There are 12 different TV series that have received at least one of the 24 nominations for the Outstanding Drama Emmy over the last four years: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Good Wife, Lost, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Friday Night Lights, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Downton Abbey, and House of Cards. They run the gamut of television, or “television,” meaning the scripted, sequential form of on-screen entertainment that’s become the dominant cultural vehicle in America: network series, basic cable, premium cable, DirecTV, Netflix. And they all have one thing in common, aside from their categorization as drama by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences: their protagonists cheat.
Is infidelity so prominent in human behavior that a long-running narrative alleging to show how people work just has to include it somewhere?
Or their protagonists are cheated on. Or their antagonists—because Walter White and Don Draper and Leering Southern Kevin Spacey stretch the acceptable definition of protagonist; at least, they should, though you might not know that from the surprising intensity of Team Walter White, aka Reddit—cheat/are cheated on. Either way, infidelity plays a major role in the plot and character development of the shows. In some cases, like on Mad Men and Game of Thrones, it almost seems to provide the entire texture of the plot; in others, like House of Cards and Homeland, it enables a crucial revelation or evolution. But what’s for certain is that contemporary television seems to have turned Tolstoy’s maxim in Anna Karenina on its head: that all happy families are alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. All the unhappy families are alike, too.
Seriously, though: Every single show nominated for Best Drama since 2010 had major characters cheating on each other. Why is that? Is infidelity so prominent in human behavior that a long-running narrative alleging to show how people work emotionally just has to include it somewhere? We’ll never truly know what percentage of people cheat, and this shouldn’t be a question of statistics, either: art isn’t sociology.
Or does it have to do with the birth and hegemony of the anti-heroes, the revelation—hey, people will watch characters do terrible things! they’re eager to watch characters do terrible things!—that enabled both some of the greatest narrative art of our time, the Mad Mens and Breaking Bads and Sopranos, as well as the half-boiled knockoffs like Ray Donovan and Low Winter Sun? Because infidelity is, even in our sexually actualized and monogamy-skeptic Ashley-Madison’d intellectual climate, still not viewed all that sympathetically in most cases. If your friend cheats on his girlfriend, you’re probably not applauding your friend, unless you’re a dick; you aren’t necessarily ending your relationship with your friend, but if you’re a good friend, you’re saying, “Hey man: you’re a dick.”
How about this: Infidelity is the perfect plot catalyst. It’s the one event both so dramatic and so mundane that it can’t help but spark a slumping writer’s room. (Death is also dramatic and mundane, but death affects actors’ contracts.) When you take two people, put them on a screen, make them have sex, then make one of them have sex later on with someone else, you are provoking a visceral, kinetic response both inside the imaginary universe of your show and inside the heads of your viewers (and writers). And when you take a series long enough—when you get three or four or five seasons into a show that began by giving its protagonist life-threatening cancer—you can’t just stand down. You've got to escalate, and infidelity—cheating, having sex with someone who isn’t the person you should be having sex with—escalates things. It is a secret, and secrets are thrilling, tangible, and sensual; it is a provocation, and, in the karmic world of narrative art, provocations must be answered.
Look no further than Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina for proof that this is nothing new. I mean, the Bible had about as morally ambiguous and eclectic a slate of infidelities as HBO’s winter programming. Human interaction is a constant dance of loyalty and betrayal, sometimes in the grand schemes of politics and statecraft and high school football, other times in the bedroom (or the backseat of a car) (or all the other places Don Draper has had sex). But: but. As the cheating trend gets more and more unavoidable—when The Bridge is making its protagonists stray for no possible rhyme or reason—I ask any brave showrunner or stoic producer to try and break the trend. At least get more creative. The Americans took infidelity and made it part of the job; the fidelity became illicit and deceitful. And The Americans is great.