erupt, how many times first wife Barb realizes she’s sold her soul, the series hits a reset button—and the family realizes it’s stronger than ever. I relish the rare moments of lingering ambiguity, like the sequence last season when the same event—a tense negotiation with a potential business partner—was a triumph for one wife and an indelible humiliation for another. But in this season’s opening episodes, when Bill decides to run for office, the conflict feels like déjà vu. As ever, there are great details (in Utah, Bill’s hard to elect because he has too few children, since only three are “public”). But on cable, I expect more than another season of crisis, then closure. I want some repercussions, something that lets me know I’m watching something greater than a beautifully produced narrative loop.
In the quieter realm of basic cable, TNT is having a mini-renaissance with its original series Men of a Certain Age. Okay, not that original: HBO tried this a decade ago with the much-reviled The Mind of the Married Man, whose smart premise—one cheater, one mensch, one tempted guy—was scuttled by smarmy casting. Men of a Certain Age repairs that problem entirely with the charming trio of Andre Braugher as a happily married car salesman, Ray Romano as an insecure almost-divorcé, and Scott Bakula as a womanizing actor. The three jabber about sex, marriage, money, and their failing bodies, like Sex and the City crossed with Diner, but way funnier than that sounds.
In one bravura sequence, a debate over a flat-screen TV stumbles into a confrontation about Romano’s gambling problem, then a confession about his marriage, some taking-the-piss bonding over a hot woman—and finally a slapstick attack on an inflatable Incredible Hulk. The rhythms stall and rev, like in real friendships. And Romano’s nasal nerd act works well for this flawed nice guy, busy excavating his dead marriage for clues to who he is now. TNT has built a niche with fun fantasies like Leverage, but Men of a Certain Age is the first series to brand the channel as something more ambitious. It’s not quite TNT’s answer to Mad Men, but it’s a start.
As long as we’re discussing failed marriages, let’s not leave out the mistress, merrily whoring away on Showtime’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl. I will always pick this guilty pleasure over the increasingly repellent Californication, whose Henry Miller vibe has curdled into late Entourage. Like Californication, Call Girl is highbrow porn, studded with scenes that would make Samantha blush (or maybe feel competitive). What saves it is that it’s often hilarious, and, like The Good Wife (The Bad Hooker?), elevated by a star performance, in this case the wonderful Billie Piper (as Belle), with her smashed-doll features and eternal gameness. The show has always had a Showtime skeeziness (they paper over danger or real shame), but I can’t help it, scenes of Belle confusedly chanting, “I’m so dirty! I’m a goat!” to a farm boy or acting out a James Bond fantasy win me over. This season goes meta, as Belle writes a book, just like the blogger whose writing inspired the series in the first place. Then she gets the hots for her editor, and so on. It spins in circles, it’s silly, but I don’t mind. There are formulas that still, despite themselves, somehow add up.