Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Explorations of Romantic Chemistry (A Nick/Jess vs. Jeff/Annie Post)

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the line, I really fell in love with New Girl. Before the show even aired, I had a feeling that I’d be attached to the quirky comedy. I was, after all, a fan of Zooey Deschanel. And then the pilot aired, and I was pleased and I went through the entire first season falling pretty hard for the little sitcom and for its characters and also – a lot – for the Nick/Jess angle of the series. To be truthful, Nick Miller and Jessica Day are the only couple on television recently that I have “shipped” from the pilot. I don’t know exactly what it was, and neither do the creators, but something seemed to click at the bar when Nick and Jess were talking to one another. There was some sort of chemistry between Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel, but the writers and producers – as they admitted recently at Paleyfest – were adamently against putting the two together, romantically. Deschanel insisted: “I mean, really really hard you guys [the producers] fought against the chemistry.” Both Johnson and Deschanel then cracked jokes about how they were forbidden to touch or even look at one another during scenes because of their chemistry.

If you flash forward a season, you’ll realize that the same writers and producers who were so hesitant to even place Nick and Jess in the same scene together are running full-speed ahead with the couple. So what changed? What fundamentally changed the mind of these creators, to the point where they are now more than willing to explore the chemistry and tension between these two characters? I don’t think that anything monumental has changed, really. But there was something very noteworthy that Liz Meriwether recently said at Paleyfest when asked why she chose to put Nick and Jess together now – why she chose to have the couple kiss in “Cooler” rather than drag the wait out until the season finale or (perhaps) even LATER.

“If we’d waited any longer,” Meriwether said, “it was going to start to feel, like, not true - like not what would really happen. I feel like they would have attacked each other a year ago, probably.”

So what Nick and Jess boil down to – what ALL couples who have unresolved tension or chemistry boil down to – is the element of timing. Meriwether and her team admit to not exactly writing their characters or show the “right” way. They admit to flying by the seat of their pants for a lot of things. They don’t KNOW where their couples or characters might end up. They’re certain of a few things, but don’t let those few things necessarily dictate the episodes they write now. They kind of let the relationships and characters and stories form organically, rather than forcing them into a preconceived box of ideas and plans. They fought hard against Nick and Jess for a while before realizing that… well, that isn’t how thse characters would behave. Something had to give, and that something was the idea that the writers could control or contain characters and actors that had intense chemistry.

That’s when Meriwether and her team just let them be and watched what happened.

There’s still a dance that exists between Nick and Jess – neither Deschanel nor Johnson (nor Meriwether nor anyone else on the staff) believe that the two roommates are ready to be together in a functional relationship. They’re messy and broken characters who need to figure some aspects of their lives out (and aspects of their relationship out) before they’re ready to be with one another. But, take notice, because that doesn’t mean the writers and producers sweep the pairing under the rug, wipe their hands, and say: “We’ll deal with it later.”

That, as Meriwether noted above, isn’t quite how life works and it’s a disservice to the characters to pretend otherwise. What I’ve always loved about Nick and Jess and the way that the New Girl writers portray them is that they’re honest and real. Yes, Nick and Jess have had numerous relationships on the show, even though they’ve had this thing sort of building between them for the past year but… that’s kind of how life works. People who are perfect together don’t always get together when they’re “supposed” to. Sometimes it takes a while because, as perfect as they may be together, they’re not always READY for one another. Meriwether and these writers have done a fantastic job at taking a couple of characters that are broken and making us, the audience, realize that somehow when they’re together… they’re a little less broken. Maybe they even fix one another.

And really, that’s what I love about the dynamic of New Girl as a whole. From Nick and Schmidt’s relationship, to the one between Jess and Ce Ce, each of these characters is flawed and imperfect and REAL. Yet somehow, when they’re all together, they fix one another. Slowly, but surely, we saw Jess become a bit less cartoon-ish. We saw Winston become more confident. We saw Schmidt become more grounded. We saw Ce Ce become more certain of who she was. We saw Nick become less curmudgeonly. Jess moving into the loft changed the dynamic for better.

