04/17/2014 02:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Middlebrow: Why Happily Ever After Is Impossible On Television

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It's tough to think of a truly great romantic TV relationship. There are exceptions, of course (some secondary characters or solid married couples in family-themed sitcoms), but when we're talking about protagonists who include the search for love among their primary narrative arc, the options get murkier. In the past weeks, Mindy and Danny of "The Mindy Project" and Nick and Jess of "New Girl" left viewers shocked with their sudden breakups. Except, what other choice did the writers have? We clamor for TV couples to find their happily ever after, but then instantly find ourselves bored, when we get everything we were rooting for.

Anyone who has ever watched "Friday Night Lights," should flare up right at this moment in defense of Coach and Tammy Taylor. They are inarguably the pinnacle of everything that love and trust should be on TV and in real life ... but they were together from the start. We're talking here about those couples that create a central tension and drive the plot forward as a direct result of their romantic potential. We obsess over these characters getting together, only to grow instantly dissatisfied when they do. Remember the preciousness of Pam and Jim in the beginning seasons of "The Office"? A tangible spark of energy would run through the unflattering filament lighting when he did so much as lean over her desk. And then they got married. The narrative force dissipated so quickly, it almost hurts to think how beautiful it would have been, if that first kiss would have somehow been the finale. But what's even more disillusioning is how quickly we got bored with their love story.


Of course, the Jim And Pam Effect is not specific to Scranton, PA. Showrunners know that when all of the will-they-won't-they finally fall tips toward "will," the juice is drained almost as quickly as the protagonists' lips are able to touch. We spend entire seasons hooked on a specific couple getting together, only to lose interest the moment they do. That's somewhat obvious -- a lack of tension is boring -- but we're also instantly upset the moment the most current iteration of Mindy and Danny or Jess and Nick break up. That leaves writers with no choice but to reinvent the will-they-won't-won't-they, threatening the relationship with every feasible obstacle. Consider "Moonlighting," on which the writers had poor Maddie marry a damn train stranger, or "Gilmore Girls," in which Luke and Lorelai were smacked with the surprise-kid-from-a-previous-relationship trope. Frustratingly, none of that manufactured tension ever has any hope of gaining the initial anticipatory momentum.

Meanwhile, on "New Girl" the writers seemed to be actually trying to make it work. Instead of letting Nick and Jess simmer, they sprung the union on us. Flipping tropes (like Jess spitefully flirting with another man due to an imagined Nick infraction) on their head, the plot briefly played with potential complexity, but their compelling factor still managed to fizzle out. The writers might have tried a long game, like maybe having Jess pull Nick out of his less-than-respectable lifestyle, but that would have likely also faded to boring. So, the only real option for eventually achieving happily ever after is by (eventually) getting back together, breaking up and then finally realizing they are meant to be just in time for the show to find its way to a conclusion, a la Elliot and J.D. on "Scrubs."

In another recent example of a tortuous meet-cute, we have "How I Met Your Mother," in which writers played such a long (and annoying) game of will-they-won't-they, that pathetic Ted had to wait nine entire seasons to finally be paired up with his true love. But the ballad of Ted and Robin, much like that of Elliot and J.D., Big and Carrie ("Sex And The City"), Ross and Rachel ("Friends"), Carrie and Brody ("Homeland"), Rayna and Deacon ("Nashville"), Chuck and Blair ("Gossip Girl"), Olivia and Fitz ("Scandal"), Sam and Diane ("Cheers"), Dawson and Joey ("Dawson's Creek"), Ryan and Marissa ("The O.C."), Meredith and Derek ("Grey's Anatomy"), (and so on into the depths of TV history) almost always unwinds into a series of predictable break-ups and make-ups that can only really succeed in being emotionally exhausting.


It's more than likely that Mindy and Danny aren't done for good. There's plenty of lingering regret from both of them, which would suggest they're unfinished, but hopefully we'll be spared the torture of watching them move in and out love. What Kaling seems aware of with this Kafka-esque break-up is that TV relationships formed among protagonists never stand much of a chance. We so quickly lose interest when the characters we're rooting for get together that they can only really satisfy us if their romance is confirmed in a season finale. As a result of our own emotional ADD, the love interests of the television world are left to toil in the ebb and flow of make ups and break ups (or worse: doomed to be pegged as "boring"). So, while we can root for Kaling to eventually set up a pleasant ending for our Mindy, the happily ever after part will have to play offscreen.

Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca



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