The Golden Age of the TV Bathroom
It was, for a long time, studiously ignored. Now, though, the bathroom—yes, the humble bathroom—is taking center stage.
The pilot episode of Insecure finds the show’s heroine, Issa, engaging in a timeless ritual: getting ready for a night out. Dressed, but not yet quite Ready, she tries on a series of different lipsticks—siren-red, magenta, purple-pink, blue-black—and, with them, different personas. Red: She flirts with the image in the mirror. Magenta: She chats with it. Nothing is quite right. Finally, frustrated, Issa wipes off the color and swipes on some clear lip balm. She smiles at the image that looks back at her.
It’s a scene—set in Issa’s bathroom, with its drab, plastic shower curtain and its mustard-yellow tiles—that runs like a refrain through that first episode, a reminder to Issa that while she may be, as her show’s name suggests, insecure, that inconvenient fact need not be the one that defines her. Insecure, based on Issa Rae’s web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, may be about Issa’s relationships with her best friend and her boyfriend and her coworkers; it is also, however, about Issa’s relationship with herself. Its eight episodes, the first set on her 29th birthday, find that the person Issa actually is contending with is the person she thought she’d have become by now. And that mirrored, window-less, tight little room, where armor is applied and then shed, is an apt setting for that. Issa’s bathroom, Rae recently told Terry Gross, is “the only place that she is actually honest with herself and expresses her thoughts in a way that she can’t in the outside world.”
You’re not—we’re not, generally—supposed to talk about bathrooms. They’re dirty. They’re awkward. They’re places for doing things we are meant, in the name of propriety, to pretend we do not do. It’s those universal intimacies, though, that make bathrooms so fitting as settings for scenes like Insecure’s—which may be why more and more TV shows are featuring them so prominently in their action. A bathroom has been the setting for Van’s desperate drug-test preparations in Atlanta. And for Hannah’s bath-cupcake in the first episode of Girls. And for Fleabag’s cruel shower prank, and Broad City’s toilet-tokings, and Divorce’s divorce, and This Is Us’s timeless scene of a daughter watching her mother, wrapped in a towel, after a shower: The girl can’t help but compare her mother’s physique to her own. And she can’t help, then, but find herself lacking.
Bathrooms, by turns cold and intimate, by turns sterile and unclean, by turns secluded and shared, celebrate the shedding of illusions. And their new ubiquity on television is its own kind of mirror: It reflects a moment, in American culture, that is frustrated with fantasy, and that, as a result, privileges the real and the raw. It suggests, too, that moment’s anxieties—of Sony and Snapchat and the sudden omnipresence of the word “hack”—about how easily things that once were private can be made so promiscuously public. The televised bathroom is an architectural argument: for windowless walls, for closed doors, for the sacredness of solitude.
The episode of Leave It to Beaver that was meant to be the sitcom’s debut, in 1957, ended up being delayed in its airing: The plot line of “Captain Jack” found Beaver and Wally, inspired by an ad in a comic book, sending away for a “genuine Florida alligator” that, when it arrived, turned out to be an 8-inch-long baby. To prevent their parents from learning of the purchase, the boys hid the reptile in an “aquarium”: the tank of the toilet in their bathroom. CBS’s Standards and Practices group, however, was reluctant to place such a dirty device as a toilet before the delicate eyes of the American public. The network and the producers debated until, finally, a compromise was reached: “Captain Jack” could show the toilet’s tank, but not the bowl itself.
Leave It to Beaver was uniquely quaint, but its bashfulness about bathrooms was not. In 1960, Jack Paar briefly quit his role as the host of The Tonight Show after NBC cut one of his bathroom-related jokes (he had used, in it, the abbreviation “W.C.”). In the ’70s, All in the Family caused a small sensation simply by airing the sound of a toilet flushing off-camera. Bathrooms, though they were of course implied inclusions in standardized sitcom housing, were rarely depicted, in those early decades of American television, being used or even occupied. (The Brady Bunch, in the ’70s, was one exception to that: The series showed the six Brady children sharing, and using, a single bathroom. The Beaverian compromise, though? The room, famously, had no toilet.)
