Here’s a bit of good news for U.S. productivity: Shonda Rhimes doesn’t think you should live your life the way characters on TV do.
On Rhimes-produced shows like Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder, sex with colleagues and bosses — including a boss who was president of the United States — is so common it’s a wonder anyone with a job ever gets anything done.
Scandal will depart in April, leaving us with only memories, and streaming reruns, of steamy Oval Office escapades between Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope and Tony Goldwyn’s now-former President Fitzgerald Grant. Two more Shondaland shows, For the People and Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Station 19, arrive on ABC next month. Don’t expect much else to change in the way Rhimes and her fellow producers deal with their characters in the wake of revelations about sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood and beyond.
Asked last month whether TV needed to reflect the idea that work might not be “a great place … to date,” Rhimes wasn’t interested in playing along.
“I think work isn’t the place to shoot people in the face, either,” the producer told reporters during an ABC session at the Television Critics Association’s winter meetings. “Seriously. I think there’s a lot of stuff that goes on at work on these shows that are not appropriate for the real world.”
Do tell. I mean, if you were admitted to a hospital where the doctors behaved like the ones on Grey’s Anatomy, wouldn’t your first move be to call for a second opinion — and maybe a bucket of cold water?
Putting aside the question of whether consensual workplace relationships, real or imagined, should ever be lumped in with the abuses alleged to have been committed by Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and too many others, I’m guessing more of us watch television to escape thoughts of work than to pick up tips for how to behave while we’re there.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wish for a little more for my favorite TV characters, including the possibility of a satisfying relationship that doesn’t end up in bed.
When I first fell for Mozart in the Jungle, the classical music-themed comedy whose fourth season premiered on Amazon on Friday, one of the things I enjoyed most was the relationship between Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), the young oboist who hoped to win a place in the show’s fictitious New York Symphony, and charismatic conductor Rodrigo De Souza, whose yerba mate she ends up preparing instead as she settles, temporarily, for a job as his assistant.
Rodrigo may never have learned to pronounce her name properly, but he appeared genuinely interested in Hailey as a person and a performer, not as a potential conquest. She wanted to play the oboe with the orchestra, and he wanted to help her get there.
He encouraged her honesty, and returned the favor by telling the truth about her skill level, even when it hurt.
Keeping the maestro in hot drinks, and sometimes out of hot water, might not have been Hailey’s dream, but in those early episodes, Rodrigo was a dream boss and mentor — particularly when contrasted with his philandering predecessor, Thomas Pembridge (Malcolm McDowell), whose affair with cellist Cynthia Taylor (Saffron Burrows) felt cliched by contrast.
If only the dream had lasted. I still can’t believe I was naive enough to think a workplace relationship between attractive people on TV could ever remain platonic. You’d think I’d never seen The X-Files. Or ER. Or Bones.
Mozart in the Jungle, inspired by oboist Blair Tindall’s memoir, proved to have better things in store for McDowell’s character, whose postdivorce relationship with Gloria Windsor, the orchestra president played by Bernadette Peters, has been a far less predictable delight. But it couldn’t resist the opportunity to play the will-they-or-won’t-they game with Hailey and Rodrigo.
Spoiler alert (especially for those who haven’t seen last season’s finale): As the new season opens, the game is over. They have.
It’s a season that takes the principal players to Japan, and features Masi Oka (Heroes, Hawaii Five-0) as a tech mogul with an idea that could almost have been designed to drive Rodrigo nuts. And though I had qualms about Mozart doubling down on the Rodrigo-Hailey story line, with Rodrigo declaring himself “the boyfriend” and pursuing a relationship with Hailey that is likely the healthiest of his storied romantic career, I appreciate that the writers don’t gloss over the fact that what might be good for him isn’t necessarily good for her.
Now an aspiring conductor, Hailey’s as eager to distance herself professionally from her new boyfriend as he is to trample any remaining boundaries between them, so that when he asks her to continue working as a substitute oboist “because the orchestra really misses you,” she refuses.
“We don’t have to leave each other’s orbit, you know. We could orbit each other’s orbit,” says Rodrigo.
“Someday, yes. But right now, people see you as, like, a star. And me as a piece of space debris,” she tells him.
“That’s what stars are made of,” he responds. Yes, he’s as adorable (if as clueless) as ever.
It’s telling that Thomas, who’s been coaching Hailey, has no trouble recognizing that dating a world-famous conductor might not be good for her professional future. He’s undoubtedly been the power player in his own pre-Gloria relationships: He knows whose career can take a hit, and it’s almost never the maestro’s.
Hailey, still smarting from not winning a permanent spot with the orchestra, could have other reasons for not wanting to continue to play as a substitute, but already her personal life is affecting her professional one as she attempts to keep the two separate.
This, to be clear, isn’t some #MeToo situation. Hailey’s not being exploited; Rodrigo, who’s having artistic issues of his own, is not taking advantage. It’s not her fault she fell in love with her former boss, or his that his fame means she may be taken less seriously because she’s at his side.
This is just the way the world works, not only in orchestras, but in offices and anywhere else people might meet on the job. Even when people aren’t famous, or insanely gifted, things can get messy.
And, really, why should we look to TV to play the role of human-resources watchdog?
Grey’s Anatomy isn’t in its 14th season because the medical stories are so educational. The sheer number of couples it’s paired off might be staggering, but it’s never shied away from the conflicts inherent in those relationships.
As for Mozart in the Jungle, Rodrigo and Hailey are pretty cute together.
That the show is willing to acknowledge the complications, not just the comedy, of their full-on romance only makes me love it that much more.