Polyamory is on the rise, and ABC's comedy "Single Parents" is normalizing it with a loving throuple

Co-creator J.J. Philbin spoke to Salon about the depiction of ethical non-monogamy, which is gaining in popularity

By Hanh Nguyen

Senior Editor

Published January 29, 2020 6:07PM (EST)

Nick Hargrove, Jake Choi, and Sarah Yarkin, in "Single Parents" (ABC)
Nick Hargrove, Jake Choi, and Sarah Yarkin, in "Single Parents" (ABC)

New throuple alert! Earlier this month, ABC's zany sitcom "Single Parents" became the latest TV series to introduce a polyamorous relationship into its main storyline. In such an ethical non-monogamous relationship, an individual can have an intimate and possibly even committed relationship with more than one partner. 

Television has come a long way from depicting strictly cisgender characters and heteronormative relationships. Openly gay characters have been populating TV shows for decades and have long moved past the "very special episode" about coming out or homophobic bashing. The past few years have seen the rise of bisexual and transgender inclusion, and as a result, the door has opened to explore the bigger spectrum of gender fluidity, sexuality, and relationships. 

This on-screen change reflects a shift in how Americans are approaching relationships. While a study estimated that 4 to 5 percent of people living in the U.S. are polyamorous, another study reveals that 20 percent have attempted ethical non-monogamy at least once. And the younger the person is, the more they are open to and accepting of non-monogamy. In a YouGov study, only 3 percent of Americans  over 65 have had sexual contact outside of their relationship with the consent of their partner. That rises to 9 percent for Gen X, and 17 percent for Millennials. Overall, about 29 percent of adults under 30 consider open relationships to be morally acceptable.

TV has flirted with non-monogamy before, but the polygamy on HBO's "Big Love" and the reality counterpart "Sister Wives" is a completely different animal. The CBS series "Swingtown" tried to look at open marriages through a historic lens, but that didn't even last beyond its 13-episode first season.

Lately, the best depictions of the more modern consensual and ethical non-monogamous relationships are either on cable (Audience Network's "You Me Her" and Showtime's "The L Word") and streaming ("Unicornland"), or touched upon in a broadcast procedural (CBS' "S.W.A.T."). It's rarely been addressed in a smart and respectful way on a comedy.

Enter "Single Parents." In the ensemble comedy co-created by Liz Meriwether ("New Girl") and J.J. Philbin, a group of adults navigate single parenthood with their elementary school-aged kids with the help of each other. The youngest of the parents is Miggy (Jake Choi), whose son Jack is still only a toddler. For the most part, the relationships depicted have been heteronormative.

In the show's Jan. 15 episode "Welcome to Hilltop!," friends Poppy (Kimrie Lewis) and Angie (Leighton Meester) become concerned for their pal Miggy, whose girlfriend Homily (Sarah Yarkin) is seen cozying up to another man. After a comical stakeout, they discover that's not just any man, but Brian (Nick Hargrove), the couple's boyfriend they had met on a polyam app called Big Bed.

Poppy and Angie are surprised, but are relieved that Miggy isn't getting blindsided or cheated on. Homily also allays their fears about possible issues with jealousy or feeling left out. "We have a three-pronged approach for working through the sticky stuff: radical honesty, active listening, and open communication," she says. "And it just works."

Salon spoke with Philbin to discuss the inspiration for the storyline, what sort of research was done to get the depiction correct without feeling preachy or exploitative, and how the writers' room landed on that app name.

The following interview has been condensed for brevity and clarity.

Miggy has always been a little bit on the periphery because he's the younger dad, and the show itself has been fairly heteronormative. How early did you know that you wanted to set up this storyline?
When [Jake] first started talking about in the press about being sexually fluid, that was in Season 1, and I remember thinking at the time that this would be such a great character trait for Miggy. Miggy and Jake do overlap in a lot of ways: they're young and open-hearted, and they're both very loving. . . . That's sort of the superpower that [Miggy] brings to the group. So it felt in line with who he was, and he's a character who's still finding himself and open to anything. And he's there to open the minds of the rest of our characters.

