This fall television season, NBC and ABC would like you to believe in love. Specifically, the kind of love that you can see coming a mile away: In the pilots for the sitcoms A To Z, Manhattan Love Story, and Selfie, there’s a man, a woman, biological imperative, and a music montage. Break out the popcorn and red wine, America: They’re gonna bang. And then they’re going to talk about it.
In the past, we’ve had a term for this kind of thing: the romantic comedy, affectionately termed the “rom-com.” A 90-minute movie with a heterosexual couple, glamorous jobs, unrealistically swanky apartments in hip cities, and a love story. They were born in the relationship drama of Annie Hall and reached their peak in the ’80s and ’90s under screenwriters like Nora Ephron and filmmakers like Garry Marshall, who became masters of the middleweight film. These are stories primarily about the triumphs and travails of modern, upper-middle-class relationships—and often have some light social commentary baked into the premise, usually of fast-paced city life, modern technology, and the social norms around gender and sexuality. But all of that is secondary to the heart of the matter—the love story itself, with beats so predictable watching a rom-com is less entertainment and more a ritual. The meet-cute. The other man/woman. The sudden realization of affection. The obstacles. The dark night of the soul(s). The reconciliation. And in the manner of all Western comedy, from ancient Greek plays to commedia dell’arte, a final wedding. Roll credits.
This TV season more than ever, it’s become clear that the rom-com has moved mediums—the rom-sitcom, perhaps—making the film rom-com an artifact of the past. This is happening mainly because of money: The movie business has changed so that investing in the middleweight, middlebrow, reasonably performing film isn’t worth it anymore—make a blockbuster or get out. Character dramas that could be romantic comedies have gone instead to independent studios—Celeste And Jesse Forever and Obvious Child, for example. Great films but not mainstream romantic comedies, not nearly.
Television, meanwhile, has exploded: More and more networks are willing to take a chance on niche ideas. Prestige television is poaching lifelong film actors and breathing new life into them. So Manhattan Love Story and A To Z are both ideas that would have been pitched as romantic comedies, 10 or 15 years ago. And the sitcom Selfie is literally an adaptation of the feature-length film My Fair Lady. These new shows follow in the footsteps of numerous other half-hour sitcoms that have made hay out of using the rom-com format on television: How I Met Your Mother, which offers the rom-com premise right in the title, and The Mindy Project, which comes right out and states its interest in Ephron’s oeuvre.
The problem here is that television isn’t film. Television tells a serialized, open-ended story, and film is a closed-loop. Or at least, that’s the theory—though television’s shift to prestige drama has introduced shorter, tighter, closed-ended seasons, and film’s shift to blockbuster franchises has introduced long-running, multi-installment stories that come out every few months.
But murder mysteries and comic-book stories are one thing. Love stories, Manhattan or otherwise, are another. As I described above, audiences know how the story’s supposed to go. We know how it is going to end. So if it’s obvious that a couple is going to get together while watching the opening scenes of the pilot—indeed, if a couple gets together by the end of the pilot, as happens in A To Z—how are audiences expected to invest in multiple seasons of a done deal? Ninety minutes is one thing: Nine seasons is quite another.
The reason that television so often leans on the family or the workplace for comedy or drama is because those two settings are rich with opportunities for continued storytelling on the basic, practical level. It’s what television writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach called an “operational theme,” which contains the the day-to-day reality of the characters, whether that’s a crime that needs to be solved, like on Law And Order: SVU, or a couch that has to be moved up the stairs, a la Friends. Love stories are often incidental to television; they’re rarely all of a show.
That’s because a love story focused on two people getting together has a very short operational theme. Romance is well suited for film, where the practical elements of work, life, and family only have to matter for a few short scenes in a narrative that will clock under three hours—the credits will roll once the main players finally swap spit. It’s impractical for a television series where, at best, a show could get the proverbial six seasons and a movie.
Indeed, though How I Met Your Mother, which ended this spring, was a huge hit for CBS, its quality did not derive from the romantic-comedy component, which by most accounts was a total bust. HIMYM ended up inventing an operational theme on the fly, one that borrowed from the “friends-as-family” sitcom storytelling of Friends and added cutaways, dream sequences, and inside jokes that remind the viewer more of an animated sitcom than a live-action one. The conclusion tried to enforce the reality of the show’s first 30 minutes on its last 30 minutes. And while that’s a strategy that works well to end a film, it’s a failure for a show that’s gone on for literally years.
The Mindy Project hasn’t had a chance to fail, yet, but that might be because its success is far more niche. The second season is an improvement on the first, but as the entire show has been about protagonist Mindy and her friend/coworker Danny inching closer to physical intimacy, the first-season run felt incredibly anticlimactic—the protracted first half of a rom-com. As with HIMYM, there is a kind of day-to-day for Dr. Lahiri and her practice, but it’s rarely given enough weight to be worth investing in. There’s never been a day-to-day outside of waiting for the two main characters to kiss. And now that they finally have, what is the show going to do? It will have to reinvent its operational theme—a tough nut to crack, for writers and for viewers.
As a fan of the rom-com and the sitcom, it’s hard to know what to think of the rom-sitcom. Romantic comedies provide a space for light, frothy, and fulfilling storytelling. My Best Friend’s Wedding, When Harry Met Sally, and Sliding Doors are all incredible films, in their own ways. But their greatness stems from the fact that they end. The stories are allowed to conclude, with the requisite happy (or at least bittersweet) ending.
At the same time, there’s something exciting about taking the story of a relationship to television. The toughest part of the romantic-comedy formula isn’t actually the romance—it’s the comedy. Relationships are hard work. Film makes it easier to make that story feel light and breezy and funny; television, with its focus on the daily grind, makes it harder to escape the difficulty of attraction, coupling, and marriage. A lot of prestige dramas have taken advantage of the opportunity to cover years in their storytelling to get into the psychological reality of long relationships, for example. But they’re usually more tragic than funny—think Mad Men, Masters Of Sex, The Americans. But a sitcom about a relationship that also happens to be a funny, moving, and lighthearted series? That could be that rarest of things: a happy ending that doesn’t quite end, and instead ambles into the sunset while holding hands. It’s hard to imagine any of the new shows this fall will solve this delicate, weird problem overnight—but you know, it would be lovely if they could.