Romantic comedies have been a genre almost since movies were created, and there’s a reason for that. It’s a very simple scenario to set up: Two people meet in an undoubtedly cute fashion; they’re separated for a period of time; they get back together, and everything wraps up for posterity in two hours or less. We don’t know what happens to Danny and Sandy as they fly off in their Grease car, and we don’t really want to know. Movies that end in a lengthy clinch, or even better, a kiss at the altar, tell us all we need about the besotted couple. It’s the same reason why fairy tales end with “happily ever after.”
But every actual person in a relationship knows that “happily ever after” is just the start of it. So the longer-form sitcom seems like a perfect landscape in which to explore long-term relationships or marriages. The successful ones, however, have been few and far between. In the early days of television, the easily overwhelmed bride of Claudia leapt from CBS radio to the network’s burgeoning TV enterprise, spending a few months on the small screen in 1952. Sitcoms like He & She and Bridget Loves Bernie also took on the plight of young marrieds in the ’60s and ’70s, but in both cases, the love between the cast members lasted longer than the series. Lasting from 1969 through 1974 Love, American Style was probably the most romantically tinged comedy of this era, although the anthology series rotated characters and themes every week, in vignettes like “Love And The Dating Computer,” “Love And The Pill,” and (most notable to ABC programmers at the time) “Love And The Happy Days.”
In the ’80s, one show revolutionized sitcom romance by introducing a will-they/won’t-they for the ages: The bickering couple of Sam and Diane on Cheers. Countless shows have since tried to capture that show’s lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry, and only a few have even come close. Also in the relationship sitcom category were Fox’s Duet in the late ’80s and CBS’ Almost Perfect in the ’90s: In both cases, the shows eventually ran out of relationship fuel, ditched the guys, and focused on the girls in a retooled series. Duet even got a new name: Open House, featuring a young, long-haired Ellen DeGeneres as a receptionist. It turns out that crafting a situation comedy when the situation is the main couple’s relationship is a bit tricky. A show like Cheers benefited from having a variety of characters and a compelling setting (everyone’s favorite bar) to draw from. How I Met Your Mother was about one man’s search for The One, but it was also several other love stories (and stories about growing up in general) occurring simultaneously. In fact, only one primary-relationship-based long-running series springs to mind: Mad About You.
But despite all of its pitfalls, the romantic comedy sitcom (the rom-sitcom, if you will) has seen a resurgence as of late. In the fall of 2014, many of these series suffered the same fate as Bridget Loves Bernie, as Manhattan Love Story, A To Z, Marry Me, and Selfie all failed to survive past their initial seasons. But two current relationship-based series have lasted several seasons, although both now face impending happily ever wrap-ups: New Girl and The Mindy Project. As New Girl concludes its sixth season tonight (with the potential for a seventh season still up in the air), it’s poised to relieve several years of on-again, off-again tension between protagonist Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel) and her roommate Nick Miller (Jake Johnson). In last week’s episode, “San Diego,” Jess finally came to grips with her rekindled feelings for ex-boyfriend Nick, just as Nick sheepishly broke up with his girlfriend, Reagan (Megan Fox).
A hangout comedy about a group of late-blooming weirdos, New Girl has always had plenty of material to fall back on, but it hit an early creative high (and an all-time peak for ’shipper-made fan videos) when it zeroed in on the potential romance between eccentric educator Jess and underachieving bartender Nick. A thrilling courtship in season two led to a messy, muddled relationship in season three, and the breakup that followed allowed the writing staff and showrunners Elizabeth Meriwether (who also created the show), Brett Baer, and Dave Finkel to reassess who these characters were as individuals, and what they meant to one another in a non-romantic context.
“To some degree, that was what we were doing in season four and season five,” Baer recently told The A.V. Club. “Allowing these characters to get back to ‘Hey, who were we before this event happened between us, that led to a relationship? What are the positive aspects of this relationship that we can’t do without?’ And, then individually, just watching them grow, specifically in the way that the other needed, so there was the possibility that it could actually happen again, and maybe the second go-around is the charm.”
“One of the things that we learned in season two, and certainly in season three, was that they just weren’t ready,” Finkel said. “And now that they’re becoming more fully realized human beings, and owning up to their problems, and being a little bit more responsible, maybe they’re ready for a bigger thing right now. Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know.”
