Before I dive into the nitty-gritty of this, I want to start with some basics. In film, book and often in TV, a romance has your central loving relationship and then puts barriers in the way of consummation. If you want to talk classic literature, Pride and Prejudice would essentially qualify, where Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy are destined to be together but there are obstacles in the way; mainly she can’t bear him because she thinks he’s an over-privileged boor but, as time goes by she thinks the worse of him, or is led to think the worst of him in a number of other situations before gradually unravelling the truth and realising she loves him despite his wealth and his somewhat stand-offish ways. In a film or book we know that realisation of true love will be delayed until the end of the piece and we get our payoff in the final scene or the final chapter, in a TV show it becomes a question of how long can the script-writers can tease the audience with the chase before the viewers get bored and the writers have to switch to showing them as in a relationship. There are TV shows where that worked well, there are some where it ruined it, and there some where they got together and the writers then tried to recapture that separation anxiety with more or less success as well. There are variations on how that separation theme plays as well. One very common one, particularly if you’re writing or filming more erotic romance, is where the couple will get together more often (you’ve got to have those erotic scenes too after all) and then get pulled apart for some reason and/or there love will be forbidden. However that tension keeping the protagonists apart, or mostly apart, until the final resolution remains the core theme of the romance .
In a Rom Com, you obviously have to add the comedy element as well. Because the star-crossed but loving couple are the big stars in the acting sense, they’re almost always the main ones in terms of screen time and both acting and comic chops. This usually means making one or the other of them the butt of the joke. Often, but not always, the jokes pretty much alternate targets or, since rom coms are aimed at women in the minds of the marketers they make the woman attractive, so the men that get dragged along have some eye-candy, and make the men the butt of the jokes to keep the women happy. The men are attractive too, because the romance has to be believable and the ladies like their eye-candy too. More rarely a joke will place the couple as the joint butt of the joke but that requires them to be together so it’s rare because it requires a story that can let them be together but still have obstacles to their romance working. That’s getting too complex for a typical film.
There are comedy films and TV shows where what seems like a romance in a different sense of the world is a central element, I Love Lucy would be one or, more up to date, Modern Family. These are not romances in the sense the modern romance genre recognises it - the relationship is established and doesn’t have obstacles to overcome, at least not obstacles that keep the loving parties from realising and expressing their love. Of course there are challenges thrown at the relationship, what in other shows would be the source of drama and angst are played for laughs because it’s a comedy show, but the development of the relationship, will-they-won’t-they, how will they? isn’t part of the set up, so it’s not a rom com. Indeed, Modern Family is described as a mockumentary sitcom and I Love Lucy as a sitcom.
In TV land, where there’s more time, even in a show shot for a 30 minute US comedy slot, we’re starting to see a change to that. Of course even within the confines of something like 10 x 30 minutes of TV you’ve most than twice the screen time of a feature film, more like 2.5x your typical rom com which runs shorter than a lot of modern movies. That gives you time to set up a more complex relationship with the characters and more complex situations. You also have a different pattern of laughs to deliver. You still need to deliver the laughs of course but in a 120 minute film you probably need to deliver one every 20 minutes or more often. In a 30 minute comedy show over a season, you’re probably aiming to front-load, so the first episode or two have a lot of laughs while building characters, but then you can slow down and build story as long as you have a decent laugh near the end and perhaps, if the story is good enough, you don’t have to have a good laugh in there - you can play the romance or some other angle in one episode more. TV shows also tend to have a bigger cast and can rely on them for the humour, when a person is needed to the butt of the joke, or, because they have a bit more time, they can set up situational humour. This ability to write in ways that means they don’t make the lovers the butt of the joke means they can explore what we might call non-traditional relationships: LGBTQA relationships, polyamorous relationships, kinky relationships and the like. Because no one in the relationship is set up as the butt of the joke, no one is shamed and there is a loving relationship depicted in a show that also has a good level of humour.
Representation matters but while bury your gays remains such a common, and lazily visited, trope representation in shows with a strong comedy element where being something other than sexually mainstream doesn’t make you the butt of the jokes is very important at the moment. Anger might change the world but laughter does a lot to heal it.
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