Can TV Get the Rom-Com Right?

Several shows are trying. A couple of them are succeeding.

Clockwise: Marry Me, A to Z, Selfie, Manhattan Love Story, You're the Worst, and The Mindy Project.
Clockwise: Marry Me, A to Z, Selfie, Manhattan Love Story, You’re the Worst, and The Mindy Project.

Courtesy of NBCUniversal Media, Eric McCandless/ABC, Giovanni Rufino/ABC, FX, and Fox

How long does it take to fall in love? How long does it take to declare that love? How long does it take to get married? Even the most optimistic estimates tell us that—Vegas misadventures notwithstanding—these things tend to take a while. And yet cinematic romantic comedies must get through it all in roughly two hours. The difference, in this instance, between real life and the movies seems like a plum opportunity for television, which can be less plodding than reality without having to resort to an “and then they fell in love” montage. Yet, television, for most of its history, has completely bobbled the romantic comedy.

When it comes to love, TV typically makes two kinds of shows: post–happy ending comedies featuring long-term couples that don’t have much rom-com frisson (from I Love Lucy to Mad About You to Mike & Molly) and shows about people with amazing chemistry that try to delay or complicate the happy ending for as long as audiences can bear (Moonlighting, The Office, Friends). Neither type much resembles a romantic comedy of the kind we know from the movies—even though they are guided by that form’s core truism: Love is boring, but falling in love is not.

That platitude explains why Hollywood rom-coms end with a kiss or a pronouncement of feeling or a wedding. All that happens afterward, the Sturm und Drang of true togetherness, the scenes from a marriage—that’s the stuff of comedy or drama, not romance. And TV, trying to hew to these rules, typically makes shows about love that either idle in flirtation or jump ahead to the post-connubial stage. (Obviously romance is a part of most TV shows. But even memorable love stories are rarely the focus of an entire series. Friends was about Ross and Rachel, but it wasn’t just about Ross and Rachel.)

The new fall season has both kinds of shows. NBC’s Marry Me stars Casey Wilson and Ken Marino as the high-strung Annie and the more grounded Jake, a couple who have been together for six years and who, over the course of the harrowing first episode and many snafus, get engaged. The show was created by David Caspe, who made the dearly departed Happy Endings, and it is based on his relationship with Wilson, who is now his wife. Happy Endings did not have a great pilot—though it did have a recurring joke about the Indigo Girls, something I always consider a promising sign—and neither does Marry Me. The tag line for the first episode might as well be, “Crazy girls who are desperate to put a ring on it and the men who love neediness enough to love them!” It features two cringe-inducing proposals kiboshed by Annie’s engagement-induced hysteria. (In his review for Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz suggested there are moments when the pilot feels like it might be laying the groundwork for a thriller, which, yes.)

Still, Caspe promises that each episode will not be about the couple almost breaking up and that there will be a wedding at the end of the season. If anyone can spice up a couples comedy with a little sex appeal, it’s the guy who created Happy Endings’ kinky, hilarious, and happy Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) and Jane (Eliza Coupe). But beyond the pilot’s retrograde undertones, there’s the long-term ramifications of casting: Wilson is never anything but committed as an actor, but she is a frenetic presence who is at her best in contained doses. (This is why she was so great as Happy Endings’ Penny Hartz—and even in Gone Girl, as Amazing Amy’s naive neighbor.) She easily overpowers Marino, who excels at playing sleazebags and the emotionally unhinged, but who here is the straight man, with an accidental whiff of the oleaginous.

ABC’s Selfie, loosely based on My Fair Lady, takes the other tack, focusing on two people who don’t yet know they are perfect for each other. Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan, great, gawky, game) is a social media–obsessed narcissist who seeks professional rebranding help after an unflattering video of her goes viral. Hesitantly offering up his services is her colleague Henry (John Cho), who agrees to help her become a more self-aware, considerate person. If this sounds even more paternalistic than Marry Me—the show also features a sassy black secretary, by the way—well, it works far better than it should. (And at least Gillan and Cho, unlike Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, are relatively close in age and have real chemistry.)

Gillan has crack comic timing and wonderful physicality—she just holds herself funny, slumping and yet still somehow towering over Cho. Three episodes in, the series has already established that the exchange of knowledge between Eliza and Henry will be a two-way street: Henry instructs Eliza and realizes he needs instruction himself. On a recent episode, Henry, explaining how to befriend someone, tells Eliza to “discover what her interests are.” In response, Eliza blurts out, “And who you be with,” doing her best Biggie Smalls impersonation. I can’t even say that this is a great joke. It’s not even, structurally, a joke. It’s so random, so referential, so white-girls-loving-hip-hop iffy. But it was also so unexpected, so specific, so weird, and delivered by Gillan with such total and fleeting conviction—I was charmed.

