“I messed up.”
– Katie

Television often draws its inspiration from real-life events. Perhaps the case in “Ring-a-Ding-Ding” was a wholly original creation of episode writer Angela Kang. But it’s easy to see reflections of celebrity infidelity scandals such as John Edwards’ extramarital affair in the episode. It’s also easy to look at such situations and say, “I would never do something like that.” That’s the reaction Hank has when he finds out what Dale Komack has been doing behind his wife’s back. It’s easy for him to shame Dale and make snappy remarks about the cheater. But when he finds out that Katie cheated on Britt, he can’t bring himself to react the same way.

To be fair, the two situations aren’t entirely comparable. Katie made a drunken mistake; Dale knowingly and repeatedly slept with Paola, even fathering a love-child with her. The tangled web of lies surrounding the “disappearance” of the Komack family heirloom is so convoluted that by the time Hank and Britt have unravelled it, they’ve seen so many ridiculous twists that the whole affair ends up seeming like a giant comedy. The audience can’t help but laugh at it all and marvel at the amount of confusion that could have been avoided if Dale and Elizabeth had simply been honest with each other.

For that reason, it feels jarring to go from the ridiculousness of the Komack family’s situation to the naked honesty of Katie’s confession to Hank at the diner. Katie is in tears for the entire scene, and the audience almost feels sorry for her.  Suddenly, cheating is treated as a very serious issue, and Hank is advising Katie to cover it up and pretend that nothing ever happened. And with that, the entire plot of the episode is recontextualized. Previously, the audience (and to a certain extent, Hank) may have been shaking their heads at the Komacks, trying to stifle their snorts. But now, viewers can see just how easy it is to lie to the people who are close to them. The fact that we can sympathize with Hank when he all but tells Katie to set off the kind of cascade of lies that we observed with the Komacks leads us to reconsider the Komacks’ situation. It’s not difficult to judge relative strangers; it’s far harder to judge ourselves and our loved ones.

Maybe it’s a stretch, but I choose to interpret “Ring-a-Ding-Ding” as a call not to sympathize with others when they engage in scandalous behaviour – cheating is awful, no matter what – but to be less quick to judge others. It’s easy to laugh at high-profile sex scandals or to scoff at the messed-up family situations of our acquaintances. But it’s far harder to demonstrate that same level of disdain for the people we know best. I singled out John Edwards earlier as a possible inspiration for the episode’s case, but that was perhaps a little disingenuous. Thousands of ordinary people engage in that same kind of behaviour; one need look no further than a random episode of Maury for proof. It may be a trashy show, but only because it serves as a mirror that reflects our ugliness back at us.

However, just as art draws its inspiration from life, life often imitates art. A few months after Terriers ended its run, the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s affair was leaked to the public. And thus the judging and shaming began anew. All the while, scores of men and women have continued to cheat on their spouses. Maybe the truth is that art neither imitates life nor is imitated by it. Perhaps art and life are two sides of the same coin. The two sides may look different, but the values are the same no matter which side is facing us.

For more information on the Terriers rewatch project, please click here.