[13 February 2006]
Bravo’s Significant Others is tasty satire with an innovative format and unusual topic. An unscripted improvisation featuring four couples in and outside of marriage counseling, it’s like Curb Your Enthusiasm with multiple viewpoints.
The result is a series of fast-paced send-ups of marriage, family, therapy sessions, gender roles, and race stereotypes. The comedians playing the couples are sprightly, and their banter is wicked and smart. But the show is more than just group stand-up comedy. It uses narrative arcs and character development to encourage viewers to care about these couples, even as they’re obvious vehicles for satire.
In a perfect encapsulation of the show’s aesthetic, one of the executive producers and writers, Rob Roy Thomas, aptly says the best way to describe the show would be “sick but heartbreaking.” As we learn on his rather bland DVD commentary tracks (with co-executive producer and writer Jordana Arkin), the series ran for two seasons on Bravo and was too cool for school. Critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged, it suffered the “curse” of quality.
Rather than focus on monogamous couples with stable careers and affections, the series offers up unsteady couples who communicate through post-it notes. Some of the jokes are broadly drawn, such as secret previous marriages, affairs with a partner’s relatives, or a kid who calls his family’s maid “mommy.” But other struggles appear to be more “realistic,” like break-ups and make-ups, troubles balancing careers and relationships, and stress over whether or not to have kids. These couples face changing gender roles, uncertain labor markets and career paths, and nontraditional family structures, with blended units and complex kinship groups.
The post-it writers, Bill (Fred Goss) and Connie (Jane Edith Wilson), are particularly stubborn. They have landed in therapy after 15 years of marriage. After Bill is fired from his job, he starts an affair with his wife’s sister, and channels his creativity into doing embarrassing things in public (ranging from wearing bathrobes around town to flashing chest hair to public urination). It’s clear they will keep teetering on the brink, with separations and reunions not bringing their conflicts to any ends.
At the same time, Eleanor (Faith Salie) and Ethan (Herschel Bleefeld), about to become first-time parents, are reluctant to give up their own youth and immaturity, a situation that reaches hilarious proportions in geeky-hip Ethan’s efforts to spend his life inside video games. In two of the less compelling storylines, James (Brian Palermo) and Chelsea (Andrea Savage) struggle with the pressures of business and jealousy, while Alex (Nicole Randall Johnson) and Devon (Chris Spencer) learn how much they don’t know each other even though they are parents together.
Part of the comedic tension comes from the program’s switching back and forth between home life and therapy sessions. No one wants to change, but wants his or her spouse to do so. Jumping into a session like it’s a game, Ethan exclaims, “I’m not sure I have the will the change. Okay, let’s go.” Connie says of her hubby: “I want him fixed like a dog, that’s all I care about.” They frequently undercut each other’s self-promotions (Bill: “I have two close friends…” Connie: “No he doesn’t”).
Home scenes show them to be even less able to deal with each other without a therapist in the room, while therapy scenes have the couples speaking in direct address to the camera. We see them from the point of view of an unseen, unheard therapist. Here, the series invites us to be Dr. Phil, implying that we regularly pass judgment when watching TV, whether on the “real people” of reality TV and talk shows, or fictional characters.
By positioning the audience in this way, the show implicitly questions the devices by which TV conjures a sense of “reality.” On the commentary track, Thomas explains the series grew out of his experience making a short film and TV commercials using the same format. “Have you ever noticed the casting tapes are funnier than the commercials?” he asks. He does not provide much support for this claim, but his show showcases how TV creates “reality effects.”
While reality actors are usually playing themselves as “characters,” in Significant Others, actors play improv characters. Trying to push at the limits of spontaneity in performance, Thomas says he gives his actors general set-ups and lets them go, sometimes trying to surprise them by telling one actor a plot twist but only springing it on the other actor during the scene—in order to get even more spontaneous reactions in character (which starts to sound more like reality TV by the minute).
In a scene involving Ethan and Eleanor at the therapist’s office, she exclaims she’s pregnant. On the commentary track, Thomas notes he told Salie about the pregnancy, but not Bleefeld, and says the latter’s amplified surprise makes the improv more “genuine.” But Thomas’ claims fall a bit short. Bleefeld’s response isn’t so much “real” as his improv is more inventive. Still, the dynamic can help us think about multiple layers of performance, specifically, the complex, fraught, everyday social performances of husbands and wives.