By Molly Freeman
Romantic comedies–movies wherein comedy is derived from the romantic plot–have long been successful on the big screen. From It Happened One Night to When Harry Met Sally up to About Last Night, rom-coms have entertained the likes of moviegoers who prefer some laughter with their romance.
In recent years, however, rom-coms and the movie industry have expanded to an open relationship that includes television. The massive success of NBC’s How I Met Your Mother, which lasted for nine seasons and garnered record-breaking ratings for the series, led to other networks investing in rom-com sitcoms–or, rom-sitcoms.
Following How I Met You Mother’s series finale in March 2014, multiple new rom-sitcoms joined the television ranks in Fall 2014: Fox’s Selfie, ABC’s Manhattan Love Story, and NBC’s A to Z. These series, which all bit the dust before completing their first season, joined slightly-more-veteran rom-sitcoms New Girl and The Mindy Project (both on Fox). However, even The Mindy Project was cancelled by its network–though the series will be moving to Hulu for a fourth season.
So, why have so many shows failed where How I Met Your Mother succeeded?
Well, a notable degree of difficulty comes from the genre itself. As Slate’s Willa Paskin pointed out, “Love is boring, but falling in love is not.” Rom-coms often follow a pretty standard storyline: meet-cute, another man/woman in the picture, sudden realization of affection, obstacles that must be overcome, and finally, a reconciliation followed by the final kiss.
Paskin went on to say that the love-is-boring “platitude explains why Hollywood rom-coms end with a kiss or a pronouncement of feeling or a wedding. All that happens afterward, the Sturm und Drang of true togetherness, the scenes from a marriage–that’s the stuff of comedy or drama, not romance.”
The difference between a romantic comedy and a simple comedy is the falling in love part of the plot description. How I Met Your Mother maintained its rom-sitcom status by the perpetual romance of its main character, who fell in love at least half a dozen times throughout the show’s nine-year run.
However, when a show puts forward two characters whose romance will be the basis of a series, it becomes difficult to maintain an interesting narrative–especially when the typical tropes and obstacles in rom-coms have already been expansively explored on the big screen.
How I Met Your Mother seemed to escape the conventions by establishing a rom-com around the romance of a man, Ted, with the mother of his children and introducing a female character, Robin, who viewers knew from the beginning wasn’t the titular “Mother.” However, the series ended up sticking to rom-com conventions when it was revealed in the finale that the show was more about the love story between Ted and Robin than that of Ted and the mother of his children.
As for the other series that have since failed–Selfie, A to Z, and Manhattan Love Story–their various premises offered nothing outside of a standard love story, which doesn’t give a TV show much to work with. (In fact, the first few episodes of both A to Z and Manhattan Love Story roughly followed the same plotlines: man and woman go on date, man and woman discuss becoming exclusive, chaos ensues.)
TV writer Sonia Saraiya explained that rom-sitcoms run into trouble “because a love story focused on two people getting together has a very short operational theme.” The operational theme, a term coined by television writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, is “the day-to-day reality of the characters” which makes up foundation of any TV show.
So, while workplaces or families are often successful premises of sitcoms because they offer an operational theme that can be stretched and explored over multiple years of airing, there are only so many aspects of falling in love that can be translated into 30-minute episodes.
That’s not to say rom-sitcoms are all destined to fail. Both New Girl and The Mindy Project have found success–or, at least, longevity–by starting off without a main romantic couple. When it first began, New Girl followed a woman who moved into an apartment with three men. The show’s main couple, Jess and Nick, didn’t become a possibility until later down the line. Similarly, The Mindy Project followed Mindy’s dating life, but the plot turned when she developed a steady relationship with fellow doctor Danny.
Or, there are also rom-sitcoms that manage to incorporate rom-com conventions, but do so in a way that flips them on their head and makes the story more interesting. Saraiya pointed to FX’s You’re the Worst as an example of rom-sitcoms getting it right.
“You’re the Worst feels like it’s changing what a relationship can be on television–and less because it’s complicated, and more because it’s (sort of) happy,” Saraiya wrote. “Love is a sideshow in the endless crushing farce that is the human condition, sure, but you have to laugh at some point.”
So, while A to Z, Selfie, and Manhattan Love Story may have seemed like safe bets for their respective networks, the final shows felt more like checklists of romantic comedy archetypes and tropes. Romantic comedies have been around almost as long as cinema, so simply shifting the same stories over to television isn’t enough to gain viewers.
Where rom-sitcoms can find success is in using television to their advantage–taking long seasons and multiple episodes to explore whatever facets of romance have yet to be examined (though there aren’t many). Or, they may use the medium as a way to deconstruct the genre as a whole.