Although I have several other posts I plan to write soon, I had to write this one first.
Throughout S7 I read comments from several actors in this show that claimed that once Martin and Louisa reconciled and the “will they/won’t they” theme was resolved, the show would become boring. These statements are also voiced on the Bonus Features of the series 7 DVD. This stance seems founded on the notion that once the marriage has gained solid footing, there would be no way to develop conflict of the sort that creates good plots. I totally disagree with this position and am ready to do my best to argue against it.
I want to substantiate my view by the use of examples from past series of DM and from reminding all of us of past highly rated shows in which married couples in TV dramedies/comedies sustained audiences by using marital conflicts while also addressing important social and interpersonal topics. We all consider Doc Martin a show with excellent writing and acting, and we are dedicated viewers because of its quality. I find it hard to believe that writers of this caliber would be unable to think of first rate plots once this one was resolved.
There are many ways to add conflict to a marriage without forcing the issue of whether the pair will stay together. We’ve spent 7 seasons/series using that trope and it’s reached its “use by” date. It became stale at the beginning of S7, and the decision to prolong its resolution until the last scene of the final episode meant that S7 became filled with delaying tactics. Despite the assertion from Martin Clunes and others that S7 was, in their minds, the most well written of all the series, I did not consider it as excellent as S5. For me the most significant reason I was not as impressed was the fairly transparent effort to string out whether Martin and Louisa would reunite. As compared to S5, which I will go on record now as ranking the best of all, we viewers were forced to watch a lot of scenes with secondary characters and new characters that did not contribute to the primary plot. Instead we spent time with the holistic vet who hallucinated due to self-medicating, or Al having silly problems with his first guests at the B&B, or Bert once again struggling to serve dinners that would bring in more business to his floundering restaurant. All of these storylines came at the expense of seeing more of Martin and Louisa dealing with their difficulties.
In S5 we started with Martin joining Louisa as they took their baby home from the hospital. What ensued was the many demanding aspects of having a newborn who keeps everyone up at night, confuses and disrupts home life, and needs care when his mother returns to work. The introduction of Louisa’s mother Eleanor added the dimension of her relationship with her daughter and how it related to Louisa’s approach to parenting, as well as how she might be reacting to Martin. (The introduction of two new characters, Ruth and Morwenna, added welcome changes that have had enduring consequences.)
Eleanor is a character who brings into play how work impacts childrearing, how mothers provide role models (both positive and negative), and how difficult it is to reach a level of objectivity when one is confronting one’s mother. For me the contrast in mothering between Eleanor’s attitude and Louisa’s was used to great effect. When Louisa decides in E6 that she can’t stay with Martin, we have been through a series of conflicts between Martin and Louisa that involve the caretaker of the school along with Martin’s disdain for the school, the naming of the baby that includes his tacit disapproval of Louisa’s social status, and his neglecting to include Louisa in several major decisions about their lives as a couple. But it is only two episodes later when Mrs. T has her breakdown, abducts the baby, and Martin and Louisa join together to find him. S5 ends with their reconciliation in what I consider a tour de force conversation between Martin and Mrs. T with Louisa prompting Martin.
Throughout S5 there were many conflicts between this couple that reminded me of typical tense conversations between married couples. To me these were amusing as well as great embodiments of real life situations that we can all learn from. As Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air on NPR, said in a recent interview, we turn to literature and film as a means to hear someone speak really personally and have it affirm our experiences. We don’t need artificial impediments to having a couple stay together to engage in the consideration of important topics that impact us all. What S7 could have done is put Martin and Louisa in therapy where they actually learn something about each other, decide to reunite by E6 or even earlier, and then continue to battle their basic inclinations and demons until we arrive at some sort of agreeable place.
As for the many highly regarded shows that we can turn to for examples of marital strife that are both entertaining and identify important issues of their day, here are a few I would include:
I Love Lucy from the 1950s, in which Lucy wants desperately to perform like her husband. Lucy and Ethel experience many a laughable antic just to get Ricky’s attention. In the process of all the physical humor and absurdity, we also confront a mixed marriage and an immigrant’s change in status, the loyalty of friends, the awkwardness of family interactions, the difficulty of women trying to work outside the home, and the birth of a baby boy. There was no need to place the marriage in peril to find plenty of situations that qualified as conflicts that drove the plot.
The Honeymooners from the early 1950s. Hopefully this classic is one most of you are also familiar with. Ralph and Alice are a working class couple living in Brooklyn who often verbally joust but never actually become violent, and who generally make up by the end of each episode. Ralph’s anger would be replaced by short-lived remorse, and he would then apologize for his actions. Many of these apologies to Alice ended with Ralph saying, “Baby, you’re the greatest,” followed by a hug and kiss. In this show the travails of a couple having trouble making ends meet are brought to light. Ralph regularly comes up with money-making schemes that fail and at one point Alice has to find a job when Ralph is laid off.
A personal favorite of mine was Cybill, which ran for 4 seasons from 1995-1998, won many awards including 2 Golden Globes, and was canceled prematurely for no apparent reason. It had between 10 and 12 million viewers for most of its existence. Cybill has been married twice and has two daughters. She is divorced at the time of the show, however, both of her exes are still very much a part of her life. The show took on many women’s issues as well as neuroses, mother-daughter relationships, and female sexuality. There was plenty of conflict going on in the house while the women coped with handling the men and the daughters.
When we get to 2005, we can mention the TV series Parenthood which received strong reviews and lasted 6 seasons. Most critics thought the writing and show got stronger with each season, and Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker “cited its ability to be warm and sentimental without being dumb” as one of its strengths. It also had a strong soundtrack. There were many marriages as part of this show with a plethora of conflicts because the show revolved around three generations. The Braverman family faced a variety of hardships that require compromise, forgiveness and unconditional love. The show was nominated for many awards and won several of them.
Currently House of Cards contains a devious married couple whose marriage is not at risk even though there is infidelity and all sorts of chicanery. As I’m sure most of you know, the show deals with ruthlessness and power, especially in politics. It’s been wildly popular and received many awards. (It is based on a British show of the same name.)
I would also include Reggie Perrin because he is in a secure marriage while being disenchanted with his life. (Reggie Perrin is quoted as saying: “My marriage is like an aircraft’s black box. It’s mysterious, but completely indestructible.”) Since Martin Clunes plays the lead role in this remake, I probably don’t have to say much about it.
The above shows are certainly not an exhaustive list, but they are a good representation of the conflicts that could be sources of successful plots without any sign of any marital on again/off again dynamic.
I found the push-pull of the Martin and Louisa relationship highly entertaining and compelling for the first five series and had thought the conclusion of S5 had put it to rest. When S6 began with the wedding, I felt the show had taken the best route, but the steady decline into depression and moroseness of that series made me shake my head in disbelief. The effort to recuperate the show and its humor in S7 is a welcome reversal, but the interminable delay in Louisa’s decision to invite Martin back into the home was not necessary to keep viewers engaged and became harder and harder to tolerate. We understand Louisa’s hesitations and hurt feelings, but surely she would have relented before two months had passed. She’s tough throughout the previous series, yet she’s never been this hard to convince before and we’re hard pressed to accept that after hugging Martin regularly in E4, she would continue his exile from the family.
Originally posted 2015-12-15 11:31:45.