Now Nick and Jess are at a point of no return. They kissed in “Cooler” and in “Table 34” attempted to avoid one another at all costs. When they realized that this was futile (because they live together), Winston encouraged Nick to make amends to Jess by apologizing for their kiss. And Nick takes the opportunity to insist that the kiss meant nothing to him but that it must have meant something to Jess. The woman denies it and believes that Sam is the person for her. When she has to confront her boyfriend about the fact that Nick kissed her, Nick ACTUALLY makes amends. He tells Sam that it was all his fault and that the kiss meant absolutely nothing to Jess. Nevertheless, the damage is done and Jess is left, heartbroken, as Sam dumps her.

Later, in the loft, the woman is sitting and listening to Taylor Swift while Nick is doing his best to cheer her up. After saying the absolute WRONG thing to say (that he was actually pretty thrilled that Sam was threatened by him), he apologizes for kissing Jess, genuinely. Once he sees her crying over her break-up, nothing prideful remains in him. The two part, each to their separate rooms, but not before an awkward embrace.

And it WAS awkward because their relationship has changed. They can’t go back to the way things were, pre-kiss and to assume otherwise is insanity. In “Parking Spot,” they admit this to one another. Both Jess and Nick insist that they need to talk – to figure out a long-term solution, in Jess’ words – about what happened, what it means, and where to go from there. Therein lies the reason that I have a lot of respect of the way that the writers have handled this relationship. They’re not pretending the kiss didn’t happen (though the characters may be), because they realize that life doesn’t quite work that way. They’re not throwing Nick and Jess together because, again, they realize life doesn’t quite work that way. And they’re not dismissing the potential for a relationship entirely.

Because the fact is this: Nick and Jess have a lot of chemistry, a lot of emotions and feelings toward one another, and a lot of complexities preventing them from going from Point A to Point B in their relationship with one another. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t EVER get there. It just means it will take time. And it will be messy. It will be real.

I couldn’t help but contrast the way I feel about the writers of New Girl to the way I feel about the writers of Community in their treatment of Jeff Winger and Annie Edison, especially after listening to Meriwether and her team discuss their show’s relationship at Paleyfest. The quote that I noted above from the creator really resonated with me, especially the bit about how if she didn’t get Nick and Jess together “it wouldn’t feel real.”

I love a lot of things that the Community writers do. I think they are immensely talented, funny, gifted individuals. I think that Dan Harmon was a genius and steered his show in a direction that exemplified growth and development for his characters.

But I think Community writers handle the relationship aspect of the show rather poorly. I won’t say who, but I was talking to someone recently about the difference between how New Girl handles a romantic tension-filled relationship versus how Community handles the Jeff and Annie (equally tension-filled) relationship, and we noted the differences in the creators of the show. Elizabeth Meriwether, this person explained, is not an emotionally repressed human being when it comes to relationships while Harmon… well, Harmon, they explained, rather is.

And don’t get me wrong – I love Dan Harmon. I truly and honestly do. I’ll always be grateful to him for creating a show that I love and cherish. But the way that relationships, in particular the Jeff and Annie relationship, are handled on the series is messy at best and painful at worst. And it’s not the New Girl-style of mess, where characters seem to acknowledge and grow from their relationships. No, it’s rather… well, it’s the kind of mess where characters have chemistry, then act on said chemistry, then back off on said chemistry, then bury said chemistry, then the writers attempt to brush off and bury said chemistry that… shocking… STILL EXISTS.

Joel McHale and Alison Brie have amazing chemistry together. They click, on-screen, much like Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel do. And for a long time, writers and producers of both shows decided to back away from the chemistry. Alison’s character, Annie, was too young for Jeff. She was fresh out of high school and he was an ex-lawyer. They had already set Britta up as his love interest, so they shied away from playing with that fire. As I mentioned earlier, Meriwether and her team did the same. Johnson noted that Meriwether saw the chemistry between himself and Deschanel in the pilot episode while the two were sitting, in their characters, at the bar. She knew there was something there, but wasn’t willing or ready to pursue it.

But then the Community team did something crazy that set an entire shipper fanbase into motion: they made Jeff and Annie kiss. After the now-infamous debate episode, Jeff/Annie shippers emerged pretty strongly. And then, after an entire season of seemingly no movement, Jeff and Annie kissed again in the season finale. But it wasn’t for school or to prove a point – Annie and Jeff kissed because they WANTED to; because there was something there that needed to be explored. (And then, to the shippers’ embitterment – and mine as well, mind you – “Anthropology 101” happened and Jeff insisted the kiss was a mistake and everything basically fell apart from there, including what could have been a beautiful Britta/Annie friendship.)

