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.
“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.” Ugh wow brutal. Isn’t it crazy we can spend so long in that state? Relating too hard. Thanks!
Yeah this line sent me viscerally back to that space. The worst is that it makes you feel like you’re crazy, like maybe you’re inventing problems from thin air, because your sense of reality and your trust in your person are at war.
I’m suddenly realizing how weird it is that Riverdale, which is basically a glossier soap opera, doesn’t have a lot of affairs, which used to be a narrative standby in dramas. Interesting!
I was actually thinking recently how cool it is that it’s a teen tv show with all kinds of ridiculous murder-drama, but that the relationships are mostly pretty stable and healthy!
Thank you for your honesty in your anger.
The only reason I didn’t know my ex-wife was cheating on me, despite the signs, were because I trusted her.
I tried to watch The Fosters and cried every time the opening credits came on, all the way well into a new relationship, and then had to make all the excuses why I couldn’t watch it with my new girlfriend. The effects are possibly less dramatic if you didn’t start watching the Fosters with the person who cheated on you, and didn’t continue watching it in the home you no longer shared, but don’t try this.
You haven’t finished The Americans?!
My heart broke for Martha but I also took comfort in the fact that as far as I know, none of my exes was a Soviet agent.
Getting cheated on is in a sick weird way like suddenly gaining access to a secret club.
Also, I watched a bunch of crime procedurals in the bad time, mostly cause they were predictable and my sense of the world was wildly off-kilter, but also because, as you say about the sims, there are immediate and horrible consequences for those that cheat in crime shows 😂😂😂.
Anyway, being cheated on is the pits and especially the part after where you try to work out when it began and what you were doing while they were holding hands/kissing/fucking/deciding not to tell you and if there was anything you could have done at any stage if only you’d known, and how could you not have known, and maybe you did know on some gut-sick level so why didn’t you stop it maybe you did this to yourself and maybe you never should have trusted her etc etc round and round. 💜
I wasn’t cheated on, but I had a relationship very suddenly end due to long term lying about something inexcusable. It became very clear very quickly that my ex was only going to admit to as much as she had to (she was drunk when I first found out, didn’t remember how much she had told me and then lied and minimized when she was sober….). Not knowing the full story was the absolute fucking worst and I couldn’t stop myself from mentally going over everything I could remember with a fine-tooth comb to try to figure out what had happened and shouldn’t I have known and why did I put myself through this…
Don’t have anything to add, just agreeing that it sucks!
always hated how I felt that queer media in particular relied heavily on infidelity storylines. whether it’s a straight-coupled woman cheating on her boyfriend/husband or a same sex coupled person cheating on their spouse. it’s so exhausting to constantly be fed cheating as a romantic aspiration I’m supposed to emotionally invest in (especially when I do emotionally invest in someone’s affair!!). thank you for this incredibly personal piece of writing.
Every time a queer woman cheats on her partner in a television show, a part of me dies, and it happens in almost every single tv show. I was really starting to feel like you can’t be a queer woman and not be cheated on.
YES! This is why I have such a problem with the critically acclaimed “Kiss Me (2011)”. Even when it’s well made and the gays end up together at the end, it’s still cheating/infidelity, even when it’s with a straight boyfriend.
i’m of two minds on this… on one hand, yeah, absolutely, but on the other hand, i’m WAY more strongly not here for the stock trope of queer person entered into compulsory heterosexual marriage years before they had words to verbalize their sexuality -> discovers this because they kiss/make a connection with someone of the same gender -> is conflicted and tells their partner/comes out to their partner in fairly swift storytelling time -> everything becomes intense drama focusing solely on the straight partner’s emotions. and i’m especially tired of the usual implicit “oh, if only i had been better in bed, maybe i could’ve kept you straight” slant that takes.
we absolutely should demand better than hollywood’s stock cheating plots (and if we have to keep with the love triangle stock plots, honestly… let’s just demand more polyamory as the resolution), but we should also demand that hollywood stops using queer-person-cheats-on-their-spouse-as-a-way-of-discovering-their-sexuality as yet another way to make queer people’s coming-out narratives all about the way they affects straight people.
You’ll be able to watch it again. One day.
I was sad that Imagine Me and You (not TV, but one of four solid lesbian movies) was off the table for me for a while.
