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Workplace Romances on TV: Why #MeToo Doesn’t Change Things for Shows Like ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’

The office is a complicated place to find love, but the love stories we've enjoyed for decades have no resemblance to actual stories of abuse and harassment.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in "The X-Files."

Ed Araquel/FOX

In the eleventh season of Fox’s “The X-Files,” fans of the unique bond between FBI agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) were privy to a unique moment in the show’s history — a scene in the episode “Plus One” that contained too much evidence to dispute that at least in this one instance, the erstwhile partners enjoyed a physical interlude beyond their previously established platonic state.

After over 200 episodes, two movies, and giving birth to a child who they certainly think is theirs biologically (yeah yeah, hush up about the Season 11 premiere, at least for the moment) the question of whether or not Mulder and Scully have ever (to use a phrase only someone crass and tasteless would use) “gone to Pound Town” now seems relatively moot.

But it’s taken on a whole new flavor here in the year 2018, as the #MeToo movement has many of us examining not just our interactions with others, but some of our favorite love stories, which might now read as overly problematic compared to the era in which they began.

Mulder and Scully may be top of mind right now due to the current revival series, but they’re just one couple in a grand pantheon of television love stories born at the workplace. After all, for decades, shows that might not be defined as romances have still found themselves exploring what happens when adult humans find themselves romantically interested in their colleagues, either implicitly or explicitly.

THE X-FILES: L-R: David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in the "Plus One" episode of THE X-FILES airing Wednesday, Jan. 3 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Shane Harvey/FOX

Throw a rock and you’ll find an example of this: Just a quick scan of the Wikipedia page for Jack McCoy, the District Attorney played by Sam Waterston for sixteen seasons on the original “Law & Order,” will reveal a history of him hooking up with his ADAs (and dealing with the subsequent consequences). Meanwhile, more modern procedurals like “Bones” and “Castle” were built not just around their crimes of the week, but the partnership bond between their two leads that in both cases led to romance.

When IndieWire ranked our favorite TV love stories of the last 25 years, the mix didn’t overwhelmingly favor office romances — instead, they were equally balanced with romances that began after two people met through school or through friends.

That said, not only was the workplace a common meeting location for couples like “Parks and Recreation’s” Ben and Leslie and “Grace and Frankie’s” Sol and Robert, there were a ton of iconic relationships which didn’t make the list, from Jim and Pam on “The Office” to Stan and Peggy on “Mad Men” to the granddaddy of them all, Maddie and David on “Moonlighting.”

Recent studies on how real-life couples meet these days have found that online dating isn’t the number one way — instead, it’s through friends, as many studies revealed. However, it isn’t totally unheard of for workplace romances to occur, with the current statistics showing nine percent of couples met at the office.

Of course, if you’re a character on a show produced by Shonda Rhimes, the likelihood that you’ll meet your partner through your job shoots up to like 110 percent — Rhimes’s shows have always blended sex and work, beginning back in 2005 with “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Right away, the very first episode of the epic-running ABC medical drama introduces the off-again, on-again relationship between fledgling surgical resident Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), which begins as a one-night stand before Meredith finds out that he’s an attending physician at her hospital… at which point she tells him it’s inappropriate for them to date. (That’s a common pilot trope, also seen on shows like “Quantico.”)

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by ABC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886266ah) Patrick Dempsey, Ellen Pompeo Grey's Anatomy - 2005 ABC-TV USA Television

As fans of the series know, the story doesn’t end there, but the show openly acknowledges the problematic aspects of their relationship right from the beginning. Here’s a bit of banter from Season 1, Episode 2, as an example:

Meredith: I’m not going out with you.
Derek: Did I ask you to go out with me? [beat] Do you want to go out with me?
Meredith: I’m not dating you. And I’m definitely not sleeping with you again. You’re my boss.
Derek: I’m your boss’s boss.
Meredith: You’re my teacher! And my teacher’s teacher! And you’re my teacher.
Derek: I’m your sister. I’m your daughter.
Meredith: You’re sexually harassing me.
Derek: I’m riding an elevator.
Meredith: Look. I’m drawing a line. The line is drawn. There’s a big line.
Derek: So, this line. Is it imaginary or do I need to get you a marker?

And then they start making out in an elevator.

Those are the facts of the scene — except they don’t include the performances, the actual feel of the moment. For that, you have to go to the actual tape:

When you look at the dialogue as just words, it’s pretty awkward — especially the part where Meredith flat out says “you’re sexually harassing me” and Derek seemingly dismisses her valid concerns about the power differential between them. But on screen, Dempsey and Pompeo’s chemistry and body language make it clear that Derek’s interest in her is not unwanted, and that while her concerns are valid, there’s no coercion in play here.

For the same reason that the young couple of “Knocked Up” doesn’t get an abortion after finding out that they’re pregnant, the young doctors of “Grey’s” are far from celibate, because the theoretical point of the series is to investigate what happens when doctors who probably shouldn’t be sleeping together cross the line anyway. It pretty much consumes the show’s narrative drive, especially as other workplace romances arise.

Since that first year of “Grey’s,” Rhimes and her production company Shondaland have produced hundreds and hundreds of hours of television, all of them shows centered around one workplace or another and the characters who live and love within them. Within those hundreds of hours, there are plenty of instances where a workplace relationship or a relationship between two people on unequal footing might have crossed into inappropriate territory (take the tempestuous nature of Olitz on “Scandal” as just one massive example). But that’s basically the point.

Rhimes doesn’t think that the topic, at least as her shows explore it, is really that tricky to decipher. “I think when it happens, we talk about it. And when it doesn’t happen, we don’t,” she told reporters at the Television Critics Association Winter press tour. “The exposition versus the exploitation of power, I think we deal with it. I think that’s what you are watching. You are watching people deal with those relationships. I mean, in the other shows, that’s literally what the stories are all about. I don’t know how you are going to lay those things out in your show, but I think there’s a different storytelling.”