One challenge in writing a couple’s afterglow involves portraying other characters as viable romantic prospects, and not just obstacles to the inevitable. While Jess has wrestled with her feelings for Nick, Nick has carried on a long-distance and long-term relationship with Reagan, played by Megan Fox. Reagan’s steely professionalism and Fox’s deadpan were new speeds for New Girl, and the storytelling potential they presented led to the show bringing her on as a recurring character following a guest arc in season five. Something similar occurred this season with Nelson Franklin, a frequent New Girl guest whose character, Robby, became a so-compatible-it-might-be-illegal love interest for Jess. Baer admitted that although Meriwether sees Jess and Nick as destined to be together, there have been times like Jess-Robby episodes where the show could’ve changed course.
“Sometimes the audience, having the Nick-Jess thing in the back of their heads looks at what we’re doing and goes, ‘All right, all right: When are they going to break up? We know it’s coming,’” he said. “But there was a moment there where we thought, ‘Maybe [she ends up with Robby].’ Hopefully there’s a season seven to come, but we still have to play that game with ourselves and figure out what that dynamic is that keeps the engine of the show going in a season seven.”
“The other part of it is, for us, it’s much more fun, and I think it’s more provocative, to be able to dive into the dynamics of these characters by not putting them together,” Finkel said. “Because then you get to play a couple different dynamics at a time. Which, again, is just better storytelling. You’re able to see, ‘Okay, in the back of his head, Nick has a thing for Jess. But how does that work when he’s really invested in Reagan?’ It’s a more interesting nuance that you don’t get if you’re just putting them together in the first episode.”
The Mindy Project’s trajectory, on the other hand, is almost like New Girl in reverse. From the very first episode, Mindy (star and creator Mindy Kaling) is proclaimed to be a rom-com addict. Her fellow OB/GYN Jeremy (Ed Weeks) is set up as a Hugh Grant bad-boy type, but their co-worker Danny’s (Chris Messina) willingness to watch When Harry Met Sally with her, along with their cute bickering, bodes well for their possible future. And the show pulled that chemistry along for multiple seasons: Mindy juggled boyfriends, but Danny was always in the background, showing considerably more chemistry with Mindy than anyone else. In the middle of season two, “You’ve Got Sext” became the pair’s steamiest episode yet, as they’re forced to pretend to be a couple to thwart Danny’s amorous neighbor. So the kiss that comes at the end of episode 14, “The Desert,” is hardly a surprise. The relationship has its fits and starts, but by the season-two closer, “Danny And Mindy,” the couple is solid.
What followed was less an examination of Mindy and more of a look at her new relationship. Season three added the curveball of Mindy’s pregnancy, heightening her relationship with Danny even more. In the meantime, Chris Messina was off doing other projects, leading to a diminished presence on the show. In what is either the only plot twist the show could take or an outright character assassination, the formerly supportive Danny became insistent that Mindy give up her job to stay home with the baby, and the couple inevitably split. At this point, the show was also canceled by Fox, but quickly rescued by Hulu for season four.
Since then, The Mindy Project has offered even more experimental takes on what the romantic sitcom is capable of, occasionally packing riffs on high-concept cinematic rom-coms into a neat half-hour running time. Showrunner Matt Warburton told The A.V. Club that this burst of creativity “was tied in to our move to Hulu. We did our first Hulu episode, where Mindy does a version of Sliding Doors, what life had been like if she had never been with Danny. The platform we have now, we’re telling the same stories we wanted to tell, just with a broader palette, and it was really fun, and people responded to it right away. I think ultimately if Fox had gone for it, it would have been a bit more if a push and pull.”
