Sunday, October 5, 2014

Is TV Ready for a Polyamorous Relationship?

I was binge watching Nashville at the recommendation of a friend recently when I came across this scene. I was impressed with the song, but more fascinated by the serious amount of eye fucking going on between Avery (Jonathan Jackson) and Gunnar (Sam Palladio). Not to be left out, Zoey (Chaley Rose), also isn't shy about casting her gaze in the direction of her two sexy guys. If you watch the show, then you know the relationship dynamics of these three characters, but when I watched this scene, I couldn't help but to wonder if we wouldn't be in the market for a Polyamorous triad to take shape. This kind of chemistry and these kinds of wordless reaction shots are the basis of fandom shipping. You can't throw a rock without finding a ship that exists just because two characters shared a room that one time, or sometimes based on even less than that. Wattpad has a nice list of ships that seem to exist for no reason at all. But the thing about this particular scene of lustful eyes is that it seems to be another in a line of moments from shows lately that suggest we might be in the early moments of seeing a real polyamorous relationship take shape on the small screen. And I for one think that that would be a great thing for a number of reasons, so I say bring it on.

Disclaimers: I am not in, nor have I ever been in a Poly or even an open relationship. When I do find myself in relationships, they tend to be monogamous in nature. But I don't devalue Poly relationships at all. It doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would work for me, but I fully support it if it works for someone else. So this isn't me pushing forward any kind of an agenda, I wouldn't benefit one way or another from a healthy Poly relationship being explored on screen. My primary interest in seeing this kind of relationship explored is really just about the storytelling implications. Also, I did watch the first few episodes of Showtime's Polyamory: Married & Dating, and while I will say that that's an easy look at real life Poly relationships, I always got the impression that that show was more about having an excuse to shoot hot threesomes than it was about exploring these actual dynamics. I also find the relationships explored in this show to be heteronormative in their dynamics. By which I mean that even the group that features two men is a group in which both men are solely focused on the women instead of on each other. Which is fine for real life, I don't think being in a Poly relationship automatically means someone has to be Bisexual in some fashion. But for the sake of storytelling purposes and exploring deeper character dynamics, I think it would be more interesting to see how a character changes as they inexplicably find themselves falling in love with a person who happens to be a different gender than they're typically attracted to. So, I'm not talking about shows with love triangles, which are a dime a dozen, but shows in which characters honestly find themselves in dynamics in which all three characters can be shipped equally with one another. what's the possible appeal of these OT3s being explored in the canon? First among them has to be the inherent drama that such a thing would create. Sticking with Nashville for an example, you'd be talking about a threeway relationship that would take place between the two ex boyfriends, and one best friend of one of the other characters on the show, Scarlett O'Connor (Clare Bowen). The show already touches on Scarlett's discomfort and uncertainty when she sees these three people who are important to her in different ways performing together and growing closer as friends and performers while she's left out in the cold. Now imagine what that would look like if all three of them were also sleeping together and falling in love. Another character potentially affected by this development would be Chris Carmack's Will Lexington. Will has been struggling with his own homosexuality over the course of the show, and he even made an ill-advised pass at Gunnar early in his time on the series. How might this triad developing effect him?

Speaking of this show's only gay character, imagine what this story could have to say about human sexuality. If Avery and Gunnar (two heterosexual men) slowly find themselves falling in love or being attracted to one another, the sexual confusion would be through the roof. We tend to enjoy watching stories about characters struggling to come to terms with their homosexuality and going through the process of coming out. But those stories are still interested in making sexuality black and white and making the coming out process a bit more linear (Will's story has been an example of this thus far). A TV triad could get us to a point where we're questioning these assumed elements of human sexuality. Can Gunnar, Avery, and Zoey all be equally in love with one another, and equally sexual with one another, and all still claim to be straight? I think the answer is yes, but it would be a lot of fun to see that question explored on screen.

In the case of Teen Wolf's best OT3 (Scott/Allison/Isaac), the reason behind why the show should have gone there is simply that they teased it enough that they needed to get it over with. Teen Wolf is a show that isn't shy about baiting its fans into specific ships, or learning about ships and working to exploit them. Arguably, the show's most popular ship is between Tyler Hoechlin's Derek Hale and Dylan O'Brien's adorable, and probably bisexual, Stiles Stilinski. And since it became clear that fans wanted that pairing, the two's scenes together have gotten more and more shipper-bait in nature. In the case of the threesome issue, the show had been teasing the desire for a televised threeway since that sexy dance way back in the second season. Granted, in context, that dance is a lot less about those three characters being attracted to each other and more about misdirection, but I've always been interested in the closeness and the lustful looks being exchanged between Isaac (Daniel Sharman) and Jackson (Colton Haynes).