Shonda Rhimes ABC 'For the People' TV show panel, TCA Winter Press Tour, Los Angeles, USA - 08 Jan 2018

Rhimes didn’t give a blanket endorsement to workplace romances. “I think work isn’t the place to shoot people in the face either. 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,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of things on television that could reflect the real world in a much stronger way, and there’s a lot of things that we do on our shows that I think are much more reflective of the way, for instance, women actually behave, people should actually behave towards each other, and people say the things that really shouldn’t be said.”

Utlimately, she feels, “I think it’s very clear what’s okay and what’s not.”

It’s something workplace comedies like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” dealt with explicitly as well — what constitutes appropriate versus inappropriate. In fact, this was a major source of drama for the early days of Ben (Adam Scott) and Leslie’s (Amy Poehler) relationship, which eventually led to them being officially disciplined for the lines that they crossed, given that Ben was technically Leslie’s supervisor and they knowingly violated department rules about interoffice relationships.

Maybe the fact that Mulder and Scully were never “officially” a romantic paring kept them from having to deal with the FBI’s human relations department, but while their unique partnership is an iconic part of television history, there are moments which haven’t aged well over the last 20-plus years.

For example, one of the show’s favorite running jokes during the early seasons was that Mulder was a bit obsessed with pornography, which led to a scene in the Season 1 episode “The Jersey Devil” where Mulder flashes a porn magazine centerfold at Scully. “This woman claims to have been taken aboard a spaceship and held in an anti-gravity chamber without food and water for three days,” he says.

Scully’s reply is wry, seemingly unoffended: “Anti-gravity is right.” But it’s only one instance of potential line-crossing that was played lightly at the time, and in fact pointed to as a sign that Mulder and Scully were far more than professional colleagues, comfortable with bantering together about sex and other personal matters.

That all happened with the actual nature of their relationship going seemingly undefined, though certainly by the end of the first season, they clearly have a personal connection, evidenced by them continuing to find ways to connect despite being separated as partners — not to mention the fact that when Scully gets abducted in Season 2, Mulder’s reaction cannot be described as that of losing a work colleague.

The ultimate takeaway is that the ongoing relationship Mulder and Scully share might have had its ups and downs, but while their personal and professional relationships did get tangled, the show did acknowledge those moments at times, especially when Scully’s health was on the line or Mulder’s own romantic past raised its Mimi Rogers-shaped head.

Those episodes, airing in the late ’90s, perhaps represented a dramatic peak for “The X-Files,” one which I personally ate up at the time. In fact, there was an extended period of time when it seemed like all of my favorite on-screen love stories were technically workplace romances — instead of watching romantic comedies, I would live for the sprinkles of Will They/Won’t They moments we would get from shows like “The West Wing” or “House.” Even a couple like Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and Torres (Roxann Dawson) made “Star Trek Voyager” (never my favorite “Star Trek” series) must-see viewing every week.

What I liked about those stories wasn’t necessarily the idea that falling in love at the workplace was taboo, but that it added an extra sense of adventure to the journey. That said, I was young at the time — unaware of just how much of an adventure the process by which two people find each other and create a lasting bond is, without any outside complications.

With more experience under my belt, I’ve come to respect that fact, as well as how those “outside complications” aren’t really all that much of an aphrodisiac, in the real world. When shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “Grey’s Anatomy” confront the fact that finding love at the office isn’t a simple matter of chemistry and passion, it’s a refreshing reminder that life is about more than falling in love.

But there’s ultimately one key element to this. Sometimes, having a relationship with your co-worker might be a bad idea, but all of the examples above have one massive thing in common: They represent consensual relationships. They might be consensual relationships with issues, but they don’t represent a person with power over their subordinates using said power to abuse said subordinates. While every company’s HR policies may vary, for the most part workplace romances are often permissible, as long as they’ve been properly disclosed and don’t take place between a direct supervisor and subordinate. Oh, and most importantly: As long as both parties are on board.

That’s essentially what Rhimes was saying, when she declared that workplace romances on her shows don’t necessarily tip into the realm of sexual harassment. In Shondaland, the relationships between men and women might be complicated, but the romances we root for don’t bear much resemblance to that of people exercising their power in the workplace to force others into doing things they don’t want to do.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by NBC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5881897c)Adam Scott, Amy PoehlerParks and Recreation - 2008-2013NBC-TVUSATelevision

Ever since #MeToo began, there’s been hand-wringing over the question of “are we just never allowed to flirt with anyone, ever again?” — as well as “what’s so hard about the expectation that when you go to work, you just work?” And like so many things in life, it comes down to people engaging with other people, listening and learning and acknowledging limits and boundaries. Treating the people around you like human beings, with an awareness of how your behavior affects them, reading their reactions and adjusting your own accordingly. The sort of skill set the people who try to initiate inappropriate relationships with their co-workers apparently seem to lack. Who simply don’t care about how their actions might affect others.

It’s one of those concepts which might seem simple but for some apparently isn’t. Human beings have emotions. They might fall in love anywhere, including at the office. But it has nothing to do with the power differential that comes into play when someone chooses to abuse their position to abuse others.

Whether a show like “Grey’s” chooses to engage with this as a storyline, or a show like “The X-Files” very slowly but surely lets its central couple fall into bed together, the point remains that sexual harassment has nothing to do with romance, and those who equate the two have a poor understanding of one, the other, or both. Love is never easy, especially when you’re balancing it with life on the job. But if abuse is a part of the equation, it’s not a love story.

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