Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Romance, Television-Style

I'm not a weekly-TV-series type of viewer. My husband and I are much more likely to pop in a movie when we settle in on the couch at night. But with the growth of Netflix and the phenomenon of “binge watching” – largely by my two kids who live at home – I've gotten familiar with some recent series.

I've found that situation comedies have changed a lot since the days of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” when the situations and characters changed very slowly over the course of seasons, if they changed at all. Now there's a lot more story progress over the course of even a single season. It's a great opportunity for character and relationship development.
Surprise! Romance figures into this, because a lot of central plots have to do with romantic relationships. Will this couple end up together … or not?

SPOILER ALERT for Netflix viewers: shield your eyes if you haven't seen all of “The Office” or the first six seasons of “Parks and Recreation.”

These two series get it right (in my humble opinion). There's a lot of anticipation and expectation built on key relationships. Then the writers go on to affirm what they've made us believe in our bones: Jim and Pam belong together. Ben and Leslie belong together. The characters are written consistently and believably, even through moments of doubt. And ultimately, and the writers deliver on our expectations.

Now, let's talk for a minute about “How I Met Your Mother,” and where I think this one gets it wrong.

I haven't seen how this series ends. But I do know last year's season finale had viewers screaming. Even without having seen it, I'm pretty sure I can tell you why.

If ever a series was built on expectation, it's this one. It's in the very title. We're teased from Day One that we're building toward the revelation of Ted finding his true love.

Writers, you set your audience up for disappointment.

You promised a payoff, but we keep being told Mom is NOT any of the characters we're watching now. She's going to be someone we haven't invested in. What are the odds that the viewers are NOT going to be disappointed in the outcome?

An even worse sin (in my humble opinion): time and again, the series set us up to anticipate a relationship between one couple or another. Usually the buildup is very well done. The characters spend months out of a season yearning for each other, longing for each other, just missing each other. And then, when the two people do get together, it's usually – PFFFT! – over within a couple of episodes. After that, the much-anticipated couple goes back to interacting pretty much the same way they did before all that longing ever started. What is this, partial amnesia?

No, it's inconsistency. I think the series tried to break ground by flying in the face of viewers' expectations. I think what it did, instead, was tease the viewers, then contradict what it had told us about the characters. I can't address the finale, but from season to season, the series repeatedly went back on its promises.

Romance fiction is often criticized for being predictable. Yes, the couple gets together, as promised. Just as, in a murder mystery, the killer is discovered. As promised.

In real life, we're not promised happy resolutions. In fact, we're not promised resolutions at all. This is where fiction is different. We go in expecting that the story will reach a satisfying resolution. Depending on the genre, that ending may or may not be happy, but it needs to satisfy. It needs to be consistent with the author has told us. It needs to keep its promise.