Welcome to For Your Consideration, a new series about things we love and love to do — and we’d like to give you permission to embrace your authentic self and love them too.
It hasn’t been a perfect relationship, but television has always been there for me. I could always rely on TV to, well, not necessarily cure my pain but at least distract me from it, at least provide a fictional abyss to escape into. TV was the perfect coping mechanism, until it wasn’t. When the person I loved the most betrayed me, so too did my other great love, television.
Infidelity is everywhere in art — sometimes its impetus, sometimes its subject. You don’t think that much about infidelity when it’s never happened to you. Maybe you think about it in the abstract, imagine what it might feel like, empathize with others who have been through it. But there’s still this distance, this certainty that while you do empathize, this could never happen to you. And then it finally does happen to you (and it really does feel like finally, because even though you didn’t think about it much, now that it’s here it almost feels inevitable), and suddenly it’s all you can fucking think about.
When my partner was cheating on me, I was usually watching The Americans. I didn’t know what was happening yet, but I knew something was off, and it was enough to make sleep impossible, to make me feel constantly hovering in that cloudy, tingling space just before a panic attack. Time felt impossibly slow, and I had to pass it with something other than my increasingly self-deprecating thoughts. So I started The Americans — not exactly the healthiest choice of viewing material when you feel like your relationship might be falling apart. It’s about Russian spies living undercover during the Cold War, and it’s about Keri Russell looking hot in a series of wigs. But it’s also about marriage, relationships, the ways people hurt each other and hurt each other’s feelings.
I know people hate even the smallest forms of spoilers, but I wish more television came with trigger warnings in the form of FDA-like labels. “This series may contain traces of infidelity, spousal betrayal, and gaslighting.” Shortly after I found out about the affair, I felt bombarded by infidelity plotlines. I tried rewatching Vida with a friend—a mistake! I had to leave after the first act of a production of Camelot in Washington, D.C. I paused an episode of Togetherness that shows someone in the immediate aftermath of learning their partner has cheated on them. It was so real and raw and relatable that some of the lines felt ripped from my journals. My own experiences crawled their way into my recaps of The Bold Type, where infidelity was suddenly popping up, too. It was starting to feel truly inescapable.
I certainly couldn’t watch The Americans anymore. Just the act of watching it alone was enough to immediately transport me back to the morning I found out. As much as I miss Keri Russell in those wigs, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to watch again.
Then Forever happened to me. In Forever, the Maya Rudolph- and Fred Armisen-starring Amazon Prime series that’s punishingly cynical about long-term partnership, there’s a bottle episode about an affair between two married realtors called “Sarah and Andre.” The episode has been called lovely, a gem, achingly beautiful, the best episode of the series, even “one of the best short films of 2018.” Watching it made me almost have a nervous breakdown.
And hey, maybe that does indeed mean it’s technically good television? Forever makes Sarah and Andre’s delusions so visceral that it immediately got under my skin, provided an unnerving look at the ways people justify and compartmentalize their affairs. Sarah and Andre’s spouses are named but never seen, described only through surface-level details. It’s easy, then, to not really think of them, to get swept up in the romance of Andre and Sarah’s affair. When they’re together, are they really thinking about their partners beyond surface-level details? Have their partners become, in their minds, like characters on a TV show: concepts, stripped of their emotional stake in all this, stripped of their agency and humanity? Is that what I became? I’ve kept myself up with thoughts like this.
But the thing is, it doesn’t seem like — based on the way it’s framed, based on the reaction of Maya Rudolph’s character June, who has watched their whole affair play out from the afterlife — we’re supposed to be unnerved at all. We’re supposed to root for them. It’s lovely, they say! It’s achingly beautiful, they say! Sarah and Andre’s affair becomes the great love story June wants for herself.
Is it technically good television or is it a self-indulgent, 30-minute apologia for infidelity that brings up the toxicity of an affair without really fulling engaging with it for the sake of instead pedaling a story about unfulfilled “true love?” Of course I’m biased, but I do lean toward the latter.
