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Prime-time TV gets in bed — and other places — with adulterers

Cheating spouses are prevalent on prime-time TV. Blame society's changing views on marriage and fidelity, and the shows' need to push boundaries to succeed.

December 28, 2011|By T.L. Stanley, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Damien Lewis and Claire Danes are part of an adulterous storyline in "Homeland."
Damien Lewis and Claire Danes are part of an adulterous storyline in "Homeland." (Kent Smith / Showtime )

A decorated American soldier — an Iraq war hero secretly turned terrorist — falls into a reckless affair with the CIA agent who's set on exposing him on Showtime's hit drama, "Homeland."

Principal players on CBS' "The Good Wife," the CW's "Ringer," ABC's "Revenge," Starz's "Boss" and AMC's zombie drama, "The Walking Dead," have sex outside their marriages, and no one on FX's "American Horror Story" can keep his pants on.

Even "New Girl," a Fox comedy, wouldn't be the "new girl" in an apartment with three strangers if her boyfriend hadn't cheated. She caught him in the act, as viewers see in a cringe-worthy flashback.

Prime-time TV is starting to look like an ad for Ashley Madison, the online dating service for married folks, where the message is, "Life is short. Have an affair."

To be sure, bed hopping as a plot point is nothing new. In fact, it's as old as storytelling itself (see: the Bible). But the proliferation of adultery on TV — seemingly occurring far more frequently than in real life — could be the result of a perfect storm of cultural and sociological factors, industry veterans and sociologists say.

Among those factors: Cynicism about marriage is rampant, and about half of all marriages end in divorce, a number that's remained steady for years. "Since the '60s and '70s, we've seen a general loosening of mores in this country and a cultural shift away from the core values of marriage, fidelity and monogamy," said Julie Albright, a sociologist at USC. "People believe marriages don't work anyway, so seeing affairs on TV kind of serves as a model for how things can and will go bad."

Marriage has never been less popular. A recent Pew Research Center study found that a record-low 51% of people older than 18 in the U.S. were married in 2010, a precipitous drop from 72% in 1960. If the trend continues, married people will no longer be the majority in a few years. New marriages decreased by a sharp 5% last year, and there are fewer married people in all age groups. The biggest decline has been among 18-to-29-year-olds, from 60% a half-century ago to the current 20%, perhaps illustrating that the younger generation has little faith in getting hitched.

The Journal of Family Psychology said recently that between 20% to 25% of married Americans will stray, though some estimates put that figure as high as 60%. (The research, mind you, depends on the willingness of those participating to come clean.)

As the culture changed, so has entertainment. Once-taboo subjects in our popular fiction — even incest, sadomasochism and necrophilia — are fair game. Networks and basic cable, feeling the heat from envelope-pushing premium channels and the porn-filled Internet, are becoming more explicit to compete for viewers. Perhaps to prove the point that there's little stigma remaining around the topic anymore, groups that often protest racy TV content are all but mum about cheating on the small screen.

"After getting hit with it repeatedly like Chinese water torture we become numb to what was shocking and offensive to us," said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, an outspoken group that monitors TV for content it finds objectionable. "Sexual conduct outside the scope of a committed relationship is ubiquitous as a plot line on TV. It's everywhere."

Network standards and practices executives are often more concerned with language and violence on TV programs that kids could be watching or imitating, industry veterans said. Adultery on its own wouldn't normally raise a red flag unless it were graphically depicted.

"The focus isn't so much on, 'Is the guy cheating?' but rather, 'How undressed is he?'" said Philippe Perebinossoff, a former ABC censor who's now a professor at Cal State Fullerton. "The debate is over what you can and can't show."

Lest anyone think that TV producers are not concerned about using adultery in their shows, consider this: many show runners contacted by The Times refused to discuss the topic, possibly for fear of an advertiser backlash or a PTC-style uproar. Those who did agree to talk about cheating in their stories, meanwhile, said they don't take it lightly. It has to serve a purpose, rather than being a salacious throwaway device. If used properly, adultery can be the best way to learn about characters' true natures, to advance a story, to depict a range of dramatic human emotions such as jealousy, rage, acceptance and forgiveness. After all, nothing cuts so deeply as a crime of the heart.

On FX's hit drama "Justified," producers carefully considered how their lanky hero, played by Timothy Olyphant, would get together with his ex-wife, who'd married someone else. They decided she had to initiate the affair, because it would tarnish fans' opinion to see deputy marshal Raylan Givens pursue another man's wife.

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