In January, Fox's New Girl made a game-changing gamble in its second season by allowing its lead characters Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) to stumble toward a relationship after their kiss in the manic, spectacular episode "Cooler." And so far, the gamble is paying off.
New Girl has managed to breathe new life into one of the most tired sitcom tropes: The will they/won't they relationship, in which a flirty friendship between two characters constantly threatens to become something more. It's hard to think of a sitcom over the past 30 years that hasn't employed this trope in one way or another, but New Girl's handling of Jess and Nick could pay dividends for seasons and seasons to come — if the show can avoid the pitfalls of TV's long line of problematic will they/won't they pairings.
Modern television's will they/won't they pairings can largely be traced to a single source: Sam (Ted Danson) and Diane (Shelley Long), who carried on a contentious and flirty relationship on Cheers. But the thing that most people forget about Cheers is that Sam and Diane actually did get together fairly early in the show's run; at the end of the first season, the two shared a passionate kiss, and they spent the entirety of the show's second season trying to make their relationship work, to increasingly diminished effect. Cheers forced people hopelessly in love with the idea of the Sam and Diane relationship to confront what would actually happen if the leads had a shot at their all-important "happily ever after." It's easy to root for Sam and Diane as the sparks fly between them in the first season, but it's harder and more rewarding for the audience to come to the realization that maybe they shouldn't be together — particularly when their bickering escalates toward violence.
Cheers managed to reinvent itself after the Sam/Diane pairing ended, and conventional TV wisdom quickly shifted to the idea that will they/won't they relationships should always remain unresolved. This supposedly unassailable truth largely rested on the back of a single example: ABC's private detective/romantic comedy Moonlighting, which had a steep decline with both critics and viewers after protagonists Maddie (Cybill Shepherd) and David (Bruce Willis) finally consummated their relationship at the end of the show's third season.
Of course, there were certainly other factors at play in Moonlighting's decline: The leads didn't even spend much time together on-screen the season after they got together, and creator Glenn Gordon Caron left the show, which robbed Moonlighting of much of its voice. But that didn't stop the perceived failures of Moonlighting from directly informing the arc of one of the most well-known instances of the will they/won't they relationship in TV history: NBC's Friends, which spent 10 seasons teasing fans with the possibility of a permanent pairing between Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston). Despite its popularity, Friends quickly became the creative nadir of the trend. For nearly a decade, Friends treated the Ross/Rachel pairing as the be-all, end-all of the show's universe, while delaying the relationship far longer than the story or characters warranted. The increasingly extreme lengths Friends employed to keep the pair apart eventually led both characters to do all sorts of dumb, horrible things, like Ross saying Rachel's name at his own wedding with another woman. When the show's big finale unconvincingly strained itself to reframe Friends as a decade-long story about how Ross and Rachel finally got together, it showed just how shallow and pointless their relationship had become, particularly since it was always obvious that the will they/won't they would eventually become a "did."
Friends' creative failure may have served as a cautionary tale for the team behind the most dominant version of the will they/won't they trope in the 2000s: NBC's The Office. While the original BBC version of The Office delayed resolving its will they/won't they relationship until the very end, NBC's version allowed its own will they/won't they protagonists Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) to start dating the end of season three and marry in season six. And then Jim and Pam's relationship, which was one of the most compelling aspects of the series, fell prey to The Office's longevity. At the tail end of a long, slow decline, The Office tried to introduce drama to its ninth and final season by undermining the foundation of Jim and Pam's marriage. Like Friends, the show's long run presented a problem for the will they/won't they trope: Had The Office not run nine seasons, Jim and Pam would probably have been left in a state of permanent, series-resolving bliss. The need for nine seasons of story forced the writers to introduce new and unnecessary conflict.
What can New Girl do to avoid the missteps that have plagued shows like Friends and The Office? So far, New Girl has demonstrated a smarter approach to storytelling — one driven by the character arcs of Jess and Nick instead of the artificial dictates of the series. All of the characters on New Girl are rudderless, overgrown adolescents — so for now, it makes perfect sense that Jess and Nick are both emotionally unavailable and unable to express their feelings in an adult fashion. That will allow the series to draw out the characters' growing attraction slowly and painfully.
If that approach is any indication, New Girl's future will also avoid the biggest problem with these sorts of relationships – they're extremely predictable, and extremely artificial. (Name one real-life couple whose relationship has had an arc like Ross and Rachel on Friends.) By traditional TV standards, Jess and Nick's relationship is treated as seemingly inevitable: Two compatible, attractive people, who spend lots of time together and clearly have real feelings for one another. But so far, New Girl has taken great pains to hint that — unlike Ross and Rachel or even Jim and Pam — Jess and Nick might flame out just as quickly, and that ambiguity is just the way it should be.
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