Valentine’s Day landing on a Monday after the Superbowl this year was a blessing to many. Romantic love is a glorious thing, and when you don’t have it, being reminded sucks. Somehow though, the same single people who hate mushy Valentine holiday culture and lovey-dovey sentiment don’t seem to mind the abundance of romance in movies and TV. Maybe that’s because lately, the most popular ones are dysfunctional, not aspirational. Takes on the magical yet challenging nature of relationships have become the norm, especially if they are anything but normal. From the voyeuristic camp of Hulu’s Pam & Tommy (which has two more episodes to roll out the next couple of weeks) to the just-wrapped HBO ‘sucks in the city’ sequel And Just Like That, to the dating realness that was Love Life to the depressing divorce saga in Scenes from a Marriage (also both on HBO), to the creepy codependency of Netflix’s YOU, the message is– love does not conquer all and even when it seems to, the hardships ahead aren’t always worth it. All of these shows are imperfect, but then again, so are the emotions they attempt to convey. Let’s delve a little deeper.
The only thing worse than losing love is realizing you didn’t have it to begin with– stepping back and looking at a relationship, sans the rosy lenses of newness and lust, and seeing it for what it was or seeing the person you were enamored with for who they truly are. In some cases, it’s just about incompatibility. In others, it’s about growing apart. And sometimes, it’s something far more sinister. Sometimes the object of your affection turns out to be a dangerous psychopath. That’s been the premise of Netflix’s YOU, which saw a successful 3rd season late last year and has already been renewed for a 4th.
Penn Badgley (who played the ultra-boring Dan on the original Gossip Girl) stars as Joe, an unbalanced but charming stalker who becomes a murderous/obsessive boyfriend and ultimately husband, with an inner dialog/show narration that’s as creepy as his mug is cute. This dichotomy makes YOU a bit problematic because despite this dude’s off the rails mental state, he’s smart and witty enough to win over the viewer a lot of the time. After learning of an ex-girlfriend he may or may not have killed, we watch his new infatuation with Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) unfold and ultimately unravel, with lies upon lies, tech-savvy surveillance and bludgeoning of anyone who stands in the relationship’s way. Season one’s cautionary tale ends as we kinda know it will, but Joe gets away scot-free for his crimes of passion.
He hits California in season two, setting his sights on Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti) who turns out to be as emotionally unstable and co-dependant as he is. It’s a match made in matcha heaven (their romance takes place at a high end health food grocery ala Erewon) but of course, that also means double the deaths. In season 3, the pair are married with a baby and living in a bougie Northern California suburb full of yoga mommy-bloggers and tech bros. Far from the ‘crazy together’ love story some might hope for, things get even darker story-wise; Joe’s demented eye wanders a few times (as does his wife’s) and their killer crushes inevitably become collateral damage. Nobody lives happily ever after, even with couples therapy, and the bad guy will get to play Prince Charming in another fucked up fairy tale next season.
Speaking of bad guys– Mr. Big was kinda always the bad guy on Sex and the City wasn’t he? We’re not talking about Chris Noth the actor, or the horrific assault allegations against him, either. We’ve been watching SATC again on HBO Max (not E! which over-censors) and revisiting Big’s non-committal treatment of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker). Their relationship will give PTSD to any woman who ever felt like not enough – or too much– for the guy she’s dating. We’ve all been there and that’s why the show resonated. Well that and the killer fashion. When the series ended with Big chasing Carrie to Paris and finally telling her she’s “the one,” it gave a lot of us hope. The unattainable male heart can be had, just wait several years, and add distance and another man to the mix. The movies were kind of a mess too, with the same themes– Big had cold feet on their wedding day in the first film; Big wanted to take two days off a week from his wife in the second film. In the franchise’s return, And Just Like That, Big croaks and leaves our heroine for good. The jerk.
We were livid watching that first episode and we weren’t alone. Nobody needed a widowed Carrie Bradshaw. The passing of time provided enough situational stuff to explore without the gloom (which we already went through in the movie when Carrie had to go on her honeymoon with the girls). All us seasoned broads wanted to see was our protagonist happy and settled in her 50s, which we did, for about 40 minutes. But SJP and Michael Patrick King refused to give fan service and this show really needed it. Compounded with the huge gap left by Kim Catrall (and the utterly shitty way they addressed her absence– Carrie fired Samantha and now they can barely text each other) many Sex sisters felt cheated.
