Why TV Audiences Find “Satisfaction” in Complex, Modern Love Stories
(This piece originally appeared on Cynopsis.)
My wife has never slept with an escort. I want to get that out of the way up front.
Since production began on Satisfaction early this year I have, believe it or not, been asked that question numerous times. If not outright, the implication from anyone curious enough to know what inspired me to write a show about a happily married couple losing sight of the meaning in their lives and exploring extramarital affairs is always clear: Did this happen to you? The truth is, I don’t have a simple answer as to what led me to create the series.
I can say this, though: From the very beginning (and this is going back nearly seven years from when the idea first emerged) I always pitched the show as a post-modern love story. And I say that without even a hint of irony.
Yes, for me Satisfaction is about two people who love each other very much, but are struggling (yet determined) to keep their 20-year marriage intact. Even more so, I see it as two people trying to love themselves. Just before I got married, a person I admire told me, “Marriage is not so much about finding the right person, it’s about being the right person.”
Fourteen years and two children later, I can certainly attest to that. The challenges that Neil and Grace deal with (despite their heightened nature on the show) feel no different to me than the struggles my own marriage goes through. And from what I gather from those who’ve connected to the characters, a lot of what gets portrayed – the lies, the tension, the conflict and the hope (always gotta have hope) – is universal to almost all marriages/long term relationships. In the end, it’s because of those challenges – made even more complex by today’s world (Tinder anyone?) – that I think the show works.
The trick, however, was – and still is – getting people to invest in this couple and their problems (as well as their aspirations) on a weekly basis. During development, there was initial talk of: Do we try to make Neil and Grace more “likable” and “relatable” to the average audience? Show them in love and happy together first before tearing them apart? But today’s sophisticated cable audiences, raised on shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad are just not accustomed to settling for such standard portrayal of a relationship.
I heard once that the bookshelves in your home should be filled with the books you want to read, not the ones you’ve read. I would like to think that I approach my storytelling in the same way: I write about what I don’t know, not what I do.
In the end, I didn’t so much as resist the impulse to make Neil and Grace “likable” as much as make the case for a balanced approach. Or as I saw it, an authentic one. But in order to show two people in a long-term relationship trying to recapture what brought them together in the first place, first I had to pull them apart. And then make you root for them to get back together. That’s a tricky target to hit on a weekly basis, but it was also the core of the show.
Esther Perel, one of the foremost experts on relationships and sex in today’s world (who I return to again and again for inspiration), sums up the same issues I was exploring this way: “Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?”
These are modern day issues. Complicated. Nuanced. And without easy solutions. It’s why I think we don’t see very many one-on-one relationship movies anymore. You simply can’t explore those challenges with the same depth in 2 hours as you can over the course of a TV season. TV allows us to invest in characters over time. Multiplexes have become the domain of superheroes.
I heard once that the bookshelves in your home should be filled with the books you want to read, not the ones you’ve read. I would like to think that I approach my storytelling in the same way: I write about what I don’t know, not what I do. In that sense, I know that I want Neil and Grace to stay together. What I don’t know is how they’re going to do that yet. But I consider myself a romantic. And a problem solver. So with any luck and a few more seasons, they’ll take a second honeymoon and there will be a happy ending after all.