I hope it doesn’t say anything about the home lives of the TV-development community, but Thursday night, two networks are premiering a drama and a comedy about marriage, malaise and infidelity--and the drama is the more lighthearted of the two.
That drama, Satisfaction, is still more heavy than USA’s trademark joyrides like Suits, which it already departs from because it isn’t about wisecracking con artists, spies, doctors or lawyers. (Fans of old-school USA might instead watch the new Rush, also on Thursday, a drama about an L.A. doctor-to-the-stars that's a sort of Royal Pains West.) Protagonist Neil Truman (Matt Passmore) does have a suit (he’s an investment advisor for a successful and soulless firm) but we meet him in the process of shedding it. Fed up with his stressful job, disillusioned by his outwardly perfect life, he blows a gasket on a plane stranded on a tarmac--a seeming homage to JetBlue attendant Steven Slater’s 2010 deplaning--becomes a YouTube folk hero, quits his job and goes home to tell his wife, Grace (Stephanie Szostak), the news. But--
SPOILER ALERT, I guess: this paragraph reveals some twists early in Satisfaction’s pilot that are almost meaningless to discuss the show without, since they set up the series’ premise. Ready? Grace, as Neil discovers is (twist 1) having an affair--or not a love affair, exactly, because (twist 2) she’s seeing a male escort, whose cell phone Neil ends up coming in possession of. Which leads him--jobless, distraught and not having told Grace he knows her secret--to get a call from one of the hooker’s clients and decide to (twist 3) try a second career as an escort himself.
It’s a variation of the premise of HBO’s Hung, with a motive of depression rather than recession. But while USA may be ready move out of its light-escapist comfort zone--feeling a little restless itself, maybe--I’m not yet sure Satisfaction is committed enough to see through the premise in an interesting way. What the network is positioning Satisfaction as, and what it feels like it should be, is a morally complex story of two people experimenting with what makes them happy, the TV equivalent of a ‘70s adult-relationship movie. And for maybe a half-hour, the pilot feels like that.
But it takes two people to be in an unhappy marriage, and we don’t get much of Grace’s perspective but a short, perfunctory detour--she’s bored, “No one has wanted me in so long,” &c. And the back half of Satisfaction's premiere seems to lose its nerve, focusing more on Neil’s sexy escapades than what’s eating at his soul. Cable is already full of middle-aged men who learn to “feel alive” again by walking on the wild side; if USA wants to pull off the kind of story others have already told well, it’ll need to really commit to the premise, rather than just have a fling.
The first episode of FX’s comedy Married, on the other hand, has the opposite issue, and how. I was keenly excited for this one, out of an affection for stars Nat Faxon and Judy Greer--which the pilot very nearly killed. Their characters, Russ and Lina, have three daughters, too many bills and too little time. And in the first scene we see them in, he has an erection she wants nothing to do with: “We had a quickie a few weeks ago!” she complains.
It’s the world’s oldest joke about the world’s oldest activity; she’s tired and sour, he’s horny and whiny, and one day she exasperatedly suggests he “go and be with someone else,” which leads him to an inept effort to recruit a mistress. The episode is occasionally funny--John Hodgman and Jenny Slate are well-cast as Russ’ friends and sounding boards--but more often it’s mean and miserable. (If you love the idea that a running joke depends on Russ’ potential lover having a dog with the same name as the baby she miscarried, well, YMMV.)
Stick with Married, though, and it gets better--which is to say that Russ and Lina begin to turn into people. The series drops the mistress-hunting angle after the pilot and focuses on refining a raw but generous take on the strains of parenting: wondering if you’ve lost your identity, feeling sexually invisible, getting a vet bill and having to mentally calculate precisely how much you love the family pet, in dollar terms. In a way, Lina and Russ are the couple that USA might imagine plopping down at night and watching Satisfaction, being reassured that if they had more money they wouldn't necessarily be any happier, though he'd have a better job to quit and she could afford a fancy hooker.
Russ and Lina don’t suddenly become cuddly, but they have a connection and the bleary-eyed solidarity that comes from years of shared sleep deprivation. A flawed-but-trying-harder Russ better fits Faxon’s specialty for playing the amiably clueless, and Lina becomes a character rather than a walking headache. In the fourth episode, she finds herself in the parents’ bind of being worn out by her kids yet sad at the idea of not having any more, which leads to an emotional trip to a thrift store to give away a used bassinet. “Can you estimate how much this stuff cost you?” the clerk asks her. “Um, my youth?” she says. “Every time I cough, I pee a little?” And the episode culminates in a round of phone sex that I won’t spoil, except to say that it’s both raunchily funny and a sharp picture of how Russ and Lina’s relationship works, for all its challenges. (If you prefer to have pre-married romance de-romanticized, FX is pairing Married with You're the Worst, a jadedly raunchy love-hate-at-first-sight comedy.)
Married is not trying to be The Cosby Show, but if it keeps on this track it could become a show that strikes a balance between making you wince and making you laugh. Maybe hard enough to pee a little.