Writing for Vulture last week, critic Margaret Lyons called for a new era in romantic comedy that plays out on the small screen.
“TV has a long, proud history of will-they-or-won’t-they relationships, and it’s easy to imagine a new wave of that as just when-will-they,” she wrote. “There are lots of kinds of love stories. It’s just a matter of shifting the focus: Instead of a lawyer show where characters happen to fall in love, it’s a love show where characters happen to be lawyers. We have so many lawyer shows. Can’t one of them be this?”
But I think at least part of the future Lyons dreams about has already arrived. A group of showrunners for Fox’s comedies said at a panel at the Television Critics Association press tour on Sunday that the decline of movie romantic comedies had left a lot of territory for them to work with.
“Romantic comedies hide themselves in other packages usually, like ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ is a romantic comedy, but because it’s so good, we’re just like, ‘Oh, it couldn’t be a romantic comedy,’ ” Mindy Kaling, showrunner for “The Mindy Project,” told me. “It’s just like a good movie. And like ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ has tons of romantic comedy, but it’s like a cop workplace show.”
Michael Schur, who co-created “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” questioned whether the latter show could be categorized as a romantic comedy but suggested that the collapse of mid-budget movies had opened up new opportunities, particularly in romantic comedy, for television.
“The people who want to write stories for grown-ups are going to end up doing it on television instead of on film,” he said. “If you want to tell a story, like a long-form story about adults having relationships or anything or a bounty hunter bringing an accountant from New York to Los Angeles, like that story now would be a special event miniseries on TV and it would be great.”
The constraints of television also mean that writers have had to expand the potential subjects of romantic comedy to come up with plausible ongoing storylines.
“I heard something about [how people aren’t] dating anymore. There aren’t as many obstacles to people just getting together,” said “New Girl” creator Liz Meriwether. As the classic television will-they-or-won’t-they relationships have become less plausible for those reasons, showrunners have had to map new emotional territory to keep viewers engaged.
Sometimes, that means telling stories not about couples’ inevitable comings-together but their equally inevitable comings-apart. As the median age of first marriage has risen steadily in the past several decades, characters and viewers alike have more time to have relationships that do not work.
“New Girl” stumbled often in its third season after getting together two of its main characters, teacher Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and bartender Nick (Nick Johnson). The two were always a somewhat implausible couple. Jess is fastidiously cute and quietly ambitious, while Nick is defined by his aggressively lackadaisical nature; in another era, he might have made a spectacular hobo. “New Girl” ended up being at its best less when it was reveling in the couple’s sexual chemistry and more in the lead-up to their breakup.
Similarly, “How I Met Your Mother,” the long-running CBS relationship comedy, found poignant and very funny territory in the dissolution of its characters’ romantic and sexual relationships and their efforts to remain friendly afterward. The end of dating, or even a marriage, is not always the end of the story.
At the same time, if marriage is the classical conclusion to comedy, some comedies have done well by chronicling the work characters do well after they make a decision to be together. “How I Met Your Mother” did breakups well, but it also handled the transition of two of its characters from dating to engagement, and from engagement to the early years of their marriage, with affection and aplomb.
Lyons singled out FX’s “You’re the Worst,” in which two crabby, hard-living Los Angeles residents who have made virtues of their own abrasiveness turn a one-night stand into something more. Much of the comedy comes from the attempts of Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) to figure out where their idiosyncrasies match up with each other and the extent to which they are willing to moderate their own behavior to accommodate each other.
In a more conventional romantic comedy, “You’re the Worst” might have had to reform its characters to render them deserving of tenderness and affection. In a shorter package, it would have had to skip past the minutiae of the early days of a relationship. A television show, blessedly, has more tolerance and time for Gretchen and Jimmy’s rough spots. As creator Stephen Falk put it, “They’re pretty flawed, but I think we all are and sort of the worst in all of us deserves love.”
“Parks and Recreation,” the long-running NBC sitcom about Indiana civil servants, has managed to erode the distinction between workplace comedy and romantic comedy by bringing together its core couples through their jobs. Young married couple April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Chris Pratt) met in the Parks Department, but they are also the rare characters on television who are not defined by their work. By contrast, their mentors Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) are drawn together by a mutual obsession with government service.
These television shows may not be a replacement for watching Harry and Sally talk their way into enduring love or for 90 minutes of storytelling focused purely on love and relationships. But in recent years, they have picked up where the movies left off.
“I felt that for a long time that romantic comedies you’d watch were sort of based on a set piece where Matthew McConaughey would fall into a cake,” Kaling said in Los Angeles on Sunday. “Or like the premise of the movie is like, ‘Can a 2 be with a 10?’And you’re like, ‘That’s so hateful.’ ”
Instead, it is sitcoms that have remembered that to make great romantic comedy, the most important thing is love, in all its wild and wonderful forms.