How I have yet to meet your mother after 5 years of talking about it

recently expressed a distaste for the modern Romantic Comedy, as well you might. The basic complaint is that the usual formula is essentially a choice of either Pride and Prejudice or Taming of the Shrew. An unsuitable person or match rehabilitated into the perfect relationship by the end of the film. The unsuitability is, of course, necessary for the comedic aspect of the film. There have been a large number of films in this mode, basically the entire oeuvres of the likes of Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, and they are generally pretty bad.

There’s also the general problem with movies as wish-fulfilment. Movies make a statement about a world-that-could-be, and in this case they offer up the idea of a perfect love match, one way or another. Just as I know that I’ll never be sufficiently bad-ass to engage in the exploits of Arnie through the 1980s, I know that I’ll never experience the perfect idealized love that results at the end of a Rom Com.

In television, the situation is slightly more interesting, because start point of the characters in terms of likeability and suitability must be closer together, and the huge swings of attitude and behaviour which are the engine of the film are not sustainable or even particularly implementable in a televisual environment. Basically, people tune in to watch on television exactly the same thing they tuned in to watch last week, but I don’t think they’d accept a complete reset of a relationship every week – the situation must be in some way stable.

Probably the only successful implementation of the movie formula that I’ve personally seen was Diane in Cheers – though the show only survived by jettisoning Shelly Long, and on the charisma of the bar as a location itself.

I’d like to look at a couple of shows, with a hand-wave at a few more, to look at their treatment of the romantic relationship in comedic terms in television.

The first show where I became aware of the use of the Romance Plot for comic advantage was Remington Steele, where the eponymous character is perpetually attempting to get into Laura Holt’s pants. The romance was not the primary point of interest, which was re-telling classic movie plots in the context of a PI firm in LA, but it was front-and-centre in the relationship between the characters. After 4 years, I think people got tired of each show ending with a kiss, but never any further, and the show was cancelled. (It was revived, but that’s another story).

Essentially the premise is fascinating: a detective and someone pretending to be her boss, with a mysterious past and sexual chemistry. Fantastic – but it never got beyond the starting point. The idea was then picked up by the producers of Moonlighting, which did eventually consummate the relationship between the leads, essentially killing the premise of the show.

These two shows’ failings represent the scylla and charybdis of the TV rom com. Make the relationship look too certain, and there’s not enough energy to sustain a long run; make it not likely enough to actually go somewhere, and people are equally bored.

The compromise position is usually to get the couple together and then break them up, repeating as necessary to sustain dramatic interest. Sadly, this works very well. Ross and Rachael, JD and Elliot, Leonard and Penny… I could go on. For quite a long time. I think that once people become invested in a particular relationship, it’s easier for them to continue believing in the same scenario – they don’t mind the reset button being hit periodically, because they enjoyed the ride the first time around. For these shows, the basic comedy is in the chase, in the misadventures which prevent couple hood.

There are only a few shows which have managed to transition into life after the chase. Friends, Frasier and Scrubs all made moves towards that concept. I think these shows were able to make the change because they simultaneously maintained the chase plotlines in the foreground. Chandler and Monica may have become a happy couple, but the other four characters continued their quest for love, and so on.

For all that some quarters loved Green Wing, it too is a romantic comedy with the same in-built oscillation – the weird characterisation does not change its fundamental nature. At least, in the parts I have watched, which is far from the complete show.

Perhaps the biggest innovation I’ve seen in this format comes from How I Met Your Mother, because it manages to promise a satisfying love story in its basic premise, without ever allowing any actual on-screen relationship to become that central. The first two seasons are closely concerned with Ted’s obsession with Robyn, but the audience knows from the outset that this relationship is doomed – the audience is not thus disappointed when it ends, because they have the promise of Ted’s Childrens’ mother for the future, but it can still enjoy the usual complications of the main plotline.

Unfortunately for me, I’ve basically given up on Ted actually ever meeting this woman, which meant I was just about suckered into caring about the Barney-Robyn pairing, before recognising the danger and the inherently transitory nature of that relationship as the latest grist to the comedic mill for a creative team running out of ideas.

The question is: are these relationships more palatable, more appealing even, than the standard Romantic Comedy that’s operating in the same story space of couple-formation?

In structural terms, I think that you end up substituting one villany for another. The oscillations of a TV show are not really better than the uni-directionality of the film. Each is in its own way completely predictable and making the same promise. However, in some of the details I think you see some amelioration of the fantasy: it is usually far less perfect, because it is usually far less extreme.

Consider The Proposal, where Sandra Bullock plays the absolutely shrewish Margaret Tate and snags the much younger (12 years younger) mild mannered Andrew Paxton played by Ryan Reynolds. It is the classic hate-as-love plotline, unrealistically promising that even in the most extreme scenario, perfect true love is available. Both are caricatures at best, and their love is essentially a plot necessity with no corresponding points of intersection that an audience could in any way identify.

Contrast with Ross and Rachael in Friends. Over the years, the characters become increasingly detailed and well understood – we can recognise not only the blatant faults and virtues, but some shades between for both. Because the show picks up essentially at their meeting, we see a large part of their shared history that allows a relationship to form (and then unform, and then reform, and then… you get the point). But at the close of the show, 10 years later, we are able to recognize that their relationship is going to be far from perfect; it will be influenced by their various foibles. Of course we still believe that this will be better than any love that could be experienced in real life, but we are also aware of the tribulations already experienced.

Ultimately, both are obviously creating expectations and fantasies that real life could never fulfil, but at least on TV there is the scope for recognizing imperfections. Television also foregrounds more generic situational aspects of the characters’ lives, very few rely to the same extent on the floundering of its romantic leads. And so it is marginally less odious than a film in the same vein.

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16 Responses to How I have yet to meet your mother after 5 years of talking about it

  1. wyldcard says:

    Nice analysis, I found myself nodding along. Although I don’t know that I’m quite as cynical in terms of the “we still believe that this will be better than any love that could be experienced in real life”.

    I too worry that they really need to pick it up a bit on How I Met Your Mother. They’re getting away with revealing small amounts of insignificant stuff (the mothers flatmate, the house the family end up in, etc.), but I think they need to in some way keep Ted’s story moving forward. Or maybe thye just used it as a cunning way to get us interested in the story at the beginning and are only paying lip service to it now…

    Also – Champagne Supernova = awesome.

  2. It’s at moments like these that I admire the elegance of the “like” button. Sadly, I have nothing of substance to contribute to an excellent post.

  3. exiledinpn says:

    And stuff like this is why I don’t watch sitcoms.

  4. xullrae says:

    The answer is to move onto the zom-rom-com. Zombies. They make everything better.

  5. adrexia says:

    Have you seen 500 days of summer? It’s like an anti-romantic comedy. πŸ™‚

  6. drbunnyhops says:

    Tend to agree about rom-com movies… the end is very unrealist… I’ve seen only 2 (on vid at ‘girls’ nights’) in the last 5 years… “Confessions of a shopaholic” and “He’s just not that into you”, which made a great point that the movie went on to undermine πŸ™‚

    TV… the Buchmans from Mad about you and The Simpsons spring to mind as being happy comedy couples?

    As for RL… A bit cynical perhaps? I’ve got friends who definitely (seem to) have real-life relationships that are better than the movie/tv thing… in that they have stuck around and supported each other and still (seem to) enjoy each others’ company and all.

    Of course, I’m pretty shit at that stuff, so what do I know?

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