It's Ennui Time on 'Satisfaction' and 'Married'

New York Times News ServiceJuly 17, 2014 

Looking at someone else's marriage is a bit like hearing about someone else's dream - unless something truly awful happened, it's kind of a bore.

That's why psychiatrists get paid to listen, and why so few shows focus solely on a marriage or relationships and instead widen the circle to friends, relatives and co-workers. It's true of dramas and also comedy: An undiluted diet of Ricky and Lucy — no Fred and Ethel or other sidekicks — would be about as funny as Ingmar Bergman's excruciatingly intense 1973 TV series, Scenes From a Marriage.

Yet almost as if by dare or experimental design, three different series are trying to beat the odds, and all of these meditations on love began Thursday.

The problems are similar, even though they cover different phases of disrepair: Satisfaction, on USA, is about a well-off couple driven apart by midlife ennui. Married, on FX, follows a long married couple with money woes as well as marital discontent. You're the Worst, also on FX, is about two young people who become involved by competing over who cares less about involvement.

At a time when the definitions of marriage have been so expanded, and so many different kinds of people are allowed to give their relationships legitimacy, all three shows strangely focus on white, middle-class, good-looking heterosexual couples.

These series try to put fresh spins on the most conventional characters, and none of them are terrible. But they would all be better if the writing were sharper and more imaginative and the stories less focused on just two people.

Satisfaction is the most daring, because it's not really a comedy, and that makes its intent oblique and quasi-European. Neil Truman (Matt Passmore) is an overworked banker who hates the job he is good at. He has a customer-service meltdown aboard a terrible flight to New York, quits his job and comes home to discover that his wife, Grace (Stephanie Szostak), is having a dalliance with a paid escort, Simon (Blair Redford). A mix-up leads Neil to Simon's phone and client list, and he discovers that life as a gigolo has rewards beyond tax-free income.

The male hooker conceit was the basis of Hung, an HBO series that ran from 2009 to 2011, and paired a down-on-his luck former athlete in Detroit and a plain, bookish proofreader-poet who became his pimp by marketing him as a "happiness consultant." That show worked because their partnership was unexpected and delightful, albeit in a downbeat way. The hero's sexual asset was both the catalyst and beside the point. It was an R-rated buddy tale for the recession.

Neil doesn't need the money; he craves the affirmation. The show's saving grace is Grace: Satisfaction depicts her side of their story and what drove her to infidelity. And yet, the series picks up as it moves away from the couple's problems and into the complications Neil's new career creates.

Married follows the same trajectory: The first episodes that establish the relationship are commonplace, and the series gathers steam only when the focus widens. Russ (Nat Faxon) and Lina (Judy Greer) have three children, no money and no time or energy for sex, and that makes Russ frustrated and restless. He believes Lina when she gives him permission to find a mistress.

Greer and Faxon are talented comedians, but the writing isn't quite up to their abilities. They play Judd Apatow characters in a sad-sack Louis C.K. setting, but Married doesn't have the precise dialogue or the tight, clever construction that supports each seemingly loose, unstructured episode of Louie, his FX show.

Russ and Lina are recognizable, sympathetic and kind of tedious together: The show improves when Russ leaves the house and hangs out with his bitter, profane best friends.

The lovers on You're the Worst are also bitter and profane. They meet at a wedding, and hook up because they have nothing better to do. The depiction of sex is graphic and matter of fact. In the middle of it, Gretchen (Aya Cash) tells Jimmy (Chris Geere), "I don't know what I'm doing here, I'm not even attracted to you." Without stopping, he replies, "What does that have to do with anything?" Conceding he has a fair point, Gretchen gets back to business.

It's not sex that brings them together so much as complicity: They are both selfish, cynical and boorish, and compete over who can be more indifferent. They trade stories of bad behavior the way other lovers exchange childhood memories. "And that's how I got crabs from my guidance counselor," Gretchen says as Jimmy gazes at her almost tenderly.

They are a little like a Nick Hornby novel crossed with Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, except that the writing isn't Shakespeare or Hornby. The premise of You're the Worst is amusing, but the lines don't match it. Once Gretchen and Jimmy get out of bed and back to their lives — he's a writer, she's a publicist — You're the Worst gets a little better. Courtship is fun, breakups are sad, but almost everything in between should stay in the background.

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