The Death of Will-They-or-Won't-They
Sitcoms like Community, Parks and Recreation, and Cougar Town have bludgeoned the old Sam-and-Diane-style trope to death by exploding the audience’s expectations of romantic storylines. Jace Lacob talks to Community’s Dan Harmon, Parks and Recreation’s Mike Schur and Greg Daniels, and Bones’ Hart Hanson about how TV is throwing off that age-old will-they-or-won’t-they paradigm.
In recent years, it’s been a given that romantic pairs on television had to be subjected to the will-they or-won't-they dilemma—where couples as clearly in love as Ross-and-Rachel, Sam-and-Diane, or Jim-and-Pam were prevented from jumping into bed together for years, as the writers forced them through increasingly tight narrative hoops.
These days, though, it seems like more and more TV couples just will. As writer-producers have sought to surprise the audience, they’re puncturing romantic tropes in the process.
The up-ending of the cliché is especially true in comedy. Cougar Town’s executive producers Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel quickly pushed Jules ( Courteney Cox) and Grayson ( Josh Hopkins) into a romance before the end of the first season. (And they’re still together, going into Season 3.) On Community, Jeff Winger ( Joel McHale) has made out with way-too-young Annie ( Allison Brie) and slept with Britta ( Gillian Jacobs), but didn’t choose either of them. On Parks and Recreation, creators Greg Daniels and Mike Schur—who both worked on the protracted Jim and Pam story during their tenure on The Office—constructed a romance between sullen April ( Aubrey Plaza) and goofball “shoeshine-ist” Andy ( Chris Pratt), who seemed to be heading down a more traditional path.
Then there was the bombshell: Three weeks into their relationship, April and Andy married in an impromptu wedding ceremony. It seemed like the birth of the anti-Jim and Pam, a couple whose story wasn’t based on years of stolen glances, but on a refreshing impetuosity.
“We didn’t want to do the same thing that you always do with couples when they’re together, which is have them be together, and then have something drag them apart and break them up and then have them get back together,” said Schur. “What if they just got married? What if they did something impulsive and young and foolhardy? It seemed like it would lead to interesting stories down the line where whatever is going on in their relationship the stakes would automatically be higher because they’re married, instead of just dating.”
Parks and Recreation is a novel case, because the show’s central relationship isn’t Andy and April, but the platonic friendship between Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope and Rashida Jones’ Ann Perkins, who has gone through boyfriends—Pratt’s Andy, Paul Schneider’s Mark, and Rob Lowe’s Chris—like tissues. While April and Andy’s unusual courtship both shocked and charmed, Poehler’s Leslie is following a more traditional arc: She’s involved with co-worker Ben ( Adam Scott), though government rules prohibit such workplace relationships.
“We have a couple of ways we can go with it,” said Schur. “The idea was to take two people who really love their jobs and really like each other and then have their job be the thing that keeps them from maybe being completely happy with each other because this scandal is looming over their heads.”
“Obstacles are tricky things and they have to ring true,” he continued. “We just have to decide next year whether they’re going to keep [their relationship] a secret or whether they’re going to break up, or whether they’re going to come clean... I’m not sure which way we’re going to go yet.”
“In my world, love is sloppy,” said Dan Harmon of the way in which Community handles its romantic couplings.
On NBC’s Community, creator Dan Harmon has played fast and loose with love, reacting against what Daniels and his writing staff had accomplished on The Office. “We just came off a five-year all-you-can-eat Jim and Pam buffet and we were full,” Harmon said. “If I was trying to sell that, nobody was going to line up… You’ve just come off the textbook execution of it... So we were going to need to look at romance in a different way.”
And so they did: Jeff and Britta had sex during an intense paintball war; an unlikely couple— Yvette Nicole Brown’s Shirley and Ken Jeong’s Chang—slept together during a zombie apocalypse; Britta and Troy ( Donald Glover) made out; and Annie and Abed ( Danny Pudi) locked lips as he channeled Han Solo.
“What you see us doing a lot is screwing around,” Harmon said. “Maybe it’s not the end of the world if this person and that person were ever to hook up.”
