Television

The Clinton effect

Straying husbands are now paying a high price

ANDREW CLARK April 19 1999
Television

The Clinton effect

Straying husbands are now paying a high price

ANDREW CLARK April 19 1999

The Clinton effect

Television

Straying husbands are now paying a high price

ANDREW CLARK

The made-for-TV movie The Girl Next Door starts out as many a middle-aged man’s fantasy: in a moment of sudden passion, 45-year-old small-town doctor Arthur Bradley (Henry Czerny), has torrid sex with his next-door neighbour’s nubile 18-year-old daughter. For Fiona Winters (Polly Shannon), his maturity acts as an aphrodisiac. But his desire proves his undoing. Fiona is found murdered, and Arthur is pegged as a suspect. He then embarks on a desperate bid to clear his name, hide his sin and preserve his reputation—and his marriage. After all, his wife, Mary Bradley (Alberta Watson), has just given birth to their first child.

With that lurid plotline, The Girl Next Door, which CTV will broadcast on April 18, is the most flagrant example of the intergenerational adultery taking over prime time. Two new series—The City and Canadian director Ken Finkleman’s latest offering, Foolish Heart—also feature wandering husbands and much younger lovers. Granted, the love triangle, whatever the relative ages of the participants, is nothing new.

In Greek mythology, Zeus was always sneaking down off Mount Olympus for some earthly pleasures whenever Hera wasn’t looking. And extramarital shenanigans are a staple on TV: the daytime soaps could hardly exist without them. In the 1980s, Dallas arch-villain J. R Ewing used power and money to score lithe young companions, then casually discarded them. But now something new is happening. The men are no longer cavalier, and they are suffering for their indiscretions. Often, that punishment is being administered by their wives—independent, resourceful women who don’t need to put up with the philandering. They leave, take the kids, sue for money. “Ifs not that my wife will be angry and not love me,” says 40-year-old Czerny, interpreting his character’s fears. “She will leave.”

So what’s prompting TVs new infatuation with infidelity?

Call it the Clinton effect, for the obvious models for the philanderer and his strong spouse are none other than Bill and Hillary Clinton (even if she didn’t leave). The excruciating details of the President’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, laid out baldly in special prosecutor Ken Starr’s report, pushed the limits of what networks could broadcast, says Bill Mustos, vice-president of dramatic programming for CTV. “If Peter Jennings can talk about a semen-stained blue dress, why can’t prime-time drama go into the same categories?” he asks. “That kind of detail made the networks ease their standards.”

But they haven’t eased up on the cheaters. On CTVs new one-hour weekly drama The City, there are two wandering males. Jack Berg Qohn Ralston), is married to a hardworking Toronto city councillor, Katharine Strachan (Torri Higginson). Berg’s habitual adultery pushes their marriage to its breaking point and jeopardizes his wife’s political career. Strachan reacts to the news that her husband has conducted a string of affairs by having him jot down all the names of his lovers. If s a punishment born of pragmatism. She believes the list will

shield her from potential political embarrassment.

Meanwhile, middle-aged priest Shane Devlin (Aidan Devine) strains his vows of chastity and indulges in lip-lock with a teenage prostitute. (He also, in his days before joining the clergy, had an affair with Strachan.) In Devlin’s case, punishment comes in the form of severe self-torment and sexual frustration. On CBC TVs Foolish Heart, George Findlay, Finkleman’s alter ego, courts a similar fate. Findlay is a long-toothed, rampant narcissist who tries to prop up his sagging virility by bedding what his beleaguered wife refers to as a “younger version of me.” As a result, both lovers’ marriages are destroyed and Findlay, in particular, is left bewildered and alone.