I know that Community’s primary focus is on the relationship between Jeff and the study group. That will always be the subject of this show – the evolution of Jeff from a sleazy ex-lawyer to a lovable misfit who has learned to grow and change and love other people. And it’s a beautiful story, really, and I don’t want to undercut its significance or importance by insisting that romantic relationships need to be at the forefront. They do not. But… they need to be addressed. They exist. They’re real and complicated, and I think that the Community writers are so afraid of alienating what little fanbase it has by pairing characters together that they presume throwing little Jeff/Britta, Jeff/Annie, Annie/Abed, or Troy/Britta interactions at us every few episodes will somehow keep us satisfied.

(Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

Nick and Jess writers aren’t pandering to their fanbase in the way that they are constructing the relationship between these two characters. Even though 75% of panels and interviews with the cast and crew consist of questions regarding Nick/Jess, if the writers suddenly decided to drop the pairing altogether, I doubt they’d be fearful of losing their audience. They’re confident enough that the ensemble of their show – that the relationship between these roommates and Ce Ce – and its comedy is enough to keep viewers around. So rather than throw us bones – “Oh, look! You like Nick and Jess together? Well… here’s a scene of them being adorable. Hope that satisfies you all!” – without substance, the New Girl writers are taking, what I think, is a pretty heavy risk. They’re essentially acknowledging the fact that these two characters have chemistry, have the potential for a relationship, and they’re trying their hands at writing it the best they know how. It’s not perfect, and the show is not perfect, but it’s REAL. Every Nick and Jess interaction that we have had – especially since The Kiss – has been for a purpose. Nick and Jess being angry at one another and then inadvertently building the strongest table at the Indian marriage convention? That was to exemplify how frustratingly perfect they can be together – and they refuse to acknowledge it, even when the evidence is literally in front of their faces. Nick confessing that he was the reason for The No-Nail Oath? That was to show how long and to the extent that Nick has felt something for Jess. He just couldn’t help himself. Jess running away at the end of “TinFinity”? Well, I think we all know what that scene means.

My point, in this, is to take note of the SIGNIFICANCE behind these “shipper” interactions in terms of character development and Nick/Jess growth. Early on, Meriwether and company had to tell Johnson and Deschanel to tone down their chemistry on set. Rather than a hug at the end of “Injured,” Jess pats Nick’s arm. They simply were not ready to develop the relationship yet.

So then, if writers for Community insist that scenes aren’t meant to be fliratious or tinged with “shipper” moments, why not do the same with McHale and Brie?

I think that my biggest qualm with Jeff/Annie (as they are written) is not that I don’t get moments between them. It’s nice to see the pair interact. It’s sweet to see them flirt with one another. But there’s never any MOVEMENT. These are two grown-up, adult characters. They are capable of making relationship decisions. They are intelligent and independent-minded. They have chemistry and tension and instead of having discussions, instead of figuring out where to head from there… the pair remains stagnant. Nay, this is LESS than remaining stagnant. This is turning a blind eye. The writers have the potential to develop Jeff and Annie into something, either way. They can choose to give their audience moments that further both the individual development of Jeff and Annie as well as their development as a couple. I’m also not making the argument that Jeff and Annie should be together and get married and have babies right now. But what I DO lament is the fact that their relationship – whatever chemistry exists between them – is never explored; it seems to be exploited for the sake of fan involvement and GIFs.

And nothing ever changes or grows for Jeff and Annie.

Instead, when we interpret scenes as romantic, we’re told we are wrong. When we hope that Jeff will admit something about his feelings for Annie TO Annie, we’re told it’d be creepy. But when what we’re seeing on-screen doesn’t correlate with what we’re being told, we’re left in a dizzying state of discontent. What is the alternative, then, to this? Could Community writers develop couples on the show, while still remaining true to the individual characters? Yes. But the writers themselves may need to take a step back from where some of them have been for two or three years and study the characters that entered Greendale against the ones who are soon to be departing. Because (spoiler alert): they’re not the same characters they once were.