We knew that we didn't want to do a very special episode where Miggy came out. . . . Early in the season, we did an experiment where he just kind of in an aside threw it out there. And it wasn't bad, but we felt like, there's something in between just an aside and also doing a very special storyline. So we sat on it for a little bit.

In the writers' room, we obviously talk about everything, including our personal lives; there are no secrets We do have a writer on staff who wrote this episode, who is queer, and she was in a poly[am] relationship for a minute there. . . . She started explaining that in order to be in a relationship that involves three people, you have to be so upfront right away. The communication skills have to be totally on point. A lot of the stuff that like, in a new relationship when you're feeling out whether you're exclusive or not, or you're trying to pretend like you're not jealous – all that kind of goes out the window, because you have to be so upfront so quickly. She was saying that it's really freeing to be able to dispense with of all of that kind of beginning of relationship drama.

We started talking about that – maybe this is actually the way into what's going on with Miggy because he would be someone who would excel at these kind of communication skills. Even though Miggy's younger and is less experienced than other characters in the show, he does have that to teach to the other characters. So once they realized that it was less about unveiling Miggy as being queer or sexually fluid and more about a story about qualities that went with that, things started to fall into place. So it wasn't like, "Oh my gosh, Miggy is sexually fluid!" Our writer Dani Shank did such an amazing job of guiding us through this because obviously we wanted to handle it as maturely and sensitively as possible without, while also like still being able to laugh and make it fun.

Was Dani Shank your main point of research or did you go to any other sources?
Dani was our main point of research because obviously the story kept changing just the same way all stories do where we were doing rewrites up until the last minute. So we would have to keep kind of checking in with her. There was a lot of like debate in the room: How would you feel if you're going through this? What does it feel like to be Angie and Poppy? Are they surprised? Do they know this about him? Are they judging him in any way? It felt like that on some level, they are not surprised in any way about this. But we still treat it as a reveal to them because it is to the audience.

Did you see Angie jumping onto the app as part of her embracing this lifestyle or more of a curiosity factor?
I think also she just had a crush on Brian. It's a little thread because it's a funny thing where Angie just finds herself to be very hot and incredibly confident in that way it always makes us laugh. Openly flirting with Miggy's boyfriend just felt like the way that Angie would react in that moment.

How many iterations of the name for the app did you go through before you land on Big Bed?
Oh my gosh we had so many I have to like email them to you later because we had so many good ones that didn't clear and Big Bed was one of the only ones that did that I I have to find out. My head is littered with jokes that we didn't use. But I really I will email and keep it but amazingly, Like the course our first 10 ideas all already existed, which is incredible and just speaks to how many apps there are out there. Yeah, I actually really ended up being happy with Big Bed. I really liked that.

[Editor's Note: Philbin later emailed the list of already taken or rejected names below.]

Everybody Get In Here! / Stackr / Group Hug / Thrindr / Name Tags / Repeat the Three-peat / Who's on Third / Tryangle / The More The Merrier / All Welcome / California King

Was ABC on board with this storyline immediately or were the discussions on how to handle it?
We told them early on in the season, "This is our plan for Miggy. We're gonna wait until we feel like we have the right story for it." We wanted to give it what we think is its proper due, which turned out to be one of the biggest questions: How big a story is it – how much are we paying attention to this reveal about the character because again, we didn't feel like Miggy the character was like tortured about this in any way and didn't want to give that impression.

ABC was really cool about it. They were down for us to do that story. If they had any notes, it was they thought we were being silly about the stakeout. So they were like, "Okay guys, take it easy on the stakeout." But none of their notes were about Miggy revealing himself or being sexually fluid or being in a throuple at all. 

What were the conversations with Jake like?
He made it so easy. I told him in the beginning of the year that we were thinking about doing this, and he was just nothing but excited and open. "However you guys want to unveil this, that's fine with me." He definitely weighed in on making sure that we were staying in the reality of it and how to explain it. That was a lot coming from Jake, the fact that it's just about the vibe of the person and less about their sexuality.