Selfie is a will-they-or-won’t-they show in its very early stages, even though, as always, this is a misleading description: They will—it’s just a matter of when. Two new shows this season are facing these facts, and get down, not to whether they will, but how. ABC’s Manhattan Love Story and NBC’s far superior A to Z are rarer shows than Selfie or Marry Me, in that they are explicitly, and from the start, about couples who are falling in love. In the pilot episodes of both, two twentysomethings meet cute and begin to date and both series promise to follow the hemming and hawing, the missteps and cutesiness, of their burgeoning relationships.

A to Z is the cutesy love story of Andrew (Mad Men’s Ben Feldman) and Zelda (Cristin Milioti)—i.e., A and Z, who are quirky, adorable soul mates. The show has an omniscient narrator (Katey Sagal) who has access to both Andrew’s and Zelda’s most secret, and usually quirky and adorable, thoughts. Andrew is the dreamier, more romantic one, the one who will say “I really like you” after a second date. Zelda is more practical and guarded, the one who won’t respond to that compliment until she’s had a day or two to feel bad about not reciprocating. They make a sweet couple. Unfortunately, the narrator tells us, in eight months time, Andrew and Zelda will break up. This is an insane parameter—have the creators never seen How I Met Your Mother?—that either means eight months will be stretched out for years and years or, immediately after they break up, they will get back together again.

Manhattan Love Story is more straightforward, but by comparison, excruciatingly bro-ish. Dana (Analeigh Tipton) and Peter (Jake McDorman) also meet cute, but with more hostile and hesitant overtones. If Andrew is head over heels nearly from the start, Peter is cynical and wary, the guy who only marginally believes in love and definitely wants to keep dating other people. This puts Dana in the much more stereotypical position of liking a guy a little more than he likes her. In a recent episode, she scurries to find a date to bring to a dinner party, because Peter already has one. A to Z exists in a universe where men and women like each other; Manhattan Love Story exists in one where men and women are from neighboring but different planets. (Did you know women spend hours getting ready each morning, but men just look in the mirror and go?)

In both A to Z and Manhattan Love Story you can see, just a few episodes in, a looming structural problem. In Hollywood rom-coms everything is new except the formula: The characters are new to each other and they are new to us, and, in a short and exciting period of time, they go through prescribed—but, hopefully, slightly original—maneuvers on their way to happiness. In contrast, almost nothing in a sitcom, past the pilot, is particularly new. We get to know the characters and they get to know each other, and then we all hang out for dozens and dozens of hours. Romantic comedies are built on a kind of uncertainty, not in the audience, but in the characters onscreen, who are deciding whether to make an emotional commitment, unaware that their fates have already been determined by genre. But sitcoms are about familiarity, about characters who have at the very least made commitments to spending all their time together. They are not about the exciting beginning or the dramatic end: They are about the endless middle. How long can Andrew and Zelda and Dana and Peter tiptoe around each other before getting to the place where most romantic comedies end, that place of mutual understanding? How long before the shows become post-connubial, in spirit if not in fact? What’s cute over two hours can get enormously irritating over 50.

Yet, despite the difficulties, there are currently two shows on television doing the rom-com right. The first is FX’s You’re the Worst, which just wrapped up its first season, and will give you a fix in the manner of a much, much tawdrier You’ve Got Mail. When the show first premiered, I reviewed it pretty dismissively. My mistake, You’re the Worst. I did not immediately appreciate your dirty, uproarious, naughty charm, and I apologize.

You’re The Worst is the story of Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere), two awful people who are almost perfect for each other and who, despite all their fears and anxieties and mutual, intense self-awareness, are giving it a go, even though they are fairly certain it will end in pain. The show works because it is about two tremendously unreliable and selfish headcases. This means each episode can do what sitcoms do—deepen a relationship and our understanding of the characters while still serving up something generally familiar—while also genuinely providing something unexpected and a little twisted. Jimmy and Gretchen are an honest-to-God will-they-or-won’t-they couple—not when it comes to sex or even love, but when it comes to the messier matter of making it work. They are erratic, emotional kamikazes. In one episode they sleep with other people, and it elevates their relationship. In another one prematurely proposes. In a third they break up. They are truly volatile, and they make You’re the Worst reliably unpredictable. Gretchen and Jimmy and their show are simultaneously familiar and fresh, much like many great real-life relationships.

Not every rom-com can be about lovable commitment-phobic dirtbags and heavy drug users. So there is also the example set by The Mindy Project, which paired off doctors Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) and Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) at the end of last season and hasn’t looked back. (This is in stark contrast to The New Girl, a show about dudes hanging out that became a love story—to the consternation of no one so much as the people making it: After a year trying it out, the show aggressively reverted.) Mindy and Danny are committed to each other, but as they are flawed, persnickety people, there is no shortage of issues they have to work out, while still, absolutely, staying together. Recent episodes have explored whether Danny would lie for Mindy, how the two keep secrets, and whether they might try anal. It’s true that Mindy does not feel quite like Lahiri’s beloved rom-coms. Danny and Mindy are exploring what comes after the happy ending—their first one anyway, which came at the end of last season, when they embraced in a fetid back alley. But the show is romantic, and it is very funny, and because this is television, it promises to go on for a very long time.