What do the New Girl writers and producers have when it comes to developing relationships romantically that the Community writers don’t? A secret formula? A special script? Omnipotent knowledge of how relationships work?


Why Nick and Jess are working and why Jeff and Annie are not boils down to this: what risks are you willing to take for the sake of developing your characters?

For Meriwether and her team, it’s pretty simple. They’re willing to develop Nick and Jess, even if they never end up together, because this relationship cannot be ignored, nor can either party come out of it unchanged. Nick and Jess will grow.

Can we say the same for Jeff and Annie?


  1. I love reading your recaps of the show, and as a fan of both Community and New Girl, I think this is spot on. Very well said.

  2. This is the best review of relationships I've ever read. I love New Girl and Community, but I hate the way Community addresses romantic relationships.

    1. Wow, thanks for the compliment! I really appreciate it.

      Yeah... I clearly have some unresolved issues when it comes to New Girl's relationships vs. Community's, haha.

  3. I've been trying to figure out for a while what it is that makes Community so popular and yet not popular enough. My latest theory is that Community doesn't pay off the way other TV shows do, which makes it less rewarding in familiar ways.

    Romance is one of those ways. Community is very self-conscious and conscious of its medium. I'm not sure if calling Harmon repressed is the right word, mostly because I think he was aware of all of this but consciously chose not to feed on it because he wanted Community to be something different. Maybe that didn't work. That possibility is something I'd like to be aware of -- maybe Community's ambition and vision ends up with a TV show that doesn't have the same type of rewards for the audience as other TV shows, like New Girl does. I freely admit that I have never, while watching Community, felt as eager for romance as I feel while watching Nick and Jess. I want Nick and Jess to kiss! I want something to happen! While I get butterflies when Abed kisses Annie with paint pouring over them, the tension and pay off is not the same.

    But I have gotten that, "Eeeeee! This is happening!" feeling with Community. I got it at the start of the Civil War episode. I got it at the start of the 8-Bit episode. For me, there's pay off in Community, it's just located in something other than romance. Most TV shows aren't as versatile and ambitious and seeing that versatility and ambition pay off in the form of amazing, adventurous, profound, hilarious and engaging conceptual episodes is worth a million Nick and Jess's... for me. I don't expect many people to agree with me. I don't disagree that Community is lacking the skillful toying with the audience over cast chemistry that New Girl has, but I also think Community -- or at least Dan Harmon -- purposely avoided it so as to not become something else, or to lose the ambition and self-consciousness and fall into familiar narratives easily just because they're easy to fall into.

    1. I like and understand the notion of "payoff," because I think that's a term we widely associate with television shows and couples in general. And you're right -- there IS something lacking when it comes to disregarding romantic relationships within shows (or mishandling them, as in the case of "Community").

      I think that it's easy to misconstrue "payoff" with "character development," though and I once wrote a Tumblr post about the difference between the two. While I do ship Jeff/Annie, it's not a lack of payoff that I'm concerned with (because payoff, as a term, is usually focused on what the AUDIENCE member feels they "deserve" from the show/pairing), it's the lack of character development on either side. And I think that the writers have handled romantic relationships poorly (more than Jeff/Annie, Troy/Britta were butchered) because they just don't make any decisions and their lack of decision causes the CHARACTERS to suffer.

      With T/B, this is most notable. Regardless of your feelings toward them (or any pairing on the show, really), the goal of a romantic relationship in any series is to exhibit some sort of growth with the characters involved. Returning to New Girl for a moment, last night's episode was a great shipper ending, sure. And it did give us a sense of "payoff" -- those, like me, who have wanted the two together from the beginning, felt a sense of relief and closure.

      BUT more than that, "Virgins" was such a great episode in terms of character growth for Nick. When he thought about what his dad had said to him -- about how he needs to not think or else he'll miss some of the best things in life -- THAT is what caused him to make his move. This guy who told us in "Injured" that he stands on the beach, watching the wallets while everyone else LIVES, finally made a move. That exemplifies growth, which I know is what Liz was after.