But that dance scene is really just a teaser for the ultimate OT3 to come. When Scott (Tyler Posey) and Allison (Crystal Reed) break up, it opens the door for Isaac to move in, but Allison's door isn't the only one that seems to be opened to the curly haired cutie. Disillusioned with the way that Derek runs his pack, Isaac easily and often runs to the comforting arms of Scott. Their friendship is sweet and adorable and you often get the impression that Isaac loves Scott because he's the first person to be nice and caring to him without wanting anything in return. Isaac's birth father is an abusive piece of shit, and Derek turns him and adds him to his pack more for his own selfish reasons than because of any kind of care or concern for the boy. But Scott, being the kind and loving and protecting hero that he is, looks out for Isaac because he honestly cares about Issac's well being. What fallows as a result are a number of scenes like this one in which Scott expresses a kind of interest and Isaac, caught off guard, is left making moon eyes at him. Add to that the way that Isaac and Allison are slow to get their relationship off the ground, both of whom constantly citing Scott as the reason they're hesitant, or even the fact that Isaac's first choice for a new place to live when he's in need is Scott's place and Scott let's him move in without a second though, and you get the fans feeling like "Alright already! Get them all together and let them have sexy fun times!"
Another example of the ship being so great it can't help but to write itself can be found in Dr. Who's Doctor/Rose/Jack ship. One of the things I like so much about this OT3 is that it has the effect of making them all better. It's clear that The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston for the sake of this article) is a better person when he's with a companion. And the best companions are equally made better during their time with the Doctor (Rose and Donna are the best examples of this to me). When you add Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) to the mix, you get someone who is a far better and more honest person when he's with the Doctor and Rose (Billie Piper), and who has the ability to ensure there's a healthy level of fun being had in the Tardis. The Doctor/Rose/Jack is the triad that comes the closest to being canon. They share the kisses shown above, and Jack is an admitted omnisexual being who flirts and loves everyone he shares more than two words with. Rose is clearly and admittedly in love with the Doctor, though admittedly that's more Ten (David Tennant) than Nine, and the Doctor (again talking about Ten this time) does come as close as possible to admitting his own feelings for her. But the point still remains that the presence and popularity of this triad shows just how ready we are for this kind of story to play out in full on screen.

The last reason that I think a Polyamorous relationship should develop on the small screen is visibility. Monogamy is seen as the norm in this world. As such, most relationships we see are monogamous in nature. Any break from monogamy is demonized, and the solution to just about every love triangle that comes up (and there are way too many to count in TV shows) is that the main character has to choose one or the other, or neither. It makes the storytelling feel hackneyed in a lot of ways. We've seen just about every option played out somewhere or other already. So why get invested in these torn-between-two-lovers stories? But more over, where does a person who doesn't believe they'd be happy in a monogamous situation turn to see their story mirrored back to them? How do we normalize different kinds of relationships if we continually refuse to showcase them as being normal? I think shows like Teen Wolf or even The Vampire Diaries are perfect matches to do this given their distribution to a younger audience. Teen Wolf could have just given audiences what they wanted anyway and started changing hearts and minds that way. Or The Vampire Diaries could have given fans something they may not have known they wanted but might have enjoyed anyway in a Klaus/Caroline/Tyler coupling. With Klaus and Caroline being basically in love since day one, and Tyler and Caroline dating, but Tyler at least being sired enslaved to Klaus, it would have at least made sense even if there were some issues of consent behind it.

I think TV is uniquely poised among mediums to really change, or maybe just spark, the conversation about Polyamory. In much the same way that tuning in to shows featuring LGBT characters on a regular basis has helped to shift public perception in positive ways, I think watching fictional Poly relationships would help to normalize a non-mainstream way of life. And beyond that, I think it would just serve to give us more interesting and unique stories to tell. We've looked at the different ways relationships between only two people can be dramatic; I think we've seen just about every combination and possibility available to such a pairing. Long gone are the days when simply making the pair two people of the same gender is enough to add new dynamics, so why not do something new? I think TV shows have been brushing up against doing this for awhile now. So the only real question left is which show will have the balls to actually just go there already? It doesn't necessarily have to be an established show, either. Maybe there's a new series out there somewhere with three characters who are ready-made to find themselves navigating these uncharted narrative waters. If so, the reveal of this show can't come soon enough for me.

Addendum: I realized something that has come to cause me a great amount of shame lately: all of these OT3 pairings are male-male-female. While I will admit that given the taboos within our society about male sexuality, this dynamic is the one I personally find most interesting, I don't mean to make it seem like that's the only place TV will be able to find drama and compelling stories. To those ends, I would like to point out what MTV's Faking It is doing with Amy, Karma, and Liam. It's hard to include this three-way in this article because I don't think it's the best way for the show to go. This story feels like it works out best as being the story of Amy figuring out her sexual orientation. But the show isn't shy about there being bumps along the way to Amy's eventual probable destination to Lesbos island. Both of the girls have already slept with Liam, and Amy and Karma are clearly better together. So while I don't really think the Amy, Karma, Liam triad works best in the long term, I certainly think it could make for an interesting dynamic for a season or so. I can't think of any fully same sex poly groups, but if you have any, I'd love to hear them.

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