Such TV philandering might make sense if it were inspired by reality, if grey-haired husbands were in fact stepping out in droves and bedding every Lolita they could charm. Evidence suggests otherwise. “American Sexual Behaviour,” a 1998 report by the University of Chicago, found that only 16.5 per cent of married people admit to cheating. In Canada, the figures are similar. The 1998 Maclean’s/CBC poll found that 12 per cent of Canadians have had an affair. That said, men stray more than women (16 per cent versus eight per cent) and older affluent men are prime candidates for sex outside marriage. “It allows

the older man to still feel attractive and virile,” says Toronto-based marriage counsellor Cindy Whalar. “They can deny the aging process.” While the intergenerational liaison may be a staple in the fortysomething fantasy, it is not a fixture in the minds of teenage girls, to whom the term “older man” conjures up images of, say, a 27-year-old. In TV land, however, wrinkled skin and receding hairlines are apparently a turn-on. To Winters, a tryst with an older man is a source of pride. “She almost wants the affair to come out,” says Shannon, the 25-year-old actor who plays the young seductress. Shannon adds that it required a leap of imagination to portray infatuation with an older man. “I would never have looked at my father’s friends,” she notes.

like the flawed and compulsive Clinton exposed in the Starr Report, TV’s new philanderers are troubled and wracked with self-doubt. Unlike Dallas's remorseless J.R, Czerny’s Arthur doesn’t want to cheat on his wife—the poor man just can’t help himself. He is in crisis, unhappy as a doctor and not sure if he will be a good father to his baby. Adultery provides an escape from his shortcomings. “He decides to go with his primal longings,” says Czerny, “and then begins to realize the Pandora’s box he’s opened up.”

With the new breed of adulterer comes a new TV wife—inspired in

part by the First Lady. The women have rewarding careers and, unlike their spouses, display superhuman self-control. In Foolish Heart, Findlay’s spouse is an intellectual who regards her husband’s cheating the same way she would the misbehaviour of an errant child. Arthur’s wife is a hardfisted shrew who orders her husband around the way a maître d’ directs a busboy. The unspoken implication: success, brains and maturity neuter female sexuality. Instead of loving mates, the wives are authoritative mommy figures.

And they are no more willing than many of their real-life counterparts to put up with bad behaviour. Thirty years ago, TV housewives did not leave; divorce was not even discussed. But today’s wives—both onscreen and off—will walk. “Because things are not as male-dominant or oriented, there is more of an equal balance,” says Bianca Rucker, a Vancouver-based marriage and family therapist who specializes in sexual issues. “It is not just men doing as they choose without consequences. Part of the drama is that the cost is so great. Men are very concerned with what kind of access they will have to their children.” This take on infidelity—the husband punished, the wife avenged— may owe its current popularity to what TV executives perceive as their main audience. The Girl Next Door’s Sunday-night time-slot attracts mainly female viewers. In that regard, television resembles another populist art form—the novel. When novels first appeared in the late 1600s, they were regarded as a female pastime. “Novels were considered trashy and a waste of time,” says Isobel Grundy, an English professor at the University of Alberta. “You can’t find anything that people say about TV today that wasn’t said about the novel in its early days.”

Novelists fought this stigma by inserting didactic morality into their work. A favourite plotline was the “fallen woman.” A young lady, in a moment of weakness, surrendered her virginity before marriage—and was ruined. In the post-Clinton world, the story is flip-flopped, with genders spliced and ages altered. By society’s rules, an older man should stem his desire for young flesh, but on TV he revels in it. His punishments can vary, but in any event he is publicly humiliated (in the Clinton vein). His bid to bolster his masculinity leaves him a broken and disgraced man.

It is this poetic justice that gives the drama its punch. When viewers see virtue rewarded and sin punished they extrapolate the consequences to their own lives. The result? A minor catharsis. Husbands feel better about staying loyal, wives enjoy seeing a wrongdoer reap the fruit of his adultery. All of which gravitates towards one of television’s favourite themes: that only virtuous people are truly happy. On the small screen, as in the early novels, all scores must be settled. Of course, that raises the question: what is punishment? To some extent, at least, Clinton got away with it, beating the impeachment rap, but he was deeply humiliated and history won’t be kind. Many of TVs flawed philanderers meet a similar fate. They may eventually save their marriage, they may even escape the law, but none can escape themselves. They know they have violated a trust and flagellate themselves accordingly. “I do think that the ClintonLewinsky thing is, in a sense, the same controversy,” says screenwriter Alex Boon, who began the script for The Girl Next Door before the scandal broke. “The preview screenings showed a split in opinion, some people felt Arthur got off scott-free and some people thought he’ll suffer for it for the rest of his life.” And TV viewers will likely be suffering through such plots for at least a season to come. □