The TV bathroom, in those years, occasionally alluded to but rarely used, reflected an American entertainment industry that, echoing the culture within which it operated, preferred gleaming aspiration over accuracy. Today, though, American cultures both general and pop have evolved—and they have been shaped in that evolution by an internet that has extremely limited patience with formalities. The culture of the moment, under the influence of Tumblr posts and Facebook updates and “It Happened to Me”-style essays, tends to privilege confession, collusion, and community. It tends to value realtalk—about money, about love, about friendship, about sex, about bodily functions—over ceremony-standing.
And, so, enter the bathroom: a place where a character can talk directly to herself, and in that, also, directly to her audience. Enter the space that tangles intimacy and voyeurism—a fictional version of the “confessional room” defining the reality TV shows that have helped to make this moment what it is. Enter Earn in Atlanta, who is unable to stay at his parents’ house, thus compounding his financial burdens, because his mother hasn’t forgiven him for clogging the house’s toilets. And Maggie in Younger, who ends a romantic relationship after her girlfriend’s close-knit circle of friends descend on her while she’s in the bathroom: They, and by extension the partner, don’t share Maggie’s need for privacy—things could never work. On Fleabag, too, a relationship ends by way of an insensitive bathroom invasion (this time, via a cruel joke the eponymous anti-heroine plays on her hapless boyfriend). Divorce begins, in a moment of foreshadowing, with its core couple bickering in their bathroom.
Broad City, which, like Insecure, began its life as a web series, uses bathrooms not just as settings for scenes—of eating, of smoking, of sex—but also as, via Abbi’s “cleaner” job at Soulstice, a metaphor for the crushing difficulty of doing that once most American of things: improving one’s life by way of hard work. Girls, similarly, whose stories are also guided by frustration with fantasies, isn’t satisfied with that early bathtub cupcake; it has, throughout its seasons, explored bathrooms—the private ones of characters’ apartments and the decidedly public ones of New York City—as locations for personal and, often, sexual intimacies.
Bathrooms, certainly, were also elements of the shows that came of age just before the current Golden one. They were the settings of Ross’s gloriously awkward leather-pants-and-leg-paste in Friends, and of a big life decision for Lily and Marshall in How I Met Your Mother, and of Twin Peaks’s revealing finale. The Big Bang Theory first established the will-they-or-won’t-they romance between the neighbors Penny and Leonard when she borrowed his shower; Gilmore Girls used Chilton’s girls’ room as a setting for political intrigue; Veronica Mars used Neptune High’s girls’ room for similar ends; Mad Men used Sterling Cooper’s ladies’ room as a refuge for—and an acknowledgment of—office sexism. And, of course: “If you strip the cliffhanger details from the Breaking Bad mid-season finale,” Flavorwire notes, “you’re left with… a man reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on the porcelain throne.”
The bathrooms of the current crop of shows, though, aren’t merely settings; they are also, often, symbols—of the need for aloneness in a world that can be overwhelming with its sociability, of the need for honesty in a world that seems so often to prefer performance. In Atlanta’s magisterial “Juneteenth” episode, Van locks herself in a bathroom in her friend’s gaudy McMansion so she can cry in shameless solitude. Black Mirror’s “Nosedive” portends its psychic horrors by featuring, in one of its opening scenes, Lacie practicing her spontaneous laugh, with robotic repetition, in her bathroom mirror. And in the pilot of Insecure, Issa’s best friend, Molly, calls her. A co-worker at Molly’s law firm has just gotten engaged. Molly—successful, beautiful, confident in so many areas of her life—is still single. “It’s never happening for me,” she confesses to her friend, the fear finally finding a voice. Molly makes the frantic call from a stall in her law firm’s bathroom.
Bathrooms, in public, are divided by gender—a response, originally, to anxieties about women’s ability to participate, fully, in public life: The delicate sex needed, it was thought in the late 1800s, “safe spaces” where they could retreat from the dirtiness and danger of the world. Today, of course, those anxieties live on in Americans’ political discourse. They also live on, though, in pop culture—where bathrooms have become places of increasingly rare refuge from the world and its heavy demands. In her bathroom, Issa, the private person, prepares Issa, the public one. The Issa who will perform onstage, for a crowd and also for YouTube, finds her voice—and that voice is decidedly ambivalent about its own capacity to be amplified. HBO, in promoting Insecure, created a site filled with show extras: creator interviews, links to a podcast, and to essays that make observations like, “insecurity is formally defined as uncertainty or anxiety about oneself.” The site’s url? Mybathroommirror.com.