For Meghan Daum and her husband, watching television dramas is part of their relationship—and may keep it afloat
December 14, 2011
Shows like The Sopranos “let us work out our conflicts and moral dilemmas via the safe channels provided by their characters,” says Daum

For the last few months my husband and I have been watching The Sopranos on DVD. Neither of us caught it the first time around. The series aired between 1999 and 2007, years when my husband was working as a journalist in far-flung corners of the world and I (how’s this for an exotic excuse?) was too broke to afford cable. But, as though finally deciding to dig into Shakespeare, we thought it was time we got round to it. We watch about four times a week, usually one but quite often two episodes per sitting. Before we took up with The Sopranos we watched Breaking Bad and Mad Men, in each case first on DVD and then as they aired on TV. Before that we watched all five seasons of The Wire in a three-month period. With all these programmes, we both have dreams about the storylines and talk about the characters as though they were people we know in real life. The other morning, apropos of nothing, my husband yelled to me from the shower “I can’t believe he’s just going around like nothing happened.” I knew immediately he was referring to the Sopranos character Christopher Moltisanti and the recent “whacking” of his fiancée, who’d been talking to the Feds. So ingrained into our imaginative lives have these people become, so much more vivid are their circumstances and narratives than those of anyone we know, we scarcely need to refer to them by their names.

My husband and I have been married for two years and lived together for nearly three before that. The ritualised TV watching began six months or so after we met, when the fervent dinners in dark restaurants that signify new romance began to give way to more quotidian pastimes, namely eating dinner in front of the TV at one or the other’s home. Today, we have our own house with a dining room, but several times a week we carry our plates into the den, fire up the DVD player, and settle in for an hour or more of whatever series has us in thrall. As the designated orderer of the discs, which we rent online, I have an awareness of how many nights’ worth of viewing we have that’s not unlike alcoholics keeping track of their stash. On the occasions when a disc has frozen up or pixilated into inoperability (not so rare on well-travelled The Sopranos DVDs) my husband and I have been known to let out a string of expletives. You’d think the heart had been ripped from our day. And you’d be right.

You may by now have gotten the impression that we are—not to put too fine a point on it—losers. You are probably also assuming that this is the point where I issue a cry for help. Surely, this slack-jawed devotion to TV, this mindless chewing of our cud while training our eyes on a flat-screened, high-definition horizon is a sign of the apocalypse. At the very least, it would seem not to bode well for our marriage. As (relative) newlyweds we should be taking walks, cooking gourmet meals together, reading Tolstoy aloud to each other in bed. Instead of watching TV four nights a week and talking about it seven nights a week we should be seeing friends, discussing our work, raising children or at least playing with the dog. The thing is, though, minus the kids (and, admittedly, the Tolstoy) we do most of those things. The nights that we are not watching TV we are out to dinner, at parties or concerts. We may not feel at every minute like one of Tolstoy’s “happy families,” (we argue, we run out of margarine, we wonder what the hell we’re doing with our lives) but nor are we unhappy or lonely and unfulfilled. We always have something to talk about. And part of the reason for that, I would argue, is that we can always talk about what we’re watching on TV. In that sense, high-end television drama helps keep our relationship afloat. And I suspect we’re not the only ones.

For all the studies on the effects of television on children, there’s been little if any research on the relationship between TV watching and relationships themselves, particularly cohabitating partnerships. But, anecdotally speaking, I’ve noticed over the years that some of even the most troubled couples I know have been able to come together over Mad Men or True Blood or Six Feet Under or even (we haven’t watched it but it may be on the cards) the recent remake of Battlestar Galactica. It isn’t just that serial philanderers and vengeful vampires have a way of putting the less appealing qualities of our own partners into perspective. It isn’t even the way these shows allow couples to sit for an hour without looking at or necessarily speaking to each other. The way I see it, what makes these shows such (as a therapist might say) vehicles of intimacy is the way they let us work out our conflicts and moral dilemmas via the safe channels provided by their characters. They let us talk about Tony and Carmela Soprano rather than our in-laws. They allow the loaded cannon of stay-at-home mum misery to be shot off via Don and Betty Draper rather than something closer to home. They let us work out our problems while pretending to be gossiping about someone else’s.

Granted, you could say it was always thus. Since the advent of radio in the 1920s, serialised storytelling has been an intrinsic part of what it means to spend an evening at home. From 1930s radio dramas like The Shadow to 1980s primetime soaps like Dallas, couples (and, by extension, families) have always been able to take the edge off the daily emotional grind by debating Orson Welles’s performance or, more prosaically, who shot JR. But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that at no other time in history has such a high level of storytelling made its way into average households so consistently. Shows like Dallas might have had big ratings and functioned as cultural touchstones, but one needn’t be a seasoned TV critic to see the ways in which The Sopranos made Dallas or even more ambitious series look mediocre.

Still, as good as these shows are, I don’t think their power is entirely a matter of virtuosic character arcs and plot structure. I think it might have something to do with the changing contours of real-life character arcs and structures. Television might live in two dimensions (unless you’ve bought one of those 3D sets) but so too do a lot of human beings these days. My husband and I encounter far more of our friends via Facebook updates or the shrieking chorus of Twitter, where they share their most recent doings—“Sophie’s first day at school!” “Lentil soup for lunch!” “Weird mole on chin!”—with us and the hundreds of others they’ve deemed worthy of such intimacies. In many cases, such as old school friends, we know nothing of the broad strokes of their lives. We have no idea where they went to university, who they married, whether their parents are still alive. Yet we receive regular updates about their workout regimes or their puppy’s housetraining progress. We know nothing, in other words, about the stuff that’s made them who they are, that motivates their actions, that comprise (as a screenwriter might say) the “beats” of their story.

But we know Tony Soprano. And Don Draper and True Blood’s Sookie Stackhouse and all those people from The Wire who we can’t help calling by their Wire names when the actors show up on different shows. We know them in the important ways (what they say in therapy, how they’re living a double life, whether they’re capable of murder) rather than the lentil soup ways. And in an intimate relationship, those are the ways that matter. These big dramas, like committed partnerships, are marathons as opposed to sprints. The action tends to unfold over years, even decades; people separate and reunite, divorce and remarry, grow up, grow old, and die. To sit on the couch with our beloved every night and watch these epics is to be forced to recognise that much of this will happen to us as well. Maybe not in such dramatic fashion but certainly in some fashion. And as unsettling as that is, it makes running out of margarine or wondering what the hell we’re doing with our lives seem less important. Or, at the very least, less interesting.