Time was, you could throw two reasonably attractive actors in a show and power six or seven seasons on their meaningful smiles at the end of an episode, with the occasional I-was-going-to-confess-my-feelings-but-just-missed-it for sweeps week. Those were the days, and by the days, I mean Cheers. Because for most of its history, television didn’t really deal in plots that extended past a single episode, and after Cheers did it – well, we’ll get to that in a second.
The point is that Cheers was one of – if not the – first shows to suggest that maybe all this was one story, instead of a whole bunch of different stories that happened to involve the same people and sets and catchphrases, and so maybe all that chemistry and all those meaningful smiles could build to something. Not immediately, mind you, and certainly not in a way that would mess with the still-sacred status quo of the sitcom, but it’s no accident that Sam and Diane coincided with the decade when television started to take its first, hesitant steps toward any kind of serialization. Now, television wasn’t at a place yet where it could actually be serialized – that is to say, Sam and Diane were never going to get married and move to the suburbs, because television was not yet a form that could handle that kind of dramatic shift. But the show could derive a sort of energy from this kind of characterization connective thread, and so Cheers had a kind of dynamism that something like I Love Lucy (which demanded that Lucy inevitably return home at the end of every episode no matter what kind of professional antics she got into this week) could never have.
The problem is that literally everybody took the wrong lesson from this. Where Cheers used the will they/won’t they dynamic to dip a cautious toe into the possibility of serialization, other shows used it for its own sake. Now, I’m not saying this automatically makes a show bad, because it often does give the show some energy it wouldn’t have with a straight episodic format (looking right at you, Bones). But once Sam and Diane turned into Ross and Rachel, will they/won’t they was less an innovative way to use television narrative and more of an overused crutch that no one really understood the appeal of in the first place.
So that’s why, when the first episode of New Girl seemed to suggest an endgame of Jess and Nick, and the first episode of Brooklyn 99 seemed to suggest a dual endgame of Jake and Amy and of Boyle and Rosa, viewers were hit with a profound sense of deja vu. Once more unto the heteronormative breach, dear friends, gosh I wonder if the man-child will get the girl. But then something interesting happened.
Brooklyn 99 took the potential Jake and Amy clusterfuck (Gina in the pilot: “Jake guarantees sex.”) and retconned it to something – well, I’m actually not sure how to put this because I’ve seen it so infrequently on television, but to something natural and realistic. Jake doesn’t suddenly fall into great romantic tragedy love with Amy. Jake and Amy are friends, someone puts the idea that he might like her in his head, he mulls over it for a few weeks, decides that he might in fact like her, and then (this is the important part) acts like a human being about it. He doesn’t angst for weeks about liking her, but instead just goes to ask her out, and when it turns out she’s already dating someone else, he…backs off. They continue being friends, and by the season finale, there’s no dramatic declaration of love or kiss in the rain, just Jake telling Amy that he doesn’t expect anything from her, but that he might get killed and so he wants to let her know that he wouldn’t have minded if something had happened between them. It’s interesting but not infuriating, and has a productive narrative purpose instead of just existing to create tension for tension’s sake. Andy Samberg and Melissa Fumero have fantastic chemistry, and I would very much like to watch them not know how to dance for several more episodes, but whether or not they start dating is not the point of their relationship.
Now, as far as the Boyle and Rosa thing goes, the AV Club has already run a pretty great article hashing out why the line “When you fall in love with me – and you will” is creepy rather than charming. I, for one, am pretty sick and tired of the “boy pursues and ultimately wears the girl down” trope (particularly since its opposite is “omg look how desperate this chick is”). So that’s why I was so pleased when Boyle gave it up, because he and Rosa make a pretty great platonic team. I mean, who doesn’t want a best friend who just happens to have a baggie full of hair lying around that they’re willing to give to you to stuff in someone’s locker? Because it turns out that the will they/won’t they-ness of this relationship was a trick – we thought it was will they/won’t they, but really it was just a case of this guy needing to grow the fuck up.
At least – that’s what I hope it was. Because that great subversion at the end of the finale (SPOILERS but seriously it’s your fault for reading this far) when Boyle wakes up in bed with Gina (I know, right?!) was preceded by Rosa telling Boyle that she never dates “nice guys like you.” NO, Rosa! NO! The cult of the nice guy will NOT be encouraged, and whatever contortions the show might go through in the future to justify Boyle and Rosa getting together will not cancel out the stalker-will-wear-you-down way their relationship started. So for fuck’s sake, I don’t want Rosa to decide that what she really needs is a “nice guy,” because “nice guy” is a myth that goes all the way back to the courtly love tradition which was pissing women off as early as the twelfth century.
And at this point, it’s that question of whether the will they/won’t they is being subverted that’s plaguing New Girl as well. Look, no one’s going to argue that the show didn’t do good when it got Jess and Nick together.
And there’s something really interesting about their relationship – the way it’s based off of physical attraction but also emotional uncertainty, the way even the characters recognize the sense of obligation about it, the way it works best when they’re not thinking about what they’re doing. But I’m not sure how on board I am about the show breaking them up in last week’s episode, because that feels suspiciously like the first stop on the Ross and Rachel express. (Or the Ted and Robin express. Or the Leonard and Penny express. Or the – you know what? You get it.)
Look, make them friends with benefits, make them like brother and sister, make them never ever talk to each other again. Get them back together in a few episodes and forget this ever happened or have Nick turn out to be a secret agent whose mission is to capture and bottle the essence of manic pixie dream girl. But god, don’t go through the same “we’re together! no we’re apart! we’re apart but we want to be together! it’s the last episode so we’re together!” beats every single sitcom and procedural has been going through for the last 30 years.
Because I expect better from New Girl. This is a show that rehabilitated the manic pixie dream girl and the token black friend, and also gave the world True American, which is the best imaginary drinking game whose incomprehensibility is matched only by how much everyone wants to play it. They’re so good at taking boring cliches and doing something interesting with them that when they do indulge in the stupid tropes – like when Schmidt dated two women at once the beginning of this season (I know, so much hilarities) – it’s way more disappointing.
I know that it’s tempting to go through the will they/won’t they beats, because it’s tempting for the same reason that most sitcom cliches are tempting – they work really, really well. The sitcom is such a great genre because, especially in comparison to other television genres, it hasn’t really changed so much since its inception. Stick a few people in a living room and have one of them do a pratfall and you have about an 80% chance of running for nine seasons. But the thing is, ever since Community and Arrested Development and 30 Rock, unless you want to be on CBS, you have to do something different with those tropes, no matter how well they work. And since there’s so much else on Brooklyn 99 and New Girl that’s so very good (first among them making me actually like Andy Samberg and Zoey Deschanel), it would be a shame if this was the sitcom cliche trap they fell into. I’m not asking either of them to be revolutionary, because they are fundamentally just a very good work-com and hangout show, respectively, but it would be nice if they continued just doing a good job within those forms – and didn’t settle for only being those forms.