How the “Will They, Won’t They?” Couple Got Dumped in April 2012

Comedy Features The Office
How the “Will They, Won’t They?” Couple Got Dumped in April 2012

In the autumn of 2012, the final season of The Office premiered on NBC. The Office had ushered in a new style of comedy that balanced the cruel absurdity of cringe (which it shared with its British source material,) and its peculiarly American optimism (which…it did not borrow from Gervais’ version.) But Season 9 was the overdue final chapter to this story. Only a few months earlier a very different comedy had premiered on HBO and garnered critical attention. Think of Girls as a millennial version of Sex and the City, taking place in a slightly quirkier, if equally accommodating, New York City. The show was Lena Dunham’s vehicle to the public consciousness. Most of the dynamics were understood to be at least semi-autobiographical; her character, Hannah, was an aspiring writer, tweeting furiously while also stumbling into a series of outrageous romantic rendezvous. 

Sitting side by side, these programs highlight the effortless slide from a traditional sitcom structure into a blurred, harsher form of comedy. With that, came a new way of watching TV coupledom. In 2012, the “will they, won’t they?” model of romance was, fittingly, dumped. 

Before this breakup, the “will they, won’t they?” mode was a reliable way to ensnare an audience’s attention. Over the years a steady stream of couples were showcased circling one another, dramatically falling in and out of love. Seasons would pass and with it countless opportunities for these fictional pairs to confirm their love for one another, yet they rarely revealed their feelings until the end of a show. Gradually, Sam and Diane, Carrie and Big, Ross and Rachel, and others are no longer underscored with an excited “will they?” but with a resigned “when will they?” Couples that were molded with the tantalizing prospect of romance in mind were inevitably sacrificed at its altar, any individuality leaking away until the looming question grew bigger and bigger, obscuring the subject of the inquiry.

Most of the couples that are commonly associated with this trend were from TV of the 80s and 90s. This is not incidental; they were, unwittingly, acting as the idealistic antidote to an increasingly isolated American public. In a national landscape decimated by Reagan’s ideology of individualism, the vibrant, unreal world of the sitcom was quasi-utopian. The desire to watch people discover an immediate, inexplicable connection was ripe, ready to be harvested by any opportunistic showrunner. In this sense the sitcom was perfectly poised to fulfill this request. 

An American invention that is easier to identify than define, the sitcom often reflects the demographic watching it. It is a smoothed-out, silly time capsule, capturing a sense of period-specific normalcy. Above all, the sitcom is defined by a respectful distance; the characters are there to be fondly observed. As viewers we are rarely asked to delve into their intricacies or inconsistencies, preferring to watch them wander into farcical scenarios. This distinction is made obvious in certain formats; the cackling laughter of the live studio audience swells to build a pocket of space between actor and audience and the multi-camera setup mimics the physical distance between the stage and the seats in live theatre. Perhaps the mockumentary is best at swiftly constructing a relational dissociation between subject and viewership.

Maybe this is why the sitcom was the container most suited to collect the reliable influx of on again-off again couples rolling on to screens each year. It works to balance the identifiable quirks of everyday life and the distance necessary to insulate the audience in an escapist fantasy. These friends are watching TV and drinking coffee—just like you! But they are also unreasonably beautiful and granted unlimited free time. These women complain about the crowded hubbub of New York—me too! And yet travelling across this city is only a matter of will for them. An easy balance of relatable and unattainable elevates the “will they, won’t they?” couple; one part believable chemistry and one part unrealistic circumstances that continue to thwart the potential lovers’ happiness. The real and the unreal are stirred together and offered up as a sweet, if empty, dish. 

While it is difficult to determine when this model of onscreen relationships was adopted, this storytelling mechanism reached its sell-by date eleven years ago. The aforementioned final season of The Office drew in around four million viewers each week. While these numbers were remarkably high for NBC programming, it was still only half the audience they had garnered in the earlier seasons of the show. Upon retrospect, it is easy to see that this was due to the dip in quality following the departure of Steve Carrell. But it makes sense that the powers-that-be ascribed these dwindling numbers to the resolution of the show’s most interesting conflicts. So as the ninth season progressed, jokes got tossed around, ridiculous situations ensued, and Pam grew closer to the boom mic operator. The romantic suggestion hanging over this pairing was transparently cynical—a deliberate harkening back to the tension of the first seasons, when the obstacles between Jim and Pam felt realistic and imposing. Even the critics who were praising this season admitted that this strategic plot development felt startlingly unearned. In many ways, the genre mapped out this last-ditch effort to draw in an audience with romantic maneuvring. Rachel dates Joey, Carrie dates that Russian guy—each of these is a plot machination underlined with desperation. 

By comparison, Girls was staunchly uninterested in which couples ended up together, committed to tracing the paths that were crossed and marking the points at which they intersect and split. This feels in keeping with millennial interests. As dating apps became more commonplace, people became less enraptured with the promise of instant chemistry; the intrigue lay in what came after. Shows since have focused on stoking the relational fire arising from that spark of attraction. The question is no longer “will they, or won’t they?” the question is “how will they?” and “if they won’t, why?”

This perspective on love has expanded. At its best, television couples today can be a lens for young writers to discern a new mode of romantic commitment distinct from the “’til death do us part” model of their parents’ era. Love is never a matter of “in or out,” instead tilting and swinging and collapsing in on itself. This new understanding induced a kind of small screen auteur-ship. Fleabag and I May Destroy You, brilliant independent of the trends they encompass, feel like they have adopted this intimate style of storytelling. Free from the demands of the 22-episode seasons, they collected the loose strands of their story to offer something that was shorter and thrillingly whole. They stare into the camera, directly challenging the audience, willing them to investigate the morally amorphous nature of the world they are watching. 

Social media is often discussed as an instigating force, the reason for a whole generation’s struggle with self-doubt and anxiety. In reality, it is an extension of the capitalist machine, itself reliant on reducing people to ideas and images that can be imparted with arbitrary value. Michaela Coel and Issa Rae used their TV shows (I May Destroy You and Insecure respectively) to investigate the systems of bartering and negotiating implicit in online communication. This kind of programming animated the possibility contained within conversations over social media, embodying the thrilling potential of Tinder flirtations. In doing so, they move past understanding love as something to be achieved or awarded, but something that unveils itself as it is intimately encountered. 

Girls isn’t responsible for these later programs’ successes; Dunham compellingly marked an incidental shift in this cultural conversation. Audiences were exhausted by the hard edges of onscreen relationships and newly invested in the mess contained within. Furthermore, television executives were more likely to indulge this unheralded focus since traditional television watching numbers were dwindling, soon to be entirely overcome by streaming.

Language develops, words are frequently bouncing back from obscurity and fading out of use, but there are rarely singular moments that we can attribute this fluctuation to. The chronological proximity of The Office and Girls bookmarks a fascinating change in the comic language. From the broad to the specific, from the collective to the hyper-personal. It makes sense that this new understanding of comedy saw a perceptible shift in what was romantic and what was romanticized.

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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