‘The Mistress’ Is an Intervention Show That Uses the Language of Empowerment to Shame Women

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A quick glance at Discovery Life’s slate of programming reveals that this is a very, very odd network. One of the many properties of Discovery Communications, Discovery Life currently boasts shows titled 50 Ways To Kill Your Mother, World’s Worst Mom (surprisingly, two different shows; the latter premieres tomorrow), and Outrageous Births: Tales From the Crib. Tonight, The Mistress will be the latest addition to that mix. It’s a messy reality show in which a former mistress “helps” current mistresses get out of relationships with married men, all under the guise of empowerment. Mostly, though, it’s just ridiculous.

Sarah J. Symonds is the self-proclaimed former mistress of Chef Gordon Ramsay and Lord Jeffrey Archer. As a “reformed” mistress, Sarah aims to help other women who have found themselves in a similar situation: in love with a man who has a wife (or family) who he won’t leave. As an “Infidelity Analyst,” Sarah also believes that she understands why people cheat and how to get them to stop. It’s a heavy promise, and The Mistress rarely delivers on it. Mostly, it’s the same old story about a woman falling in love (sometimes she knows the guy is married, sometimes she doesn’t at first) and forming a relationship with someone who can’t wholly commit to her. Sarah doesn’t offer much explanation as to why these women fall into this trap, just some “rules” about being a mistress (the #1 rule, she explains in the pilot, is to never be a mistress mom) and some loose facts (two-to-three percent of all children born are estimated to be the product of infidelity). Sarah also acts as a Mistress Mythbuster — turns out, some mistresses actually struggle to pay bills instead of having everything paid for by the married man! — and drops these revelations throughout the episodes as they relate to the subject at hand.

The pilot episode introduces us to Sophia, a woman who has been in a relationship for eight and a half years with a married man and even has a child with him (you can almost hear the “tsk, tsk” from Sarah). Sarah’s goal is to get Sophia out of the relationship and help her fulfill her dream of becoming a police officer. But the episode never quite lands, because we also learn that the man in question (whose name is never revealed, and his voice is altered on the phone to protect his identity) has already broken things off with Sophia. Regardless, Sarah makes her call and break up with her ex-boyfriend — really — because she has to dump him in order to take control of her life. Or something. I’m sure that, in reality, it’s all to add some dramatic scenes to a show that is absolutely desperate for them.

The problem with this scene, and with The Mistress in general, is that it doesn’t feel dramatic, or empowering, or as if Sophia is getting the upper hand. To be perfectly honest, it just comes off as sad. She “breaks up” with him, telling him, “You’re rude! You’re not a nice person!” His response to most of this is, verbatim, “OK, whatever” and “Why are you telling me this?” I suppose she “wins” because she gets the last word, but it’s an uncomfortable, sad scene, one that takes “empowerment” and skews it into something kind of pathetic.

The second episode isn’t much better. Sarah is supposed to be judgement-free as she talks to these woman, but it’s clear she isn’t, even though she was previously in their position. It’s a high and mighty form of helping, where she’s mostly aiding them in order to feel even better about herself. As she talks to Jen, a woman who didn’t find out her boyfriend was married until after she had fallen in love with him, Sarah shakes her head at Jen’s naïveté, the way she gives the guy his own shelf in the bathroom, how she doesn’t use condoms, and so on. Then, in one of the weirdest sequences, she takes Jen to a driving range to prove that you can meet single guys anywhere. It’s absurd.

There’s an interjection in one episode that shines the spotlight on one of Sarah’s “wife seminars,” where she instructs a studio audience on how to tell if their husband is having an affair. Some of the signs, according to Sarah, are husbands suddenly being nice or becoming “fanatical” about birth control. In Sarah’s head, this is all helpful — she doesn’t want people to make the same mistakes she has — but this, and the rest of her wife school, reeks of retro paranoia, and doesn’t actually provide anything helpful to women. In The Mistress, Sarah wants to prevent the women from looking like fools, but it’s the series itself that is painting them that way.