I’d better begin by saying that I don’t own a television set, not even for watching movies and I haven’t had cable service for nearly twenty years. As you may have guessed, this means that I don’t watch a lot of television, cable or otherwise. I am aware that some shows are available on the internet, but I rarely have the time, the interest, or the motivation to watch them. Most of my television viewing occurs in airports or on airplanes, where I do spend considerable time, and occasionally I visit a friend who is a TV watcher and end up on the couch in front of the TV. Nevertheless, I have to confess that I’m not an informed consumer or producer. So it is with great audacity that I dare to venture an opinion about Showtime’s new polyamory reality show.
In the ‘80’s, ‘90’s and into the early 2000’s, I appeared on a lot of television talk shows and a few documentaries, mostly as an expert on polyamory, but I don’t have any experience at all with reality TV which has only taken off in recent years, apart from watching a few episodes of the most popular shows and talking with a half dozen producers over the years who thought that a reality TV series on polyamory would be a big hit.
None of those conversations ever led to a show getting on the air so far as I know, although a few pilots were shot and at least one contract signed. So it’s quite a breakthrough to see Polyamory: Married and Dating airing on Showtime after all these years. I’m very happy about it, and would love to be a creative consultant on a polyamory sitcom or movie some day. Now I need to make it very clear that I am not involved in any way with Showtime’s polyamory show, but I do know theSan Diego cast and their community quite well. And I do have a bit to do with the existence of theSan Diego community in particular and the national and global polyamory communities in general.
With all those qualifiers in place, I’ll say that Polyamory: Married and Dating is a far better portrayal of polyamory than I feared and not so good as I had hoped, judging from the first episode, which aired July 12.
For those who missed it, a brief recap. The show flips back and forth between two poly families, one in Riverside,California and one in San Diego. The Riverside group, a young and beautiful MFF triad, seem a little more like regular folks than theSan Diego group. TheSan Diego group, which consists of two young and attractive 30something couples who we meet in the midst of their decision to move in together, are clearly entrenched in the New Age camp.
Both families struggle a bit with jealousy and inclusion, both families are happy to jump into bed, cameras and all, and both families feature strongly bisexual women. Rumor has it that at least one of the men in the quad is also bi, but if it’s true, this hasn’t surfaced yet. I only mention it because one of the complaints I hear fairly regularly from some quarters is that while “hot bi babes” are highly prized in poly circles, bi men are less welcome.
Contrary to what most people might anticipate, jealousy arises in the MFF triad when one of the women (the legal wife) lets it be known that she has a new (male) love interest. And it’s the “other woman” in the triad who is most openly (and endearingly) jealous and pressures the legal wife to put her new guy on hold. So much for the cliché of women competing with each other for the “real” prize of masculine attention.
Meanwhile, the preview for episode #2 has Kamala Devi refusing to share her new girlfriend, Roxie, with her husband Michael, again defying viewers’ preconceived notions about the likely challenges of polyamory. My insider information leads me to suspect that the Roxie drama is at least somewhat contrived, but the demands for special treatment are classic and at the very least we see “asking for what you want” role modeled perfectly. At any rate, Michael and Kamala are both good enough actors to make it look real, but more about that later.
It’s Tal’s wife, Jen, who comes across as the most authentic and vulnerable character in either group. Monogamous types will love her as she tearfully confesses that she’s not sure her sexual appetite qualifies her for this adventure and worries she’ll be left behind. Since poly-identified people are still a tiny minority, this show badly needs the Jen character to provide someone the rest of the world can relate to in the midst of all these hedonists. It will be interesting to see how the show approaches the dynamics with the “most reluctant” member of the family.
In my opinion, Polyamory: Married and Dating succeeds brilliantly at introducing seven main characters in less than thirty minutes. That they manage to present a true to life portrait of polyamory as it’s commonly practiced along with some glimpses of hot group sex is a minor miracle. But then, this is the bonobo tribe. And it’s certainly more enjoyable than parading a poly family or two out to be interviewed by a talk show host and then letting a hostile audience have at them as was the style back in the day.
Hot group sex among beautiful, young people is certainly a proven formula for success. Afterall, HBO’s Real Sex series is STILL re-running the segment shot at a polyamory workshop I facilitated in 1997. They did a really fabulous job of capturing the essence of the workshop on film, except for inserting footage of two triads making love for the cameras and making it look like it was part of the workshop instead of the extracurricular activity that it was. This little bit may have been responsible for fifteen years of popularity, but I prefer to think it was the multi-dimensional and transformational experiences of the participants that television viewers have found so intriguing over the years.
When I first started writing and speaking about responsible non-monogamy in the 1980’s (the word “polyamory” did not yet exist) it was far more taboo than it is now. While there are still plenty of people who are sure that anything other than heterosexual monogamous marriage is bad and wrong, there’s been a huge shift in public opinion over the years. As it’s become increasingly clear that the institution of marriage is in serious trouble, some sort of expansion, whether or not we call it polyamory, seems to hold out hope for long term, stable relationships. Whether or not this is true, I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. What we do know is that more and more people are choosing to remain single, and more and more people are becoming aware of the value of community and tribe in their lives. And many of these people also have ongoing, non-monogamous relationships.
I suspect that we’ll have to wait at least another decade to see polyamory as I’d like to see it portrayed on television, but Polyamory: Married and Dating is a really great start.