Recently, New York Magazine reported that a 2016 study of two nationally representative groups of single Americans found 20% of respondents practiced some form of non-monogamy in their lifetime. YouGov found 31% of women and 38% of men surveyed said their ideal relationship would involve multiple partners at some point. Now, television is ready to explore what it's like to date—and even marry—outside the bounds of traditional monogamy.
Though this has popped up in a few television shows —Broad City's Ilana is vocal about open relationships, and No Tomorrow's Xavier explicitly brings up "ethical non-monogamy"—there are two recent series that are tackling the subject head-on. The web series Unicornland follows Annie (Laura Ramadei), a newly-divorced woman who explores her sexuality by dating couples. You Me Her, TV's "first polyromantic comedy" on Audience Network, is about a thirtysomething couple (Greg Poehler and Rachel Blanchard) who both fall in love with a grad student, grappling with what happens when polyamory comes out of the shadows and into the suburbs. A few years ago, if Americans wanted to explore this interest on television, the options were limited. The choices included Big Love, its reality show alter-ego Sister Wives, and the kinds of documentaries that, as You Me Her creator John Scott Shepherd explained in a phone interview, made their subjects seem like "fringe members of the sexual society."
Unlike either the subjects of said documentaries, Jack and Emma are squarely within the mainstream of their community, with respective high-powered jobs as an architect and Assistant Dean at a private school. Underneath, however, they're struggling to have a baby, dealing with a sex life so lukewarm that they even lie to their fertility counselor about how frequently they sleep together.
Jack's brother suggests that he fix their problem with an escort, which leads him to meet Izzy (Priscilla Faia); Jack confesses everything to Emma immediately after, who, like any scorned woman, decides to arrange her own date with Izzy, at the least to confront her. Instead, Emma becomes deeply enthralled, which sets the stage for the three of them to explore a business arrangement and, as the series goes on, a relationship.
At first, You Me Her seems like a clichéd and relaxing break from reality; the protagonists are affluent and white, the couple's first stabs at threesomes proceed in a blur of musical montages, and there are numerous romantic-comedy tropes (including an airport chase scene). Creator John Scott Shepherd, however, is intent on puncturing those beautiful surfaces. The series really gets interesting when the music stops and Jack, Emma, and Izzy are forced to contend with whether their relationship is a real three-way commitment, or a way for each of them to avoid their individual and collective fears: of growing up, starting a family, and possibly having to live with making wrong decisions.
You Me Her is committed to showing the honest frustrations and realities about this non-traditional relationship. Izzy's concerns over whether she's an equal partner or just a plaything in Jack and Emma's marriage are entirely understandable, but it never seems to occur to her that perhaps it might be not only awkward, but life-changing, for the couple to welcome her openly into their lives. On the other hand, it also doesn't seem to occur to Jack and Emma that their desire to hide this relationship may be robbing Izzy of her own twenties.
That tension, according to Shepherd, was by design. He wanted to explore what would happen "if you dropped this pretend toad into the real garden where there are real stakes. Where people have real jobs, and real friends, and real communities…to do something that's off the beaten path, or different than what the rest of their tribe is doing. What would that look like in the real world?"
Unicornland's tensions, by contrast, are more internal. The title isn't a nod to the magical creature, but to the moniker given to a single person who has sex with couples. The series follows Annie, freshly divorced and exploring the sexuality she stifled during her marriage. Each short episode is centered around a date (or club encounter, or sex party) with a different couple, each couple and each situation a stepping stone for Annie on her sexual and emotional journey.
Unicorns may be rare, but Annie's adventures are all too relatable. She's awkward and tentative at first, rushing to the bathroom at the beginning of the series' first date and psyching herself up on the mirror: "You're beautiful. They're attracted to you. You're a young, grown up women. You can do this." It's not clear whether she's getting ready for a date or to ask her boss for a raise, but who among us hasn't interrupted a flagging date with a mirror pep-talk?
Web series only have so much space, and it's tempting to wonder what the episodes would look like with more recurring characters, more room for emotional stakes and more time to let the stories play out further. It's fascinating to follow Annie's journey, but, possibly because of the short episodes, it sometimes feels like each moment of growth happens so quickly.
Still, the couples are diverse and it's a pleasure to watch Annie's comfort level increase as the series goes on. In the first couple of episodes she seems eager to please, to achieve like she's gunning for an A in dating. With time, her confidence builds: she heads to a club bathroom with a couple she's picked up on a dance floor or spends a lazy afternoon in bed with a college friend and her girlfriend. She finally has agency, and it's a cathartic viewing experience.
As creator Lucy Gillespie put it in a phone interview, "In the beginning especially, what Annie's doing is really just fucking around. As she continues, I think that anybody who does something for long enough is gonna look into what that is. If you play the piano long enough, you might start to think about music theory."
Both series creators report positive feedback from their non-monogamous viewers. Gillespie says, "We've been showered with support and love. The only negative stuff that I've heard is that it's another woman dating couples, but again, the series is sort of about my experience. As a creator, you get to choose what the series is about, so sorry, buddy. Write your own series."
Shepherd has even heard from poly recappers who review every episode. They seem to like it because "it's not a show about threesomes. It's a show about a romantic relationship between three people." Poly viewers appreciate that, as Shepherd continued, "they're not portrayed as sexually obsessed, or deviant … They really respond to that. That makes me feel good." Follow Ilana Novick on Twitter.