All of which further upends viewers’ expectations. Within the off-kilter world of Community, there is no single power couple, no romantic leads to root for, to pine for, or to inspire slo-mo user-generated YouTube videos. (The show itself recently satirized that very trend.)
“In my world, people don’t pine after each other secretly for years and then end the story by kissing for the first time, and then keep kissing forever,” said Harmon. “In my world, love is sloppy.”
Still, Harmon said there will be more romance in the third season. “I’ve run out of ways to shove a sitcom up its own ass,” he said. “So there will be emerging large stories about people falling in love. It’ll happen. I just don’t think it will be as recognizable.”
For their part, Schur and Daniels believe that everything is cyclical and that the wheel will turn around once more back to the Jim-and-Pam-type dynamics that have fallen out of fashion at the moment.
“Maybe if people go away from that for a while, then that will strip open a space where a show can come along and do another sort of more classic will-they-won’t-they couple and it will oscillate for as long as there are TV shows,” said Schur.
The audience was definitely invested in that Office romance between would-be lovers Jim and Pam, an obsessive zeal on the part of fans who celebrated the relationship angle of the show. NBC’s promotional department picked up on this driving desire—to the dismay of the show’s creative minds.
“We, at times, were frustrated because it felt, from the promos, that it was more of a romance show," said Daniels, "than the actual proportion of Jim and Pam on screen.”
Schur interrupted. “I think sometimes it also felt like, ‘Steve Carell, the greatest comedy legend of his generation, is in the background.’ [But] if you look at the actual screen time, the Jim and Pam stuff really was always a minority of the screen time with very few exceptions, like their wedding.”
If there was network pressure being applied to the show’s producers, it wasn’t to shove Jim and Pam together, per se. “There was a pressure to have big episodes, significant episodes,” said Daniels. “The trick is to slice it thinly and make it last so that you seem to be having big, significant episodes without jumping forward too much.”
In fact, those “Very Special Episodes” traditionally were reserved for dramas, but serialization—particularly driven by relationships—has been creeping into sitcoms for decades now. In return, dramas with strong will-they-or-won’t-they spines like Castle, The Good Wife, and Bones have also had to find creative ways of keeping their star-crossed storylines fresh.
On the season finale of The Good Wife, Alicia ( Julianna Margulies) and Will ( Josh Charles) finally gave into their desire, ending two years of leaving voicemail messages. Lisa Edelstein has quit House, which seems like it will most certainly (and abruptly) end the show's House-Cuddy romance; Castle ( Nathan Fillion) told Beckett ( Stana Katic) he loved her.
And Fox’s Bones wrapped its season with Brennan ( Emily Deschanel) and Booth ( David Boreanaz) sleeping together and conceiving a child. For creator Hart Hanson, it was a creative way to utilize Deschanel’s real-life pregnancy and create new opportunities for the characters, setting up a seventh-season arc that will be “both familiar... and wildly novel.”
“I've always believed that the Moonlighting curse, if it exists at all, kicks in when a longtime ‘will they/won't they’ couple finally conjugates the Big Verb and then... nothing in their lives really changes,” wrote Hanson in an email. “It looks the same except they are all gooey-eyed and squishy in love and revolting.”
“The fact that Brennan is going to have a baby is a complete and utter game-changer and provides yet more grist for the unfolding of what I hope will be an unfolding relationship,” Hanson continued. “If the audience was interested to watch Booth and Brennan grapple with their disparate approaches to a little sexual tension then that same audience should be intrigued by their disparate approaches to a brand new life that they have no choice but to share.”
Next season, naturally, will bring another crop of shows that revolve around the familiar paradigm. The creators of NBC’s Bent—where Amanda Peet’s Alex tries to fight her unlikely attraction to her handsome contractor (David Walton)—and Free Agents, in which co-workers (Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn) sleep together and attempt to keep things strictly professional, can learn from the risks taken by such shows as Parks and Recreation and Community. There’s a messiness to them that’s not only appealing to today’s audience, but to writers as well, as romantic subplots have a tendency, as perhaps seen from The Office, to overtake the larger narrative.
“It’s like fire,” said Harmon. “It burns you, it heats you, it cooks your food, it protects you from wolves, it can take your kid’s face off… It’s power. It’s storytelling to hook two people up. It can’t be taken lightly at all.”
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.