      My biggest problem with Community's ships are the way they're written. They take risks in every other department, as you have noted -- stylistically, thematically, etc. -- in their writing. They did a freaking PUPPET episode, a claymation episode, and paintball homages. And yet, when it comes to something so fundamental, they're paralyzed as to how to proceed.

      And -- returning to T/B -- that causes the audience to suffer, but it just DESTROYS the characters. Troy regressed at the end of the last episode, no doubt about it. Neither he nor Britta grew or learned from their relationship. Troy insisted he wasn't mature enough to handle a romantic relationship. That... didn't seem like the Troy Barnes I have known over the past four years. I think the issue clearly was that they threw these characters together without thinking about what they would DO with them. For J/A it's a matter of this tug-of-war between writers and audience. In that case, I feel like it's a combination of both character stagnation and mere pandering of J/A scenes that elicits frustrations from the fandom.

      (Sorry I just rambled. I have a lot of ~feelings about the way these things are handled, lol)

      But thank you SO much for your comment! I truly do appreciate your insight into these two shows. :)

  4. I think the deal with Community is that they do relationships badly on purpose. It simply isn't a show that encourages shippers.

    1) From the trannie dance kiss to 2/3 of the way through season 2 things were awkward between Jeff and Annie. They had chemistry and obviously had feelings that weren't strictly platonic. Asian Population Studies (s02e12) takes this head on when Annie reveals to the group her interest in Rich, a doctor who is similar in age to Jeff. She pushes for him to join the study group and Jeff naturally pushes back. Jeff goes to great lengths to get Chang in the group and eliminates Rich. Annie asks Rich on a date and gets turned down because she is too young. Jeff hears this, and after talking to Shirley's husband about love takes off running into the rainy night. He arrives at an apartment and, not even allowing the occupant to say a word, explains how this person makes him want to be so much better. The person is revealed and its... RICH. Hahaha, shippers, the writers got you good.

    2)s02e21. A community (not the show) made shipper video is used as inspiration for the 3 shipper videos in this episode. The first is Jeff/Annie, where the show itself recognizes the tension between the characters. The jeff/annie gravity montage is then followed by Pierce/Abed montage and then finally a Change/Annie's Boobs (the monkey) montage. I feel like they are trying to point out the ridiculousness of shippers and the dvd commentary supports this. Dan Harmon laughs at how youtube shippers have to make do with so few scenes in order to make their videos.

    3) The whole Troy/Britta season 4 debacle. It's really been the most uncomfortable romance ever. So uncomfortable that it has to have been done on purpose. Last weeks episode they finally addressed the issues with it and it ended, though definitely not on a happy note. The whole thing felt so forced and unsatisfying that I felt like the writers were trying to make some commentary on tv relationships in general.

    All I'm getting at is that Community obviously isn't a show for shippers. It openly mocks shippers, has fun toying with their emotions, and creates purposefully terrible relationships that make us question the very purpose of them all together.

    1. As a note (and actually knowing the person who made the original "Gravity" video), Dan Harmon didn't openly mock the shippers, though some may have felt that way. He tweeted the person - and I quote - "I hope you watch tonight's episode. Little present in there for you about halfway through." When she then asked if he was going to make fun of her, he said: "I prefer the term homage. And it's a tip of the hat, and a sincere thank-you note, to the Van Halen of Community fans.")

      Additionally, Harmon spent $30,000 out of his own pocket as he mentions in the commentaries, in order to use the song "Gravity" in that episode. So while some may presume the show mocks or makes fun of shippers in other moments, I am assured by these things that Dan Harmon while perhaps not UNDERSTANDING why people shipped J/A or any pairing on the show did respect the person who made that and the people who continue to make things like that.

    2. Mock might be a little strong and I certainly didn't mean to imply that DH disrespected shippers. It doesn't change the fact that Community isn't a shipper show though. I can't think of a single romance that lasted longer than a few episodes and had a positive impact.

    3. When you note that Community isn't a "shipper show," I can kind of see your point. (I'd argue, however, that it made meta commentary over the fact that it WAS a shipper show with the "sexual prospect" scene in "Romantic Expressionism" and shipper wars in "Pascal's Triangle Revisited" with the dance choosing either Team Britta or Team Slater). But my question, I suppose, to you is what DOES constitute a "shipper show," then? Glee, which focuses a lot more on romantic pairings? (Which I can see being labeled as such, though given Ryan Murphy's tendencies to pair every character on the series with every other character and then break them up shortly thereafter, I don't know that Gleeks would agree with that sentiment either.)

