Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Many Splendored Thing: Love & TV (Part 3) [Contributor: Anne]

Yikes, it has been a while. Good thing love never ends, right?

Today in my series on Love & TV, I will discuss a type of conscious coupling that is rarely bad, just frequently uninteresting. This is the “going steady forever” coupling, and often these kinds of couples are not the ones that take center stage for the exact reason I highlighted above. They are more likely to be dull than bad; they are a documentary about bird migratory patterns, not an episode of The Real Housewives of Whatever. This dullness means that they will rarely disappoint, because expectations are so low; however, it also means that you will feel a lot less when you watch these guys, because the “will-they-won’t-they,” “love triangle,” “on-and-off” romance is just not there.

Typically includes: Their drama is contained to a certain few topics, often these: how to keep things interesting (in a general sense or in a romantic/sexual one), marriage, children, meeting the family, “we’re becoming too much like each other!”, moving in, finding couples to be friends with, temptations, past flames, career conflicts, money concerns. Some of these couples, of course, can be former “will-they-won’t-they” couples, though the most frequent example of this trope is the secondary relationship in a television show. The protagonist is the one most likely to be facing love triangle drama; their best friend is probably the one going steady. Despite its title, to be characterized as a “going steady forever” pairing doesn’t necessarily mean that the relationship starts and never ends -- it just means that there is no ambiguity within the show’s universe that these two will end up together, no equal “other choice,” and any fight that may seem lasting is just a brief shake of the Yahtzee relationship cup.

When this works: The reason I love relationships so much on television shows — the reason that I consider myself a romantic comedy master and devotee — is that they are, when done well, character-focused. At its core, “romance” as a feature of any story should be the question of two different elements and the story of how they interact. That means that the “going steady forever” couple should not be immediately doomed.

I mentioned in my post on the will-they-won’t-they that, when poorly done, the theatrics of romance itself overpowers the interaction of two characters. So when the “going steady forever” works, it understands that the relationship should be between two developed characters who can continue to question and develop each other. “Going steady forever” couples who experience any of the drama listed above can resolve the conflict in interesting ways — good “going steady forever” couples can be funny, for example, so that the viewer forgets how cliché their situation is. Or they can grow together in a way that suggests to the viewer that their story doesn’t end (as no person’s story ever should end). Of course, when one half of the “going steady forever” couple is the protagonist’s best friend, a great use of the relationship is to be a parallel or standard for the protagonist, which allows the protagonist to develop. (This should be true more of movies than of television shows, as movies have to be more economical in telling their A-story than TV shows do).

When this doesn’t work: A bad “going steady forever” couple is boring. Their scenes feel superfluous. If the protagonist is the one who gets into a “going steady forever” pairing, especially if that relationship is the product of a “will-they-won’t-they,” the show comes to a screeching and unpleasant halt as the showrunners struggle to find interesting conflicts for their characters. When romance rather than character building is so overwhelmingly the focus, a “going steady forever” can reveal that characters are poorly-constructed. If the couple is the secondary couple, then their scenes are just straight up boring, often irrelevant to the main action, not funny and worn. Additionally, a bad version of this couple will make you wonder why those two people are even together.

My favorite “going steady forever”:  Andy and April, Parks and Recreation

Of all the things I think Parks and Recreation excelled at in its early seasons, Andy and April has to be near or at the top of the list.  

I respect Parks and Recreation for its unique approach to relationships and the workplace. In Parks and Rec, there is a pleasant focus on the work these individuals do. After all, the job you choose should be a reflection of who you are as a person, right? And for every character their work was a major instrument for the writers to convey who these people were, what they aspired to, and so on. Think of Leslie (hard-working, passionate) or Ron (solitary, simple, firm) or Tom (ambitious, quixotic) or Ben (technical, nerdy, and proficient) or Jerry/Gary (cheery in the presence of the mundane). Their city and their contributions to their city played as big a role as any character.

Of course, even with Parks and Rec’s dependence on work as a method of characterization, the second defining trait of Parks and Rec was its sentimentality, optimism, and love. These characters were loved by the writers, and these characters loved each other. Even without romance, they would love each other, which is why the traditional “will they won’t they” drama was never given that much attention.

With all that in mind, let’s talk about Andy and April. Both of these two are highly flawed individuals in that Andy is a man-child and April is sardonic. With the wrong person, these characters could have grated. Together, they are redefined; they bring out the best in each other. Andy is a man-child, but he is also compassionate, loyal, spontaneous and considerate. April is sardonic, but she is mischievous, playful, and encouraging. Unlike Ben and Leslie — who are similar in many ways, including their dedication to their work and their idiosyncratic geekiness — “sardonic” and “man-child” don’t seem on paper to be a perfect fit. On Parks and Recreation, however, these two characters shine with each other and reveal each other’s depth.

Not only that, but the show keeps this couple interesting in two ways. First in that for all of the cliché plots April and Andy must go through, they handle them in ways that are funny and interesting. Their marriage was interesting because it was spontaneous, because the show stuck with that decision in an unabashed way, and because it was funny (“Roberta?” “Shut up!”); their “how do we keep things interesting” plot involved driving to the Grand Canyon.

Secondly, these two are always encouraging each other to keep going, to move forward; they are each other’s number one ally. Because they are not always expected to do things together, each character benefits because they are permitted by their spouse to have dreams and ambitions that are pertinent to their personal character growth, not the couple’s. One of my favorite instances of this on Parks and Rec is Andy’s total, 100% support in April taking a job in Washington, D.C.

