A completely unscientific look at Ross and Rachel, Danny and Mindy, Jess and Nick and the culture of will-they-or-won’t-they

Yesterday, The Guardian wrote this about The Mindy Project:

The Mindy Project‘s Mindy and Danny are TV’s last romantic hope. There is no longer any great ‘will-they, won’t-they’ mystery, because they have (kissed on an airplane, which was amazing), and now they will. The final shot of the most recent episode saw them reading Bridget Jones together in bed. It restored this viewer’s faith in true, fictional love.

Alright. Spoiler alert: last night on The Mindy Project, er, Mindy and Danny broke up — after maybe 1.7 episodes of being together. In the next new episode (which aired directly after that), there was a little dancing around, sure — but Danny was also getting sexted by another doctor’s sister, and Mindy almost took a job with Skyler White (er, Anna Gunn). In other words, a viewer’s faith in true fictional love was shot down in less than 42 minutes.

This comes on the heels of FOX’s other Tuesday sitcom, New Girl, breaking up Jess and Nick:

And of course, it all comes on the heels of the longest-running sitcom in a while, How I Met Your Mother, killing off the mother (and killing off Robin and Barney), despite investing an entire season in essentially both:

I’ve talked a little bit before about what makes a great sitcom, and obviously every famous one ever has some kind of relationship history between a primary male and female character. Consider: Frasier, Seinfeld, Friends, HIMYM and, well, basically every show that’s ever aired. (The same thing happens in dramas: Breaking Bad didn’t have a lot of crossing-over, but two marriages and two Jesse relationships were important to the story arcs, and then relationships are at the heart of The SopranosMad Men, and even — to an extent — The Wire.)

It seemed as of 2010 or so — when Jim and Pam had successfully gotten together on The Office and it still had viewers, or Grayson and Jules had paired up on CougarTown and it still had viewers — that maybe the will-they-or-won’t-they narrative on sitcoms was dead. With the new developments on New GirlThe Mindy Project, and even shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it appears the “will-they-or-won’t-they” idea might be making a comeback.

In one sense, I get this: TV shows, despite what the show-runners and stars say in interviews, aren’t really designed to entertain the audience. They’re designed to make money by attracting viewers and then, subsequently, advertisers. No one makes something and hopes it isn’t widely-seen; people want to find an audience for their work, whether that’s because they want to become rich or they consider it art. In order to get those viewers, you need to have hooks and conflicts for the major characters. In a sitcom, that’s primarily achieved through the romantic relationships of the primary people. There are multiple lessons throughout TV history of coupling people and destroying a show — Who’s The Boss or Moonlighting, for example — and those things probably terrify executives. If you have a good thing that’s tracking and advertisers are interested at a premium rate, why eff it up by putting the leads together and risking the dynamic of the show changing? Often sitcoms go in with one idea, but another idea permeates with viewers — for example, Schmidt becoming a breakout star on New Girl, or the narrative of HIMYM gradually shifting away from Ted-Robin over time. Basically, mess with chemistry and lose viewers. Lose viewers and lose ad dollars. Lose ad dollars and get cancelled. No one wants that, so they fear the coupling.

The flip side is obvious: first off, you can stretch it out too long (see: Bones), or you can play it in such a way that entire seasons worth of character development are essentially tossed out the window. Take The Mindy Project as an example there. This entire season was built up around Danny disparaging the idea of people not treating Mindy with respect, and growing into “the man’s man” he was discussing in the earliest episodes. So he gets into the relationship and he can’t tell anyone about it? He’s suddenly the chickenshit when the last 12 episodes were about making him the stronger one? That’s dumb. You just reversed course on a character to keep the majority of fans interested, and in so doing, you may alienate another section of fans.

Now, it should be noted that any reasonable person understands that Mindy/Danny and Jess/Nick will eventually get together, just like Ross/Rachel — the gold standard of all this, which I’ll discuss in one second — did as well. (Honestly, Adam and Hannah will probably end up together too.)

Alright, so Ross and Rachel. Realize that most people staffing sitcoms right now likely grew up in the time frame where Ross/Rachel — and maybe Niles/Daphne — were the gold standards of sitcom relationship arcs. Look at Friends ratings by season; while it dipped a little in the middle, it finished with some of its strongest seasons ever. Say what you will about how that whole thing played out — and yes, there were other relationships around it, like Monica and Chandler — but Rachel/Ross helped hook people to the tune of close to 27 million for each new episode. And that’s an arc that could easily seem overlong and contrived, but for many viewers, it worked. So if you can bring a couple in and out of being “on again” — if you can figure out a way to do “on a break” without actually stealing that key term — maybe you can last 9-10 seasons and get 20 million here and there. Remember also: there’s a lot more on TV right now (digital platforms, etc.) and a lot more good on TV right now (cable has developed to a place way better than it was when Friends was airing). How do you capture that attention? Marketable stars and good chemistry, sure — and strong writing, of course — but you need to keep some mystery around those central relationships.

TL:DR then — sitcoms should ideally entertain, but the actual goal is to make money for those involved. You make money by attracting viewers and then advertisers, and you keep those viewers/advertisers (and maybe even build on them!) by keeping your central characters in interesting, hopefully somewhat “I-can-relate-to-this” arcs. That’s why showrunners seem to love the will-they-or-won’t-they (incentive to tune in!) and fear the straight-up let’s-put-them-together (what if chemistry changes?!?!). At least, that’s my misguided two cents. If you have other, more intelligent ideas feel free to leave them in the comments. 

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. When did tv writers decide that contrived relationship drama was FUNNY though? Did it start with Friends? (and for the record, I actually was hoping Rachel did NOT get off that plane by the end) I don’t understand why the new gold standard of tv comedy is throwing in random drama and expecting us to laugh at it. I mean, don’t we get enough of the stupid schiznit in real life? Laughing at other people’s misery? Is that where we’re at now? Writers have gotten lazy. That’s what it boils down to. Comedy is HARD to write. Extremely hard. Comedies with a broader appeal, like Big Bang and Modern Family are even harder. But you don’t see those shows randomly breaking up couples over stupid things and then expecting us to believe they’d still be BFFs. Maybe they’re so popular because they at least show respect for their viewers’ intelligence. I feel like my favorite shows (HIMYM, New Girl) must have a really low opinion of their audience. They’ve made me feel like an idiot for “falling for and believing” in the story that they were telling me. I’m not an idiot, so don’t treat me like one.

Comments are closed.