It’s taken me a long time to write about Take My Wife because I didn’t believe it was actually a thing. Like okay sure, there’s a TV show about a funny masculine-of-center lesbian couple, with episodes of traditional length, distributed by a legit channel with wide-audience-potential, exuding professional-level production value, filmed on a set that doesn’t look like a display copy of a condo, and I could potentially watch this show without having to pay-per-episode on iTunes or shell out $15.99/month for a lesbian content streaming start-up that will implode before Thanksgiving because we can’t have nice things? ABSOLUTELY NOT, THAT’S NOT REAL. Besides, even if it did meet aforementioned criteria, I figured, it couldn’t truly be focused on aforementioned lesbian couple. We’ll certainly be forced to endure excruciatingly tangential storylines from their forgettable male co-worker or straight female best friend whose running gag is asking extremely personal questions about lesbian sex. Et cetera.
Well, ladies, gentlewomen, and otherwise-identified human beings: it’s real! I was wrong to assume that we could not have this particular nice thing. In fact we can, and it’s really fucking good, and it comes from real-life lesbian wives Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito, and NBC made it, and you can watch it on SeeSo, an online comedy network you can subscribe to for $3.99 a month via Amazon Prime. (You can start out with a free one-month trial, though.) (And then you can watch old Kids in the Hall episodes forever and ever.)
The only Lesbian TV Series production shortfall Take My Wife fits into is The Short Season — it’s only six episodes long. In lieu of watching the twelve episodes of Take My Wife I wish existed, I watched the existing six episodes three times. Then I tumblr-searched for gif sets and was promptly greeted by a variety of explicit pornography on the topic of men who want other men to sleep with their wives, so don’t do that. Unless that’s what you’re into, in which case, this is the Tumblr search for you, go wild.
The set-up is that Cameron is a successful and experienced comic in Los Angeles and Rhea’s an aspiring comic who practices her jokes in between aggressive calls from her boss back in her hometown of Akron, Ohio, for whom she still does graphic design work. The story is basically “Cameron and Rhea’s life when they first moved to Los Angeles, but moreso.” During their freshly co-hosted comedy night, Cameron gently bullies Rhea into quitting her job to pursue comedy full-time, and the two then progress on their different but aligned career and life goals together while making a lot of jokes that you’ll find relevant to your interests. Lesbian Dad jokes, lesbian sex jokes, women-in-comedy jokes, feminist-boob-oogling jokes, all of that. The show is entirely about Rhea and Cameron but there are a handful of engaging tertiary characters, most of whom are women or men of color (there are only two white men with recurring roles and both of those characters are terrible people).
In fact, simply being a comedy makes this show brand new and important. The list of half-hour comedies with lesbian lead characters played by actual lesbians is a short one, because there’s only one show on that list and it was called Ellen. But even straight women playing comedic lesbian leads are rarities — the pregnant girl on the short-lived 2015 sitcom One Big Happy, for example, or Amy on the three-season MTV comedy Faking It, which was cancelled this year. Historically, gay men have been considered the funnier edition of homo, delighting audiences since Soap in the ’70s, ushering in a new era of alleged acceptance with Will & Grace in the ’90s, and now, with Modern Family, delivering Cameron & Mitchell, two ordinary gay men who are married despite clearly hating each other, directly into the homo-loving hearts of the American people and Emmy voters on a regular basis. Although Wikipedia’s “list of situation comedies with LGBT characters” is undoubtedly incomplete, a quick count reveals 140 gay or bisexual male characters on American comedies and only 38 females. In fact, since Ellen, no broadcast network TV sitcom with a lesbian character in the main cast has lasted more than a single season; most didn’t even make it that far! That’s fucking nuts, y’all.
ESPECIALLY ’cause it’s lesbian comedians who’ve been at the forefront of queer female visibility efforts for the past two decades, like Lily Tomlin, Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Wanda Sykes and Sandra Bernhard (who did play a groundbreaking gay character on Roseanne). We’re so overdue for our own show, and now we fucking have it. THANK YOU SEESO.
