Can you have adventure and security at the same time? That’s an age-old question, but it feels newly relevant in this COVID-19 year, as we begin to crack out of our carapaces, take a hard look at our lives, and ask, Is what I have what I really want?
Every television series I’ve sampled lately seems aimed directly at people who feel boxed in, wrung dry or erased by the demands of pandemic life – which, let’s admit it, is overwhelmingly working women with kids, who learned the hard way that gender roles in partnerships under stress are not as fluid as our feminist foremothers had hoped.
Look at Netflix’s current monster hit, Sex/Life. Sure, a lot of people are slagging it. Many of those slags, though, reveal attentive, lengthy viewings, of the “This stupid thing happens in episode three, and then this stupid thing happens in episode seven, and then the final episode is really stupid” variety. Hate-watching is still watching, a fact I’m sure Netflix accepts with the quiet stoicism engendered by world domination.
Sex/Life is about Billie (Sarah Shahi), who loves her reliable Ken doll husband Cooper (Mike Vogel), her Barbie mansion in Connecticut and her two adorable children. But her abs are flat and her nights are dull, so she can’t stop fantasizing about her previous Ken doll, bad-boy former boyfriend Brad (Adam Demos). “I miss desire, I miss feeling desired,” Billie tells her shrink, who helpfully sums up the series with his reply: “A person who gives you security can’t be the same person who gives you the thrill.” Then Billie runs into Brad, and puts that to the test. Plus, there’s a lot of sex.
The Canadian writer/director Patricia Rozema directed the first two episodes, and frankly, she’s not surprised Sex/Life struck a chord. “I knew the dialectic it was trading on is eternal: ‘I so badly want both adventure and security in my one wild and precious life, and I can’t have them simultaneously,’” she said in an interview this week. “I knew that would ring in the world’s minds.”
In Sex/Life, the lights are glowy and the nipples are erect, but the frustration is universal. “I’m not sure this is the person I’m supposed to be,” Billie says, echoing anyone who ever shoved their second-grader aside and just did their homework for them because they HAD HAD IT. “Where did that other girl go?”
The Canadian producers Simone Urdl and Jennifer Weiss (they’ve made several seminal Canadian films, with directors including Darlene Naponse, Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley) worked with the writer Esta Spalding for 11 years on a story with similar themes: the new Netflix film The Last Letter from Your Lover, based on the novel by Jojo Moyes. Ellie (Felicity Jones), a journalist in contemporary London, discovers a series of love letters written to Jennifer (Shailene Woodley) in 1965. Jennifer has an upper-class husband who belittles her, and a journalist lover who sees and treasures her; he wants her to trade safe-but-unsatisfying for risky-but-passion-filled. Complications ensue.
“We wanted to make a film from the female perspective that’s honest about the complications of love, but is also sweeping and utterly romantic,” Weiss said in a Zoom interview with Urdl last week. “Unlike Jennifer, Ellie seemingly has all the opportunities and freedom to explore the life she wants, yet the letters hit something deep inside her: her need for love and connection.”
“The desire for a love that’s real and fulfilling – that’s not a weakness or a problem,” Urdl said. “It’s a fact of life.”
But so, unfortunately, are compromise and settling. There’s a modern-day Jennifer doppelganger in the new HBO series The White Lotus: Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), a freelance journalist on her honeymoon at a lavish Hawaiian resort, where she’s quickly learning that her new, rich husband Shane (Jake Lacy) is a jerk. The writer/director Mike White (who also made the excellent Enlightened) has Rachel articulate the nagging fear many women still have, that marriage will make them unrecognizable to themselves.
“I worry that his orbit is stronger than mine, that his gravitational pull will suck me in,” Rachel says. “And I’ll not only lose my mediocre career, but myself.”
I’m all for this renaissance of the yearning wife. In the 1930s and ’40s, cinemas were stuffed with these stories. They fell out of fashion, but the feelings and fears behind them didn’t go away. As Peak TV rose, the woman hero returned, though at first her feelings were only interesting if she were also a drug dealer, a drug user or a hooker. If these new series are demonstrating that a woman can be fascinating simply because her inner and outer lives don’t always match, well, huzzah.
Still, I’d like to see something that explains why a Jennifer or a Rachel marries an ass in the first place. Maybe there’s a hint in a couple of other projects. In season two of the Amazon series Flack, about wild PR women in London, a bride-to-be drunkenly confesses at her bachelorette party that she doesn’t like her fiancée all that much, but they’ve been dating for 18 months and, well, she is 28, and all her friends are married, and though their husbands are louts, too, they had such lovely weddings.
Earlier this month, Peacock, the streaming service of NBC Universal, announced that it will soon air Pride and Prejudice: An Experiment in Romance, a reality show that sounds like The Bachelorette, except instead of hanging poolside at an L.A. mansion, the contestants will have to pretend they’re living in Regency England, vying to be the heroine’s “Duke” by taking her on carriage rides and coming to tea and such. The press release calls it “the ultimate romantic experience,” which I agree with, but only if by “ultimate” they mean “nuttiest.”
And the streaming service Brit Box is currently showing The Wedding of the Century, a documentary about, yes, the wedding of Diana Spencer to Prince Charles in July 1981. For the 40th anniversary, British Movietone Productions transferred 35 mm footage of that day into pristine 4K film. In the first half, the talking heads say somber things about how the wedding was a propaganda exercise designed to unite a Britain riven by economic and social unrest. But in no time everyone is squealing about the longest train in royal wedding history and saying things like, “We all want to believe in the fairy tale.”
Watching all these projects in a row, a picture emerges of a woman who wants romance but is so squeezed by modern life that she doesn’t know what the hell it should look or feel like. Who believes that the punishing strictures of prior centuries are “more romantic” than now because people were what, courtlier? Who knows in intimate detail how not-romantic Charles and Diana’s story was, but still feel a secret swoon at the notion of, dare I say it, rescue? There’s a big, raging conflict out there, and these shows barely scratch the surface.
“A beautiful maid who marries a handsome prince,” the plummy narrator intones at the end of The Wedding of the Century. “What’s wrong with that?” Let’s ask Rachel.
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