Sarah and Andre, who have each other listed in their phones as Foot Doctor and Hot Wings Cafe, admit that they regret all the lying, regret how good they are at it now. Andre laughs at one point and asks “how do people keep this up? Like, people really have whole other families for years. It’s insane.” Yeah, it is.
Andre and Sarah are play-acting as husband and wife in an abandoned house. Of course, they’re play-acting at home with their actual spouses, too. But why would we be thinking about them when we can escape, like Sarah and Andre, into the affair, where these questions about morality and right and wrong are just that — questions, concepts, ideas. Talking about guilt and shame is not the same fucking thing as doing something about it.
Unlike that episode of Togetherness, Forever does not center the perspective I can relate to. It’s the other side of the affair, the affair itself, what was happening when I was watching The Americans alone in the dark in my bed wondering why someone else wasn’t in it, the side that I indeed obsess over but don’t fully know. And while I of course believe that shit is complex and rarely black and white, the fact that this episode of television renders Sarah and Andre as star-crossed, ill-fated soulmates and their spouses as obstacles to true happiness plays into a lot of my biggest fears.
It isn’t television’s fault that people cheat, but every time television frames an affair as romantic, star-crossed, sexy, passionate, I want to scream.
This is For Your Consideration, and I’m supposed to endorse something and not just rant about my horrible year, right? I apologize for the lengthy intro, but this was all my way of leading up to saying this: Cheating is, often, a lazy story choice. (It’s often a lazy life choice, too, for what it’s worth.) In film and television, it’s used as an easy script for crafting relationship conflict or drama. It’s either glamorized or used as a plot device in a way that never fully engages with all the psychological underpinnings, with the plural and lasting aftermath. I’m not saying there aren’t shows and movies that indeed end up having something meaningful to say about it. But infidelity-free TV is rare, and it’s good, and I wish someone had provided me a guide for what to watch and not watch in the hellish post-affair aftermath. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with knowing your limits when it comes to what you can watch (and this applies to a whole range of traumatic experiences). Just because someone says a show or a movie is good doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
And what I’ve discovered during my personal research is this: No one does infidelity-free TV better than Michael Schur, whose comedies (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation, and The Good Place) do delve into the intricacies of falling in love, breakups, and long-term partnership without ever relying on cheating as a plot device. (There was one very recent, small exception in an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but even that took an interesting and unexpected route.)
Even Schur’s show that largely takes place IN HELL does not fuck with cheating!!!!!!! And The Good Place is all about people admitting to their mistakes and flaws and doing something about it! Extremely cathartic imo!! Characters on his television shows work through their shit, learn from their mistakes, evolve together. They’re far from perfect, and sometimes they even hurt each other, but there are coherent consequences, and bad behavior doesn’t get put on a pedestal.
(Notes to self: As empowering as it can often be, do not watch The Good Wife in a fragile state, no matter how healing Kalinda’s face used to be. Do not, for the love of lesbian Jesus, watch The L Word. You might even want to avoid the genuinely uplifting show Grace and Frankie, because despite the context of that affair, the way Grace and Frankie sometimes have to grapple with the fact that they were lied to for literally decades is, uhhh, real. Riverdale, meanwhile, is surprisingly mostly safe! A father shoots his teen son and another father extorts his teen daughter, and serial killers, vigilantes, and warring gangs abound, but affairs aren’t really part of the town of Riverdale’s mass chaos. Even Haunting Of Hill House and Sharp Objects, in some ways, won’t knock you off your center the way Forever did.)
Schur shows aside, while recovering from being cheated on, you’re honestly best off bingeing unscripted cooking series or documentaries about serial killers or just not watching TV at all and instead playing The Sims, where you can create your own fantastical world where nobody cheats and where if they do there are immediate consequences. Because for a very long time, it will seem like infidelity is everywhere. Because in a way, it is.