Just about every sitcom has a will-they-or-won’t-they romance at its center. Think Ross and Rachel from Friends, Ted and Robin and from How I Met Your Mother, Jim and Pam from The Office, Leonard and Penny from Big Bang Theory, etc. Occasionally the show’s central couples are not pre-planned like with Leslie and Ben from Parks & Recreation, but for the most part, it is incredibly obvious who the audience should root for. The question how come it doesn’t always work when those couples that we spend hours, weeks, or years rooting for finally get together? (I spoke about this a little bit in my post TV Couples: The Best & The Worst, but here is more detail.)
This was not the topic I intended to talk about this week, but a conversation with one of my closest friends led us into this territory and it seemed right. While Ben and Leslie rarely fight, their relationship is rarely boring and the show’s dynamics have barely changed. Meanwhile, on New Girl, Jess and Nick’s relationship more or less marks the downward spiral of the series. Why did it work in one place but not the other?
For me the answer typically lies in two main things. The first is how the series attempts to frame the relationship. The second is how the individuals remain as distinct personalities with their distinct friends in each relationship.
Part of why a relationship like Ben and Leslie’s works is because before they were together their flirtations were only a part of their story. Their bigger stories were really about Leslie running the parks department and moving up in the world of politics and Ben’s various business ventures (which were, in part, an attempt to prove his past of bankrupting a town, was just a fluke). One they were together, that didn’t change. What changed was how much they supported each other. Leslie’s relationship with Ann did not suffer. Instead, Leslie frequently hung out with Ann, Ron, and the rest of her co-workers/friends, who in turn supported her in her relationship and her career. At no point did Ben’s support for Leslie waiver, no matter how where her drive and determination took her. I cannot remember them fighting much, if ever, because that was never necessary for drama and story. The couple stayed interesting and relevant because their lives were still filled with drama, but never at the expense of the relationship.
Nick and Jess, on there other hand, were a relationship rife with arguments from the start. They could not agree on anything, no matter how simple. There were times when they showed each other great support (like when Nick helped Jess deal with the “cool” teachers). But more often than not it seemed like they were trying to change something about the other. And it seemed like they rarely ever hung out with the rest of their friends unless everyone was hanging out in a large group. Nearly every one of their story lines had them isolated from the rest of the group, even as the people who were supposed to be their close friends were going through heartbreaks and other dramas.
Once they got together, Jess and Nick’s stories became almost exclusively about who they were as a couple. Their individual selves and lives seemed to disappear. And as a couple, they spent more time disagreeing, fighting, and trying to change, than they ever spent being truly happy and supportive. Leslie and Ben were just the opposite. They never weighed down the show and they never lost themselves to the relationship. Think about it in real life terms. The only thing more frustrating than having a friend drop off the face of the earth when they get into a relationship is having that friend spend all of his or her time fighting with their significant other. You wouldn’t want to live through it and most of the time you don’t want to watch it either.