November 2, 2012

One thing about a hurricane is that it gives you a great opportunity to watch a lot of terrible network TV. The phrase is redundant: network television is terrible by definition, which constitutes much of its appeal. With a few notable exceptions (or one: Louie), the best this kind of television can ever be is entertaining, a description which doesn’t exclude terribleness by a long shot. The worst it can be is boring. And one of the risks of boredom, as we all know, is that it makes our mind wander toward depressing but persistent things that we must think about but that a steady stream of entertainment insists we never, ever have to think about. Under this law, I find myself thinking a lot more about SIDS and esophageal cancer watching unrelated PBS documentaries than while watching, say, The Mindy Project. It becomes a kind of trade-off: you either find yourself bored and depressed by the thoughts your mind introduces to quell the boredom, or entertained and depressed because of the nature of the thing that’s entertaining you. Suffice it to say that television is medium that doesn’t ever quite let you escape misery. Case in point: Partners, an especially depressing offering of the new fall season.

Television’s relationship to depression and trauma is a separate study, one which I hope some grad student will embark upon someday, if they haven’t already. For now I would simply like to ask: does truly pointless television have to bring us down?

I ask this question because in my recent slogging through the marshes of televised entertainment, I hit upon the quaint little CBS gem of Partners, whose ad campaign I’d been noticing around the city. It pictures four people (three men, one woman) with the tagline: “four friends, two couples”. I’m not proud in telling you that I was more intrigued than I should have been by this. I wondered: “Is it a show about swingers? A sitcom about a polyamorous relationship, a sort of Big Love lite?” Though my experience of sitcoms (and the world) should have assured me it could have been none of these things, it was intrigue or boredom or some mixture thereof that led me to watch the pilot, and the next episode, and the next, after which I finally stopped myself, having realized at last that the thing I desperately wanted Partners to be was not ever what Partners was going to end up being. Partners was never going to be interesting, unexpected, illuminating, or a kind of Viagra for the soul.  Partners, it became  clear pretty early on, was going to be exactly what it is and no less.  So  let me talk a bit about what “Partners” is:

-A “bro/’mo” sitcom, in which two best friends (one gay, one straight) run a New York architecting firm
-A workplace sitcom, in which no work is ever seen to be getting done
-A chance for a few lucky writers to make as many references as they can to genital waxing
-A makeshift solution for the problem of gay integration in network television (only one of many)
-A show anchored by the perverse fuckability of David Krumholtz. So you know you’re in trouble from the word go.

More than any of these things, Partners, with its canned laughter, ridiculous ideas of what Manhattan offices and apartments and 30-year-old business-people look like, and 20-minute conflict-resolution plotlines, is a kind of delayed afterthought to Will and Grace (surprise! It’s created by the same people). Within these gentle narrative confines, gay sex is hinted at but never seriously discussed. Straight sex is, ad nauseum. Gay relationship problems are punchlines, while straight relationship problems compose the entire narrative arc of each episode. Gay characters are shown as having few boundaries and yet, for such socially uninhibited beings, weirdly silent, compared with their straight counterparts, about their personal lives. Straight characters are seen as needing all the help–in every department–that they can get.

You may be saying to yourself, obviously. We’ve reached the well-meaning stage of the queer representation battle, and there is embedded within these cliches the suggestion of flattery–the idea that gay relationships don’t have problems that can’t be solved by the promise of a vegan fast is designed as a kind of compliment, as is the idea that straight people are all floundering in a sea of their own traditionalism until gay people come to help them out of it. While neither of these are exactly admirable ideas to put forth, they’re not totally offensive, either. The problem of Partners and other shows that try to ‘represent’ gay people within a 20-minute sitcom time frame is that they’re rendered completely unnecessary by several more realistic ones that already exist, albeit outside of the realm of television. The medium of scripted, genre television might just not be complex enough for a character whose patented identity is of necessity complex.

In the era of Glee and othersuch well-meaning mainstream shows, television that doesn’t really have anything to add to the conversation seems to hurt more than it helps, even if it’s not directly doing anything irresponsible. The superfluity of a show like Partners is the thing that makes it depressing: it’s the child of shows that came out a less progressive era, but as far as its content goes, it hardly reflects the progressiveness of its own climate. The financially motivated impulse on the part of the networks to try to broaden the ‘gay best friend’ role into something resembling a protagonist is but one battle smack in the middle of the war, the end of which, presumably, will see (if we live to see it) queer characters on network television as fully-sexed individuals allowed the full range of a generic sitcom plot. Then again, who really wants this? The sitcom is a form of entertainment neither dead or living, wedded to mediocrity, without either the promise or expectation of ever resembling reality. The more genre television tries to approach the realm of the ‘real’, the less legitimate it becomes. It’s when the genre expectations (as well as the financial ones) are broken that true representation, even in the space of 20 minutes, succeeds. It’s an obvious lesson that Partners‘ example teaches us (me)–and yet, for those of us who see a promising ad for a new CBS show and think, ‘this might just be the most daring project that a mainstream network has ever dared to fund!’ hope for a queer Louis C.K. on the scene springs pathetically, disastrously eternal.

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