In terms of “going steady forever,” you can point to pretty much every Parks and Rec couple and be correct. But the breath of life that April and Andy bring to the show, the way they bring out the best in each other, and how romantic they are as a result — they are simply my favorite forever couple.

Other Notable Couples: Turk and Carla (Scrubs), Jimmy and Gretchen (You’re the Worst), Monica and Chandler (Friends), Marshall and Lily (How I Met Your Mother), Meredith and Derek — to a point (Grey’s Anatomy)

My least favorite “going steady, forever”: Mindy and Danny, The Mindy Project


To be fair, this isn’t 100% true. My least favorite “going steady, forever” couple is Marshall and Lily from How I Met Your Mother, because I think that Lily Aldrin is a horrible, horrible character, both generally and in respect to her husband. But Lily and Marshall don’t necessarily fail on paper as a “going steady, forever” couple. They are often the sounding board for the protagonist, reinvent cliché plots in ways that are funny, and are who I think of first when I think of a couple that fits this definition. For me Lily is the failure, not “Lily and Marshall.”

In the same way, there are other couples on TV who are far less interesting than Mindy and Danny, but they are all so interchangeable that I can’t even confess to watching them in a serious way. I’m talking Castle or Bones type of couples, where it feels like the couple is getting together just because nobody can believe the show has gone on for 6+ years and, you know, when two people of the opposite sex work together… wocka wocka, formula!

So maybe Mindy and Danny aren’t technically my least favorite “going steady, forever” couple, but they are one of the few I can think of that actually made me feel disappointment before boredom, and dissecting the reasons behind my disappointment is a better use of my time than writing about boring, boring couples.

And Mindy and Danny are a complicated case, because they are both far more interesting. They are hot-headed. They are funny. And their courtship, in my opinion, is one of the best; I have written about it extensively.

So why do I think they fail? Because I do not think their getting together makes them better. I have increasingly felt throughout the third season that it made no sense why Mindy and Danny would remain together based on how they treat each other (mostly, of course, Danny towards Mindy) and what their expectations for each other are moving forward. How could Mindy be so okay with how Danny does not tell his mother about her? Or how he invites his half-sister “Little Danny” to stay with him indefinitely? Or how he proposes to her because he thought it would be the right thing to do, never remembering to tell her that he has no interest in marriage? Or how he will not even let her keep a toothbrush in his house? Or how he makes her feel inadequate in front of Father Stephen Colbert, or how he throws out her chances at Stanford without telling her (and then submits it without even telling her!) or buying a house without even telling her or reading her diary without even telling her or abruptly deciding not to meet her parents who are going off to India for a year or —

Yes, these problems pretty much resolve themselves by the end of the episode. But there’s concern in so many repeated offenses, and each one of them make the inevitable end-of-episode reconciliation tiresome. Danny promises he’s changed, that he recognizes how happy Mindy makes him, etcetera etcetera. So why is it that by the beginning of the next episode he’s very likely to mistreat her again?

The problem with The Mindy Project, which I’ve mentioned before, is that their devotion to being a funny, ground-breaking show often leads to the sacrifice of the show’s heart. It’s little changes made for the sake of a punchline. Yes, they are funny! It’s funny for Danny to compare Mindy to an orthopedic shoe, as he does in “I Slipped.” But it hurts Mindy’s feelings, is a rude thing to say (he also says they lack sparks!), and altogether hurts the heart that is at this show’s center.

I wrote in that review a pretty reasonable summary of why Mindy and Danny are failing as a couple in their third season:

In A Relationship Mindy and Danny is good in many ways — it’s not like the writers are running out of things to talk about, and it’s not like the pairing is stagnant or dull, no matter what Danny says. It’s that there are so many other opportunities to have these characters grow, or to have their feelings deepen to an eventual proposal, that to not take those opportunities is a shame. It feels like a different show — a show with our characters, but without their rich backstory, where Mindy calls Danny “babe” unironically or tells him she loves him over nose trimmers. That’s where we are. 

I am so excited about the long, Hulu-fied season, which are pretty much just two short Hulu-fied seasons. Despite being “meh” on the elephant baby in the room, I know that this couple isn’t doomed yet. The third season was funny and more consistent in many ways, and I am certain that being on Hulu for the fourth season will give the writers freedom and focus. They need to put these two on the same side every once in a while — show them supporting each other, or being honest with each other. They need to make it clear that their wacky and combative relationship is oozing with mutual respect and affection. I know they can do it; I’ve seen them do it deftly in the first two seasons and every once in a while during the third season (the documentary is a favorite of mine; the end of "Diary" is a favorite of mine; Beyonce’s “XO” scene is a favorite of mine; Danny and Mindy’s fire escape scene is an ultimate fave). So while it’s pretty clear that Mindy and Danny the couple aren’t going anywhere, let’s hope that they take the important strides that they need to in this fourth season.

See? Look how cute!

1 comment:

  1. I think there's two types of steady-forever couples. One type is a pair that is at first a will-they-or-won't-they couple and later become a steady-forever couple. The other is the couple is a steady forever couple from the beginning of the show. Like, "I Love Lucy"'s Ricky and Lucy. I guess the difference is based on what type of show it is. Serialized or Sitcom (standalone episodes?)