Sam and Diane should have ridden off into the sunset together. (Feel free to join the conversation.) And now you can have the same debate over THE GOOD WIFE finale. Should Alicia & Jason have paired up? Will they pair up? (By the way, I liked THE GOOD WIFE finale. But I was kinda hoping the woman in her building who got all her mail slapped her.)
But it brings to light a bigger question that TV writers are faced with: When constructing a romantic storyline, how long can you keep the couple apart?
This is not a problem in movies. You are allowed an ending. You’ve got 90 minutes (or in Judd Apatow’s case 180 minutes) to get them together, throw in complications, and ultimately resolve them.
But a television series is open ended (and six part mini-series don’t count). Sexual tension is great but you can’t keep doing it for seven years. Not in 2016 (and I suspect not in 1016 but there were different FCC rules back then). And usually once a couple finally gets together the series is never as good. You’re always playing “now what do we do with them?”
I’ve told this story before but the night Sam & Diane finally had their first big kiss (at the end of season one) the studio audience went through the roof and I turned to my writing partner, David Isaacs and said “We’ve peaked. There’s nothing we can do with these characters that will ever get a bigger reaction than this.” I believe I was right (who knew?).
They tried on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to give Mary a boyfriend but there was never any chemistry. And that’s something you can’t force.
CHEERS pretty much began the romantic comedy within a series formula that now extends to pretty much every show except LIVE WITH KELLY AND MICHAEL.
For my money, if romance isn’t part of the equation then why even bother at all? It gets back to chemistry and whether you WANT to see the couple get together. David & Maddie – yes. Ross & Rachel – yes. Pam & Jim – yes. Mary & Mr. Grant – NO!
As far back as the ‘60s (and the dawn of the so-called Sexual Revolution – although I didn’t get the memo for several years), there was pretty much the three-date rule. If it was going to happen, it would happen by date three. (THAT GIRL had a three hundred-date rule.) So you’re talking a few weeks, a month maybe as your time frame? By those standards, even a year was pushing it.
So you need a way to stall. One popular device is withholding intention. A character won’t admit that he’s attracted to another character. This buys time but is also a trap. The characters quickly fall into high school. Aaron Sorkin characters do this a lot. I loved NEWSROOM and WEST WING and SPORTS NIGHT, but anytime there was sexual tension it was more like “should I pass him a note in homeroom” than steamy foreplay.
Networks still love romantic comedies. Every season we get three or four new ones (with one starring Casey Wilson). And when they work they’re magic. But they come with expiration dates – that are getting shorter and shorter. Producers today need to find the perfect balance between THAT GIRL and Tinder.