Is it me, or is there more love in the air than usual? Rose-colored glasses are everywhere, and not just from a V-day hangover or annual spring fever. The reality malaise is in full bloom, both on TV's small screen and life's big screen. Down with reality! We want escape!
Yes, reality TV's ratings are down consistently enough that we can safely call the genre "old school." Ha ha, remember the days we watched that stuff, kids? It's fading into the fabric of nostalgia along with embarrassing memories of the last president -- what was his name again?
If you're not sufficiently love-crazed yourself that you still crave facts, here they are. Generally speaking, reality is no longer drawing the eyeballs. The harder things get, the less viewers want it. Australia, which has arguably seen more tough times than other developed countries lately with the combination of recession and catastrophic fires, has seen the sharpest drop in viewership.
It appears we don't really want to know Howie Do It, and we don't want to watch firing shows based on firings; instead, we want to skip into the stuff dreams are made of. Escapism dances through new and old TV shows, through comedies and some new fantasy-rich dramas. And while sex and TV have always gone together like a horse and carriage, there's more fantasy sex than usual on the small screen right now.
In case you weren't at home on Friday night watching it, the highly anticipated (and highly disappointing) new Joss Whedon show, Dollhouse, follows an organization that employs mind-wiped, DNA-altered humans known as dolls, who are implanted with false memories and skills for various missions and tasks. It opens with an urban motorcycle race between a man and a long-haired woman (complete with clichéd, helmet-removal-hair-swinging moment), followed by a scene on the dance floor where the main character, Echo, is clad in a dress (or is it a top?) that, let's just say, my mother would not have let me out of the house in. The tagline of the show: "They can be anyone you want."
Sadly, this is no Buffy, Whedon's most famous, subtly smart, feminist, sexy and fantastical series. And I think one of the reasons it will bomb is not just that it pales in comparison to sexy vampire slayers or that it's on during the Friday night viewing graveyard, but because the idea that anyone would pay a small fortune for one date is a stretch right now. It seems so decadent, so Paris Hilton, so... 2007. Love and sex should be free, now, right?
Others are tuned into other comedies rich with sexytime twists. United States of Tara, the new-ish show produced by Steven Spielberg, is out to capitalize on Showtime's strength at creating quirky, character-driven comedies (Weeds, Californication). Toni Colette's character, Tara, who has multiple personality disorder, has lost her libido for her husband, but many of her alters haven't. She and her hubby have a rule that he can't have sex with the alters, especially the teenage personality, T, but that doesn't stop the alters from trying to seduce him. Different enough from your own life?
Or even in 30 Rock last week, Tina Fey's character concocted elaborate lies to get a date with Mad Men's Jon Hamm, who played a sexy, recently divorced pediatrician. And Alec Baldwin wanted to get into Salma Hayek's pants so much that he was willing to go to Catholic Church to get there. The Secret Diary of a Call Girl launched its second season this week, with Billy Piper's character more blissed out than ever about her chosen profession. And even on Gossip Girl, things are steamier than usual -- the new English teacher who previously praised 17-year-old Dan's writing, now praising rather more intimate skills.
"Newsflash: Whores and wanton hussies happier, more productive than ever! Bed-hopping tarts rule the small screen," is the headline of Heather Havrilesky's column in Salon this week. She writes, "We want to watch as wanton floozies cheat on their husbands, grope their much-younger lovers and have illicit dalliances with lesbian brides. We want to see classy courtesans put on maid uniforms and pee on prominent politicians. We want to gasp at the brazen, oversexed antics of the modern-day harlot, balancing her debauched profession with her everyday life.
"Of course these shameless tarts' stories are morality tales, just like they always were. But this time around, the moral of the story goes like this: Carpe diem, whores and tramplets! Get out there and grab every man, woman and man-child who strikes your fancy! As long as you lounge around in black lace, thigh-high stockings, smoking and brooding away your ample free time as the camera circles, we're behind you 100 per cent!"
And if we're turning from grit to fantasy on TV, we're mirroring that in real life (or wait, is it the other way around?) The fact is that sex and love can be cheap dates. You can't buy me love, right? Compound that with the fact that divorces and break ups (and cheating) soar in recessions, and you get more single people than usual lining up for those cheap thrill rides. Enter booming online dating sites and love-crazed masses.
No star-crossed lovers around you? Just look at some of the top cultural news stories this week for proof instead. There's an explanation of why millenials are obsessed with the Obama marriage (it represents the utopia of happy, romantic, egalitarian relationships), an analysis of the teen sexting epidemic (one in five teens has sent or posted naked photos of themselves, indicating either a new child porn epidemic or even greater teen narcissism complex), and a much blogged about story on what the disabled can teach the rest of us about sexual fulfillment.
But are recession-weary people looking for a little recreational bite from the love bug or the reality-obliterating effects of the love drug? In an art course I took, the prof told us about her friend, a therapist, who wouldn't see any clients when they were in the first six months of a new relationship. She considered them clinically insane. She had deemed it pointless to talk to them about new issues since the fireworks in their brains obliterated any rational thought, and wouldn't talk to them about ongoing issues since they were sure to forget any progress.
I have three friends right now newly dating. All three giggle incessantly, forget things, change topics mid-sentence (back to dating) and frequently stare into space dreamily. Of course, I and other friends in long-term relationships are jealous (but much happier this way, darling, in case you're reading).
"Oh that time when all you want to do is make-out..." sighed a married friend recently. "In six months, you're back to reality, but they're a good six months."
I guess if six months isn't enough time for the stimulus packages to work -- economic ones, that is -- we can just move to new loves or watch those on the small screen.
This post first appeared in The Tyee.