I watched Imagine Me and You for the first time a month or two after I got broken up with for someone else. (Not the same level as cheating, but I felt that betrayal of “you ended this relationship to pursue something new and shiny.”) The movie bummed me out because I just found myself rooting for the husband! I wonder if I’d like it more on a re-watch now that I don’t have any lingering emotions around that break-up.
“Cheating is, often, a lazy story choice. (It’s often a lazy life choice, too, for what it’s worth.)”
That is so true. I’ve been hurt before as well and have since a huge problem with cheating/infidelity. And I don’t know, but I just can’t sympathize with cheaters and homewreckers and thus I can’t watch shows or movies starring them as characters.
I’m also a big fan of infidelity-free shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation, and The Good Place. Never could quite put a finger on it, but I guess that’s one of the reason I like those shows.
I went through two break ups last year and while I was moving through that discovered that TV – usually my favorite, safest place to access big feelings – was suddenly horrible for me because love and sex and everywhere, and love and sex were TERRIFYING. But being alone with my thoughts was also no good, so cue the Magic School Bus! The only safe place I found that had 0 romance, but that also taught me all about rock cycles and the internet and aeroelasticity. So now I’m here to heavily endorse educational children’s television as well.
Lemonade dropped mere days after my marriage imploded due to infidelity. That album was difficult but also a beloved confidant during that particularly raw time. On the other hand, “All Night” was playing on the radio when I got in my car after filing divorce papers, which is pretty funny or a terrible twist of the knife, depending on how I look at it.
I’ve actually never watched or listened to Lemonade because it came out right when I was going through the worst breakup of my life — I knew I didn’t have the emotional capacity for it then and i’ve never been able to muster up the strength since to engage with it, knowing that it’s linked to that time in my life!
“Talking about guilt and shame is not the same fucking thing as doing something about it.” Yes!!!! Thank you!
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?”
I really don’t think the “moral” or message of the Sarah/Andre episode was supposed to be about true love at all, since that doesn’t make sense in the context of June’s journey or what she appears to take away from watching Sarah/Andre. My takeaway from that episode, which I thought was brilliant for an otherwise largely disappointing and forgettable show, was that Sarah and Andre repeatedly made bad decisions at every step of the way, and represented the danger of playing life too safe and never taking any risks. Sarah and Andre were their own obstacles, not their respective spouses – that was the point, IMO. June learns from their mistakes by taking a risk and breaking out of her self-made box; it’s not about love for June since she already has that and her leaving is not about pursuing true love.
Oof. I love this series so much, especially now that we’re ~out in the open~ with what’s been going on in your life.
I have no reason to feel this way (I’ve never been cheated on, that I know of, although it is a super deep-seeded fear of mine for reasons I should probably talk about with my therapist), but I HATE cheating on tv. It’s up there with “watching someone gamble all their hard-earned savings/their kid’s college fund away” and “watching someone do drugs, especially anything with needles, on camera” and “watching someone waiting for someone else for an important date or event and knowing that other person isn’t going to be there for extenuating reasons that only we, the audience, know about right now” in terms of being extremely hard to watch.
I didn’t realize that Michael Shur shows were some of the only shows that are “safe,” but it totally makes sense. I love the sense you get watching his shows that all kinds of bad and hard things might happen to the people in them and their relationships, but there’s something about his worldview that is just so sweet and *good* and loving and generous. And yeah, not lazy and boring at all. I don’t even know how to express it, but reading that NYT profile of him (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/04/magazine/good-place-michael-schur-philosophy.html) gave me so many good feelings.
Thank you for this series!
oh! I could have used this a few years ago. I remember everyone was really into mad men at the time and I tried watching it but it just made me feel sick and awful because everyone was cheating on everyone. I’ve still not gone back to it.
I watched The Kids Are Alright in the theater with my then-wife on a date as we were trying to put our life back together after* she cheated on me with a dude named Paul. Obviously we hadn’t done much research. It was pretty brutal.
*Turns our she was still cheating on me with a dude named Paul. We’re no longer married.
Since I read this it just built and built this previously unexpressed rage and hurt of bisexual person that’s been cheated on by a monosexual person when my orientation has been treated like an announcement or warning label that I’m incapable of being faithful.
Like I used to be able to deal with that mistaken belief that bisexuals are incapable of fidelity, but after being cheated on I can’t anymore. It’s become a personal affront that boils my blood and I don’t know if it’s ever going lessen or go away.