Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Romance and Television

by Sierra Donovan

I'm not a weekly-TV-series type of viewer. My husband and I are much more likely to pop in a movie when we settle in on the couch at night. But with the growth of Netflix and the phenomenon of “binge watching” – largely by my two kids who live at home – I've gotten familiar with some recent series.

I've found that situation comedies have changed a lot since the days of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” when the situations and characters changed very slowly over the course of seasons, if they changed at all. Now there's a lot more story progress over the course of even a single season. It's a great opportunity for character and relationship development.

Surprise! Romance figures into this, because a lot of central plots have to do with romantic relationships. Will this couple end up together … or not?

SPOILER ALERT for Netflix viewers: shield your eyes if you haven't seen all of “The Office” or the first six seasons of “Parks and Recreation.”

These two series get it right. There's a lot of anticipation and expectation built on key relationships. Then the writers go on to affirm what they've made us believe in our bones: Jim and Pam belong together. Ben and Leslie belong together. The characters are written consistently and believably, even through moments of doubt. And ultimately, and the writers deliver on our expectations.

Now, let's talk for a minute about “How I Met Your Mother,” and why I think this one gets it wrong.

I haven't seen how this series ends. But I do know last year's season finale had viewers screaming. Even without having seen it, I'm pretty sure I can tell you why.

If ever a series was built on expectation, it's this one. It's in the very title. We're teased from Day One that we're building toward the revelation of Ted finding his true love.

Writers, you set your audience up for disappointment.

You promised a payoff, but we keep being told Mom is NOT any of the characters we're watching now. She's going to be someone we haven't invested in. What are the odds that the viewers are NOT going to be disappointed in the outcome?

An even worse sin, in my opinion: time and again, the series set us up to anticipate a relationship between one couple or another. Usually the buildup is very well done. The characters spend months out of a season yearning for each other, longing for each other, just missing each other. And then, when the two people do get together, it's usually – PFFFT! – over within a couple of episodes. After that, the much-anticipated couple goes back to interacting pretty much the same way they did before all that longing ever started. What is this, partial amnesia?

No, it's inconsistency. I think the series tried to break ground by flying in the face of viewers' expectations. I think what it did, instead, was tease the viewers, then contradict what it had told us about the characters. I can't address the finale, but from season to season, the series repeatedly went back on its promises.

Romance fiction is often criticized for being predictable. Yes, the couple gets together, as promised. Just as, in a murder mystery, the killer is discovered. As promised.

In real life, we're not promised happy resolutions. In fact, we're not promised resolutions at all. This is where fiction is different. We go in expecting that the story will reach a satisfying resolution. Depending on the genre, that ending may or may not be happy, but it needs to satisfy. It needs to be consistent with the author has told us. It needs to keep its promise.


  1. I lost interest in How I Met Your Mother a season or two before the last one, but did watch the final episode, which I thought was a little convoluted.

  2. Great post, Sierra - full of sound advice for fiction writers. Fiction is supposed to answer the question posed in the beginning - or at least make the reader understand why an answer is not possible.

  3. I think a lot of times it has to do with longevity of a series, too. Writers don't often think past this season or the next. If a series goes on for more than two years, it becomes harder to give readers a satisfying ending. Even worse, the original series writers often move on before the series comes to an end and it's harder for someone else to stick with the same "vision." (I'm looking at you, DEXTER!)

  4. Totally agree with you. A few of my books were called predicatbale by Amazon reviewers. But that's how we were told to write - to that happily ever after moment.

    We can't always get the shapr intale of breath reaction, and sometimes we don't want to anyway. Our romances are classic and cozy and happily ever after

  5. Hi Sierra--
    You are absolutely right! I hate when my favorite series has characters behaving in ways that doesn't fit the character of the character or they throw in a new plot line that veers away from the premise of the series. I agree that doing so goes against the promise to the viewers (and readers) and leads to disappointment. Nice post.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for your comments! In some ways, this business of storytelling is like a puzzle, and I think all of us as writers are constantly looking for new and different ways to get it "right." I should note that "How I Met Your Mother" does gets a lot of things right -- number one being creating characters we care about. Otherwise, the parts that may feel "wrong" to us wouldn't be so frustrating!

  7. I haven't watched a television series of any kind for years so spoilers won't bother me and I see very few films - the trailers leave me cold. I'm a bookworm through and through. Imagining the development of a relationship is an amazing and thrilling challenge, getting it right is one of the most difficult challenges. I think writers of Romance have hardest job - readers' expectations are high - as they should be. Thank you for this great article, Sierra.