The irrepressible joy of a midlife TV crush
As a child, I used to watch Dallas with my mum. Whenever there was a sex scene, she would cover my eyes. Her favourite was Bobby Ewing. "A fine-looking man," she'd say.
I was too young to understand that "fine-looking" was mumspeak for "I would", but as an adult I was reminded of her comment as I messaged a friend to thank her for recommending The Bear, a TV show about a bunch of bad-tempered chefs in a Chicago sandwich shop (not without reason am I not a TV critic). "I started The Bear," I wrote. "Really like it. And as a bonus, some of the chefs are quite hot."
My friend replied, but blanked my comment about the hotness of the chefs. Maybe she thought I meant "hot" in the literal sense, from cooking onions. Or maybe she thought I was a lascivious saddo, best ignored. Still, I put the question to another WhatsApp group. "Is it just me, or is the chef in The Bear quite hot?" I asked. "Very," replied Fi. "Haven't seen it but will def watch now," said Lynn. "Not as hot as James Norton," said Petra. "Be still, my beating ovaries!"
Edifying as it is not to sit on your sofa gawking over whichever male lead takes your fancy in this month's boxset of choice, for women of a certain age, it's something of a national pastime. It's why James Norton, currently playing Tommy Lee Royce in the BBC drama Happy Valley, recently revealed that he'd received a fan letter from a woman saying: "You can be happy in my valley any day."
That this comment is more slapstick than sleazy sums up the sentiment behind most midlife TV crushes: they're as innocent as a cup of tea and a biscuit. In many ways, they're the midlife equivalent of the sort of crushes you had as a tween: pointless, yes, but also a way to pass the time, and a distraction from having to put the bins out.
It's also something to discuss in the group chat, that virtual watercooler on which so many midlife woman over-rely, for 'tis a truth not universally acknowledged enough that women in their 40s, 50s and beyond don't meet up in real life nearly as often as they want to, or ought to, thanks to the demands of families and jobs. Forced to keep in touch over WhatsApp, it becomes the place where they share intimacies they once would have had in the pub.
"He even writes good captions," one friend recently messaged another, forwarding a screen grab of Norton's Instagram post. Another two friends regularly swap memes of Timothée Chalamet – a man half their age, yes, but it's OK because they know that, and make sad, self-deprecating jokes about how he wouldn't even have looked at them twice when they were in their prime. As my friend Diana explains: "I'm not perving – I'm admiring. Timothée is like a Rodin sculpture - to be appreciated."
It is not lost on us that men may feel there is rank hypocrisy at play here. "What would you say if I likened Jenna Ortega to a sculpture," my husband might say, with justification. Perhaps it holds true for men and women alike that, by midlife, they're bothered less about their partner's crushes than when they were in the first flush of love. Like passion, jealousy quietens over the years. In the 1990s, I remember feeling a bit jealous that my husband fancied Thora Birch. Nowadays, I'd find pathos in his crushes, as I'm sure he would in mine.
Cohabitation is hard. We all need to have our little daydreams. When the final baking tray has been scrubbed clean, there's nothing wrong with retreating to your bedroom, flipping open your laptop and indulging in a harmless crush. No, he'll never notice you. No, he doesn't even know who you are. But that's just fine. If he did, the harsh truth is that you wouldn't have the time, inclination or energy for him anyway. The biggest draw of all? He's a TV character. He's not real. And - thankfully – he never will be.
A Lexicon of TV Crushes By Genre
The serial killer
I once asked Jamie Dornan – who has played two of them – why he thought women fancied fictional serial killers. "No comment," he said. What else could he say? What can any woman say about the fact that a man being a psychopath is no barrier to her affections?
When Dornan played Paul Spector in 2013's The Fall, watercoolers across the land were aglow with lascivious chat, as they were again when Dornan played The Man in 2022's The Tourist (although we were in lockdown, so the watercoolers were virtual).
This month's cold-blooded psychopath of choice is, of course, Tommy Lee Royce, a character as twisted as any ever committed to screen. That this doesn't stop women fancying James Norton is a conundrum for the psychiatrist's chair.
This woman has always had a thing for detectives. Her first crush was Jim Rockford, and she's been smitten with law enforcement officers ever since. Her admiration spans a broad church, one that equally welcomes Adrian Dunbar in Line of Duty, Idris Elba in Luther, Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, Peter Falk in Columbo, Gillian Anderson in The Fall, Sofia Helin in The Bridge, Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting and Cagney. Or was it Lacey?
Unlike the dark, unsettling and frankly sick notion that serial killers can make some women's hearts beat faster, their appreciation of a Viking is beautifully straightforward. Not that he has to be a Viking: he could equally be a barbarian, a Norseman, a knight, Poldark or a member of the House of Stark. If he looks good in armour/leather/a wheat field/a bearskin, he's good to go. Or, as one friend defines the category: "Real men who look like they can throw me over their shoulder."
The cheeky chappie
For every woman who wants to be tossed over a shoulder, there's a woman who wants to be amused. Humour is her biggest aphrodisiac, and laughter will always be higher up her list of priorities. She loves a cheeky chappie: someone like Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Industry's Rob (Harry Lawtey) or White Lotus's Jack (Leo Woodall) before he turned dark. Not that he has to be British: the patron saint of cheeky chappies is Ryan Gosling, who is Canadian.
The method actor
Murder mystery, crime drama, sci-fi, period piece: it doesn't matter what he appears in. What matters is his commitment to the Method. If his brow isn't furrowed, his stare isn't deathly and he isn't perpetually ploughing his fingers through his hair, she's just not that into him.
Like night sweats, the origin of this type of crush is genetic: her mother loved Mafia films, and she grew up watching De Niro in The Godfather. Modern-day Method actors include Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders, Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager, Jon Hamm in Mad Men and, most recently, Jeremy Allen White (above) in The Bear - recent recipient of a Golden Globe for Best Actor.