Yes,we still watched the whole thing and we appreciated a lot of the styling, the inclusivity and nods to a changed world and the realities of aging. But the old characters lost their spark and the new ones felt forced, especially Miranda (Cynthia Nixon)’s new love interest Che (Sara Ramirez), a poster style non-binary person whose portrayal was so hokey they pissed off nearly the entire queer community. The backlash wasn’t just about feeling bad for Miranda’s husband Steve as King theorized, or about the pair’s awkward sex scene, or conservatives feeling uncomfortable; the connection felt contrived and too fast, enforcing cliches about lesbian relationships instead of challenging them. And don’t even get us started on how annoying and vapid they made GBF Stanford (Willie Garson- RIP). We all know SATC was really about matters of the heart, not the genitals, but with the exception of Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Harry (Evan Handler), the new show offered a depressing take on mature love and for that matter, friendship. There’s still lots of ardor for New York City (which is nice, especially post-pandemic) in And Just Like That, but there is nothing sexy about it.
Scenes From A Marriage, also on HBO, is sexy and simultaneously somber. The remake of Ingmar Bergman’s miniseries for Swedish television in 1973 chronicles a crumbling union spanning several years and five episodes, from the first signs of trouble to a revealed affair to a break-up and potential makeup and finally, a divorced co-parenting relationship. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain play Jonathan and Mira, two people who don’t just grow apart or fall out of love, but actually seem to develop contempt for each other, even as they still feel a powerful connection physically and via their child.
The pair’s dynamic shifts a few times throughout the series, and watching it is so raw and real, it borders on uncomfortable. Anyone who’s been through a divorce can tell you that the hardest part is finally accepting defeat and acknowledging that the relationship you vowed to honor forever –via legal document no less– is over. Isaac and Chastain have incredible chemistry (as that swoon-inducing viral clip of the pair at the Venice Film Festival made clear) and it’s wrung for all its worth here. As in the Scarlett Johansson/Adam Driver hit movie Marriage Story, Scenes reveals just how fine the line between love and hate can become. It’s not exactly pleasant to watch, but it’s honest and it’s human.
While Sarah Jessica and co., failed to capture the excitement of dating and mating with their reboot, Anna Kendrick did so beautifully with Love Life, a beguiling look at how the people who come in and out our lives can change us, challenge us and teach us about ourselves as we grow. Kendrick’s Darby goes through a handful relationships in season one, ending with a promising new connection that we hope the writers will return to if the show is renewed (still no word). Season two shifted to focus on a new character Marcus Watkins (William Jacksom Harper), a book editor in New York in an unhappy marriage, who realizes he wants more when he meets the fun and flirty Mia Hines (Jessica Williams). Makeups and breakups, hookups, bad judgment, selfish behavior, and dealing with both COVID and racial reckoning are all part of the character’s journey to emotional maturity and a healthy relationship, which at the risk of spoiling things, we’re happy to say he gets.
Which brings us to Pam & Tommy, a series touting “the greatest love story ever sold.” But love has nothing to do with this exploitive exercise in rock n’ roll cosplay. Don’t get us wrong, it’s quite fun, but in an icky way. We’ve had our own run-ins with Lee over the years and Sebastian Stan might kinda look like him (a shorter version of him) and even act him, but his portrayal is a caricature that lacks heart, especially for a “love story.” That might be intentional considering the Motley Crue drummer ultimately went to jail for domestic abuse against his ex-wife, but either way, watching the series is not unlike watching the infamous sex tape itself– whatever pleasure it might provide is a very guilty one indeed. Pamela Anderson never gave consent to have her intimate moments seen by all, and she also didn’t give consent for this mini-series. There are conflicting reports as to whether Lee did, but the director has said that he discussed the project with him, and a lot of it is culled from Lee’s book Tommyland, including the now-infamous talking schlong scene.
It’s mostly based on a Rolling Stone article about how the sex tape got out. Lily James does an incredible job in making the Playboy playmate and Baywatch star not only sympathetic but complex, showing both her vulnerability and her strength during a horrible moment in her life. It’s something Pam never really got to show us much herself, and the series makes the argument that the tape is big part of the reason why. With prosthetic breasts and facial enhancements James 100% looks the part, and she’s got the mannerisms and voice down too.
Nostalgic setting/styling and wacky penis puppets aside, there’s not much to actually like in this trashy affair, though. Everyone except Pam is pretty much an asshole– the media, the lawyers, the porn guys, the internet moguls and especially Seth Rogan as Rand Gauthier, the electrician who stole the safe containing the tape from Lee’s Malibu home. He did it as retribution for being stiffed by Tommy, who is also portrayed –fair or not– as an insufferable cad. The takeaway here should be about sexism, tabloid culture and maybe even voyeurism, but ultimately the subtext suggests something more simplistic: toxic relationships lead to toxic situations and bad boys are bad for you.
Pam & Tommy is obviously driven by wanting some accountability for Anderson, but it tries to have it both ways, posing serious questions about consent and slut shaming even while it recreates the very sex scenes that were supposed to remain private to begin with. The series attempts to validate this hypocrisy as it wraps up in the next couple of weeks. We don’t think it does, but we also don’t think audiences titillated so far will even care.