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Just as the concept of polyamory is many things to many people, so is Showtime's current series Polyamory: Married & Dating. It's alternately hilarious, shocking, poignant, titillating and cringe-inducing. But it's also important.
Polyamory and the range of ways it can manifest itself in its practicing groups, and then still, what it means to each person inside these groups, is not an easy thing to telegraph. This show lays it out as carefully as possible in its profiling of two multi-person committed relationships. It works not just as the freak show that we've come to expect from reality TV, but also on a political level. The slippery slope anti-equality argument stating that if gays are allowed to marry, then soon we'll have to allow multiple partners to as well, is bullshit not just for side-stepping the issue – if you believe in the fundamental principle of sexual equality, that it doesn't matter what people do in their bedrooms as long as they aren't hurting others, there is no legitimate ethical argument against the kind of configurations you see presented on Polyamory. If you don't want polyamory, stay out of a triad. Simple.
The "mind your own business" mindset gets complicated when those involved make their private lives public. But then, the lives portrayed here are perfectly suited for the format. Reality TV typically forces its participants to examine themselves closely. In extreme cases, those on screen are deprived of outside stimulation so that their focus turns to the social politics of their living situation. At the very least, those on reality TV are made to sit through marathon interviews picking apart the nuances of their behavior and its motivation. Never have I seen a situation that naturally fits this format as well as that of Showtime's currently airing . As Tahl explains in the video above, "Jen and I have our rules. Mike and Kamala have their rules, but now not only are you just bringing two couples together – it's a four-way dynamic. And so, it makes it more complicated." With their intricate configuration, these people would have to openly and routinely examine their and their partners' emotional situations, with or without cameras pointed at them. The show was already going on.
The emotional articulation of the four described people makes for riveting viewing – not since the early days of The Real World have I been so obsessed with watching people sit around and babble about themselves and their lives, nor have I so deeply lamented that they only do it for 30 minutes once a week. Their self-consumption is infectious.
Keeping track of the rules makes this non-competition series something of a game. As it unfurls steadily, slowly revealing new offshoot scenarios that can affect or avoid the central relationship dynamic, Polyamory builds intrigue. Aside from some declarations of love, and some shoulder stroking, it is as yet unclear just how much sexual contact the two men of this quartet, Tahl and Michael, engage in. Meanwhile, the more Jen reveals, the more mind-boggling her participation in this whole thing is. Looking like an exact mix of Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph who's always about to cry and who wears her relative frigidity on her sleeve (or, in the case of the scene above, around her neck as represented by a scarf), she is a stick in the mud (but not the butt). She says things like, "Penetration is a big deal for me," and looks dour during the sex that's presented routinely on the show, softcore style. At one point, when Kamala is riding Tahl, she asks, "Do you need me to slow down, Jen?" Jen responds, "Um," and then murmurs yes, spoiling the entire point of everything.
Jen's behavior is extreme for an extreme show in a genre that is fueled by extreme human behavior. And for that she is the breakout. In her meek way, she rules the roost since, as Kamala (a sex therapist, by the way) notes, their group goes "as slow as the person with the shortest legs." Jen's a self-inflicted amputee, a sado-masochist who doesn't need whips or chains. She is as infuriating as she is fascinating.
Polyamory's pleasures aren't entirely cerebral – in fact, its trash appeal is key. The Real Sex-esque sex aside, you could create a drinking game that would get you so bombed as to consider polyamory yourself (if you haven't already) from just taking a shot every time someone says something that was spawned from and exists only in this universe (Kamala: "When Michael said that I was acting monogamous, I was like, who are you talking about? I'm the queen of poly. Who are you calling mono?"). Even better is the poly lingo. The male-female-female thruple of Anthony, Lindsay (a married couple) and Vanessa (their girlfriend) regularly say things like "honoring the function of the triad" and "new relationship energy" and, "I think you can be grateful about this pain."
This triad has issues similar to the foursome: uncertainty, jealousy and how outside relational offshoots affect the foundation of the group. Anthony and Vanessa (who seem to be way less connected than Lindsay and Vanessa) team up to cut off Lindsay from her new boyfriend, Krystof, and the rationale is all very convoluted. Vanessa is just jealous, ultimately. In a moment of canned interview clarity, she tells the camera, "I'm running up against the fact of polyamory, which is that I have to practice what I preach and open up the door for Lindsay to love someone new." Of course, she's also being called on to practice what she practices. Except, it's different for her than it is for her partners.
The tangles keep tangling, and the ways that these lives deviate and intersect with society's idea of normal relationships keep spiraling. As Anthony explains, "The problem isn't so much that I'm not the marriage type; marriage isn't my type. It's not my fault that marriage has such a narrow definition now. You should never be telling people how to live their private lives, tell them what kind of family should have. And it's amazing that most people accept this but can't make the connection with poly."
While the show illustrates the emotional complications and possible turmoil that result from loving more than one person, it humanizes those involved to a degree that we've never seen. It is at once a cautionary tale and an argument for the freedom to participate in these kinds of living/loving situations. As such, it is as complicated, strange, hilarious and involving as these situations clearly are themselves.