How Romance Returned to Television

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Today's sitcom couples actually like each other—unlike the bickering husbands and wives of the past few decades

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NBC


When NBC announced that its two freshman comedies, Whitney and Up All Night, would swap time slots, anyone who enjoys good TV smiled with relief. Whitney, the grating and unrewardingly vulgar sitcom about a couple who argue with and tease each other as they stave off marriage, was originally gifted with the Peacock Network's comedy "pimp slot"—after The Office, NBC's highest-rated comedy, on Thursday nights. Criminally, Up All Night, the delightful slice-of-life family comedy about frazzled new parents played by Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, was at first thanklessly slotted to open an untested Wednesday comedy block, with no lead-in to help launch it and The X Factor on rival network FOX as its big competition.

Switching the two comedies' time slots, then, made sense for many reasons. With its single-camera format and adherence to the "grounded lunacy" motif that NBC has honed so well, Up All Night is a natural fit alongside 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and The Office. But more than that—and unlike the mean-spirited WhitneyUp All Night shares the most appealing attribute of those other sitcoms: The characters care for each other. As a series centered around a romantic couple, Up All Night signals that a trend—one that's been exhibited to various extents by The Office's Jim and Pam, Parks and Rec's April and Andy and Leslie and Ben, and, platonically, 30 Rock's Jack and Liz—has arrived. On TV, love is in the air again.

For too long, love had gone away. Archie Bunker may have been irritated by Edith on All in the Family, but his ribbing was always good-natured and never betrayed the obvious love he had for his wife. On I Love Lucy, Ricky Ricardo's pained wail of "Luuuccyy!" could as well have been a whispered sweet nothing for all the passion and devotion that underlined it. Married viewers yearned for a relationship as blissful as the Huxtables' on The Cosby Show while courting paramours envied the hot-and-cold, but always warm at heart, of Sam and Diane's partnering on Cheers. Unfooled by her sarcastic front, no viewer could ever say that Roseanne Connor wasn't head over heels for Dan.

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But for much of the '90s and early '00s, TV shifted away from portraying relationships where love trumped exasperation. Perhaps it reflected the nation's rise in divorce rates, or our culture's increasing jadedness, but people on TV seemed to just stop liking each other. Sitcom couples, especially, began really getting on each other's nerves. A spate of shows about harried housewives and schlubby husbands took over the airwaves. Slaps on the back of the head suddenly superseded pecks on the cheek.

Say what you want about the overall quality of Everybody Loves Raymond, but the most irksome part of the series was the relentless tension between Debra and Ray. Rare sweet moments—Ray planning a romantic getaway, for example—were hardly ever allowed time to breathe before something sparked yet another shrill argument. Just like The King of Queens and countless other hot wife/deadbeat husband sitcoms, the comedy was mined from constant nagging, betting on humorous payoffs when the characters reached their boiling points.

From Jamie and Paul on Mad About You to the title characters on Dharma and Greg, relationships were more caustic than caring. There was certainly a believability to that aspect of commitment. But the other, warmer shades necessary to make the relationships relatable were either missing or too fleeting to make an impact—the kind of impact that make Archie and Edith, Lucy and Ricky iconic.

On Up All Night, Reagan and Chris tread a fine line: they're a realistic long-term couple, but they manage to avoid the sniping that characterized many sitcom couples that came before them. Struggling with the realization that their nights of Jaeger shots and karaoke are behind them, replaced by debates over whose turn it is to feed their newborn, the characters could easily devolve into endless Raymond-style bickering. But instead, the show is touchingly sweet, and good-hearted about the way it portrays the minute frustrations of parenthood. As played by Applegate and Arnett, you believe that Regan and Chris are a team, figuring it all out together.

The series still has edge—in the pilot, the couple can't stop marveling at their "fucking beautiful" baby. NBC's signature high-strung zaniness is also, thankfully, present. Reagan and Chris have both suffered meltdowns, she nearly coming to blows with a fellow parent who made her feel like an inadequate mom at baby Gymboree, and he feeling underappreciated when Reagan encroaches on his stay-at-home-dad territory. But rather than use these episodes as the catalyst for confrontation and sniping, they're used as a tool for Reagan and Chris to confront, together, the new direction their lives are taking. It's to Up All Night's credit that this is done in the least schmaltzy, maudlin way possible. It's to Applegate and Arnett's credit that it's done in a way that makes viewers actually care about their character growth. They're a plausible married couple. They support each other. They're passionate (it's rare that you believe a married TV couple actually would have sex). Every shorthand "babe," sideways glance, and exasperated sigh hints that, refreshingly, they're actually in love.

Reagan and Chris arrive at a moment when love is en vogue again on TV. Perhaps the turning point can be traced back to the premiere of Friday Night Lights in 2006. Viewers were jolted awake by Coach and Tami Taylor, a TV couple who displayed a devotion so honest and rare that their portrayal of a loving, married couple became as much of a pop culture obsession as the Emmy-winning drama itself (See: Tumblrs, Facebook fan pages, and critical love letters). Similarly warm connections, though of a more slapstick nature, are what make the three couples in Modern Family resonate with 15 million Americans each week. Love also raises the dramatic stakes, making every heartbreak on Parenthood all the more affecting, and all the more likely to cause viewers to dissolve into a sloppy pile of tears.

You see that same warmth in the relationship of Jim and Pam on The Office. Viewers are thankful that after quickly thrusting April and Andy together on Parks and Recreation writers haven't manufactured plot devices to tear them apart in the name of comedy. And doggone it if Jack and Liz on 30 Rock aren't the perfect embodiment of a loving relationship on TV: They drive each other crazy, but care so much about each other that one will strip on stage at a company retreat to help the other save face.

It's telling that of all the new comedies this season, Up All Night is the one that the network feels deserves its spot alongside those revered Thursday night sitcoms. It's a signal that warmth and positivity are being embraced on TV once again. The degree to which Whitney appears to reject all forms of sentimentality may be its biggest downfall. It's also no coincidence that CBS's Two Broke Girls settled into a groove once it discarded one of the most problematic aspects of its pilot: The uncompromising meanness of Kat Dennings's Max. Sure, her character still delivers unrivaled cutting one-liners, but she's so clearly embraced Beth Behrs' Caroline friendship that the barbs no longer leave such a sour taste. On New Girl, Zooey Deschanel's Jess's roommates have finally stopped griping about and rejecting her "adorkable" personality. They've not only accepted her, but genuinely care for her, allowing the show to transition into a sort of reverse Three's Company, letting the comedy come from this unique family unit's hijinx rather than their annoyance at each other.

If Everybody Loves Raymond were still on today, Ray and Debra would probably be divorced by now. Certainly, viewers would have divorced them. No relationship can survive such merciless unpleasantness. But Reagan and Chris seem to be in it for the long haul. And I predict viewers will be with Up All Night for just as long.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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