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How Sitcom Relationships Impact Narrative Choices

Last night’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine saw Jake and Amy finally reuniting after six months without contact, and it was… a little awkward. Fortunately, it was also hilarious (Amy punched Jake in the the throat, Jake told Amy he kissed Holt right before kissing her) and short-lived; by the end of the episode, the two were back in sync, or in Jake’s case, as in-sync as you could be with someone who just shot you. If it was any other sitcom, the strain of being away from each other for half a year would be too much, and the characters would probably break up, only to have a big adorable reunion by the end of the season. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine has never written Jake and Amy that way, and don’t typically use their relationship for dramatic purposes like, for example, The Office might. Which is interesting to me, because if you look at all the 2000s/early 2010s sitcoms you’ll find that their relationships impact the plot in very different ways, whether it’s a deliberate writing choice or audience perception.

Focus On the Ensemble

bed
Since getting together at the end of season two, Jake and Amy have been a low-key piece of the larger ensemble puzzle. Brooklyn Nine-Nine gets away with this, since it’s a higher concept show- they’re NYPD officers, not “friends hanging out”- but it wouldn’t work on every show. Admittedly, they’re sometimes a little forgotten, which is bound to happen when there are cases to solve, jokes to tell and five additional main characters to flesh out in just twenty minutes. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not a particularly dramatic show, with the exceptions of season finales and recent three-parters, so there’s not a necessary weight that needs to sit on Jake and Amy’s shoulders. They’re fun together and they’re fun apart, and when we get an episode that expands on their relationship it’s usually a good one. Otherwise, I think we’re all content to just hear Gina and Holt spilling the hot goss.

It’s A Wonderful Life… Until It’s Not

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Is there a more perfect sitcom couple than The Office’s Jim and Pam? Excuse me, seasons four through seven of The Office’s Jim and Pam? PB + J was the relationship goal for young me. I recognized that they were real enough to be, well, real, yet I didn’t have the world knowledge to realize that in real life things couldn’t always be so perfect. Jim and Pam were made for each other, but the kind of couple that was still not completely happy with their lives. The Office took that to the next level, leading to some relationship drama that hurt to watch, but was almost needed in a show that was no longer featuring its lead actor and heading towards a decade of air time. Early on, The Office was about the workplace, but was really driven by the question of whether or not Jim and Pam would end up together. Once that question was answered, it was nice for a bit, but Andy chasing after Erin didn’t pack the same punch. Maybe Jim and Pam’s relationship suffered a little bit in the middle, but in the end they remained a couple you might actually know in real life.

Bring Out the Worst in One of Them

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The Mindy Project
came back to Hulu yesterday. I’m hesitant to start, and it’s because of Danny Castellano. Danny was never perfect, though from the first episode you knew he and Mindy were destined to be together. “You look nice,” “Go to Hell,” is a perfect little moment between them that sets up what will come. Mindy and Danny are both kind of terrible people, in a way that makes you love them. They say ridiculously dumb things for two accomplished doctors and often treat each other badly, and then are really sweet and make you root for their relationship. But after getting together they became an entirely new monster. Mindy is Mindy; she has the entitlement of a white man with a bad bitch attitude. She’s our protagonist, and she’s not going to change for any man. But Danny can and did change. He became kind of awful. He had always been super conservative and cartoon Italian, but after they had baby Leo he was even worse. His flaws were used to help cement Mindy’s decisions. Maybe it was just because Chris Messina had to go and shoot Live By Night, but his character became almost nonexistent, and now he’s engaged. Mindy Lahiri’s story isn’t about the men itself, and is about her journey surrounded by men, but still. This one hurts.

Bring Out the Worst in Both of Them

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I’m still rooting for New Girl’s Nick and Jess. Their slow build and first kiss were the reason I proclaimed this show to be one of the best. But after they got together the show was very different, and mostly the reason I stopped watching. They just didn’t work out. Where Mindy reacted off the obvious differences between her and Danny, Nick and Jess just flopped like two fish who were out of water but afraid to tell the other one they were dying. I guess that happens in friendships turned relationships, but it would have been nice to have them act like normal human beings. Let’s not forget that Jess is a Vice Principal and Nick was in law school, okay? Jake Johnson once made a very good point about their relationship failing on a story basis because it forced Nick into all the A stories, which doesn’t work on an ensemble show. I still have faith that the show has grown enough to bring us a Nick/Jess relationship that makes sense for the characters. And I’m not giving it up for a Jess/Robby romance.

It’s All About the Chase

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I love How I Met Your Mother. But I do not love Robin and Ted. Or let me rephrase- I love them to an extent. I loved them way back in season two when they were symbolized by the blue French Horn, and everyone thought their relationship would grow to be a great friendship. But in season nine, when telling he story of his deceased wife makes Ted realizes he’s still in love with his best friend’s ex wife, I did not love them. The Ted/Robin back-and-forth was fodder for most of the drama throughout HIMYM’s run, and almost every time it was brought up I rolled my eyes. This was a great show, with the best continuity and in-jokes I’ve ever seen, that just kept going back to a relationship that could never be. Robin wasn’t the mother! Every step of their relationship felt like a waste, because it wasn’t end game. Until it was. The finale was met with pretty widespread disappointment, myself included, because it was just not what we expected. Maybe if we all focused more on Marshall and Lilly, we wouldn’t still be upset about this.

Rely On Everyone Else For Drama

Parks and Recreation - Season 6

The Parks and Recreation lineup has a lot of couples that would make a top ten list, but Ben and Leslie take the cake. Remember how nervous Leslie was to go on a date with Officer Dave because of her history of terrible first dates? Remember what a jerk Ben was when he first came to Pawnee, because his job was shutting down jobs? Remember how Leslie Knope is the future President of the United States, and Ben gave up his dreams for her? Yeah. They’re the best. Parks and Rec is a show that’s not too in your face about its idealism, but its there. It’s a show I used to describe as “The Office, except everyone likes each other and they’re all your favorite character.” It’s not going to send us through the ringer just to have Leslie and Ben be completely fine by the end. So it relies on the external relationships for drama. Ann moves away, leaving best friend Leslie behind. Leslie and Ron are totally at odds in the future. Ben and Leslie want the same job. The drama is all there, but it doesn’t interfere with them as a couple. It’s so nice to watch, it almost makes you forget you’re watching a TV couple fall in love by yourself.

Get Canceled, So Who Knows

05-happy-endings-w1200-h630This is genuinely the worst tactic. We’ll never know what happened to Happy Endings‘ Penny and Dave! Did they fall in love? Or was there a dramatic love triangle? I have nothing to say here, except that I’m still really sad this show was canceled.

 

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One thought on “How Sitcom Relationships Impact Narrative Choices

  1. Pingback: ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ Meets ‘New Girl,’ And It’s Better than Late-Night NPR | the tv enthusiast

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