Our stories tend to be tragic ones, but a genre shift isn’t the only way the show defies tropes. In interviews and on the show itself (meta!), Cameron and Rhea are determined to womanslaughter every lesbian TV trope they personally hate, like how they don’t want to die. Or have a coming out scene, or sleep with a man, or get pregnant in Season One. “I just want us to live,” Cameron tells Rhea in an early bedroom scene, capping off a monologue about all the ways lesbians meet premature and unsentimental ends on television, and why she thinks having sex on camera will stave off that impending tragedy.
“So many lesbian characters, their storylines are very sad, overwrought, and often tragic, involving death—and also pining,” Cameron told Fast Company. “It was important to us that this not be a show about pining.”
Instead of pining we have the everyday dysfunction inherent in living and loving and working with the same human being. Married straight couples have been sitcom bread-and-butter since the olden days, yannow?
Ultimately observing their (albeit fictionalized) relationship dynamics was what captivated me in a way I wasn’t prepared for, like in a voyeristic way. Like they seemed real, and I didn’t realize how much I’d craved that kind of story until I got hooked on Take My Wife. We never see this, right? Like this is not a thing we see. It felt realer than The “Real” L Word, even, which was sort of about gay people but aggressively edited by people who I’m pretty sure want to kill us.
There’s just so much LORE on the topic of heterosexual relationships. By the time I entered into my first boy-girl situation, I’d witnessed at least one million het couples onscreen and in books and read ten thousand football fields worth of magazine articles on the topic. I went into my first lesbian relationship knowing that Shane broke hearts and Gia died of AIDS. In some ways going into these things blindly is arguably a better way to live, but I still crave specific-to-me materials from the universe. It’s cool to see other people with relationships that kinda look like yours telling stories based on their actual lives.
Take My Wife also deftly interrogates the performative element that injects itself into all long-term relationships; how we navigate our partnership alone and how we do it when we’re being watched. For Cameron and Rhea, they’re frequently “being watched” by largely anonymous audiences as well as their own comic heroes. Many of their most important discussions and decisions are made in the presence of others, raising questions about whether who we allow ourselves to be privately is necessarily more authentic or productive than who we are when our behavior is observed and potentially judged by others. When does committing to “putting on a good face” erase problems that need attention, and when does it simply relegate those problems to their proper size?
Cameron and Rhea told Vulture that they hoped the show would make viewers think thoughts including “wow, this feels honest and this feels specific and this feels like it’s about women” and that those thoughts did not mean the show would only be entertaining to women. The pair have managed to deftly walk the line between “this show isn’t just for gay people” and “this show is very much about gay people” in interviews.
Butcher told Vulture, “It’s never going to be for everyone, and it’s not going to be a perfect [queer] representation, but it feels real to me” and Cameron added, “My thought on that has always been, number one, we’re relatable because we’re real people talking about our lives, and when people are truly honest, that has to be relatable. Because there are only a certain number of human experiences: There’s love, death, jobs, food. That’s kind of it. And then the second part of it is like, Fuck you. All lesbians are relatable.” Their gayness is never toned down — I mean, for starters, they look so gay that there’s really no way around it — but it hasn’t gotten in the way of appealing to a wider audience. The show has been lauded by queers like Tegan & Sara and Slate’s OutWard, but also by The New York Times, The Decider, The Daily Dot, Vanity Fair and Flavorwire, among many other outlets. In their review, Esquire stated that Take My Wife “captured human emotion better than any other show on TV.” SEE, LESBIANS *ARE* RELATABLE.
Cameron Esposito’s success and experience relative to Rhea’s green-ness is a major theme of the show — negotiating both their desires for the other to succeed and the inevitable competition arising between them, as well as Rhea’s self-consciousness about being seen as Cameron’s wife instead of as her very own comedic self. Cameron is absolutely the better known of the two and has been working for longer — Jay Leno called her “the future of comedy,” she’s been on Conan and Chelsea Lately, played Becky-from-Roseanne’s girlfriend in Mother’s Day and done guest spots on Drunk History and Adventure Time. Cameron’s album Same-Sex Symbol made a splash last year as did her awesome stand-up special, Marriage Material. (Despite this relative success, Cameron still has to contend with “women in comedy” bullshit and “lesbian in comedy” bullshit but manages to handle it with dignity and wit.)
But with Rhea’s new comedy album debuting at #1 on the iTunes charts last week and this show getting so much buzz, it seemed like this moment would be a fitting one to also celebrate Rising Star Rhea Butcher, if I may? YOU’RE WELCOME.