Episodes like “While I Was Sleeping” and “Hot Mess Time Machine” (a variation on Groundhog Day) have a higher degree of difficulty than the average sitcom episode. “It’s not something we want to do all the time, but especially with ‘Hot Mess Time Machine,’ that was our spring premiere, and it was a big story point. Mindy had really messed up with this guy and had to figure out a way to get him back. So here’s a way where we can break reality a little bit, but in a way that’s helping the character make a real-life decision and move forward. So it had actual lasting consequences. We try to not do it too often—we’re not a Twilight Zone—but if we have a really important story for the series to tell, or if we have a more important societal point to make.” For example, the recent episode where Mindy wakes up in the body of Ryan Hansen (“Mindy Lahiri Is A White Man”) was a brilliant and funny portrayal of white male privilege. Warburton enthuses, “It was so fun to write an episode where Mindy’s barely in it. It’s fun for her to see this guy imitate her for an entire week.”
When asked about the complications of dissolving the couple the show had spent a few years building, Warburton points out that “this season especially, the fallout of Danny has kind of faded to the background. [Her son] Leo has become more a part of her life. One of the things I’m really proud of that the audience has really responded to is Mindy taking her job incredibly seriously lately, one of the things that detonated her relationship with Danny. Tons and tons of women have reached out to us on Twitter and been like, ‘Oh my god, that’s exactly what would ruin a great relationship like that.’” The debates in The A.V. Club comments may not be as 100 percent on board, but fans of the show can certainly relate to the dilemma: If half of a popular couple wants to leave the show, what choice does the show have but to keep marching forward? (Much like Cheers did after Diane.) In Mindy’s case, Mindy’s newly single status has helped the show reach new heights creatively, as the show has broken out of the relationship-model frame.
As Warburton describes:
“If you think about romantic comedies, and you think about meet-cute, that format is great for a one-sitting kind of format, like a great play. But TV forces you to keep going, and we discovered with romance, that means a lot of different things. We went through a whole season where Mindy and Danny are a pretty stable couple. We were still able to make the show romantic, but in a way that was different than how a comedy genre would handle it in one of Nancy Meyers’ great movies. It was a romance of other periods of your life: the love you feel for your kid and your co-workers. Once Mindy and Danny were centered in that relationship, we had to get clever: What does love mean? What other sides about romantic comedy can we get to that are about being in a stable relationship? But then when Danny left, it kind of reinvented those kind of stories. And Mindy had to kind of teach herself, like, even though she has a kid, even though she’s older than she was when she was first dating, now we can do wised-up romantic comedies. She’s a little smarter. Just moving toward the finale, Mindy has become a little disenchanted with romance, with the world of romantic comedies, in a way that would surprise the Mindy of season one.
I think what Mindy has to deal with is as a younger person you feel like the world is going to reward you with a romantic narrative. You’re the hero of the story, and you’re just going to find out what it is. She’s been through all that, and it was kind of a disaster. And the question now is, is she still able to be the author of that story, to be the person who makes it happen, not just that it happens to. She tried that with Danny. The relationship with Ben is a little less flowery and romantic, even if it isn’t the perfect thing. With a little more effort, can she make it the most romantic thing in the world?”
Mindy’s fifth season just wrapped up with a looming proposal from Ben, which season-five Mindy was much more hesitant about than season-one Mindy would have been, although the couple seems headed in that direction by the end of the episode. Then the show announced that its sixth season will be its last, giving The Mindy Project the chance to wrap up its relationship saga over the course of several episodes; but in this case, the focus will primarily be on Mindy herself. As Warburton puts it, “What I think makes our show so different is that it’s really the POV of one person. It was hard to explain, because there really weren’t that many examples of it. I would compare it to Bridget Jones’s Diary or something, where it’s a show that’s kind of written in the first person. It’s a workplace show when she’s at work, but it’s a romance show when she’s on a date. So we just have the show follow where she is going, and try to keep up.”
Since The Mindy Project and New Girl debuted, there have been other shows to tackle the thornier side of romance. Both You’re The Worst and Love could be billed as rom-sitcoms, but both pull back from that structure to tell stories about their characters’ struggles with mental health, addiction, and being better people. It’s an example of how the “situation” in situation comedy has grown more fluid in the current TV landscape: Today’s network comedies might be based in a workplace (like Superstore), or they might take place in a bizarre afterlife (The Good Place). Shows whose situation was merely “love” haven’t had much luck in the past, but New Girl and The Mindy Project have proven that rom-sitcoms can go the distance. Remarking on what a seventh season of New Girl might bring, Brett Baer said, “We feel like we have more story to tell.”