If you’ve ever seen a Hugh Grant movie, “Selfie”’s premiere should look familiar. In the final scene, there’s a woman (the lively, charming Karen Gillan) chasing down a man (the laid-back, charming John Cho), yelling “I need you! Don’t give up on me.” They apologize, they flirt, and suddenly they’re laughing as rain falls around them. Sure, there’s no kiss (yet), but other than that, it’s straight out of the romantic comedy playbook.
And it has a lot of company this fall, in what might be called the season of the rom-com sitcom. The Hollywood romantic comedy—boy meets girl meets true love, accompanied by light banter and quirky friends—has been in a box office rut these past few years, occasionally finding success with independent films like Obvious Child. But twenty-five years after When Harry Met Sally, the beleaguered genre has found a new home on television. In addition to “Selfie”—a modern update of Pygmalion—ABC has “Manhattan Love Story” and NBC is counting on “A to Z” and “Marry Me.” As someone who loves watching good-looking people fall in love onscreen, I should be thrilled by this development. Instead, they’ve convinced me that the classic rom-com blueprint can’t work on TV.
The worst of these, “Manhattan Love Story,” borrows the foul gender politics of failed romantic comedy movies like Katherine Heigl’s The Ugly Truth, where piggish men are tamed by prudish women. Relying on copious voice-over by its two protagonists, the series claims to reveal the differences between men and women. Differences such as: men like breasts and women like purses. Girls are romantic and guys are cynical. Ladies can’t use technology, and dudes who cry are probably gay. The show needs you to root for dewy New York transplant Dana, played by the usually endearing Analeigh Tipton (Crazy Stupid Love) doing her best Meg Ryan impression, to slowly fall in love with Peter (Jake McDorman). But who wants to watch the dating exploits of outdated gender stereotypes in human form?
Even an appealing central couple isn’t enough to make a rom-com sitcom worth watching. Take “A to Z,” which premieres tonight on NBC. A more sincere version of 500 Days of Summer, the series boasts Katey Sagal as an omniscient narrator who tells us that in “eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour” the adorable co-stars—Ben Feldman (last seen cutting off his own ear on “Mad Men”) and Cristin Milioti (the mother of “How I Met Your Mother”)—will stop dating. If you can look past the twee scaffolding, the two have lovely chemistry (though minimal personality.) But they’ve been placed in a threadbare world, surrounded by hollow friends and sidekicks.
Partly, the failings of the rom-com sitcom are a symptom of a broader problem in TV development—the yawning gap between what helps gets a pilot on the air and what helps a sitcom succeed. As critic Alan Sepinwall has bemoaned, network executives will only green-light comedies with a “hook” that catches their attention: Pygmalion as social media satire; a romance narrated by a story-book voiceover; a romance where you can hear what the characters are thinking.
But high-concept comedies leave nowhere for a show to go for the next ten episodes, let alone five seasons. And so the good ones hastily abandon their premise. “Cougar Town,” sold as a show about Courtney Cox sleeping with young dudes, became a comedy about a group of needy 40-somethings living in a Florida cul-de-sac. “Happy Endings” began with a bride leaving her fiancé at the altar but quickly refocused on the goofy exploits of its six leads. Even “How I Met Your Mother” spent most of its time ignoring the question of how he met the mother. These shows ditched their constricting gimmicks to follow the formula of every successful sitcom: funny weirdos in a room together being funny.
“Friends,” which celebrated its twentieth anniversary last month, didn’t invent that formula, but it certainly helped spread it—as so many of the web’s nostalgia-fueled think-pieces have reminded us recently. But for all of Central Perk’s impact on the last two decades of television (including current shows like “New Girl” and “Big Bang Theory”), it’s strange how little of its legacy has affected the current slate of new sitcoms. There are the rom-coms, and then there are the family comedies—CBS’s “The McCarthys,” ABC’s “Cristela” and the high-concept “Black-ish.” The only ensemble sitcom is Fox’s crushingly tedious “Mulaney,” a multi-camera, studio-audience throwback that is too busy aping “Seinfeld” to bother with any jokes.
As shows like “A to Z” crawl toward their inevitable endpoint, they miss what can be so gratifying about TV romance, from Ross and Rachel to Jim and Pam: messiness. In a sharp essay in The New York Review of Books two years ago, Elaine Blair notes that, in comparison to film, sitcoms have one thing “in common with life itself: no one knows in advance when they’re going to end.” They can run for half a season; they can run for 10 years.1 As Blair writes, “This gives most sitcoms a certain sense of indeterminacy—we’re bound for no obvious destination—that also applies to the characters’ relationships.” Even on a Nora Ephron-infused series like “The Mindy Project,” love isn’t a destination; it’s just a part of life to negotiate. The best shows embrace that open-endedness and disorder. And unsurprisingly, it’s central to FX’s prickly “You’re The Worst,” the only series that’s figured out how to do TV romantic comedy right: just put two jaded characters into each other’s orbits and let them collide, no target in mind.