Carolyn Klarecki: An on-again, off-again relationship with TV couples

BY CAROLYN KLARECKI
Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published February 14, 2010

Now that we’ve plowed through Valentine’s Day weekend, you’ve probably got a few chocolates left in that heart-shaped box, your roses are just starting to wilt and you’ve scraped the bottom of the Ben and Jerry’s pint bare.

Because relationships are on our minds with the passing of this pseudo-holiday, our televisions are naturally barraging us with romance. “The Office,” “Community,” “Modern Family,” “30 Rock,” “How I Met Your Mother” and plenty more TV favorites just aired their Valentine’s Day episodes, getting us all excited that our two favorite characters will finally realize they’re supposed to be together. Of course, they don’t. They never do. The most we get on the Valentine’s Day special is a wistful glance as character A (once again) acknowledges feelings for character B.

Valentine’s Day is an excuse for TV shows to keep up the “Will they or won’t they?” romantic tension between their lead characters. It’s the oldest formula in the book for shows to set up a potential romantic partnership and hint at it incessantly. It took five seasons for Jeannie and Major Nelson to get married in “I Dream of Jeannie.” And today it’s even more annoying with shows that seemingly let go of the potential relationship only to bring it back into focus when the plot lags. I understand that “Scrubs” underwent a network change, but J.D. and Elliot’s on-again, off-again relationship was the most irritating thing on television.

What if their story was real? When you’ve got two friends with great chemistry who aren’t together, maybe it excites you at first, but if that untapped relationship sits for years it starts to become really annoying. If you know someone in an on-again, off-again relationship, you know you’re not going to sit down with a bowl of popcorn when they start to talk about it. You’re going to roll your eyes, sigh and wish they would just make up their minds.

Isn’t it strange how relationship troubles are entertaining when they’re fake? We spent 10 years watching the rise and fall (and rise again) of the romance of Rachel and Ross on “Friends,” but we can’t stand the same from people we know. Clearly, that’s because we’re only putting up with the TV drama for about an hour each week and we can turn it off when it gets old. Still, there are a few couples on television that don’t make me want to change the channel.

Jim and Pam of “The Office” are happily married. They went through the requisite four seasons of awkward tension before they got there and “The Office” is starting to lose its edge, but the show hasn’t completely failed in the wake of their wedding.

Jin and Sun only had one season of turbulence on “Lost” before they became the loving, happy couple they are — unless you consider Sun thinking Jin is dead for three years as being unhappy. They’re main characters who are in on all the action and don’t need the added romantic drama of going back and forth between Sawyer and Jack. I’m looking at you, Kate. There isn’t a single “Lost” fan who enjoys your complicated relationship with the men of the island.

OK, so those examples of happy TV couples are weak — one resulted from the drawn-out tension I hate, and the other has much bigger problems to deal with — but that’s exactly my point. There ought to be some modern television stories that revolve around normal people in normal relationships.

The only recent show that I can recall that has done this and done it well is ABC’s “Modern Family.” The whole premise of the show is to examine the life of the typical American family, showing that the typical American family doesn’t exist. We see three very different happy couples all with regular happy-couple problems like arguing over how to punish the kids. It’s simple, it’s funny, it’s compelling and it doesn’t need seasons of relationship drama to keep it that way.

If one show can do it, why not more? The exasperating love stories of today’s television should be reserved for middle-school girls who care about that sort of thing. Let’s end the “Will they or won’t they?” plot device, because we all know how it’s going to end. Of course Ross and Rachel will be together, J.D. and Elliot will get married and, clearly, Kate ends up with Jack. Now I’m going to go buy myself another pint of Ben and Jerry’s.