Are we going to be seeing any sort of mention of this again before the end of the season?
I think we are getting towards the end [of the season], but we still have three episodes that I'm hoping to get them to get some mention or just kind of update on how this is going. In my head, he's happily in this relationship, and I like the idea that it's stable, and it's not like going to be [drama]. We've definitely pitched out stories where Homily and Brian decide that they're more into each other and Miggy's heart is broken, but for now he's still with them, and I'm hoping that we get to like actually see all three of them again before the end of the season.

Since this is "Single Parents," is how Miggy parents his son going to be addressed with his dating multiple people or is that too early to be thinking of that since Jack is still a baby?
Yeah, I think it's baked into the whole premise of the show, which is these people are parenting on their own. So the stakes are really high . . .  but they're also dating and they're trying to figure out their life partner thing . . . Obviously, Miggy's kid is 2 years old, so he's probably not weighing in that much one way or another. But we see our group with the kids being there as partners with their parents in some way; it's them against the world. And so instead of, they already don't see their parents as being very traditional. So I think that they're really open to all different kinds of family structures. We treat this group as a family as it is. I think they're fairly open to their parents finding love in non-traditional ways.

Moving on to some of the other characters, do you have an endgame in mind for Poppy and Douglas' (Brad Garrett) new relationship? Or have you been playing it by ear?
Having them together, it didn't feel like an ending; it's not like they marched off into the sunset. They still have so much to work out with blending their families and just how different they are. They've navigated it really well in in Season 2, but there is something that's coming up that is going to be really hard for them to get around. We're going to see if they can survive it. We're going to figure out what they're made of and if they are going to see Season 3 as a couple.

The kids on the show are equally funny and get their own plots and personalities. What goes into the process when giving lines to Rory, such as when he calls himself a "zaddy"?
I mean, truly sky's the limit. Devin [Trey Campbell] who plays Rory is more Rory than Rory. He's already there, so there's nothing we can give him that he's confused by or out of his comfort zone. These kids, they're so good. They truly, like, get the joke behind the joke. Obviously a lot of these jokes are meant for adults, but they always get it.

I like that there's no discussion of how the children identify yet so that they're not pigeonholed or labeled. But is that a discussion for a future storyline?
Maybe it's because I have kids the same age, but I kind of feel like Rory is just Rory. I guess we haven't felt compelled yet. But I could absolutely see us doing a story one day, if it felt right. I sort of wanted to leave it open for them . . . as we learn more about [the actors] and about the characters.

You get to have fun and dress the kids up in any number or bizarre outfits and costumes, such as when Graham (Tyler Wladis) dressed as one of the Edies from "Grey Gardens." What's your favorite kid's costume on the show?
That Grey Gardens outfit brought me so much joy too. They're so game for anything. When he was Poppy for Halloween, he loved it. He was very, very comfortable. I loved the deep cuts, like remember like last year when Rory was [Richard Gere's character] Edward Lewis from "Pretty Woman"? That one made me laugh because Rory is such a flamboyant character, and we just went in a different direction for that. And the twins' regular wardrobe still makes me laugh. They're so all business, they're really just dressing what's best to do construction in.

What can you tease about Will (Taran Killam) now that he's been dumped by his girlfriend Tracy (Jama Williamson)?
I really enjoyed having Tracy, that because I felt like the character Will needed to have a real girlfriend. This series is tracking his arc from being a parent who's stuck in the vortex to getting his sh*t together, and I feel like Tracy was really like instrumental in helping him grow up and be a real guy apart from his daughter. But now the fun part is he's back out there and in the next episode he's back to dating. He's actually going on a date with ["the Good Place" actress] D'Arcy Carden, which is actually so fun for us because my husband directed ["The Good Place" creator Mike Schur].  And obviously the date doesn't go great.  So Will gets to go back out there which is really fun, and obviously he and Angie are now free to spend a lot more time together, which is cool.

"Single Parents" airs new episodes on Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC and afterwards streams on Hulu.


By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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Abc Interview Jj Philbin Non-monogamy Polyamory Single Parents Throuple