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Friday, 23 of July of 2021

In Prosecution of Guys Named Fitz

Ezra Fitz and Aria Montgomery | President Fitzgerald Grant with Olivia Pope

This is a completely unbiased image.

Guys named Fitz, you’re getting a reputation from your television representatives. And it’s not a good one.

On one show, you have a guy operating in an ethical gray area of sexual law and professional standards, whose development is arrested but not in a cute way. In that abused-child sort of way. The one you would feel sorry for if you had any evidence that it was true.

Then you have another man who is leader of the free world, who everyone insists is a great man and great for the country going forward but seems only to vacillate between dipping his wick and being a jackass to everyone else. If he’d do one thing that was presidential, he might absolve himself but he struggles to do that. He’s a pawn, a schmuck, and a self-serving pansy that hides behind a commanding voice.

These are certainly two different men in different stations of life (even different phases of their lives). But what these jerks share is a common flaw in how their characters are presented. What connects a distracted world leader and a child-touching teacher is mostly in execution: they’ve never done anything to deserve our empathy.

Let’s start with President Fitzgerald Grant from Scandal. The premise of the show is that Olivia Pope runs an organization of public relations cleaners: they clean up dead bodies (figuratively and literally) and help spin stories so that their clients get what they want, whether that’s political positioning or off scott free from alleged crimes. It’s one of the few shows where the “case of the week” status works fairly well because its characters are interesting, funny, and smart. Along with the show’s pacing, it makes for a fun hour of television.

That is until Fitz comes on screen and tries to sink the whole thing. His continuing relationship (whether or not they’re on a break from humping on clandestine and spontaneous rendezvous) with her is soundtracked by slow, droning strings and all of their involvements slow the the pace of the show to a crawl. It drains the fun out of it and saps the strength of the viewer.

It wouldn’t be so bad if Fitz was worth a damn. Olivia is built to be this superhero, the leader of gladiators in suits, and Fitz is nothing more than a pawn in the schemes of the machine around him. He drowns in the advice of more overpowering and charismatic figures like his wife, Milly, and his chief of staff, Cyrus. All three of them constantly talk about how great a man he is and how great he is for the country. They talk about his legacy. But he’s done nothing to earn it.

All we’ve seen of him over the course of two seasons is how much free time he has to hound after Olivia’s pillowy lips, buckle under the pressure of his wife while continuing to be a jackass to her, and hmm and haw over almost every decision. This past week’s decision to drone-attack a country harboring hostage-keeping terrorists was possibly the first act as President that showed any amount of character. Everything else has been pathetic.

That might be the point: to show that this is a man who wields great power but is generally a soft-hearted fool with a big boy job. What’s troubling is that we, as an audience, are supposed to moon over this star-cross’d relationship when we have so many conflicting facts: (1) Olivia Pope is amazing, challenging, and uncommonly pretty; (2) Fitz is weak, tired-looking, ordinary, (3) and married; (4) Milly isn’t as horrible as she is ambitious; (5) Fitz has done nothing to earn our sympathy — I’ve never watched the show, saw him act, and think, “Oh, well, at least he’s a good guy.”

That last one is important. As an American audience, there are certain touchstones that we find to elicit moral outrage or, at the very least, paint a character in a certain way. Adultery is one of those hot button issues about a character. Though we live in a Don Draper universe, where his many dalliances with women outside his matrimonial bed are over brushed aside when considering whether or not he’s a good person, it’s important to note that those things make Draper a complicated character since the show is about his personality as a whole and his development. By making him an adulterer, you paint him a certain way: it’s symptomatic of his general weakness and need for validation. With Fitz, we’re supposed to believe that his adultery is part of his political prison, that his heart is trapped because a president can’t be divorced, but I don’t buy it.

But it’s only because I don’t buy the relationship and that’s because, unlike every other character on this show, he’s done nothing to earn that from me. Nothing he’s done has invited me to look beyond the cheating and see the deeper, more attractive character. There’s no way to be sure there is one.

“Not buying it” is a big problem with Ezra Fitz’s relationship on Pretty Little Liars, too. I feel like his portrayal is even more fraught with complicated motives and the demand that viewers suspend their disbelief.

Without going into the entire background of Pretty Little Liars (a story far too murky for a single blog post), Ezra’s involvement in it is that he hooked up with a girl at a bar, making out with her in a bathroom, and learned later that she’s a student of his at the local high school where he’s a new teacher. The troublesome part is that they continued the relationship despite barely skirting the law and doing something, if not professional suicide, is at least frowned upon.

There are few things in America that draw moral outrage than a teacher taking advantage of a student, no matter the circumstances. We may have cable specials running about these kinds of things across all kinds of networks desperate for programming (I’m looking at you E!) but, when it happens to a community, it generally shows up to make sure the teacher is punished. It’s interesting the zeitgeist that we’ve had lately regarding the teacher/student relationship, from Gossip Girl to Life Unexpected to Dawson’s Creek (all of those begging for a teenager demo) but, if our values are set on what the devil it means for a teacher to do those things to a student, why should we feel sympathy for the teacher?

Because of that, everything Ezra does is colored through the lens of him maintaining this relationship with a sixteen-year old. He may be nice and sweet but he’s also violating a minor, one that calls his bed “sacred ground.” It’s gross all over.

But what the show lacks is Ezra earning any sympathy. Those that favor Ezria generally bring their own sentiment from being a passionate teenager and project it onto these characters. That’s all the background required for many of the viewers but, as someone that knows better than to believe a relationship between a grown-up and a high-schooler is anything but doomed, I struggle to buy the relationship. When I struggle to buy the relationship, I wrestle with the ethics of a teacher continuing to seduce his student. And when I wrestle with that, I don’t see anything in the history of Ezra Fitz that makes me want to give him the benefit of the doubt. to me, that’s interfering with a child and someone in the child-touching game shouldn’t be ing the child-teaching game.

I’m prone to hyperbole for comedic effect when I review Pretty Little Liars but, for those of us who don’t think a relationship between a teacher and student is valid, they have higher barrier to entry for understanding Ezria. On a show that already casts every male into a light of suspicion because of the nature of the overall mystery, Fitz needs to do something that earns him the right to carry on with this, something to show us that he’s not an undeveloped creeper or that his mommy issues keep him in a constant high school mentality. There are far more cases that Mr. Fitz is a terrible human being than there are for him being the right guy for Aria. And while we’re in a storyline for Ezria that puts them in a position where Aria might finally get to be an independent character and not obligated to be half of a sideshow, why wouldn’t we as an audience cheer for their separation?

President Grant is actually going through a similar situation with Olivia Pope. Why wouldn’t we cheer for them to be separated? Why wouldn’t we feel so much better about them being apart and letting the show get better than for them to be together and have to dig down deep and scrape our loins to find some reason for Fitz and Olivia or Fitz and Aria to be couples? I understand art’s freedom to toy with our ideals and values but those markers say something about those characters. If that’s the statement, the shows need to do a better job of establishing why those values need to be diluted a little. Because, so far, they’re offering me no evidence to the contrary.

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