ICYMI: The Charming Poly Rom-Com You Me Her Reveals the Biggest Problem with "Peak TV"

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ICYMI: The Charming Poly Rom-Com <i>You Me Her</i> Reveals the Biggest Problem with "Peak TV"

In 2016, the AUDIENCE Network debuted a half-hour polyamorous romantic comedy (or “polyromantic comedy”) called You Me Her, starring Greg Poehler, Rachel Blanchard and Priscilla Faia. Officially, the series is inspired by a 2012 Playboy article by John H. Richardson titled “Sugar on Top” but its premise, execution, and tone bear very little resemblance to the source material. Creator John Scott Shepherd took a jaded (at least on Richardson’s part), Girlfriend Experience-esque tale of transactional relationships and turned it into an earnest “boy and girl meet girl” (or, “girl meets boy and girl”) love—not lust or like—story.

Reading Richardson’s article and watching the pilot of You Me Her, it would be impossible to tell that the two have anything to do with each other and all. Yes, both consider the concept of a three-way relationship (a “throuple”) between a married couple and a younger outside party: You Me Her sees Jack (Poehler) and Emma (Blanchard) enter into a polyamorous relationship with Faia’s twentysomething grad student, Izzy. But while “Sugar On Top” is specifically about a sugar baby/sugar daddy/sugar mama dynamic—and the short shelf life of these relationships—You Me Her, now entering its fourth season (of a planned five), introduces Izzy as a reluctant escort who ultimately enters into a real relationship with Jack and Emma, one the characters try to make a lasting one, despite not knowing how it should or could look. And while Izzy has some growing up to do—especially compared to Jack and Emma, who live in the suburbs of Portland, Ore. and are planning to have kids—there’s none of the grooming or mentoring common in the sugar baby world.

In truth, though the first season leans on the characters’ sexual relationship(s) more than subsequent seasons, You Me Her is not a show about sex and titillation. It’s about romance and love and all that crap: The series is so committed to the rom-com genre that there’s even, at one point, a last-minute dash to the airport. Shepherd somehow managed to find the heart in an article that otherwise lacked it (and, in my view, judged its subjects in the process). He took a story about superficiality made it into a bona fide love story.

You Me Her’s trajectory is the opposite of Neil LaBute’s Billy & Billie, another “taboo” rom-com—in this case, about step-siblings in love… and much darker—which also aired on AUDIENCE, albeit for only one season, followed by a truly bizarre epilogue/series finale special almost a year later. (According to LaBute, Billy & Billie wasn’t “canceled,” but fell victim to its cast members’ schedules— a problem that presumably could have been avoided if it had received an immediate two-season renewal like You Me Her.) Billy & Billie was pretty much what you expect from LaBute: Bleak, cynical, full of untapped potential. But at the center of both series was the question of whether the core relationship was the right decision for those involved. The difference, in You Me Her, is that the series itself roots for its protagonists to make their unconventional relationship work. It doesn’t make it easy for them to do so, but it is invested in their success: While the phrase “just a phase” may have come up, Shepherd and company make perfectly clear that it’s not the answer, and if the series entertains the idea, it’s ultimately to topple it.

When the series begins, Jack and Emma are barreling toward 40, realizing that their one-year break from trying to have a baby is now a three-year break, and having trouble being intimate at all. They very much love each other, but for whatever reason, they’re no longer as in-sync as they used to be. On his older brother’s advice, Jack hires an escort—though sex isn’t in play—to help him get his confidence back, and he and Izzy hit it off tremendously. So tremendously that a guilt-ridden Jack immediately confesses to Emma, who then sets off to figure out what Jack liked so much about this young woman, and hits it off with Izzy, too. Izzy ends up with very complicated feelings for her two very married clients and vice versa, especially as the three try to keep their developing romance a professional arrangement.

While Jack, the series’ literal straight man, doesn’t struggle with his sexuality, he struggles to figure out how to live his life in defiance of the norm after doing everything that society and his upbringing told him he was “supposed” to do. Emma, on the other hand, has to grapple with the late-in-life realization that the romantic relationships she had with women before she met Jack weren’t “just a phase.” (For his part, Jack has to accept that his wife is bisexual—and not a lesbian that settled with him until she could find the perfect woman.) Of course, their entire relationship is called into question as they both fall for Izzy, despite remaining in love with each other. And Izzy not only has to deal with her own sexual awakening—Emma is the first woman she’s been with—but also the fear that she may only be interested in Jack and Emma as a way of avoiding a “real” or “normal” relationship.

Despite the high drama, though, You Me Her’s sense of humor spans from broad to so specifically strange. The latter is best exemplified by the passage of time in the series: Jack, Emma, and Izzy go through an emotional rollercoaster—declarations of love, questions of “what next?”—in the first season, only for the viewer to learn that the whole thing takes place in a span of 10 days. When Season Four begins, it’s revealed that only a year has passed since the beginning of the story. Jack, Emma, and Izzy aren’t weird because they’re in a polyamorous relationship. They’re weird because they fast-forward said relationship, while their (very supportive) friends wonder how they can even function in the world, throuple or not. Indeed, the supporting cast is as integral to the series as the leads: Jack, Emma, and Izzy are each allowed to have substantial, separate relationships with their best friends, played by Ennis Esmer, Jennifer Spence, and Melanie Papalia, respectively, which is another way You Me Her stands out from other rom-coms.

This is all quite the feat, one that might attract more attention if more people were aware that AUDIENCE exists: For a comedy series about polyamory that doesn’t shame it or make it a punchline to be this far under the radar is baffling. This isn’t a Big Love situation, a serious cable drama with limited appeal. This is a light romantic comedy about three people who are in love with each other, one that explores the spectrum of sexuality and identity and self-discovery in a way that doesn’t often get explored in more mainstream series. And it’s also not as though the cast is a bunch of total unknowns: After a versatile, decades-long career You Me Her finally gives Blanchard the leading role she deserves; Poehler, brother of Amy, wrote and starred in his own NBC series (Welcome to Sweden) in 2014; and Faia was a series regular on the ABC cop drama Rookie Blue. But the conundrum of “peak TV” is that the proliferation of series and networks/platforms has made accessing specific shows more difficult (see also: The Good Fight): Hearing about and being interested in a TV series doesn’t guarantee an ability to see it, or the willingness to pay for it.

AUDIENCE is among the nichest of the niche: Despite establishing itself as the network that saved acclaimed series like Damages and Friday Night Lights from cancellation, as well as an original programming slate starring Ron Livingston, Mira Sorvino, and Brendan Gleeson, among others, it lacks what’s called “brand awareness.” Which is unfortunate for a charming series like You Me Her. There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s an audience for the series, and its five-season run on AUDIENCE suggests that it’s something of a hit for the network. But the series is only available to watch via AT&T video platforms like DirecTV and U-Verse, international (not American) Netflix, or DVD—which makes bringing new viewers into the fold much more difficult. You Me Her is, sadly, an object lesson in how shows fall through the cracks when there’s more TV—and more good TV—than ever.

Season Four of You Me Her premieres Tuesday, April 9th at 10 p.m. on AUDIENCE Network.

Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.