At the end of last year, when the sidewalks were glazed with ice and my friends were boarding planes to Georgia and Belize for family Christmas, I was in bed watching TV. I didn’t go to work, I didn’t socialize; I slid out of my pilling, moistening (but still delicious) pink dressing gown only to pull on my entirely unflattering short shorts to wring myself out at yoga—the healthiest thing I’ve been able to do through all this. The reason: My husband left me. Or, more specifically, a week before Christmas, he woke me with the line, “there’s something I have to tell you.” And in the minutes, hours, months that have followed, my life unraveled into something out of As the World Turns. My husband, he told me, had been cheating on me for the better part of a year: double life sort of stuff, involving a friend of mine, and so many astonishingly well-delivered lies. And besides all the obvious daily neuroses this continues to drag me through—will I ever love again, am I repulsive, what sort of Charlotte-York-I-curse-the-day-you-were-born line should I be preparing for the time I know I will run into “her”?—it’s turned me into a terrible simpleton when it comes to watching TV.
TV’s most romantic couple, Californication ’s Hank and Karen Moody, are a nymphomaniac, serial adulterer and his perpetually dissatisfied true love.
First, a word of advice for future victims of ego-crushing heartbreak: TV is your friend. This might seem obvious but it wasn’t until my husband butchered any semblance of the romantic in me that I realized the depth to this. There are only so many cigarettes and vodka shots and ego-pumping girlfriends that a slumping heart can benefit from. And pop music doesn’t have the enveloping effect of TV—Amy Winehouse has done a lot for me over these past few months but she doesn’t make me curl up into a ball one minute and burst into cackle the next the way TV does.
The first few days post-ruination are a blur: There were visits from the few friends left in town, many of them with offerings like Ritter Sport chocolate, Maya Angelou books, or that one Klonopin or home-brand sleeping pill they’d had rattling around in their medicine cabinet in case of just such an emergency. But as the initial drama wore off, at least for the rest of the world, and I found myself alone and in tatters in my apartment-built-for-two, the only refuge I had was to plug in to any reality that was. Not. Mine. But as I perused Hulu, Netflix, and my own cable offerings, what were my choices? True Blood; Gossip Girl; Californication; Desperate Housewives; Big Love. Was there anything in today’s plentiful offerings that wasn’t going to somehow remind me of my mangled love life? Think about it: TV’s coolest girl, Anna Paquin, can only find love with a dead man, and TV’s most romantic couple, Californication’s Hank and Karen Moody are a nymphomaniac, serial adulterer and his perpetually dissatisfied true love (they are the most romantic because they love each other and still froth like high schoolers at the touch of each other; it’s just that she can’t get over his philandering and, well, neither can he). Finding the perfect escape is no simple task in these days of highbrow, realist television: Today’s TV relationships are either implausibly unconventional– Will & Grace, hello?–or too believably impossible. Didn’t TV used to be a place a girl could run to for her life in sunny, non-adulterous armor?
It has never been my style to seek simple pleasure from TV. I grew up on Punky Brewster and Inspector Gadget’s brainy heroine Penny (boyfriend? Pfft). It was the unlikely heroines like the vegan bleach-streaked Caitlin Ryan on Degrassi Junior High and the irony-emitting Jen Lindleys of Dawson’s Creek that got me through the whammies of high school and my early college years: characters with sharp edges and screwy adolescent narratives that placed my own complex life in a context. My husband and I bonded over our love of acerbic, realist culture in the beginning. We met in a graduate program in which we read and dissected books like Laura Kipnis’ Against Love—a polemic against the absurdity of equating marriage with hard work—and Pauline Kael’s See You at the Movies, a critical bible in which the godmother of film criticism unveiled one of her iconic peeves, railing against the sorry fear that contemporary audiences have of watching harsh realities play out on the big screen. Which has made it all the more anguishing that, in my heartache, I would come to cower from that which I’ve built my life around.
At first, I didn’t want anything involving husbands and wives (try that for a challenge) but I did want drama. I tried old episodes of Gilmore Girls, which did the trick for a while but ultimately made me feel worse, as the twisted perfection of Rory and Lorelei’s modern-girl small-town mundanities became ever more painful as they became ever less imaginable. So I turned to The L Word, which actually allowed me to escape my brain for sometimes 20-minute stretches at a time. I replaced my raggy pajamas with ribbed tanktops (covered by my precious dressing gown) and replayed over and over again hysterical scenes like the one in which they’re all sitting around The Planet mouthing off alternatives for a girl’s “pretty pink pearl.”
But remember, the subject of the The L Word is love. And so even the lesbian drama couldn’t provide refuge, partly because TV has become so good that it’s so utterly familiar. As I subjected myself to the dramatized relationships of The L Word, playing one episode after the other, I couldn’t not implicate myself—or, in many cases, my husband and his (for lack of a better term) mistress—into every wrenching scenario. So in season five, when Alice, in a relationship with the amazing Tasha, hops the back of that girl, Clea’s, scooter and flirts with her on a picturesque bridge on a spectacularly sunny LA day, the la-la-land high I was riding from seeing Shane and Molly Ford in their first, lusty throes of love careened into morbid revelation, whereby Alice became my husband and Clea “her.”
Such scenes threatened to undo so many expensive hours in which my therapist is painstakingly guiding my wounded soul away from the unnecessarily painful details and toward the bigger picture. But the truth is that these impeccably executed scenes forced me to empathize with the temptation my husband had been dealing with. Of course, the empathy—because I’ve been there myself—was strongly commingling with fury because, well, while I could describe several scenes from my own life that mirrored that between Alice and Clea, in the end, it wasn’t me who cheated and lied and snuck around. Hence, my messy, enduring but mostly private display of something resembling an ugly, raving, terribly unfortunate drug episode.
So what is it that I want? The answer to that is something between The Brady Bunch and Jem and the Holograms, favorite shows from my girlhood. I want to escape into a world where good old-fashioned family values will trump any old daily struggle, or to a world in which a woman’s primary mission in life is her rock band, not the pursuit of a man. There’s a line in Juno, in which Juno MacGuff, having learning that the couple who are adopting the baby growing in her adolescent stomach are breaking up, declares that she is losing faith in humanity. “I just need to know that it's possible that two people can stay happy together forever,” she says to her confounded but happy dad (happy, mind you, with his second wife, the first having abandoned him and the family years ago). I think it’s this level of banal, elementary comfort that I’m looking for now in my television.
My pre-adultery self can’t believe I’m writing this. Am I really calling for quaggy, overdone romance? Am I championing all that I and my generation, bred on soy milk and subversion, have made an extracurricular activity out of protesting Hollywood for: the picket fences and the nuclear endings? But what I’ve realized lately is that this love of surly-girl culture was coming from a place of privilege: a life, specifically, in which I hadn’t experienced first-hand the anguish of infidelity and the derangement of divorce. “There’s no innocence in divorce,” writes psychotherapist Richard Gilman in a 1995 paper about divorce and psychotherapy. And so goes my excuse for losing my critical faculties when it comes to TV. If I can’t find innocence in life, I will continue to channel surf for it; for proof that Amy Winehouse is not spot on when she sings, in one of my favorite songs of hers, that “Love Is a Losing Game.”
Emma Pearse is a contributing writer at New York magazine.