      I think what you truly mean is that Community's primary focus isn't on the romantic relationships within the group but the overarching relationship of Jeff/study group. And I totally understand and agree with that and hope I made it clear throughout my post that I would never want the show to become so engulfed in romantic entanglements that it loses that primary focus. This is, after all, truly Jeff's story and HIS journey.

      BUT (and this is a BIG but) my issues with the ships of this show are rooted in the lack of seeming character development and skilled writing of them. I'd be completely okay with Jeff and Annie never ending up together. ... If the show didn't just throw out moments between the pairing and then never follow through with them either way (that is what I refer to mainly as "pandering"). When Jeff admitted that he cared about Annie in "Geography of Global Conflict," that was a huge step for him. ... And then nothing happened. It was never mentioned again until "Intro to Polysci" where he noted that he "cared what she thought about [him]." Again... cute moment, I suppose, but rather pointless if it's not going to be developed either way. And like I noted before, I don't anticipate them to end up together. If they had had those moments between them and then discussed their position -- "Hey, look, I am attracted to you but I don't think this is a good idea" I would be okay. I would be disappointed, yes, but at least there would be some closure, some clarity, and some explanation as to WHY the characters behave the way they do.

      The same applies to Troy/Britta -- the two had some endearing moments together. And then they were broken up because... why? Troy regressed as a character? There was no real character-based explanation for their relationship on the show other than "Oh, these two are cute. Let's throw them together." The problem, of course, is that the writers either didn't know what to do with them OR just didn't care enough about them to do anything so they broke them off, Ryan Murphy-style.

      Again: it's not that I expect Community to become invested in one relationship in particular. While I love the Jeff/Annie dynamic, I would accept other pairings so long as they a) were developed and b) made sense for the character(s) and their growth. Throwing in shipper moments for viewers because the actors have great chemistry without developing those moments only leads to frustration, in my personal opinion, in the viewers. And I feel like this is applicable to any shippers on the show -- Annie/Abed had moments that were kind of thrown out there, never truly developed. Abed/Britta, too. And the same with Jeff/Britta and Jeff/Annie and Troy/Annie... see my point? While I do love that the cast has amazing chemistry and, as Jeff said in "Romantic Expressionism" that encourages everyone to look at EVERYONE as a romantic prospect, there are some pairings that simply were given more screentime together than others (Jeff/Annie has a lot more screentime together, in a shipper context, than Abed/Annie or Troy/Annie, for example).

    4. So I'm forced to reconcile with either one of two options: 1) either the writers are ignorant of the fact that they are writing these moments of chemistry/scenes between characters and are blindsided by the fact that people ship them when these moments are presented on screen or 2) the writers know that these moments exist between characters and choose to continue to throw them out consciously because they know it will draw in shippers.

      (The problem with the latter is that throwing out shipper moments without simultaneously developing some sort of growth in either of the two in the pairing is like giving a Dixie cup of water to someone in the desert -- rather unsatisfying and disappointing in the end.)

      I choose to believe it's more the latter, which is what frustrates me most. I truly would rather have no shipper moments in a show whatsoever than have the writers try to capitalize on the shippers' enthusiasm by presenting moments that lead nowhere (good or bad) in the end.

  5. Late to the party but hey - Great analysis about my two favorites sitcoms.

    My 2c about the Annie/Jeff thing not happening: Harmon wrote his characters as parts of himself, Jeff being the 35-40yo guy who goes back to college and knows how to talk his way out of everything. The characters have evolved a lot through the seasons of course -- but I think Harmon and the other 30-50yo male writers are uncomfortable with the idea of their main character (the one they are objectively closer to) being romantically involved with a very young girl, and are worried that writing this relationship could be seen as a sort of inappropriate fantasy.

    But Harmon is now in a rather good place in his life (I mention that because it has a significant impact on the show), maybe the writers will realize Annie is 22 (her attitude and clothes in the Repilot are good signs), so maybe Community will have the courage to discuss and show the subject it was too shy about imo.