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TV's trouble with relationships

By Rich Heldenfels Published: July 17, 2014

Was there a recent burst of breakups and bumbled marriaages in the television industry? You'd certainly think so from what's getting on the air, particularly tonight. Consider:

"Satisfaction," 10 tongiht, USA Network. Matt Passmore of "The Glades" stars as a married man who, in addition to major dissatisfaction with his job, learns that his wife has been cheating on him -- with a paid escort. (No spoilers here if you've seen even one ad for the show.) This prompts him to start his own sexual exploration, whiich may or may not help save his marriage.

"Married," 10 p.m., FX. Nat Faxon and Judy Greer are the central couple in this series which, in the network's own description, is "about being miserably in love."

"You're the Worst," 10:30 p.m., FX, "a dark twist on the romantic comedy genre" (that's FX talking again) where two largely unpleasant people (Chris Geere, Aya Cash) meet at a wedding where he has caused a scene and she has stolen one of the gifts, have a night of sex and conversation -- and in spite of themselves begin to build a relationship.

"Dating Naked," 9 p.m., VH!. in which people strip down in order to "date in the most honest way possible" -- before falling into the same habits you'd see on other reality shows, only with bare butts and pixilated fronts.

Then, if you go past this evening, you have Showtime's "Masters of Sex," which recently started its second season and is heart-rending in its portrayal of the struggles arising over sex and love, and "Seed," which began Monday on The CW and has a sperm-donating loser becoming involved in the results of some of his donations.

Of course, relationships are one of the basics of plottting. (On the big screen, the new "Sex Tape" is also about a marriage trying to get out of the doldrums.) It used to be the default position for TV producers explaining their shows to say  that, for example, "The Alien Widget Show" wasn't about alien widgets, it was about relationships.

Looking at the ties between people is a way to get into fundamental worries about not only love and sex but money and power. all adding up to what does or does not make us happy. And I would not suggest that, just because these shows are full of contemplation of broken or breaking connections, that they're all bad. "Masters of Sex" is terrific (and I have to say again that you should look past MIchael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan to what Beau Bridges and Allison Janney are doing on that show). "Married" is an exhausting series but has another excellent turn by Judy Greer -- and, in its supporting cast,. Jenny Slate, currently collecting kudos for "Obvious Child." I am going to give "You're the Worst" more of a look because, as blunt and negative as it is, there's something oddly sweet in it, and Cash's character and performance kept making me pay attention just when I was starting to check my watch.

On the other hand, "Satisfaction" felt tired, a contemporary rehashing of discontented-businessman ideas with a patina of sexual activity and a twist at the end of the premiere that made sense only as a way to keep the series going. "Dating Naked" is dreadful, unless you find it entertaining to count the tattoos on people whose unclothed behavior isn't that different from the missteps folks make while fully covered.

Still, there is this question about what these shows say about the state of modern relationships (or, in the case of "Masters of Sex," how we got to modern relationships). And that's pretty bleak. It's not only the basic pressures of money or work. It's the suggestion that folks just don't know how to make things work -- as couples or as parents. (On "Seed," the donor has to come to the rescue of the people doing the actual child-rearing, and he's still not very good at running his own life.) Of course, being a couple has its share of challenges. But it works out for many people, and television has had its share of loving and capable (if from time to time conflicted) couples. But watching all these shows together -- which, admittedly, most of you will not do -- was enough to make me wonder if anyone in the TV world had an even remotely happy connection.

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