Television

What HBO’s New Documentary Gets Wrong About Open Relationships

I’ve been in a nonmonogamous relationship for six years, and I’m tired of movies like There’s No “I” in Threesome.

Two men in bed with a woman, one kissing her, the other looking on nervously.
There Is No “I” in Threesome. HBO

This article contains spoilers for There Is No “I” in Threesome.

A few minutes into the HBO Max documentary There Is No “I” in Threesome, director, narrator, and central character Jan Oliver “Ollie” Lucks describes the parameters of the open relationship “experiment” he and his fiancée, Zoe, are trying in the year leading up to their wedding.

“We’re mostly committed to each other,” Lucks says. “We’re allowed to cheat.”

With a single word—cheat—the documentary’s audience is split in two. Some viewers will chuckle at the couple’s foolishness and ready themselves for the familiar story: Two people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing flail their way through a weird, crazy little adventure until they inevitably break each other’s hearts. But for people who’ve experienced the happiness of an open relationship, Lucks’ choice of words reveals a woeful ignorance of what it takes to make those relationships work. “It’s not ‘cheating,’ it’s consensual nonmonogamy,” we yell at the screen. “The word ‘consensual’ is right there!”

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No “I,” which premiered on HBO just in time for Valentine’s Day, squanders the opportunity to produce a documentary that could have helped people understand nonmonogamy, the forms it can take, and its inherent challenges, in favor of what Ollie calls his “selfie film,” complete with a splashy final-act twist. While some open relationships implode—you know, just like some monogamous ones—yet another portrayal of messy nonmonogamy only reinforces the notion that this style of relationship is necessarily doomed from the start.

Consensually nonmonogamous people who like to talk about their relationships—and oh, do we—will say that these arrangements depend on regular, specific, clear communication about terms, boundaries, and feelings. Ollie and Zoe fail spectacularly to communicate not only with each other, but to the audience.

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Ollie says one of the “rules” of the experiment is that he and Zoe, both bisexual, will only hook up with same-sex partners. But whoops, Zoe replies, she already broke that rule by sleeping with a man. Later, Ollie is dating and sleeping with a woman. We don’t see them discussing their rules, why they exist, why they might change, how they talk about the ones they’ve broken. Ollie’s narration adds no clarity.

Throughout the entire documentary, Ollie describes iterations of his and Zoe’s situation as “an open relationship,” or that they are “full-blown swingers” or “polyamorous,” or that they were in an open relationship but now they’re polyamorous. These are distinct terms under the consensual nonmonogamy umbrella, and even then one couple might do things differently than another couple in a relationship with the same label. Ollie and Zoe would better serve their audience by breaking down what their ground rules are at any given time, but even they don’t seem to know.

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While Ollie and Zoe are just kind of irritating—we’re treated to long sequences of them frolicking naked in fields; Ollie waxes poetic about how he loves Zoe for being such an “adult,” because she soaks her oats overnight—what’s hardest to watch is how they’re hurting each other because they don’t communicate with specificity or empathy, or even agree why they’re doing this in the first place. Ollie is obviously uncomfortable and pained when Zoe starts developing serious feelings for a man named Tom, but Zoe relentlessly tells Ollie how funny Tom is, or how she wants to send Tom a picture of her breast that Ollie took, all while Ollie seems to be cracking under the weight of his jealousy. Nonmonogamous people experience jealousy, of course, but there’s typically an expectation that couples will talk it through, consider the origins and effects of that jealousy, and decide whether any relationship outside theirs is ultimately harmful to any party. We don’t see Ollie and Zoe do any of that.

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Why, of all the consensually nonmonogamous relationships in all the towns in all the world, did HBO produce the story of this one? Turns out that while the story of Ollie and Zoe is real, this isn’t it. Zoe, Tom, and the other non-Ollie characters are played by actors, and the film is a re-creation of Ollie’s experience with the real Zoe (whose name is not actually Zoe). Ollie and Real Zoe did try an open relationship and were documenting it, and Real Zoe really did end their relationship to be with another man, but what we see on screen here is not a documentary of an experiment in real time so much as Ollie’s on-screen memoir, starring himself.

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The documentary reels us in with a titillating poster and the promise of a peek into the lives of those crazy kids and their ethical sluttiness, but it was never really about the nuances and logistics of open relationships at all. The open relationship “experiment” gets pushed aside by the shock of the faux-documentary reveal, and anyone who isn’t some kind of mad scientist-slash-tourist playing around in the world of nonmonogamy is left to clunk their head on the coffee table.

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I’ve been in an open relationship for six years, the entire time I’ve been with my significant other, and I have a hard time thinking of any TV shows or movies that really sink their teeth into consensual nonmonogamy in a three-dimensional way that offers the kind of insight, understanding, or potential words of advice I would have wanted when I entered into it myself.
I don’t want media that only shows open relationships that work; I just want media that’s invested in seriously understanding or portraying all forms of consensual nonmonogamy, not just using it as a seductive hook for a movie that’s more shock than substance.

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People get into open relationships for all kinds of reasons, some deeper than others. In mine, we enjoy flirting with, dating, and hooking up with other people while we’re still young, cute, and have the energy, but we’ve also gained a deeper trust and bond than we’ve had before. We explore different parts of ourselves together and apart, we see each other as even more attractive through other people’s eyes, and we have new experiences that we talk about with honesty and vulnerability. But being consensually nonmonogamous isn’t always about what you get—for some people, it just works. It feels like their default setting, just as monogamy is for others.

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Ollie says he learned that an open relationship just wasn’t right for him. That’s fine. They’re not for everyone. But there are tells all over the film that suggest why that might particularly be the case for Ollie. For one, successful relationships, open relationships included, are founded on trust and transparency, yet his entire documentary is founded in misdirection. At one point, Ollie and Zoe talk with Tom about documentary filmmaking. Ollie says he “cares more” about his documentaries when he’s in them, when he’s the subject. It’s hard to miss that at the points in his life when he tried his open relationship experiment and then made this movie, Ollie just might have cared more about his own story than making the relationship work.

But I keep thinking about his words at the beginning of the movie: “We’re mostly committed to each other.” I can’t see how any relationship, monogamous or not, can work if both partners aren’t all-in. You have to be entirely committed to trying to make it work with each other, to protecting each other’s feelings, to respecting terms and boundaries. In the case of this film, an experiment within an experiment, the subjects seemed more committed to shock than anything else.

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